Pulpit Reource: February 24, 2019

January 11th, 2019

This is a free selection from Will Willimon's Pulpit Resource. This resource is available through a print or digital subscription.

Selected Reading

Luke 6:27-38

Theme

Jesus invites us to participate in the coming reign of God. New commitments and behaviors flow from this new worldview based on who Jesus reveals God to be and who God is. The way of Jesus is counter to the world’s way. It is more than common sense, general wisdom. It is the way of love, even love for enemies, a way that only a few dare to walk even though it is God’s true way for the world. The Christian life is the way of life that is lived in response to the news we’ve received about the kind of God we’ve got.

Introduction to the Readings

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

At long last Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, the brothers who had done him such great injustice earlier. “I’m your brother Joseph!”

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Paul teaches the Corinthians about the mystery of the resurrection of the body. 

Luke 6:27-38

Jesus continues his Sermon on the Plain after his announcement of the blessings and the woes. “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies.”

Prayer

Jesus, sometimes, when you speak of what you expect from us, it seems that you are raising the bar too high. You command us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to give to the needs of others without expecting in return. Well, Lord, who is able? Are you serious, Lord? Do you really think that ordinary people like us can meet such high standards of righteousness?

Forgive us, Lord, when we dismiss your demands as impossible expectations. Forgive us when we set our own bar too low, when we let ourselves off the hook too easily. Forgive us when we forget how much you love us, how much you believe in us, how much you have done for us. Forgive us when we fail to remember that you are not only demanding but also forgiving. Amen.

Encountering the text:

Having begun his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 with a series of divine blessings and woes that we treated last Sunday, Jesus continues with some specific, very specific, directives for human behavior here and now.

Or does he?

In one sense, Jesus’s sermon is clear and direct. His words are straightforward (too straightforward, actually). We know exactly what he is ordering us to do—and we squirm! Yet in another sense, we have good reason from this text to wonder if Jesus is simply giving us a hortatory sermon that lists rules for human behavior. Interpretation is called for, but at the same time we ought to beware lest our interpretation be a way of weaseling out of the direct commands of Jesus.

We certainly cannot accuse Jesus of not being practical, of not relating religious faith to everyday life. He tells us specifically what to do when faced with the enmity of others (note that Jesus tells us what to do with those who are our enemies, not how to make enemies), what to do when slapped by another, when another owes us a debt. 

Surely we would like to weasel out of Jesus’s sermon. “You don’t mean me, do you?”

Yet we note that this sermon is addressed not to some select inner circle but “to you who are willing to hear” (v. 27). That the preacher is casting his net so widely makes us wonder about the intended purpose of this sermon.

Jesus’s intentions in the sermon become clearer when he says, after giving us these prescriptions for human behavior, “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that.” Jesus is unashamedly putting forth a very different way of living from that of the majority of the world. “Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.” With that statement Jesus’s purposes become clearer. 

Obedience to the way of Jesus is clearly more than “just act naturally.” What he commends is not natural, not innate, at least not in our pitifully depraved, fallen state. Why does he commend such a way to us? “You will be acting the way children of the Most High act.” God acts this way toward us with God’s kindness and compassion. So we ought to act this way in the world because the world is supposed to be this way. The world was not created for enmity and cruelty; the world was created by a God who is kind and compassionate. We therefore ought to live in such a way that is congruent with the deepest reality of God’s creation.

So this sermon by Jesus is not first of all a list of human rules. The sermon is based on a claim about who God is and how God acts. Any prescriptions for human behavior come as implications of theological affirmations. Ethics arise from theology here.

The first ethical question is not, “What should I do with enemies?” but rather, “Who is God, and what is God like?”

Can we form our sermons on this text in a way that is congruent with Jesus’s approach in his Sermon on the Plain? Can we present these daunting words about human behavior in such a way that we do not focus primarily on human behavior but on the latter question: “Who is God, and what is God like?” 

Proclaiming the text:

You see, our problem is that somehow we American Christians talked ourselves into the notion that being Christian is roughly synonymous with being a thinking, caring, sensitive American. We failed to see any difference between America and God’s kingdom. Church is where we come on a more or less regular basis to bring out our better nature, to trot out our best moral inclinations.

We might have been able to pull off this project were it not for Jesus. Even the most complacent listener knows, after listening to this Sunday’s Gospel from Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain, that we have come to a head-on collision with a world­view that is not congruent with that of nine out of ten average Americans. Here is an invitation to a way that does not come naturally.

Years ago I heard the great scholar of world religions Huston Smith say that Christianity shares many affirmations with several of the world’s great religions. Love your neighbor, yes. That’s a thought found in many of the world’s faiths. Help those in need, yes. Obey God, yes.

“But when it comes to Jesus’s command to love your enemies, that’s an injunction found solely in the religion of Jesus,” said Smith.

But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them.

As we noted in our sermon a couple of weeks ago, one of the reasons we come to church on Sunday is to refresh our surprise at encountering the God who met us in Jesus Christ. We thought we knew who God was. Nine out of ten Americans say they believe in God. However, when we hear Jesus Christ, God’s Son, God with us, saying the things he says in this Sunday’s Gospel, well, a reasonable reaction is, “Gosh! I guess I didn’t know God as well as I first thought.”

We said that we wanted God to come to us. We prayed, “Thy kingdom come.” But when God’s kingdom became present in Jesus, and when Jesus said what he said in this sermon, we wonder if we really wanted God as much as we first thought!

I want you to think of the most loving thing you could do for the very worst people you know. Think of a real scoundrel. Now, think of someone who has been a terrible scoundrel to you. Now picture yourself offering that person your loving hand. See what I mean? When you think like that, it really restores the oddness—indeed, even the absurdity—of what Jesus is commending in his sermon.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, perhaps we are tempted to say, “Well, that doesn’t really apply to me. I am so nice to other people that I haven’t made any enemies.” Come on now. Be honest. If you have lived in this world very long, and if you have been required to interact with very many people, you will probably have enemies. I would even say that the better person you are and the more you try to live a good and righteous life, the greater the possibility that people will react against you with enmity. That’s often the way the world responds to the very best of people. Look at how the world responded to the preacher of this sermon!

Then Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to not refuse those who ask us for financial help, to turn the other cheek when we have been assaulted. Most of us react with, “There is no way that I could do that! After all, I’m only human.”

And it is human, all too human, to plot against our enemies, or at least do everything we can to avoid them, to retaliate when we have been struck, to be careful about to whom we loan money.

But I say to you that this sermon is not first of all a list of rules and duties for us. Rather, Jesus’s sermon is first of all a picture of the sort of God who comes to us in Jesus. We’re not being handed a new, impossible rule book of dos and don’ts. We are being given a sketch, a vision of God. This sermon is pointing to who God is and what God is up to in the world.

In effect, Jesus is saying to us that we should love our enemies, that we should not retaliate tit for tat when we have been offended and assaulted, because that is exactly the way God has reacted to us. Verse 36 is key to interpreting this whole passage: “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.” As we will learn later in this Gospel, the saddest, most disturbing enemies of Jesus were not his critics but rather his own disciples. When the going got rough, they fled from Jesus. And even as he was in mortal agony on the cross, Jesus forgave those who had crucified him. Jesus is not a preacher who is urging upon us a way of life that the preacher has no intention or ability to live. The wild, absurdly difficult moral exhortations of this sermon were actually fulfilled in Jesus’s own life. Jesus preached the way he lived, the way he died.

And yet, we have a need to evade these commands of Jesus. Note that these are not suggestions or ideals that Jesus says, but rather actual commands to those who have followed him. When it comes to living our lives, to deciding how we ought to treat other people and how we are to respond to the injustices that are often inflicted upon us, it makes a great deal of difference to know the sort of God you are dealing with.

That which we call “God” is another name for reality. Jesus is not sketching a picture of an impossible fantasy, a never-­never land; he is talking about the way that God is, and therefore the way the world that God has created is.

The world, in hearing Jesus’s sermons in which he urges people to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, is apt to think, “That’s not real. That’s not the way people really are. That’s not the real world.”

Jesus’s sermon implies that the people who would say this in reaction to his sermon are not really living in the real world. The real world was not created by a vengeful God who is out to get you when you mess up. The world—the real world, reality, all the way down—was created by a loving God who loves and forgives God’s enemies, some of whom happen to be God’s best friends. 

I’m sorry if you are one of those people who believes the statement, “Well, when it comes down to it, all religions are basically the same.” You can’t really say that if you take seriously this Sunday’s sermon from Jesus. This God, the one who is made manifest to us in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is different. If everybody in the world believed in this God, and therefore took this sermon seriously, we would not have a world filled with vengeance, retaliation, cruelty, and hatred because that’s not what God created us or the world to be.

One thing that impresses me about the instructions of this sermon is that they are so simple. Sometimes we have scripture that is very difficult to understand, that demands lots of interpretation and contextualization. What Jesus says here is simple, obvious, clear, and direct. I didn’t say that what he said was easy. I said it was clear and direct. One of the things that makes this sermon so memorable, and so difficult to hear, is that it is so understandable.

One of the best prayers I have ever heard was delivered by a Georgian farmer in my first little congregation. It was the custom in that congregation for the lay leader to pray after the preacher’s sermon. After I preached a rather tough sermon on a difficult text that Sunday, the lay leader stood up and prayed a simple, clear, and direct prayer: “Lord, today we’ve heard your word. And we don’t like it.”

How many people do you know who live by the dictates of Jesus’s sermon? How many communities, especially churches, have formed themselves around the dictates of this sermon? Not many. I wonder if the scarcity of concrete, living examples of people living in ways that are aligned with this sermon is testimony to the sad fact that we have forgotten who God really is, we have overlooked what God is really up to in the world.

Something about us seems determined to worship gods other than the God who meets us in Jesus’s sermon. In living out of step with this way, difficult though it may be, we risk living out of step with reality, out of step with the way God has created the world to be, counter to who God has created us to be.

Before we dismiss preacher Jesus, saying that his way is impossible, let’s pause for just a moment and ask the preacher for his help in living his way of love.

Relating the text:

A young man spoke in our chapel. He read the story of Jesus’s encounter with the rich man, in which Jesus told him to, “Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor.” 

The young man told us of how he had left his job as a public school teacher to teach prisoners in our state penitentiary. Though he was paid only about $20,000 a year to teach in the jail, he said, “This is the most wonderful teaching experience of my life.” We all thought it an inspiration to hear of his amazing sacrificial move. 

“I did it because I decided just to take Jesus at his word, to do what he commanded.”

How inspiring.

And then, as he was ending his sermon, the young teacher/preacher said, “What Jesus said to the rich man, what he said to me, I now say to you, ‘Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor.’”

We sat there rather stunned. At that moment the sermon switched from something that we could sit back and admire to an address, a summons, a demand laid upon each of us.

It was downright uncomfortable.

 

The great theologian Karl Barth reminds us that the Christian congregation consists only of “beginners.” One never becomes so adept at the practice of the Christian faith that one becomes an expert at following Jesus:

“One never is a Christian, one can only become one again and again; in the evening of each day somewhat ashamed about one’s Christianity of the day just over and in the morning of each new day glad that one may dare to be one all over again, doing so with solace, with one’s fellow [human beings], with hope, with everything. The Christian congregation is of one mind in that it consists of real beginners.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol II, part 2)

 

The Reverend Rob Schenck was a renowned evangelical Christian leader. He served as a missionary in South America and became a leader of the evangelical anti-abortion movement. He conducted rallies and demonstrations against doctors and clinics who performed abortions. He handed out copies of the Ten Commandments to members of congress. He organized demonstrations at the homes of doctors, politicians, and nurses who were implicated in abortion, calling them “murderers” and “terrorists.” He traveled about the country with an embalmed fetus, which he displayed at his rallies and protests.

Then Rob Schenck had a change of heart, which he describes in his new book Costly Grace. Rob repented of his bullying tactics, the intemperate things he said to politicians and doctors whom he despised. His conversion was precipitated by a conversation with a rabbi, a relative of a doctor who was murdered after one of Schenck’s rallies. However, as he describes in the book, Schenck says that the key aspect of his change of heart was his awareness that his actions, his speech, and the way he looked upon his opponents was an offense to Jesus Christ. He allowed his causes to become more important than his relationship to Jesus Christ.

Schenck says that he now believes that abortion will not be ended by laws, by political maneuverings or exercising savvy power plays, or by packing the Supreme Court. He believes that only with a “culture change,” only when individual hearts and minds are changed, will there be an end to abortion.

He also believes that American evangelicals making a pact with political conservatives and a president whose lifestyle and morality is deeply at odds with Christian values “could be the end of evangelicalism.”

Schenck has rediscovered the unique, particular, peculiar qualities of life and morals that are connected with our belief that Jesus Christ really is the whole truth about God.

Perhaps one thing we are supposed to remind ourselves of, in hearing this Sunday’s Gospel, is that nobody is born Christian. Jesus’s peculiar way is more than common sense, conventional wisdom, or what everyone already knows. There is nothing innate about this faith. As Kierkegaard said, “Truth does not arise from any human heart.” You can’t come upon the way of Jesus through walks in the woods or rummaging about in your ego. Somebody has got to make you Christian by telling you a story you can’t tell yourself. Somebody had to hand it over to you. You had to hear about this way (in a sermon?). We’re all immigrants into this faith, in that all of us had to cross over the border into God’s kingdom. Everybody is here in church, affirming this faith, as a gift. 

No Christian is self-created. Each of us believes only on the basis of having received the gospel from some “evangelist,” some “good newser” sent by God to hand over the truth about God. 

Jesus didn’t call it (in the Greek) photismos (enlightenment) or gnosis (secret, esoteric knowledge); he didn’t call it nomos (a new set of rules) or even musterion (an inexpressible, apophatic mystery). It’s gospel, called euangellion. That this is “news” implies that the gospel does not arise from us but rather must come to us, be told to us, be given to us. Calling this truth “news” also implies public truth meant to be announced to all. 

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