Wednesday, February 26, 2014
7th Sunday after Epiphany
St. Matthew 5:38-48
In last week's sermon, I spoke of the Scriptural assertion that God is light. In so being, he sheds light on the darkness of human sin and error. Corporately, the light of God shows the depravity of human discord and hatred. Individually, it reveals the ways in which we have tried to live according to our own light rather than the light of God, and in so doing have hurt both ourselves and others. Another word for this light that reveals and also heals is grace. Grace reveals us to be broken humans in need of real help, and then in answer, it points us to the goodness, mercy and love of God. Grace, however, does more than just reveal the goodwill that God has for us and for humanity. Grace changes and transforms us. Furthermore, grace is not that which God gives us once we make a claim on him. We do not claim God; he claims us. Hence, grace is the claim that God has already made on us and on our lives in Jesus Christ. Jesus has come in the flesh. He reveals the eternal goodness, justice and love of God. Whether we accept it or not, Jesus has become our representative, a vision of perfect humanity. We can reject the claim he has made on our lives. We can ignore or avoid it, and fill our lives with endless distractions. We can even deny the claim and the loving God behind it. We can do all these things, but we, and no other human being, can undo God's claim on us. Imagine you were the only child of a loving and devoted father. When your father died and left all that he had to you, you could not object to his lawyer, I'm not happy with this will, can it be rewritten? You could give away the estate, you could squander it, you could even ignore it, or you could also receive it thankfully. Of all these options, none of them is to undo the last will and testament. So too with the claim Jesus has on us. It cannot be emended, broken, or qualified. That is why it is important that we state the matter in this way: God's claim is on us; we do not claim him; we only respond to him. If the latter were the case, it would be entirely up to us to cling to God, but the fact is God has drawn near and clung to humanity in the man Christ Jesus.
The Gospel lessons for the past few weeks have been successive passages from what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, contained in chapters five to seven of Matthew's Gospel. It contains many well-known passages, including the Lord's prayer and the beatitudes. The phrase, go the extra mile, is based on this morning's excerpt from the sermon on the mount. In last Sunday's selection, Jesus reveals how he is the fulfillment of the law by explaining the implicit meaning of various commandments, mostly from the Decalogue. The prohibition against murder, for example, implies that contempt and hatred of others is also forbidden. Similarly, the prohibition against adultery forbids lusting after a woman in one's heart. In today's Gospel, our Lord continues in a similar vein. The Old Testament law, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is cited; Jesus argues that this law is misunderstood if it used to exact petty revenge. It is an undisputed principle of justice to equalize wrongs and injuries. Jesus is saying however that if the ego uses this principle merely to satisfy its lust for revenge, then there is a failure of the true spirit of love and the spirit of what it means to be human.
The lesson ends with an astounding and difficult saying, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." It would be easy to walk away from this and the past few Gospel lessons thinking that Jesus is just telling us to try harder. We might be left thinking that he is merely teaching an exalted morality: there are good and bad choices before you; make a good choice, says Jesus. This however is a complete subversion of the meaning of the text, and such an interpretation ignores the wider context of the life and teaching of Jesus. I suggest that the sermon on the mount is essentially about God's grace. Such grace is not just a sign of his good will but of his desire to transform and redeem us, to make us perfect, as he is. Again, what God has showed us in our Lord Jesus is that he has staked a claim on us and on human nature. Jesus shows us that God loves us, but he also shows that can share in that love in a way that will transform and renew us. In Jesus we share in the perfection of our human nature, a perfection that we may share in because we belong to him and he is our head and representative. We can, according to the lesson, bear a divine type of love for others, a love that does not expect reciprocation or reward. In fact, it is love that knows that the beloved will sometimes reject the lover. Our Lord says, God sends rain on the just and the unjust and he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good. This is the type of love that we are to show, a love without exceptions for both good and bad, kind and hostile, holy and depraved. We practice this love not by manufacturing the love ourselves, but rather, as we know ourselves to be claimed by God in our Lord Jesus, we can become vessels of what is ultimately his love. The claim of God on our fallen humanity is that we would share in a glorified and redeemed human nature, in a persevering love, a love to the every end.