Tag Archives: transformation

Monday Prayer 9/26/2022

Holy One,

Just like that, the season changes. While half of the planet turns cold, dying away toward winter, the other half wakes to new life, blooming toward summer. The cycle of life and death begins anew.
And you are there.

When we find joy, you are there.
When we cannot be consoled, you are there.
When we know trouble, you are there.
When we know peace, you are there.

You are here.
In the now, in the then;
In the joy or the sorrow,
You are here.

By your grace, let me sense your presence. Let me recognize you in the season as it changes. By your grace, change me, too. Let me become more and more the one you created me to be. Amen.

When Dreams Get Real – Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 Advent 4A

Blessings on your Advent journey! We are almost there, almost to Bethlehem, almost to the baby lying in the manger. We’ve heard from the prophet Isaiah. We’ve heeded John the Baptist’s warnings, and Mary’s song magnifying the Lord. This week, we turn to Joseph.

We don’t know much about Joseph, but like his Old Testament namesake, he has some pretty intense dreams. You might remember that Jacob’s son Joseph made his brothers angry whenever he told them about the dreams he dreamed. He was good at interpreting other people’s dreams, too. That’s how he got on Pharaoh’s good side. This Joseph never rises to power the way Old Testament Joe did, but his dreams are just as powerful, and even more direct. Continue reading

When Righteousness Isn’t Enough – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

October 23, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Like last week’s parable, Luke introduces today’s story with an explanation. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”

We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time (Luke 22:60), to alert these listeners to their foolishness.

So Jesus tells another story. Continue reading

Bread for All: Real Bread – Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51 Pentecost 11B

August 8, 2021
Video

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching the crowds and his disciples about bread. A few weeks ago, we heard how he fed 5000 people with a few small loaves of barley bread. Last week, he described himself as “the Bread of Life.” Today’s reading repeats the last verse we heard a week ago, and then takes us further into the story, as we hear Jesus explain what he means by this radical claim. Continue reading

A Final ‘Eureka!’ – Sermon on Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration B
February 15, 2015

It was no big deal for the guys to go on a hike. Mountain climbing was something they did together quite often. Sometimes their Teacher would take the whole class, sometimes just a few would go. They wouldn’t be gone long – an afternoon, maybe they’d camp overnight and climb back down the next morning. So no one thought much of it when the Teacher asked his three best students if they’d like to climb this mountain with him. The physical challenge would do them good, give their minds a break, and get them away from the pressures of their work for a few hours. So they didn’t think twice, they just followed.

It wasn’t much of a climb, really. They didn’t need any special gear or equipment. There were places where they could even walk side by side, instead of following single file up the mountain. The view was amazing from the top of this mound that jutted up in the middle of the plain. Looking out over the fertile farmlands of the valley, they could almost see Nazareth, just beyond Mt. Precipice.

They didn’t talk much. It was just good to be together with trusted friends, taking time for some much needed R&R. By the time they reached the peak, it was already afternoon, and the shadows were getting long. But they were tired, so they agreed to a short break before heading back down.

That’s when … Continue reading

“I Know Who You Are” – Sermon on Mark 1:21-28 for Epiphany 3B

January 31, 2021
Video

Last week, we heard Jesus call out to four fishermen. They left their boats and nets immediately, and followed Jesus. Today’s story picks up where that one left off. They have walked a mile or two up the coast to Capernaum.

This was a poor little fishing village. There was no market place, no evidence of Roman buildings or roads. It was a good place to be from, but not necessarily a great place to go to. This is the village where Peter lived with his family, in a home connected to his parents and his brother, Andrew’s home. Continue reading

Eureka! Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 Epiphany B 1/4/2015

There’s a story of a woman who searches store after store for the perfect Christmas gift for her husband. A friend has come shopping with her, and the friend tries to help this woman find what she is looking for, but the woman shakes her head “no” at everything the friend points out. Finally, in exasperation, the friend asks, “What, exactly, are you trying to find?” And the woman answers, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Have you ever stood in front of an open refrigerator or kitchen cupboard, looking for something to eat? You’re hungry, but you don’t know exactly what it is that you want? What will satisfy your grumbling stomach? There’s plenty of food available, but what will you choose? What do you really want? What will fill you up, and keep you satisfied for more than an hour or two? Will you know it when you see it? Continue reading

The Spirit Is Life – Sermon on Romans 8:1-11 July 13, 2014

When I was growing up in southeast Kansas, I was certain that our state was at the center of the United States. Whenever I looked at a map, there it was, right in the middle. Then I moved to Missouri. It’s right next door to Kansas, so I didn’t move very far. As I taught fourth grade music classes, I ran up against something called Missouri State History month every year, and that meant setting aside the music curriculum for a few weeks, while students learned “The Missouri Waltz,” “Fifty Nifty United States,” and a poem that begins like this…

“I’m from Missouri, the Show Me State,
Right in the middle of the forty-eight…”

Now, which is it? Is Kansas in the middle, or Missouri? Well, the answer kind of depends on where you come from. As we move deeper into Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find ourselves approaching the very center of his theology, the heart of his argument. In this case, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where Paul is leading us, as his careful writing brings us to the main point he wants to make.

Here’s what we know so far, from the first seven chapters:
God’s righteousness has been revealed in the midst of human sin. Whether Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). Paul’s point is that righteousness does not come through the Hebrew Law, but through faith alone. Even Abraham came to God’s righteousness by faith (4:3). In fact, the Law does not have the power to make us righteous, because its purpose was always to show us our sin. Sin has been our problem ever since Adam, and we are all condemned to death because of it. But there is hope. In chapter six, Paul says we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and we are raised to new life in Christ. Last week’s reading told of a battle between the law of God and the law of sin. As human beings, we are bound by the law of sin, and we cannot obey God’s law even when we want to. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul writes. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:22-23). ”

This brings us to chapter eight, which opens with the strong word, “Therefore.” Paul has reached the point in his letter where we find the real meat of his message. Because of everything that has gone before, we are about to learn what Paul thinks is most important as we move forward into our life as Christians. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11

In mathematics, there are a couple of little symbols that Paul could have easily borrowed for this passage. They both consist of three dots, in the form of a triangle. The triangle with a broad base at the bottom and the small tip at the top stands for the word “therefore.” If you flip it upside down, the same triangle of three dots means “because.” As Paul sets out his central idea, and then explains how he has come to this conclusion, his explanation is filled with ‘becauses’ to support his ‘therefore.’ And what is the central idea? It’s the heart of the gospel message: you are not condemned if you are in Christ Jesus.

Paul has spent seven chapters explaining why we should be condemned, under the Law. Sin condemns us. We aren’t just talking about our little individual sins, the ones we ask forgiveness for before we fall asleep at night, if we remember. Paul means Sin with a capital S. The Law was given to God’s people because of Sin, but the Law could never save us from Sin. In fact, Paul tells us, the Law condemns us to death by making us aware of our sinfulness.

Yet Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It’s as if we have been found guilty in a court of law, and we know that the punishment for our crime is the death penalty, but when the judge pronounces our sentence, we hear, “You are free to go.”

It’s more than a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It’s more than having all the charges dropped, or having our sentence commuted to time served plus parole. We are not condemned, after all. We have been found to be in the right, instead. How can this be?

Paul says, it is because we are in Christ Jesus. So, what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that the law of sin and death no longer rules us, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free. How did this happen? Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us. God has condemned the sin that condemns us. Paul has been making this point in nearly every chapter. God sent his own Son – which means God came in person (he didn’t send a substitute) – “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (v. 3) to deal with sin once and for all by condemning sin in the flesh.

Flesh is a word we need to understand clearly, for all this to make sense. The contrast Paul gives us here is not between body and spirit, but between flesh and Spirit. Paul is not talking about our bodies, but what we choose to do with them. The Common English Bible translates the word for ‘flesh’ as ‘selfishness,’ and this might be a better way to think of it – when we are focused on ourselves, our attention turns away from God, where it should be. We become our own idols. We serve our own desires, and this is sin, which leads to death. Listen to verses 4 – 8 from the CEB, and see if this helps Paul’s argument become clearer.

Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t.  People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.

People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God, Paul writes, and if that were the end of the message, we would be doomed. “But that’s not you!” he goes on. Thanks be to God, that’s not who you are!

You are in Christ, because Christ’s spirit lives in you. Christ’s spirit lives in you because you are in Christ. Back in chapter 4, Paul reminds us that Abraham had faith, and God credited it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3). That word righteousness is a big word. It means acceptable to God, found to be ‘in the right.’ It’s the very opposite of ‘condemned.’ Being in Christ Jesus is more than agreeing with ideas about Jesus, it’s more than being loyal to Christ or even trying our best to follow Jesus. Being in Christ is a new way of being, an entirely new system of living that is centered on Christ and surrounded by Christ. Instead of self-focused lives doomed to death, we have been changed, and are continually being changed, into what theologian Karl Barth calls, the “impossible possibility.” Barth writes, “The negation of sin is not a possibility among other possibilities, but the possibility beyond all other possibilities … and we possess [this], the impossible possibility of walking after the Spirit.” (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 282) Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s! (v 11).

Therefore, you are no longer condemned. You are in Christ. You are changed.

On Thursday, I attended a district gathering, led by our District Superintendent. As he spoke, he reminded us of our purpose as Christ’s church. Everything we do, he said, needs to be grounded in this goal: that lives will be changed. That’s what Paul is writing about here. Being in Christ means being changed, being transformed into a “little Christ,” to borrow a term from C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, 171). When we wipe off a table after a Wednesday night meal, or hand out a bulletin on Sunday, or pick up a bit of trash that blew into our parking lot, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we move our youth ministry into the main building of our church campus, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we serve a meal at the Salvation Army in Mankato, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we set up a place for parents to change a baby’s diaper at the County Fair, we do it so that lives will be changed. And as we do these things, with this goal in mind, we bear witness to the Spirit that is alive in us, the very Spirit of Christ Jesus.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.”

If you haven’t stepped into that freedom yet, I invite you to do so today. If you are still struggling under the weight of your own sin, know that Christ died so that your sins could be wiped out – not just forgiven, but completely destroyed. It’s time to step out of the old life and into the new one, a life of joy and peace. Then you can join us in saying to others who long for something more, “Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, home of the uncondemned, home of those who are in Christ, because Christ is in us. Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, where lives are changed.”  Amen.

No One But Jesus – Sermon on Matthew 17:1-8 (Transfiguration A)

It was no big deal for the guys to go on a hike. Mountain climbing was something they did together quite often. Sometimes their Teacher would take the whole class, sometimes just a few would go. They wouldn’t be gone long – an afternoon, maybe they’d camp overnight and climb back down the next morning. So no one thought much of it when the Teacher asked his three best students if they’d like to take a hike. It had been a pretty intense week, and the physical challenge of climbing a taller mountain would do them good, give their minds a break, get them up into the cooler mountain air. So they didn’t think twice, they just followed.

And it wasn’t much of a climb, really. They didn’t need any special gear or equipment. There were places where they could even walk side by side, instead of following single file up the mountain. The view was amazing, looking out over the valley. They didn’t talk much. It was just good to be together with trusted friends, taking time for some much needed R&R. By the time they reached the top of the mountain, it was already late afternoon, and the shadows were getting long. They took a break before starting the long climb back down.

That’s when it happened.

They didn’t talk about it when they got back down to base camp, but something had definitely occurred while they were up on that mountain. The others could tell. Something was different. But the crowd was pressing in again, begging the Teacher for help, and there was no chance to talk. It was a long time before James and John and Peter told the others what they had seen up on the mountain.

Then, one day, out of the blue, James says, “Remember that time we went climbing, right after we got to Caesarea Philippi? You know, it was the day that man brought his son with the demon, the one you guys tried to cast out, but couldn’t. Remember?” The others turn and listen. They had wondered about that day. It had been a pretty intense week, starting with the Pharisees and Sadducees challenging Jesus. There had been hard conversations about death and sacrifice and facing what would surely come soon. Even though it was all behind them now, they still wondered about that hike. Matthew moved closer, and found something to write with. He wanted to make sure he got this story straight…

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. – Matthew 17:1-8

In a way, this trip up the mountain foreshadows the night before the crucifixion. For one thing, the same three disciples accompany Jesus. These are his inner circle, the same ones who will go with him to the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed. Luke’s account (Luke 9) of this story says that they went up to pray, and that the disciples became sleepy, and this gives us another parallel to the Gethsemane story, where these same three disciples fall asleep while Jesus goes a little further into the garden to pray.

Theologian Karl Barth notes that this miracle is unique among all the miracle stories in the Gospels, because it happened to Jesus, not by Jesus.[1] Ponder that for a bit. Jesus never asks us to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Jesus never asks more of us than he offers himself. Last week, he said, “Be perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect,” and now he says, “Be transformed, even as I have been transformed before your very eyes.”

And what a transformation! His clothes are dazzling. His face is shining like the Sun.  He becomes the embodiment of light, and Moses (often thought to represent the Law) and Elijah (thought to represent the prophets) are there with him, talking. What we have here, friends, is a theophany – a physical manifestation of God in all his glory. But this time, it isn’t an angel of the Lord. It’s Jesus himself, changed into glory, along with Moses and Elijah.

Peter recognized the presence of God, and immediately determined that where God is, a tabernacle should also be. We often think that Peter acted foolishly when he offers to put up three tents, but what if Peter didn’t so much want to erect a shrine, as he wanted to raise a Tent of Meeting, just as his ancestors had done when they first encountered God in the desert? What if Peter’s offer comes less out of confusion, and more out of a desire to honor the holiness of this moment in the only way he knows how? If God often spoke with Moses in the tent of meeting, filling it with the dark cloud of God’s glory, and making Moses’ face shine so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil when he came out of the tent, doesn’t it stand to reason that the voice Peter hears coming from a dark cloud would remind him of that earlier Tabernacle?

The voice from heaven speaks the same words we heard at the baptism of Jesus, back at the beginning of his ministry. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Only this time, the voice adds an important command to the statement. This time, God says, “Listen to him!” Listen to Jesus.

And what is the first thing Jesus says after the disciples hear this command? “Get up. Stop being afraid.”

Every time we encounter God in a tangible way, it’s scary. The fabric that separates the mundane from the holy is torn, and God’s glory shines through to blind us with light brighter than we can imagine. We want to make sense of it all. We try to assign meaning to the various elements of the story, and if we only had a Secret Jesus Decoder Ring, we might be able to figure it all out. Barbara Brown Taylor says we might be missing the point if we try too hard to figure out what it all means. She writes,

“But what if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it? What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again? … Whether such biblical encounters come disguised as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ they have a way of breaking biblical people open, of rearranging what they think they know for sure so that there is room for more divine movement in their lives.”[2]

Fear is the natural human response to things we can’t understand. We are afraid of what we can’t see, what doesn’t make sense to us. We fall down like those overwhelmed disciples, and hide from the things that confuse us. It is in that very moment that Jesus reaches out to touch us, to remind us of his presence, and he says, “ Get up. Stop being afraid.”

When he said this to Peter, James, and John, they looked up, and they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

That’s it. That’s the point. See no one but Jesus. Listen to him. No matter how confusing or frightening the experience may be, when we encounter God, we don’t need to understand or explain it. We don’t need to interpret it or decode it. We can respond to God’s presence without fear, by looking to Jesus alone. He doesn’t scold us or berate us. He just says, Get up. Stop being afraid. Peter was eager to put up a Tent of Meeting for his encounter with God, but God only wanted him to pay attention, to listen to Jesus.

Because, when we do that, God changes us. When we focus our attention on Jesus alone, we start to look a little more like him.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encouraged you to pay attention to these moments when God is evident in you and through you, when you find yourselves being salt and light in the world. As we head into the season of Lent, I encourage you to continue noticing these moments when they happen, but also I encourage you to make yourself ready for an encounter with the Living God.

One way to do this is through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Instead of giving up something for Lent, I encourage you to take on something: maybe it’s a more focused prayer life, maybe you hunger for a more diligent reading of God’s Word, maybe more generous giving to meet the needs of the poor. Maybe you need to find more intentional silence, when you can listen to Jesus. As you encounter God in these practices, you may discover that the person you see in the mirror each morning changes over the next few weeks. You may notice that you are being shaped and formed more and more into the image of Christ.

This morning, as I read the Daily Office Lectionary scriptures, I was struck by this verse from 2 Corinthians. Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV)

We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another! It doesn’t happen overnight. It can take a long time for the transformation to be complete, but the change is already at work in us.

So get up. Stop being afraid. For Christ is with you in the dark cloud, and you are becoming more and more like him, transformed and transforming into his perfect image, from one degree of glory to another. Amen.

Nobody’s Perfect? – Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

Anybody here like kosher pickles? How about kosher beef franks? As Gentiles, my guess is that we don’t think much about what “kosher” means, beyond its application to certain foods. The reading we heard from Leviticus earlier today gives us the origins of the word “kosher.” It comes from the Hebrew word kedosh, and it means something that is holy, or set apart.

“Be holy (kedoshim) because I, your God, am holy,” God tells his people. (Leviticus 19:2). God’s holiness might never be a question for us, but how can we be holy? Jewish rabbis point us back to Genesis, reminding us that we are made in God’s image, and this image is not so much a physical picture as it is a reflection of God’s character.[1] Our passage from Leviticus introduces the how-to manual for living a kosher life. It teaches us how to be holy as God is holy, through godly behavior in our everyday living. Telling the truth, treating others fairly, taking care of our families and the poor, protecting the weak and forgiving those who have hurt us – all these choices contribute to the spiritual discipline of holiness outlined in Leviticus. So, where did it all go wrong? How did following the rules in the manual become more important than living a truly holy life?

As Jesus spoke to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, he was trying to teach them what it means to be truly holy. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus announce that he had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Last week, we heard him describe how living into the spirit of the Law requires more of us than simply following the letter of the Law. Jesus talked of obeying the laws by practicing a more rigorous observance of God’s intent behind each of the rules. “Of course God doesn’t want you to kill each other,” Jesus is saying – “God doesn’t even want you to be angry with each other! Of course God doesn’t want you to commit adultery. He knows that such a betrayal of trust can lead to pain and divorce, and God’s deep desire is for marriage to reflect the loving relationship God has with his people. Of course God doesn’t want you to make idle promises and use his holy Name to give them greater importance than they deserve. Let your word stand on its own: say Yes, or No, and mean it.”

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 reconciliation instead of retribution. Here the Word of the Lord, as given to us in Matthew 5:38-48.

“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.”

Jesus continues to teach from a three-part formula. First, he offers the common understanding of Levite law. Second, he gives the law a new twist, by outlining higher expectations for applying it to Kingdom living, and third, he explains God’s intent for the law in practical terms and examples. So far, so good. Jesus gets an “A” for three-point preaching outlines. But at the end of the lesson, Jesus is asking more of us than we think is possible. “Be perfect,” he says. We know Jesus likes to use hyperbole, exaggerating a point to make it stick, so we’re hoping this is another case of overstatement! But it isn’t. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How are we supposed to do that?

It starts with right relationship. 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. But in that system, everyone goes around half blind. Rather than retribution, Jesus says, seek reconciliation. Rather than demanding fair treatment that hurts everyone, be willing to go the second mile. Literally.

By Roman law, a soldier could compel a civilian to carry his pack for one mile, or 1520 paces. But at the end of that mile, the soldier was required to take the pack back, unless he wanted to be punished for forcing a civilian to carry it further. Jesus was actually challenging Roman authority, by encouraging his followers to exceed the demands put on them by their oppressors.[2]

You may remember that, when we heard Luke’s version of the teaching about turning the other cheek, I explained that 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. When Jesus tells us to turn our left cheek to someone who insults us by assuming superiority over us, he is telling us to affirm our own value as a beloved child of God. In essence, turning the other cheek is like saying, “I refuse to accept your arrogant insult. I dare you to consider me your equal.”

Instead of retribution, Jesus tells us to seek reconciliation. Instead of accepting oppression, Jesus encourages us to remember that we are God’s own beloved children. Since we have been so deeply loved, we are called to be agents of love in the world. But when Jesus quotes Leviticus this time, he doesn’t exactly quote Leviticus. Yes, the Law tells us to love our neighbor, but nowhere does it say to hate our enemies. Perhaps Jesus is quoting the way that particular law had been re-interpreted by the culture of the day. Or maybe Jesus was trying to emphasize what loving your neighbor really means. English author and mystery novelist 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.”[3]

But in this case, Jesus is not talking about the person who lives next door to you, or even on your side of town. Jesus is not talking about the people who are most like you, the people with whom you most closely identify. Jesus is talking about the Other. With a capital O.

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.

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.”

In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf describes the process of reconciliation through something he calls “the drama of embrace.” There are four steps to this drama:

  • First, I open my arms to welcome the Other into my personal space, making myself vulnerable to the Other.
  • Second, I wait, allowing the Other to decide whether or not to accept my embrace.
  • Third, we step into each other’s open arms, and close our arms around one another. We are each distinct, with our own identities and personal boundaries intact, yet we have welcomed each other into our personal spaces, eliminating the distance between us. We remain in the embrace long enough to give it meaning – but not too long, or it becomes a stranglehold.
  • Fourth, in opening our arms, we release each other back into the world, giving freedom to one another.

But we have been changed by this embrace. 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.

How has God been working in you and through you this week, to be salt and light? (I’ll bet you thought I had forgotten your homework assignment – I didn’t!) Turn to a neighbor, and keep in mind that your neighbor might be someone across the room from you, and share with one another one way you’ve seen God changing you, or changing the world through you. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

You see, God is working among us. Last weekend, I showed the Church Council a TED Talk by Simon Sinek that explained “It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters why you do it.”  Back in Leviticus, God states the reason behind the rules for godly behavior at least five times: you do these things “because I AM THE LORD,” God says. But what is our reason for being here, as this congregation? When I asked the council, “What are we leading people toward? Why are we here?” the first answer on the board was, “to know Christ.” Other good answers followed: to develop a close relationship with God, to live lives of integrity, caring for others, and many other good ideas. But if the only thing we ever did at First United Methodist Church was to help people to know Christ, wouldn’t that include developing a close relationship with God and living a life of integrity and caring for others? Because, to know Christ is to be changed. To know Christ is to be transformed into a new creation. To know Christ is to be … perfect.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says. This is one of those statements we hope Jesus doesn’t mean literally, and the good news is that the word translated as “perfect” really means something more than our English language can convey in one word. Telos is the Greek word for “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” It’s more about becoming what was intended, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose, becoming complete. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates it, “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.” Moral perfection may be beyond our human reach, but our telos is our goal, our desired outcome, what happens when we are completely mature and have found our identity in Christ alone.

Being perfect isn’t impossible; it’s what we’re made for. Being perfect isn’t even something we can do 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 transforming journey toward perfection that marks us as holy, set apart, completed in God’s eyes, and welcomed into his family. This is the essence of Wesleyan theology. It’s why we are here.

But we aren’t there yet. Perfection seems a long way down the road sometimes, doesn’t it? What is preventing us from being perfect, from becoming complete? Right now, I invite you to write down just one thing you believe is holding you back from living into your God-given identity. There’s blank space on the back of your Grapevine, so use that. Write down just one thing — one fear, one memory, one hurt, one resentment — that keeps you from embracing and becoming the person God wants you to be. This week, as you check the Grapevine for events on the calendar, pray over that one thing. Ask God to help you turn it over to him, so you can be transformed, changed, made perfect.

God only wants one thing for each of us, and that is to be transformed into his likeness, to become perfect and complete, as God is perfect and complete. I invite you to share your life in this community of faith with people who are not in this community of faith, not so we can fill the pews – because those numbers really don’t mean anything – but so that you can experience what happens in you when you do that. Just as it is true that teaching someone else how to do something we’ve just learned will solidify that learning for us, and help us internalize it, sharing your faith with others will deepen that faith within you. And that’s what I’m eager to see. Not numbers, but change. Not more bodies, but deeper, richer, more complete faith. Then together, as we let God work on us, we can join the United Methodist Church in its mission to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Amen.