February 19, 2017 Epiphany 7A
Watch a video of this sermon here.
What’s the point, exactly, of following Jesus? Why do we do it? Over the past several weeks, Jesus has been issuing The Great Invitation to us through his Sermon on the Mount. Christ has been inviting each of us into his life. He has told us that we are salt and light, seasoning the world with God’s love and shining into the world’s darkness.
Jesus has raised the barre for the way we behave toward one another, inviting us to live into the spirit of the law. He encourages us toward a higher quality of righteousness than following the letter of the Law can provide.
Today’s passage brings us to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus continues to teach us what it means to be truly holy, the focus is on the purpose of discipleship. Today we hear the Great Invitation to become perfected in love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:38-48
That last sentence caused a huge argument between John and Charles Wesley. John insisted that perfection, or sanctification, was possible. He didn’t personally know anyone who had ever achieved it, but he was sure that, if Jesus said, “be perfect,” it was something we could attain. Some of us would probably rather side with his brother Charles on this one.
Charles believed that perfection just isn’t possible this side of heaven. We are fallen human beings, and there’s no way we can ever be perfect. Since Jesus liked to use hyperbole, exaggerating a point to make it stick, Charles believed this was just another case of overstatement. “Be perfect? The way God is perfect?” How are we supposed to do that?
The word translated here as perfect is telos. It means end or goal, reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow is to reach its target. The telos of a fruit tree is to bear fruit. So when Jesus says, “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” he is urging us to reach our intended outcome, to be fully realized as the children of God we were created to be, “just as God is the One God is supposed to be.” (David Lose)
So, let me go back to my first question: Why do we follow Jesus? To what end, what telos? What is our intended purpose as disciples?
Let’s look at the examples Jesus gives. Keep in mind that Jesus is teaching here. To teach a skill, you give the student lots and lots of practice. To teach a concept, you give lots and lots of examples. Jesus gives us lots of examples for holy living, to teach us the concept of holiness. The examples he uses point us toward our telos, our end or intended purpose.
For example, The Law made allowance for justice that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Give as good as you get, in other words. Fair is fair. But in that system, everyone goes around half blind and toothless. Jesus had something else in mind. Rather than retribution, Jesus says, seek reconciliation. Rather than demanding fair treatment that hurts everyone, be willing to go the second mile. Literally.
For example, By Roman law, a soldier could compel a civilian to carry his pack for one mile. Jesus challenged Roman authority, by encouraging his followers to exceed the demands put on them by their oppressors.
Here’s another example. Striking someone on the right cheek was a way of establishing superiority. It was a back-handed insult. A fight between equals would require hitting the left cheek with an open palm or fist. But Jesus tells us to refuse to let someone assume superiority over us. In essence, turning the other cheek is like saying, “I won’t accept your insult. I dare you to consider me your equal.”
Jesus reminds us that, since we have been so deeply loved by God our Father, we are called to be agents of love in the world. And when Jesus quotes Leviticus here, he doesn’t exactly quote Leviticus. He gives us another example. Yes, the Law tells us to love our neighbor, but nowhere does it say to hate our enemies.
Maybe Jesus was simply pointing out how the Law had been twisted over time. English author G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
It’s easy to love the people you choose to love. It’s not so easy to love the people God puts in front of us every single day who are not like us at all, who don’t share our values or our tastes or our educational backgrounds, or our ideas about money and politics. Love your enemy, Jesus says. Love the Other.
This is our intended purpose, our telos. This is how we are made perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect – by loving the Other, even when that Other is our enemy.
Jesus is not talking about an emotion or a sentiment. He is talking about loving the way God loves. If you think back to the words we heard last week, the theme of reconciliation is running just under the surface of the whole passage. Back in verses 23-24, Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
I read a lot of books in seminary, but only two or three made a life-changing impact on me. One of those was Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. In it, Volf describes the process of reconciliation through something he calls “the drama of embrace.” I may have shared this with you before, but it bears repeating.
There are four steps to this drama: it begins with open arms, then waiting for the Other to accept the embrace. The third step involves stepping into each other’s personal space as arms wrap around one another. This third step lasts long enough to give the embrace meaning, but not long enough to become a stranglehold. Finally, the arms open again to release the Other, giving freedom to one another.
But when we embrace another, it changes us. Neither of us can ever be the same again, having welcomed the other into ourselves.
This transformation, this change of self, is exactly what Jesus did on the cross for us. He opened his arms, welcoming our sinfulness into his own perfection. As we accept that welcome, and step into Christ’s embrace, we are changed.
But Jesus does not hold us against our will. Instead, he releases us back into the world, to be salt and light to others, welcoming them into the embrace of faith. To know Christ is to be transformed into a new creation. To know Christ is to become … perfect, fulfilling our intended purpose.
Being perfect isn’t impossible; it’s what we’re made for. We can’t do it on our own – it’s something God does in and through us, as we allow him to transform us. Jesus came, not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Just as he transformed the way people heard God’s Law, he wants to transform us into the perfect children of God we were created to be. Reconciliation more than retribution, loving our enemies as well as our neighbors – these are how God’s transformation is shown to be completed in us. That’s our telos.
We are people who have experienced grace. We know what it is to receive God’s unmerited favor, love we couldn’t possibly earn. God offered his grace to us before we knew we needed it. When we accept that justifying grace, made real in the person of Jesus Christ, we begin the transformative journey toward perfection that marks us as holy, set apart, completed in God’s eyes, and welcomed into his family.
Sometimes it seems that our end, our perfection, is still a long way down the road. What is preventing you from being perfect, from becoming complete? What is holding you back – right now – from living into your God-given identity? What fear, or memory, or hurt, or resentment keeps you from embracing and becoming the person God wants you to be? This week, I invite you to pray over that one thing. Ask God to help you turn it over to him, so you can be transformed, changed, made perfect.
To what end, then, do we turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, love our enemies? To love like Jesus. The goal of discipleship is Christ-likeness. The goal or end, the telos, of following Jesus is loving the way Jesus loves.
J.D. Walt, the editor of Seedbed Press puts it in a slightly different way. He writes, “We think of discipleship as the process by which we grow in our faith and trust in Jesus. What if discipleship is actually the process by which we grow to become the kind of people Jesus can trust?”
Think about it. Can Jesus trust you to love your enemies? Can Jesus trust you to turn the other cheek or go a second mile? Can Jesus trust you to care for the poor, the imprisoned, those who are not like you at all?
In a sermon delivered on January 3, 1888, Methodist minister Mark Guy Pearse said:
“Now you, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out upon this world, and yours are the lips through which His love is to speak; yours are the hands with which He is to bless …, and yours the feet with which He is to go about doing good–through His Church, which is His body.”
Over time, others have refined Pearse’s words, until they have become a poem that often gets attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
God’s deep desire for each of us is to be transformed into his likeness, to become as he is, to love as he loves. This is our telos, our “end.” This is why we follow Jesus: To live out his love, as his hands and feet in the world. This is our purpose: staying centered on Christ, and sent by Christ, we offer Christ. Amen.
 Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew, vol. 33A, 135.