We are finishing up our worship series, Divergent. We have been looking at the fifth chapter of Matthew, which serves as an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. We started with Jesus telling his followers that they were salt and light. By extension we are salt and light. This is not our future if we become mature enough Christians. As a follower of Jesus, that is our role in the world, now. Salt as preserver and life giver and light as a beacon pointing people to God. The natural question is what does that look like, or how do we do that? Jesus goes on to tell us in the next section that we learned last week are called the antitheses or the contrasts. There are six of them. Jesus diverges from what was the traditional interpretation of some areas of the law and puts a new twist on it. He is not changing the law, but he is sharing the spirit of the law, the deeper and intent of the law. In effect, we have God interpreting the law for us.
You may be used to the reading, “You have heard it said …. But I say …” To make his point Jesus takes it to the extreme. They are almost like parables in that they are designed to make us think, and the bottom line is that as kingdom people, who are salt and light in this word, we are to put aside our rights and needs for the sake of the other, often even if they don’t appreciate it or even notice. The law says do not murder. I, Jesus, say don’t even be angry at another person. It is more important to be reconciled to that person than to make an offering before God. The law says do not commit adultery. I say looking at a woman with lustful intent is the same as adultery. She is not to be treated as an object, but respected as a person. The law says limit retribution for a wrong done to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I say don’t retaliate at all. In fact, give them even more than they’ve asked for. By doing these things, we illustrate what it means to be salt and light.
This week we reach the finale of these antitheses or contrasts where Jesus summarizes the whole concept. It comes from Matthew 5 beginning at verse 43. I’ll be reading it out of The Message where the language is a bit more colorful and the point is made a little more vividly.
43-47 [Jesus says] “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ [We may know it better as love your neighbor] and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
48 “[Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NIV)] In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
There are several places in the Bible where we see the command we heard earlier from Leviticus 9:18 to love our neighbors. What are the two most important commandments? Jesus tells us: Love God and love your neighbor. However, there was a debate among Jewish scholars of the time. The lawyer’s question to Jesus in Luke was a reasonable one. “Who is my neighbor?” Based on the grammatical structure in Hebrew, the Leviticus passage was always understood as talking about fellow Israelites. The debate was to what degree. Now Jesus turns this on its head through his parable of the Good Samaritan, by expanding it to included people outside of Israel.
There is no law in the Old Testament commanding people to hate one’s enemies, but it is reasonable to think that hating God enemies, the people who hate God, or work against God’s purposes is the right thing to do, right? I should add that there is plenty in the OT law and the prophets directing Israelites to treat all people well, regardless of where they are from, including enemies. In the law often, it will often end with a refrain like, Do this, “For you were once slaves or aliens in Egypt, thus says the Lord.” But extending the idea to love enemies goes far beyond Judaism or other religions of the time.
Conventional wisdom even today says, “If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. If not, I don’t know you. In Jesus’ day, who was the enemy? Occupying Roman forces. With them we are talking about national enemies, but it would also include other religions, and personal enemies.
Jesus’ command stands in contrast to that. And of course, he did more than that. We might say that it’s impossible for us, but Jesus was the example, and he points us to God. He is the salt and the light. In his life we see him living these contrasts out to their fullest. “When they mocked him, he didn’t respond. When they challenged him, he told them [curious], sometimes humorous [sic], stories that forced them to think differently. When they struck him, he took the pain. When they put the worst bit of Roman equipment on his back — the heavy crosspiece on which he would be killed — he carried it out of the city to the place of his execution. When they nailed him to the cross, he prayed for them.
“The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about us. If it was, we might admire it as a [great example] of idealism, but we’d then return to our normal lives. It is about Jesus himself. This was the blueprint for his own life. He asks nothing of his followers that he hasn’t faced himself. And, within his own life, we can already sense a theme that will grow larger and larger until we can’t miss it. If this is the way to show what God is really like, if this is the pattern that Jesus himself followed exactly, [we are being invited] to draw the conclusion: that in Jesus we see the Emmanuel, the God-with-us person. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about how to behave. It’s about discovering the living God in the loving and dying, Jesus, and learning to reflect that love ourselves into the world that needs it so badly.” (NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone, pg 53)
See Jesus did it all for us. He paid that penalty that price for people who hated him, who saw him as their enemy and for people who didn’t even know who he was. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Romans. The language should be familiar. It forms a part of just about every communion service we have. In chapter 5 he says, “6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)
Why does he do all this? Why does he command us to love in this same way? Not for manipulation or persuasion for his enemies to join his side. If that were the case, he would just be a nice man who had some helpful advice for living. He would not be God incarnate. He does it on his own authority to clarify the law, to show how it is in the kingdom of heaven. He bases this command to love even our enemies because it is God’s nature to show that consideration for all. It rains on the nice and the nasty. He says to us that we must do the same. “You’re kingdom subjects … Live like it. Live out your God-created identity.” (Mt 5:48 MSG)
Then, Jesus goes on to say “be perfect.” Say what? Be perfect? I have a hard enough time with the love my enemies bit. I mean really I have a hard enough time with the not being angry and turning the other cheek part. He says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Seriously? Sounds like an intimidating and high bar? Ummm … yeah.
You should know, and we’ve talked about before that there are two different philosophical perspectives on perfection. From Greek philosophy we get the idea that perfection is something without flaw and is practically impossible in the material world. This definition is the norm in the western world. Hebrew thought is a bit different. Here it is more like the idea of becoming what was intended, reaching a goal. You might use the word “perfect” like you might refer to a “perfect tomato.” We need to be ripe, mature people of God. We reflect God’s light the same way that God reflects God’s own nature and purpose.
Sometimes I include a phrase in my prayers that you may have noticed. “God, Help us to see as you see and love as you love.” I first heard this from Pastor Andy Stanley, son of Charles Stanley. What does that even mean? It is the same thing as when Jesus says that “[God] causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45b NIV) By seeing the people of the world as worth saving as Jesus did, even the people who wanted to kill him. We must act like children of God, members of a different kingdom, a different realm, or nation than the one of this world. Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) Neither is ours if we belong to Jesus.
We can only do any of these things Jesus commands us to the extent that we are able to live into the identity that God gave to us as blessed and beloved children. Only those who have experienced it can share it with others. Then we can face and withstand great provocation or trials with “the peace which passes all understanding,” (Php 4:7) that Paul talks about in Philippians. “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God created identity.”
All of this “is why it matters who’s saying these things in the first place. It’s Jesus — Jesus, who not only talked the talk of love but walked the walk, [going] to Jerusalem, enduring the shame and humiliation of the cross, embracing death itself … all so we might know, experience, and trust just how much God loves us.” (Lose, Dear Working Preacher) He not only commands, but he understands how hard it is to do.
So, I want you to think for a moment. What is one thing that you believe is holding you back from living into your God-given identity? What is one thing — one fear, one memory, one hurt, one resentment — that keeps you from becoming the person God wants you to be. You have that paper in your bulletin. Write down one thing and offer it to God. We will be sending around different offering plates. No one will look at them. They will be burned, unread by humans. This is strictly between you and God, and the offering is symbolic. So, I’ll stop talking now, so you can have a few moments to think about it and write it down.
Before you leave, I have another card for you. It reads, “You are God’s beloved child. Be what you have been called.” Keep it with you this week. Whenever you find it hard to follow Jesus in the way of love, you can take it out and remind yourself.
Now, I want you to turn to your neighbor and say, “You are a kingdom person, blessed and beloved by God, and called to be salt and light in the world. Go be who you are!” You’ll see it in your bulletin. When you’ve said it the person on one side of you, then turn and say it to the person on the other side. Go!
We are kingdom people. Now live like it. Love like we are loved by the Living God! Halleluiah! And the church said, Amen!