Monday, February 24, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48, for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany, "Perfect Love"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Welcome again to all our preschool families, and we’re glad to worship God with you today! The Bible lesson for our message comes from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapter 5. We’ve been reading through sections of this for the last several weeks, and they all come out of Jesus’ great “Sermon on the Mount.” In the section from last week and this week, Jesus is reviewing the Law of Moses and responding to popular opinions of it. So Jesus says several times, “You have heard that it was said…” and then either quotes and Old Testament law and/or a version of what people in His day thought it meant. Last week He was teaching on the commandments against murder, adultery, and lying, and showed how God’s Law is not only concerned with what we do on the outside, but also with the thoughts and intentions of our heart. Rather than “lowering the bar” and “opening loopholes” in the Law to make it easier and more achievable for us, He actually shows how deeply the Law of God searches our hearts, minds and actions. Of course the consequence of this is the deep and even painful realization of our guilt and our failures, how we have fallen short of God’s commands. But far from leaving us despairing and without hope, we’ll see how God saves us from our failures in Jesus Christ.
Today you heard Jesus refer to two laws. The first, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was an Old Testament law about retribution or retaliation. The law reflects a rather ugly reality of human life—when someone injures us, offends us, or wrongs us in any way, we instinctively rush to thoughts of revenge. How can I get back at them? How can I get even, or make them pay for what they did? What could I say or do that would insure that they never mess with me again? And whether it’s fighting back with violence or words, or whether it’s delayed and plotted—these kind of thoughts reveal that ugly thirst for revenge. It’s just one of the ways our sinfulness shows itself. And revenge is a downward spiral, because retaliation almost always increases a notch each time around. However, the law “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” placed a limit on retribution, and together with laws like we heard in our Old Testament reading, Leviticus 19, said “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” So people couldn’t take revenge into their own hands, but were to love instead. We’ll return to this one again in a moment.
But Jesus takes the example of this Old Testament law “an eye for an eye” and aims far higher with a new and greater ethic: Matthew 5:39–42 (ESV) “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” This is such a dramatic “raising of the bar” that we begin to worry that perhaps it has gone too far. How far does Jesus mean to for us to take the command to “turn the other cheek” or to “give to the one who begs from you?” It’s hard to accept such non-resistance and willingness to be wronged or taken advantage of. What is Jesus trying to teach here?
The law of “an eye for an eye” leaves no thought for love or for mercy. It only considers equal to equal. But Jesus’ command calls us to the deeper truth of mercy and love. He teaches what St. Paul would later call, “overcoming evil with good.” It should be obvious to us that revenge and retaliation heal no wounds, and they are a purely negative solution to our problems. But the way of love and undeserved kindness is infinitely harder. And yet only love and mercy has the real potential to improve a situation; and when God is at work, to even heal physical or emotional wounds, and repair relationships.
This leads us into the second law that Jesus talks about. He says, (Matthew 5:43–45) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” “Love your neighbor” is quoted right from our Old Testament reading—but you don’t read there: “hate your enemy.” Where did that come from? The Old Testament reading from Leviticus 19 also says specifically “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” So where had the people in Jesus’ day “heard it said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy?’” Had they imagined that since it only said not to hate your brother, that it was ok to hate your enemy? Since this quote is found nowhere in the Old Testament, the most likely source were a group of Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, whose writings taught that they should love their neighbors and brothers, but hate any “sons of darkness” who were not part of their community. Jesus was probably responding directly to this idea, and sets the record straight that God commands us to love our enemies as well as our friends. Jesus says to only love your friends is to do no better than any ordinary unbeliever. But we’re called to a higher love.
How high? The real clincher in Jesus’ review of these laws and God’s high calling, is when Jesus ends with, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” At last it’s clear how high Jesus means; how great a love He is talking about—perfection. And perfection by God’s standards. Ok, so we start thinking to ourselves, “Sure, I prefer the idea of love and mercy instead of revenge, and yeah, I agree that things would be a lot better if we loved our enemies, instead of hating them, but be perfect? Even if I wanted to, I could never be perfect.” And the truth is plain enough that our lives don’t match up to the perfect love that Jesus describes here.
When perfection hangs in the balance, there’s no room for any error, a deviation, any mistake in the slightest. Especially when the standard of perfection is God the Heavenly Father. Watching a figure skating program or other competition in the Olympics, and seeing a “perfect” performance is not quite the same, even if we are not able to detect tiny imperfections. A razor sharp knife with a clean straight edge might look perfect to the naked eye, but under the microscope, tiny imperfections are revealed. So if Jesus’ life had to be perfect, in God’s exacting detail, there was no margin of error. And thanks be to God that He perfectly loved His enemies, prayed for His persecutors, and turned His other cheek to those who struck Him. Because Jesus’ perfect love alone is as perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus perfectly practiced all that He preached, most clearly when He went to the cross and showed perfect love, even in the midst of hostility, evil, and hatred against Him. He bore every insult without lashing back with venomous words, and He did not resist the evil men who were set against Him.
But it was no sign of weakness or helplessness on Jesus’ part, but rather a tremendous show of self-control and restraint, and even more, perfect love. It was completely within Jesus’ power to stop what was happening. For example, when He told Peter not to resist the men who came to arrest Jesus in the garden, He said that if He wanted to, He could’ve called a legion of angels to His rescue. Before His death He said that no one took His life from Him, but He laid it down of His own accord. Jesus complied because it was all part of God’s plan to work out our redemption. And because in Jesus’ perfect love, He was obeying the commandment of God to the fullest—to the highest and best ethic that He Himself had taught—to turn the other cheek, and to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. And in God’s redemption plan, Jesus’ perfect love takes the place of our sins, our failures, our so-far-from-perfect love.
Since it is under Jesus Christ’s examination that we pass, by faith in Him, it had to be a perfect score. What was at stake was not obsessive compulsion to have everything “perfectly arranged”, but what was at stake was perfect love. Love that would not err, would not betray, would not fudge or lie in the least, love that would always be patient, kind, rejoicing in the truth, enduring all things. It had to be this kind of perfect love, and none other, because this is the perfect, wholesome, and redeeming love of our Heavenly Father, and it’s the love of Jesus Christ His Son. What was at stake was our salvation. Everything hung on a love that did not sin, could not be found guilty in the least, but a love that had to be declared innocent and pure. Everything hung on Jesus, hanging on the cross, loving as no one else had ever loved—giving up His life not only for His friends, but also for His enemies. Jesus Himself had said that all the Law and the Prophets, meaning the whole Old Testament, hung on these two great commandments of love—to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And there at the cross, all Jesus’ perfect love for God and neighbor hung upon His shoulders like gold medals—declaring perfect victory.
But His love did not end there. God vindicated Jesus’ innocence by raising Him from the dead, and Jesus is alive! And His perfect love is given to those who believe in Him, so that the impossible “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”—becomes possible by faith. Not perfect because of ourselves, but by the gift of Jesus. And as His perfect love lives in and takes root in you, your love is shaped and transformed into a love like His. However imperfect to our eyes its beginnings, and whatever ongoing struggles we face in this life, God is at work perfecting His love in us, teaching us how to love, to forgive, to return evil and insults with kindness, and to overcome evil with good. He teaches us the love that can even love our enemies, so we can pray that as we too were once enemies of God also, that they might be set free from the power of sin, and Jesus would enter their lives as well. In Jesus’ Christ we all have access to God’s perfect love; and may His love warm and change us all to be more like Him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The passage in our Gospel reading today comes from the “Sermon on the Mount” that includes Matthew 5-7. Several times Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…” With these words He introduces a common interpretation of the Old Testament law, and then presents His authoritative interpretation, correcting any misunderstandings. In 5:38 He quotes the “eye for an eye” rule out of Exodus 21:23-24, or Leviticus 24:17-22. While strictly speaking, this rule is fair, it leads to a rather brutal way of living. What alternative does Jesus point us to, instead of retaliation? How does St. Paul echo this? Romans 12:17-21.
  2. How great is our human urge to physical retaliation or at least to lash back verbally, when we have been insulted, hurt, taken advantage of, or otherwise wronged? How does this affect the situation, and also the relationship, if any is involved? Does it add “fuel to the fire?”
  3. Jesus shows an entirely different way—one of not retaliating, of yielding, of giving, or of being taken advantage of. This involves self-control, patience, mercy, and generosity. How does this effort have the potential to affect the situation? Where does such self-control, patience, etc come from? Galatians 5:22-23.
  4. How did Jesus love His enemies, and practice what He preached, when it came to turning the other cheek, not resisting the one who is evil, etc? Romans 5:6-10; Matthew 26:47-56, 66-68; 27:27-31; Luke 23:34, etc.
  5. How does Jesus’ love become the foundation and source of Christian love? 1 John 4:7-21, especially verses 10 & 19. Matthew 5:48 tells us, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Since Jesus alone meets this standard, how are we counted as “perfect” in God’s eyes? Romans 3:24-26. How does Jesus’ love overflow into our lives? 1 Timothy 1:12-16.

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