I want to take you back for a moment to your childhood. How is it that children go about deciding who to bully? [take answers] They find some distinguishing characteristic that makes someone stand out as different. It may be that the child has red hair. It may be they are overweight or have a health problem. It may be that it is a boy who acts like a girl. It doesn’t really matter what the distinguishing characteristic is. The kids don’t sit around and try and justify their decision with questions like ‘who sinned that this girl was born a ginger… or gay… or whatever’. Kid’s just go ahead and start talking about the person rather than to them. They just start calling them names or, in all sorts of little ways teasing or ganging up on someone. They group together and find unity in the way they relate to the child who is different
Who sinned that this man was born blind? is the opening question for today’s reading. Somehow this person abandoned to the roadside to beg must be to blame for his situation… if not him then his parents.
John’s gospel says to us today: Let’s talk about sin. It begins and ends with the theme of sin.
John is like that. He takes a story from the life of Jesus and tells it to us as a reflection on a theological theme. Today’s theme is sin. Sin, says John, is not being born with a particular condition that makes you stand out from the crowd – like blindness. Sin is not breaking the rules – like working on the Sabbath. Sin is crucifying people.
Let’s look at how the story demonstrates this conclusion.
Jesus begins quite directly. Neither this man nor his parents sinned. You are simply wrong! This man’s situation is not about sin at all. It is simply an opportunity for God to continue to create the world afresh.
So Jesus in a very symbolic act, reminiscent of the story of the creation of Adam from Mud (adamah) goes ahead and heals the man’s eyes with mud. He says that in doing this he is demonstrating the work of God… and he does it on the Sabbath, the day of rest, not work. Challenging the very heart of their religion. As he is recorded as saying in chapter 5 when accused of working on the Sabbath ‘My Father is still working and I also am working’. The work of creating the world, according to Jesus, is unfinished. Creation is an unfinished symphony.
Where the Pharisees and the Disciples see in a man’s condition an occasion for exclusion – a chance to put him outside the human circle as a ‘sinner’. Jesus sees an occasion to celebrate the fact that God continues to work on all of us. All of us are God’s works in progress. This is the Sabbath in which we live. So Jesus doesn’t just break their Sabbath rule, he challenges their whole understanding of Sabbath.
Jesus is like a bomb in their marketplace. He comes out of nowhere, fits into no formula… and brings this kingdom of God, this Abba-experience of God alongside sinners… alongside those the society is busy bullying. Jesus is messing up the playground.
Which simply means that he is about to become, himself, the focus of their bullying. And it’s fascinating how it happens. At first the Pharisees are divided. Some say. “These miracles must be from God” and others say. “No way! Breaking the Sabbath rule, can’t come from God”.
They need to solve this problem of division in their ranks so they go to the ex-blind man and then they go to his parents and then they go back to the man himself, desperately hoping that it’s all a mistake, perhaps the man wasn’t really blind? As the story progresses the Pharisees get more and more serious and the blind man gets more and more confident. The man who was once a nobody finds his voice.
So they come to him with the phrase you use when you about to begin a public hearing in a courtroom ‘Give glory to God’ they say, ‘We know that this man is a sinner’… and before they can complete their judgement he replies with delightful courage ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner or not. One thing I do know, that though I was blind now I see.’ He is not interested in their bullying game. He has no comment on their exercise in dividing the world up into goodies and baddies. But they press him… “But how did he open your eyes? Then the blind man really lets rip.
“I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
But the blind man is on a roll and nothing will shut him up now, so he continues:
“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
The bullying process is in place again… he is an outsider again. The Pharisees are now united. Problem solved. The ex-blind man may not be literally crucified… but the truth is they have excluded him from the circle of the human. They have socially and symbolically killed the man.
You might remember two Sunday’s ago we read the story of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus – also from John’s gospel – where Jesus is talking about the fascinating story of the ‘serpent on the pole’ and likens his own death on a cross to that story. What is on the pole is a symbol of what is killing the people. In looking at what is on the pole they see the truth about their own affliction. In seeing Jesus on the cross we see the truth about our own sin, that the essence of our sin lies in the process that lead to crucifixion.
As Jesus is summing up… we read that some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind are we?’
That’s the other great line in this story. Modern people understand that line… because we pride our self in our knowledge of our self. We think we know ourselves better than others do. The events unfolding in this story demonstrate that the participants are unaware of the processes going on in themselves and in their group which lead to crucifixion. They need the serpent on the pole, God on the cross, to learn to see clearly.
Jesus concludes, ‘If you were blind (like the blind man) you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘we see’, your sin remains.
Jesus has re-defined sin for them:… as the processes whereby we exclude others from life and community, banishing them to death, and manage at the same time to turn a blind eye to it.
What does this text say to us today?
Who sinned that this couple were born gay… and now want to marry… like normal people marry. What would Jesus say, do you think?
Would he also say, no one sinned neither these men nor their parents?
Would he also see a Sabbath opportunity? Would the same man who said ‘Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath’ also say ‘marriage is made for man and not man for marriage’?
Is marriage a sabbath opportunity for the God who continues to work on the sabbath. Is it an institution in which we are given space to learn the discipline of loving one another as Christ loves the church. What do you think the God who continues to create Adam would say to Adam and Steve?
John 4: 5-42
In Jesus day, in Israel, there was no such thing as a “good Samaritan”. ‘Samaritan’ was a term of abuse. When Jesus told the story of the ‘good Samaritan’ it was an act of profound courage. He was speaking to a community’s deepest hatreds and making a hero of their traditional enemy.
Today we find Jesus visiting Samaria. Something traditionally avoided by Jews. And more than that, seeking hospitality from a Samaritan woman. A rabbinic ruling from a period a little later than Jesus time (which no doubt reflects the general culture) forbids marriage with Samaritans because of their impurity [quote] ‘Samaritan women were viewed as perpetual menstruants from the cradle to the grave, conveying uncleanness to everything they touched or overshadowed’. As Rabbi Eliezer used to say “one who eats bread baked by Samaritans is like one who eats pork”
In spite of all of this Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. He transgresses all the boundaries. The tension in the conversation must have been enormous. The woman is deeply aware of that, puzzled by it. Jesus says to her
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“If you knew…” The only thing that could have possibly persuaded her to do the unthinkable and ask something of a Jewish man is ‘the gift of God’… something bound up with the identity of the man standing before her at the side of the well.
What Jesus knows is that God is a God of gifts.
When we celebrate Harvest each year we are reminded that God gives life, freely, indiscriminately. That was one of Jesus great and deep insights.
When we read the story of Jesus we are reminded that the “gift of God” transgresses all the boundaries that human beings erect and that the gift of God is a gift that keeps on giving (sorry if that sounds like a cliché)… but what else does he mean by saying that the living water he gives ‘will become… a spring of water gushing up to the life to come’. Those who know God as the giver, will become themselves transformed to become givers themselves of divine life. The gift of God will flow through us too!
If the woman had known this about God… she might have initiated the conversation… But she didn’t, so she doesn’t. [pause]
Tell me… what do we actually know about this woman who turns up to carry water in the midday sun? The common story that is told about this woman is that she is a prostitute (or at least an adulterer), who is converted from a life of immorality to one of morality. But it’s just not there in the story. Instead we have a story of tragedy. A woman has been divorced (the male prerogative in Jesus time), abandoned, or perhaps widowed… 5 times – five times discarded on the rubbish tip of life. This story asks us to stop for a moment and imagine how that would be for her. Furthermore she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or she could be in what was called a Levirate marriage (Ruth – childless woman married to her deceased husbands brother for the sake of providing children, but not technically considered his wife). We simply do not know.
David Lose argues that there are all sorts of ways of seeing in this story not a scandal but a tragedy. But we tend to like the excitement of scandal. Nowhere does Jesus call the women to repent or announce her forgiveness.
Jesus sees this women for who she is. He sees her in all her discardedness. He sees in her every word and deed… abandonment… broken heartedness.
And the woman does not feel condemned by his response. You can tell by what she does next. She sees no criticism or judgment. She just knows that he is someone who can see clearly, has god-given insight, insight that comes with compassion.
A German friend of mine has a signature which he appends to all his emails that goes “Love is not blind. It is the only thing that truly sees” It’s true isn’t it. Genuine love is focussed on the other person. It is not distorted by my interests or prejudgments.
British philosopher Donald McKinnon, says, and I paraphrase, that to see ourselves as God sees us … truthfully… is a rare and fleeting thing… not because we fail to be scientific enough… but because we struggle to love enough… Love in the presence of the reality of we actually are is terrifying
Jesus saw her for who she was. And she in turn saw the truth about him. And in John’s gospel the word for ‘seeing’ has a deeper connotation – it is associated with believing. So she declares her confession: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet”
Emboldened by her new-found acceptance she continues with a theological question. Where should we worship? “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”.
Preachers have often dismissed her question… I suspect because they have already dismissed her… as a kind of red-herring. But if you think about this question in its original context it is a deeply important question. It’s the ancient equivalent of the modern question “Where is God?” Where is the intersection of heaven and earth? A few weeks ago I talked about the Hebrew worldview like intersecting spheres – the transcendent God beyond all things is not simply elsewhere but intersects with the creation – Jews thought in the temple and in the hearts of the poor among other places. So you see the temple in Jerusalem was very important as a place of intersection, of worship.
Jesus acknowledges this Jewish heritage and then offers his own radical challenge – his challenge to the temple. “The time is coming, and is here now, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. Jesus messianic claim here is to announce the demise of the temple and its replacement with a living worshiping community of the Spirit.
The woman has dignity. She is a theologian to be listened to. She asks a good question. And the answer is dramatic.
Something new is happening. Just as this women is set free from her own past. So the communities of Jerusalem and Samaria will be set free from their pasts. The temple is not sacred space any more, according to Jesus. The great monuments to the past no longer define the future. Buildings do not define the church. The worship of God will move through time and morph and change with the living breathing community of the Spirit. The key point of intersection between God and creation is not a building (or a mountain) but an activity. The activity of the Spirit in the lives of human beings.
The woman’s response is immediate, she leaves her water jar, her job, the symbol of her past life, all the discardedness that had characterised her life till that point… like the disciples who left their fishing, their job, for a higher calling. There is a kind of break in the fabric of the everyday. Not that she will never fetch water again. But today something more important casts a new light over everything. She goes back to her town as a bearer of good news.
Today the messiah has found a theologian, and the theologian has become an evangelist.
Let’s put ourselves in her shoes a moment. Have we been discarded or abandoned… rejected, ignored?
Do we, like her, have big questions just waiting to be asked? Waiting for someone to come along who can see us for who we are and will give us the space we need to ask our question?
She left her water jar. Today Jesus is here and is creating the space for us to leave our water jars and ask our questions.
[liturgical action using paper as Water Jar - put in it something from your past that you simply need to leave behind… or put in it your Big Question h/t David Lose]
Because we have been corrected by God’s faithful action of grace towards us in Jesus Christ we are now at peace with God. And we even boast that we have this hope of sharing in God’s glory. Not only that, but we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Sprit that has been given to us.
Just at the right time Christ died for the ungodly – while we were still weak. For it’s truly a rare thing for anyone to die for a righteous person – though someone might actually dare to die for a good person. But God proves his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
So now that we have been corrected by his bloody death, we will surely be rescued through him from our wrath. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, we can be even more sure that now that we are reconciled, we will be rescued by his life
Nicodemus… is a religious leader, but compared to Jesus he is a bit of a flat-earther. He’s a seeker. He’s curious. He seems to be among the people referred to in the previous chapter of John’s gospel, who ‘believe in his name because of the signs he did’ but about whom we are told, Jesus himself was quite skeptical. So chapter 3 introduces us to him, as one of these doubtful-believers-slash-hangers-on. He came in the dark of night to talk theology with Jesus.
Jesus launches straight into the topic that all theologians of his time were interested in – ‘the kingship of God’. You won’t see the ‘kingship of God’… you won’t see the mysterious power that is God’s power, unless you are born from above. To those like Nicodemus who were impressed by ‘outward appearances’ – the signs that Jesus did – Jesus points them in the direction of something invisible… or visible only under certain conditions.
For the mysterious ‘power’ of God to be visible to you, ‘you must be born from above’.
You need another birth…. As Jesus puts it the word ‘above’ is ambiguous. It could also mean ‘again’. Some translations put it that way. You must be born again. That’s how Nicodemus takes it. As I said before he’s a bit of a flat-earther. He sees the world in a one-dimensional manner, on a timeline, so all he can think about is going back into his mother’s womb and starting again.
So Jesus says it again but slightly differently. You can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you are born of water and the Spirit. Notice the changes. He has moved from talk of merely seeing the power of God, to entering into the domain of that power. For Jesus seeing God at work and participating in the work of God go together. This ‘birth from above’ is also an entry into a way of life.
What it isn’t, according to Jesus is a kind of natural development, or evolution. It’s not as if with a bit of time those who are born from the physical womb eventually with some kind of maturity and learning and discipline and are reborn spiritually.
6What is born of the flesh is flesh, [says Jesus] and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The point is that those who are born spiritually are not in control. The Spirit of God is free… like the wind. There is no technique to be mastered which will make us spiritual people. Faith is not a technique for self-improvement. There are no rules to be followed which build a ladder from earth to heaven.
And here we touch on the paradox of prayer. Because the Spirit of God is free, the only technique that has anything to do with this birth from above, with life in the Spirit, is the technique whereby we lose control of our life, lose our mastery and have our deepest desire caught up in God’s desire. We call this prayer – the practice of losing control in the presence of God. Prayer has less to do with ‘intending’ and more to do with ‘attending’ to God.
Nicodemus’s last words are ‘How can these things be?’ Nicodemus the sceptic! As open-minded as he might appear to be – his flat-earth account of what is possible leaves no room for the Spirit of God. He comes close. But his philosophy, and maybe his fears, have determined in advance what is possible.
Again Jesus appears to be changing the topic slightly, but not really. He moves from talking about the ‘kingship of God’ to ‘heaven’. But in actual fact the language of ‘heaven’ is common language for the very spiritual realities we have just been talking about. Heaven is where God rules, not just somewhere else, but on earth. Where the Spirit blows there is heaven’s coming.
Even though we talk metaphorically about ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ to and from heaven, and Jesus does that here, the language of the New Testament is much more complex than that. So let’s not get hooked up on “vertical” metaphors.
Jesus describes himself as an ambassador who has come ‘down’ (descended, as it were) from the invisible realm of divine power (the power of love) into a realm where are very different power is at work. And in bearing witness to the ‘kingship of God’ (to the divine power) he tells them he will be lifted up ‘like Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole’ for the healing of the people.
It’s a fascinating reference! The story in the Old Testament tells of a plague of serpents killing the people. But the interesting thing about the story, that gets you thinking… is that to heal them of the poisonous (or fiery) serpents God tells them to put an image of a serpent on a pole and to look at it – the image represents the reality of what is killing them and in looking to the serpent on the pole the people are healed.
The people know the power of God’s healing at the point when they see the truth about their own problem. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”.
Jesus death shows them what is killing them. They are being killed by their own violence. But they keep telling themselves lies to deceive themselves about its justification. The only thing that will save them is to see God himself crucified by their violence.
Jesus may not literally come down from a heaven that is located somewhere up in the sky. But what he does do is “descend” into our hell. Jesus life is a journey into the hell of violence and selfishness and struggle. Knowing the power of divine love (the invisible power that God’s Spirit draws human beings into), being born, as it were, from above, by God’s Spirit, he takes that power to its final destination, into enemy territory. He takes it to a roman crucifixion. In taking it all the way into the heart of human violence he is then lifted up, so we can see our own self-deception for what it truly is.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This is the Christian gospel… that God’s power to love has gone all the way into our power to kill and has set us free from this power… a power that become not just a power we wield but a power that controls us.
Jesus died for us!
Today we baptized Amy with water as a sign of the Spirit. The same Spirit that took Jesus into the heart of the worlds mess and self-deception and violence, will take Amy all sorts of places too. Amy is being born from above. Amy will come again and again to the cross of Jesus to see her own self-deception (like a serpent on a pole). Amy will not only see the power of God at work (see the kingdom of God), she will enter into that power (enter the kingdom of God) and become herself a living witness with others to the power of God’s love in a violent world.
Thanks be to God
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteousness. Rom 5:19
‘just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’
It makes sense that the Transfiguration is the last Sunday in Epiphany. This strange vision we call the Transfiguration is an Epiphany par excellence. Epiphany means ‘shining through’. Today I want to talk about 2 things. I want to talk a little about why this epiphany/transfiguration story is so strange to us today and then I want to talk about what it might have to say to us.
For the ancient world there is a spiritual dimension to reality which is invisible but just as real as what we see in our everyday life. An epiphany is a moment when the invisible spiritual dimensions of reality ‘shine though’, when they catch a glimpse of how much more is going on, of what is really going on behind what we normally see. For the ancients an epiphany or ‘vision’ tells truth about a wider and deeper dynamic. They didn’t really have a science for the spiritual dimensions, as we think of science. They just took them for granted. The empire was more than Caesar, more than his soldiers, more than all the roman things you could see. The empire had a spirit when any one of these things passed away. They talked about each nation having an ‘angel’ or messenger and ‘principalities’ behind any one person in authority (cf Walter Wink). If you read through the New Testament when it talks about ‘power’ it doesn’t really make a nice easy distinction between what we would call ‘spiritual powers’ and ‘political powers’ or ‘physical powers’. In the ancient world they are bound up with one another.
In the modern world we think there is more going on than we can see. But we call it atoms and molecules and energy. The invisible stuff is not bigger than what we can see. It is the parts that make up what we see.
But we also know in the modern world (to some degree) that role of president is a power greater than any one president. That a mob spirit is greater than any member of the gathered crowd, that there is a spirit of Caversham Presbyterian Church that is bigger than its current members. That there is something bigger going on, that’s invisible too.
The modernist world says this stuff is not real; it’s just a metaphor, whereas atoms and molecules are literal truths. But is that true? Is there nothing more going on than what can be explained by the parts?
Were the ancients entirely wrong? I don’t think so. I think the ancients were onto something here. …When I say that, I am not suggesting for a moment that we should reject the powers of science. What I think we should do is acknowledge the limitations of scientific methods. Physicists can’t see everything about the world – and for the most part they know that. Biologists can’t see everything about human beings.
Christians reading the Bible, do so because they believe in the presence of God in the world, invisible, in some sense, but not always or entirely. It’s impossible to read this story as a Christian and think that the ancients are completely wrong here. They may not be completely right about how they divide the mysteries of the world up… and we see something of that in today’s story. But those who put their faith in the risen Jesus side with the ancient world on this one.
That’s background. That helps us understand the strangeness of the vision to our modern minds. But what is the message for us in this story? What is God saying to us through Matthew’s story?
As Matthew tells the story, this epiphany comes midway between Jesus baptism and his resurrection. In different ways each of these three events (baptism, transfiguration and resurrection) is a kind of epiphany. Here the “voice of God” repeats what was said at the Baptism ‘This is my beloved Son’. This is the deep truth they are being told and are having difficulty grasping. Because alongside Jesus, we have a vision of the Spirit of the Law and the Spirit of the Prophets – represented by Moses and Elijah. And the disciples, in the first flush of excitement, see here in Jesus an extension of these ancient institutions of Israel. Law (Torah), Prophecy and now Jesus. Peter, the leader of the pack, wants to represent that architecturally. To build a tent or a dwelling or something (it’s ambiguous in the Greek). But the deeper reality comes again in the voice of God. And it’s a voice of rebuke. “This is my beloved Son … Listen to him.” Jesus does not fulfill the law and the prophets by sitting alongside them, on the same level. He fulfils them by transforming those ancient powers. Jesus is authoritative in a way that they are not.
Where the disciples look back to understand Jesus, the voice of God calls them forward to what Jesus is about to say and do.
The rebuke is powerful. The disciples fall on the ground “overcome by fear”. And, as in his resurrection appearance, Jesus word to them is the same: “Do not be afraid”
“Rise up and do not be afraid”. Fear paralyses. Grace raises the dead and sets people free to move.
“And when (it says) they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself.”
Matthew’s message is clear. The new thing that is happening redefines all that has gone before.
But its one thing to know that, in theory, so to speak, in a vision, but it’s another thing altogether to understand what it really means. What I mean is, the vision gives them a deep conviction that God is doing something unprecedented in the life of Jesus, but it doesn’t tell them what God is doing. The vision is useless on its own – like people who get a theological theory in their heads and think that’s the answer… (Hey folks did you know that Jesus is the Son of God… pass it on). The vision doesn’t stand on its own, it’s a stimulus to pay attention to Jesus. The point of the vision is to ‘listen’, to see what Jesus does and what God is doing in Jesus life. A little knowledge, a little theory is a dangerous thing. So Jesus says, ‘tell no one about the vision, until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
Why not till then? Because the crucifixion of this ‘Son of Man’ is the key element in the whole business of listening to Jesus and following Jesus. Until that has happened his disciples have no idea what the whole thing is about. They simply are not going to know how to follow Jesus until his life is completed in his death. It is the thing that makes sense of it all.
It must have been awfully hard to shut up about the transfiguration experience! And yet what was harder was knowing how little they knew about what God was doing in Jesus.
Jesus tells them he is about to suffer, like John the Baptist before him. The Beloved Son will be despised and rejected by the world.
Jesus points them towards his spiritual battle (while at the same time being a very historical physical event – remember the ancients did not separate these things like we do). Jesus takes up no physical sword, he rejects the sword. And in the very act of rejecting the sword, of rejecting the means by which the world is ruled, the spirit of the world, he ends up defeating that spirit. The spirit of Rome, the spirit of Jewish religious piety, the spirit of the crowd all end up conspiring together (breathing together in one spirit) against him. He would be no threat at all if he fought against them as all other revolutionaries did. If he became like them, he would be no spiritual threat at all. But he didn’t. He stood against them in forgiveness. He embodied a spirit of non-violence and reconciliation, so he had to be eliminated.
And yet the very act by which he was eliminated (his crucifixion) became the means by which God exposed the evil spirit pervasive within the world, the common spirit of all who conspired against him.
A new Spirit is at work in the world in a new way. A new conspiracy is at work. The Spirit which dominates the world by fear of death has been defeated. Its powers have seen it and still tremble – notice how the state calls its officers ‘Ministers’ and their domains ‘ministries’. The Servant (minister) is now Lord of all and the powers that rule the world need reminding of this. They know it at some level, its there in their language, but they need reminding.
In the end the Transfiguration shines its spotlight on God’s Servant Crucified and says to us today. “Here’s is what is really going on under the surface of things. The victory has been won. This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.”
This is the real challenge for us… not believing in God or in the reality of a spiritual world… the real challenge is paying attention to Jesus, listening to him, in the day to day decisions of life, in our relationships, in the midst of all the spiritual forces with which we contend.
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18 Matthew 5: 38-48
This is a very important text… it is one of those texts that summarizes Jesus life and thinking about God and ultimately his death. So I want to pay some close attention to the meaning of this text.
But let me begin today at the end. We get to the end of these ‘difficult’ sayings and we read ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’…. How many here are perfect? … We know one thing for certain and that is ‘no one is perfect’. So we say to ourselves… Clearly Jesus teaching is impossible in this world. It must be intended for some future world or some heavenly world, so we can safely disregard it for all practical intents.
That word ‘Perfect’ throws us. Perfect is a very abstract word in the Greek – like a mathematically exact circle. But Jesus never actually spoke Greek, he spoke Aramaic, a much more earthy and concrete language. And we don’t know what the Aramaic word was. But even the Greek TELEIOS and TELEIA doesn’t need to be translated in that abstract way. It comes from the root telos meaning goal. Another way of translating it is ‘be complete or fulfilled’ (rather than perfect).
Jesus is not actually talking about an abstract kind of perfection that everybody already knows. Jesus is talking about a particular kind of way of living a fulfilled life – Jesus is challenging everyone, challenging the Gentiles, challenging the Pharisees, challenging even the Old Testament itself on what a good life is … “You have heard it said… but I say to you”.
The goal Jesus points towards is completely bound up with the God Jesus believes in. It’s because of what Jesus believes about God, because of his theology that he makes these radical new demands on his followers. Jesus wants them to be “children of their heavenly ABBA”, it’s not automatic that they will be children of this particular God. Jesus vision of God is different.
It’s not a God who gives good things to good people and bad things to bad people. People sometimes say to me… “I have served God faithfully all these years and this has happened to me”. But Jesus’ ABBA is not one who makes sure that people get what they deserve. Jesus says, ABBA makes rain to rain on good and evil alike. And it’s not as if Jesus ABBA doesn’t care. Jesus’ ABBA (and this is the surprising bit… this is the truly revolutionary bit), Jesus ABBA loves his enemies and not just his friends.
Jesus begins ‘You have heard it said you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies…’
Anyone had an enemy they didn’t know how to deal with? [Bev – sometimes your neighbour can be your enemy]
In the Old Testament, in Leviticus 19:18 (todays reading) it is very clear that the neighbour is more or less equivalent to the ‘kinsman’ – a fellow Israelite. If the law is summarized (as it often was) as ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbour as yourself’ then in Leviticus that is understood as loving your fellow Israelite – that’s why Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. Sure there are debates as to who is and isn’t a fellow Israelite, what is the status of sojourners in the land. But basically … the consensus based on verses like Leviticus 19:18 was that neighbour was a fellow Israelite – a friend, part of your tribe or group . To which Jesus replies, but I say to you… love your enemies… Why? Because that is what God does! Jesus theology is revolutionary. He loves a different God.
Does Jesus value the Old Testament? Profoundly! That’s why he challenges certain parts and reinterprets it radically. That’s why he’s not a fundamentalist – Jesus joins in the ongoing debate which is there already in the scripture (OT).
Let’s go back to the beginning of our reading. Here too Jesus is challenging another aspect of the Old Testament. You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you do not resist an evildoer’.
Here we discover that loving your enemy is trickier than might first appear. The first thing we need to know is that the word translated ‘resist’ is commonly used for military resistance, violent resistance. This is important. Jesus is not saying do not resist in any way at all. He is saying very specifically, do not resist violently. In fact as we will soon see, he goes on to show them ways they can resist the evildoer that are not violent. Faith in the God Jesus believes (who loves enemies) does not mean passivity in the face of evil. Pacifism is not passivism. It calls for creative and often costly was of confronting evildoers. It’s a tricky business. To demonstrate this I need a volunteer.
I need a volunteer… right cheek, right hand (clean hand for public gestures (everybody knows these things – we don’t) = backhand – how you hit an inferior, a master hits a slave, a Roman hits a Jew
Now turn me the other cheek… to use my right hand to hit you means I either slap you or punch you = how you hit an equal – if you hit an equal you are subject to a fine. (stay there!)
If anyone takes you to court … (you damaged my donkey) and sues you for your coat (cause you’re poor and that’s all you have) – and you respond by giving him the other garment as well. Nakedness shames! (volunteers for this one?)
If someone forces you to go a mile, go two miles. Background matters again. Romans had built roads with markers at every mile… initially soldiers were legally permitted to demand of conquered peoples that they carry their packs. But it was abused so much and so disliked that a new law was passed, limiting it to one mile… what happens when the Jew who is forced to go a mile with the pack gets to the one mile mark and keeps going… creative resistance that puts the evil doer on the backfoot.
For many years people have struggled to understand what it means for the victims of violence to love their enemies. The assumption has been that there are only two responses to enemy attack – either fight or flight. And since Jesus seems to reject fight, he must be advocating flight, he must be calling his disciples to simply lie down and let the enemy walk over them. Loving enemies, it is often thought, means simply and passively letting them have their way. Non-resistance.
And yet if we are correct… something else is much closer to the truth… not non-resistance, but non-violent resistance. You have heard it said an eye for an eye (limit your response to no more than what is given to you), but I say to you don’t respond violently at all. There are other ways to resist evil.
Jesus says “Love your enemies and PRAY for those who persecute you”
The thing about violent resistance is that it simply repeats the violence of the evildoer. Those who respond violently are responding in kind. They are becoming the mirror-image of the offender. They are letting the evil doer not only determine their response, they are letting the evildoer determine their character.
Jesus says STOP. Jesus says pray. Spend time in the presence of God, of ABBA. Let God determine your response. Slow down. Loving your enemy is a creative act. God is the ultimate creative one. Before you do anything else, pray for those who persecute you. Pray for the evil-doer. There’s the source of creativity.
Prayer is not a shopping list… it is the heart of the Jesus revolution. Thanks be to God.