February 20, 2022
We are back with Jesus on the level place, right where we left off last week. He started out by describing the blessings we experience when our hearts are tuned to God and our attention is focused on God’s kingdom. But they didn’t sound like blessings to those people who gathered around Jesus to hear him teach.
It sounded like Jesus was getting it backward – you’re blessed when you’re poor or hungry and you’re doomed if you are rich or well fed. You’re blessed when you sorrow, and you’re doomed when you laugh. It just doesn’t make sense!
But that’s because we hear these blessings and woes through a worldly filter. If we listen carefully, we can hear a different message. It isn’t about food or money or social approval at all. It’s about what we give our attention to, what we place at the center of our lives.
We are blessed when we are God-centered, regardless of our earthly circumstances, and we suffer woe whenever we are self-centered. We find blessing in seeking God, being hungry for God, and loving the people God loves. When we focus on satisfying our own appetites, our attention turns away from God, and our self-centeredness becomes our spiritual doom.
And that brings us to today’s reading. We are still on that level plain with Jesus, but he is about to make a shift from describing God’s kingdom to teaching us how to live in it.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:27-38)
Jesus starts out, “But I say to you that listen…” And we immediately know that all those blessings and woes he just talked about aren’t the point at all. If we thought they were backwards, we’re about to get a lesson in just how far God will go to upend our broken value systems and flip our priorities so they line up with God’s priorities.
When Jesus says, “to you that listen” we have to remember he isn’t expecting non-believers to get it. He isn’t talking to the rest of the world. He’s talking directly to his own followers, to people who have already committed to this new kingdom reality Jesus is introducing. He’s talking to you and me, if we really are the disciples we claim to be.
Jesus is THE Master Teacher, and his teaching technique follows established best practices for introducing abstract concepts. First, he lays out the ideas he wants us to learn, then he gives us some examples of how they play out in real life, and he wraps up the lesson with some negative examples to show us what the concepts are not.
What are these concepts? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In other words, do the exact opposite of what the world expects when you’re dealing with people who treat you with contempt. Instead of avoiding them or submitting to their abuse, instead of responding to their hatred with your own – love them. The verb here is agapao. The noun for this kind of love is ‘agape.’ It isn’t an emotion; it’s an action. It’s a way to behave that puts another’s welfare and interests above your own.
This is a pretty tall order. I can see those first disciples standing around Jesus with their mouths hanging open, completely dumbfounded. What on earth is he saying? How on earth are we supposed to do that?
So glad you asked, Jesus answers. Here’s how you do it. When people try to exert authority over you, stand up to them. When someone tries to expose you to ridicule and shame, take that ridicule and turn it back on them with honor.
You might be wondering, “Wait a minute – turning the other cheek and giving up both your coat and your tunic sounds like submitting to someone else’s abuse, not standing up to it.”
But here’s what we need to remember about first century culture. David Ewart writes,
“Striking the cheek was the way a master disciplined a slave or servant; the way he asserted his authority; the way he put you back in line.
“And at the time of Jesus, there was a proper way to do this. You would stand facing your master, and he would strike your right cheek with the back of his right hand. [Striking you in any] other way would be a loss of face.
“So imagine what happens if, after having been struck on the right cheek, you stand there and silently turn your head and … offer your left cheek?…
“Standing there offering your left cheek actually becomes an act of resistance. Your master is unable to discipline you in the accepted fashion – his powerlessness is exposed for all to see – and with that he is shamed and dishonored. More importantly, you have exposed the reality that master and slave are not in the right relationship reflective of the Good News.”
This is how you agapao your enemies. You go above and beyond what is expected of you, and in the process, you expose just how wrong those expectations really are.
Keep in mind that Jesus is talking to people who are on the underside of society. We might find it hard to identify with the folks in that first band of followers. And yet, that is exactly what Jesus is asking us to do – to stop looking at others as if they were somehow less than us, and recognize the value and worth God places on each person we encounter.
Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, where the rule is no longer “an eye for an eye.” The rule is now the rule of love and love alone. He goes on to give us some of those negative examples that explain this concept of loving our enemies. He says, “If you love the same people who love you, and if you do good to the same people you expect to treat you well, how is that different from what the world does? Even sinners do that much! Your calling is a higher one.”
Your calling is to go, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them. Have you ever thought of yourself as an evangelist? Someone who shares the gospel with people who don’t know about Jesus? Most of us cringe when we hear that “E” word – evangelism. It either makes us feel guilty because we aren’t doing it, or it turns us off because there is no way we’d ever want to do it!
And in recent years, the word evangelism has been tangled up with the word ‘evangelical’ – a term connected to conservative politics, racism, and what Mike Emerson calls “the religion of whiteness.” But whatever the word ‘evangelical’ means to you, the word evangelism carries plenty of baggage on its own!
About 15 years ago, Martha Grace Reese conducted an in-depth study of evangelism in mainline Christian churches, and one of her major findings was that people would rather have a root canal thank talk about – much less DO – evangelism. Why do you think that is?
Maybe we avoid the “E” word because we are afraid of offending people. What business do we have telling people what to believe? Maybe we have some negative stereotypes about street preachers or door-to-door “witnessing” that embarrass us as Christians.
But what happens when we meet someone who obviously needs to hear some words about God’s love? Someone like the Ethiopian eunuch Phillip encountered in the 8th chapter of Acts. He was an African man with an important job that came at a high price. He had been castrated at some point in his life so that he could serve the queen of Ethiopia. That why he’s called a “eunuch.” He was unable to be married or have children. Religious law kept him from participating in worship services. Yet, somehow, he had heard of God and wanted to know more about God. What do you do when you don’t think of yourself as an evangelist but you come across someone like this?
Someone who bears deep wounds inflicted by the world . . .
Someone who is not welcomed by traditional religion . . .
Someone who looks successful but feels empty . . .
Someone who is searching for something he doesn’t have . . .
Someone who needs to hear about God’s love.
Someone like Harold. Harold was a successful businessman. He came for worship one Sunday because he saw an ad for the church on TV. The pastor had been opposed to advertising the church on television. “Only fundamentalist mega-churches do that,” he’d said. “It costs too much anyway. We should be using that money for caring for the poor. Besides,” he’d said, “What kind of people pick their church from ads on television?”
But the church did it anyway. They got dozens of visitors who had never before been to any church in their lives. One of them was Harold. Harold brought his 8-year-old son, Andy, to church one Sunday. The children’s Sunday school happened to be studying Esther that day, and Andy was part of the class. Monday morning the minister got a call from Harold. “My son is so excited about this story he heard at church,” he said. “He said the story is from the ‘book of Esther.’ Can you tell me where I can get a copy of that book? I want to read it to him at home. Can I buy it on amazon.com or somewhere?'” Harold, a college graduate and successful businessman, had never owned a Bible. He had no idea that Esther is a book in the Bible.
Does it shock you that you can grow up in this country and not know that Esther is a book in the Bible? This is increasingly true. In 1910 only 3% of Americans were growing up with no faith training, but in the 1980s 14.5% fell into that category. And the number of people coming to adulthood in the U.S. with no faith training at all continues to increase. In our own community, in this very zip code where our church is located, the latest demographic study shows that 26% of our neighbors have no religious identity. They are not Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Christian. They are not connected religiously at all.
According to the demographic study I mentioned a moment ago, many of the people who said they were not involved in a faith community noted the reason for their non-participation as “no one has ever invited me.” These aren’t people who are mad at the church. They didn’t list hypocrisy or other issues as obstacles. The primary reason they don’t come to church is that no one has ever invited them. The only obstacle to becoming a Christian is simply that no one has ever told them about God.
Friends, I wonder if we are preventing people from hearing about God. Are we constructing barriers between the gospel and people who desperately need to hear it?
Can you imagine holding a bottle of water, keeping it to yourself, while someone, even someone you don’t know, struggles to get to that water? Of course not! You would gladly share what you had to make things better for someone else.
But this is exactly what the church does when we do not share the gospel with those in need. We sit with the keys to the waters of baptism in our hands. Meanwhile, neighbors around us are desperately thirsty to know that God loves them through Jesus Christ.
Maybe sharing the gospel is easier said than done. It certainly seems that Philip had it easier than we do, in the passage we heard earlier. After all, the Spirit of God seemingly transported him to the Ethiopian man’s side and compelled him to share the gospel! It seems like all Philip did was show up and God did the rest. If we were to be evangelists, do you think it would it be like that for us? How could we partner with God? How could we be authentic to who we are, not trying to be some stereotype or push something over on someone? How would the Spirit work with us? Where would the Spirit of God send us? Who would be on our pathway?
Friends, I invite you to come on a spiritual adventure with me. What would it look like for us to be evangelists? This is what we’ll be exploring together as a church for 6 weeks, starting next week. You are invited to pray, to study, to question, and to think about how God might be sending us out to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a church, we will be reading the short book, Unbinding Your Heart. It came out of the study I mentioned earlier.
Today you can still sign up for the small groups that are forming now. We will use these groups for prayer and discussion. You will be spiritually encouraged and intellectually stimulated in these groups. You can even participate in an online group! Together, we will be inviting God to show us what it would look like for us to become evangelists. What would it be like for us to share God’s love in our own unique way?
Let me tell you one more story about a family I know. Jim and Cheryl were faithful members of their church. They had raised their daughters in the church. Their daughters had been baptized, confirmed, and married in this same church. But as the girls grew up and started families of their own, Jim and Cheryl found themselves spending more weekends at the family cabin than they did at church.
Then they read Unbinding Your Heart with the congregation, just as I’m inviting you to do. They started praying for their daughters and their daughters’ families. In December, Cheryl decided to get out her mother’s nativity scene, and she displayed it in her living room. She had not unpacked it for years, partly to protect it from getting broken, and partly because the little ones were “more into Santa.” One afternoon, as her grandchildren were visiting, one of the younger ones was transfixed in front of this manger scene. Finally, she said, “Grandma, who are these people and what are they doing?”
Cheryl told me later she nearly wept. Her own grandchildren didn’t know the story of Jesus being born in a manger. They had no idea who Mary and Joseph were, or why there were angels and shepherds. She stopped what she was doing, and took out her Bible. She sat down in the living room with her grandchildren and turned to Luke 2, and read them the story. “Unto you … is born this day … a Savior, … which is Christ the Lord.”
“Do you know what you’re reading?” Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch. “How can I unless someone guides me?”
So Phillip went and sat beside him.
Who will God lead you to sit beside?
Are you ready to receive a blessing from God, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over?”