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Following ‘The Way’ (a sermon)

February 17, 2011

Matthew 5: 38-48

I wonder how many of you have visited Westminster Abbey. It’s an extraordinary piece of architectural magnificence. It’s a place of Christian worship… and yet woven into everything is a kind of honouring of warriors. Behind the high altar is the Order of the Bath dedicated to knights with swords and flags. At the other end of the building is a chapel dedicated to the Royal Air Force and opposite that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with its inscription ‘Greater love hath no man than this…’. This is a quote from Jesus of course, but which Jesus? The Jesus who lays down his life for his friends without seeking to kill his enemies, of course; the Jesus who lays down his life for his enemies as well as his friends … The Jesus whose words are on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is the Jesus who says to us today.

“You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you… You have heard it was said ‘love your neighbour 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’

This is possibly the most extraordinary statement in all of literature and history. And most interesting and significant is not that it is some kind of new idea or grand ideal (it is certain new … note the ‘but I say to you’) but what is significant is that it reads like a summary description of the life and death of the one who taught it. The cost of his way of reading the Bible (OT) and his way of understanding and obeying God (Abba) was a death in which he is struck and does not resist, is persecuted and prays for the forgiveness of his enemies. His words here and his life are inseparable bound up together.

In the end it comes down to a question about the authority over our lives of the one who says and lives these things. “But I say to you”. So what? Who are you to demand of us stuff that appears in our world to be completely unrealistic and foolish?

The Law, in Exodus, did say ‘an eye for an eye’. The Torah expounds a system of justice in which an equal response in kind is prescribed for offences. It’s not a creative response. It’s a tit-for-tat response. You take my eye, I’ll take yours ad infinitum. It’s controlled by a magistrate, so perhaps it’s better than you take my eye, I’ll take both your eyes (you toucha my car, I breaka yo face) but it is what it is.

Jesus boldly declares, in response to the weight of the sacred scriptures … “but I say to you”. In the face of that he says ‘BUT’. He does not reject the sacred scriptures. In fact he treasures them, we are told. But he does offer something that is different. He offers a radical way of reading them … even a selective way of reading, an interpretational process of discerning the Word of God. There is serious difference here and Jesus is teaching us how to read the Old Testament differently, if we have ears to hear.

That’s the first thing I want to stress today. Jesus teaches us to read the scriptures differently, and we need to learn, not just any selective reading of scripture, but Jesus’ selective reading of scripture.

Today’s text puts some flesh on that reading (almost literally).

An eye for an eye… In 1998 a preacher in Somerset, Kentucky was at the forefront of legislation to give ministers and church officers the right to carry concealed weapons in church buildings during services. When asked by the media whether his handgun-reliance was at odds with the Christian teaching about peace and reconciliation he simply replied that he was merely interested in having the right to carry a licensed weapon like everyone else.

In contrast in 1993, there was a dramatic incident in Southern California where one Sopehia White came with a gun in search of Elizabeth Staten (who had apparently stolen her husband). White shot Staten in the stomach and the wrist and chased her into the emergency room firing again. Here’s how a reporter described the scene:

There, with blood on her clothes and a hot pistol in her hand, the attacker was met by another nurse, Joan Black (I like the names, couldn’t be a more black and white case), who did the unthinkable. Black walked calmly to the gun-toting woman – and hugged her. Black spoke comforting words. The assailant said she didn’t have anything to live for, that Staten had stolen her family. “You’re in pain,” Black said. “I’m sorry, but everybody has pain in their life…. I understand, and we can work it out.” As they talked, the hospital invader kept her finger on the trigger. Once she began to lift the gun as though she would shoot herself. Nurse Black just pushed her arm down and continued to hold her. At last Sopehia White gave the gun to the nurse. She was disarmed by a hug, by understanding, by compassion.

There’s quite a contrast of instinct in the nurse’s response. Her instinctive reaction is shaped by the Sermon on the Mount. Whereas the preacher’s attitude is shaped by the law of his nation which he wants to govern his worshipping life also.

In the end it’s a question of the authority of the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. Is he really the Lord? The first Christians call him “The Way”. They called themselves ‘followers of the Way’. They were called ‘Christ-ians’. Because Jesus the Christ was beginning, middle and end of their life. He took over Caesar’s title of Lord. God was incarnate in him… That is to say God was making God’s Way in human life, in him. He was God’s way of being human. And God’s way of being human is ‘The Way’. It’s not something that those who have benefited from it see as an option. To be a Christian is to live in the way of Jesus, because it’s God’s Way. In that sense it is THE Way

But then when we put it that way, do we really want to be a Christian? When we see the close link between this incredible declaration by Jesus about loving enemies and Jesus own death (his Way), we start to wonder whether we really want to follow that Way.

Are we prepared to give up the reactive instinct… and to seek a more creative response, to give something, rather than take as we are taken from. (I love how The Message translates vs 40 “If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it). It is easy to treat these teachings in abstraction from real life. When Jesus says, ‘give to everyone who begs from you’, he’s probably not thinking of the situation of those who are sitting down to a meal and a telemarketer rings up selling them yet another form of insurance. But he is talking about giving creatively in situations of real need. This is not abstract instruction, it needs to be seen in the context of following him and the shape of his life…To be a follower of the Way (a Christian) means that this Way has absolute authority over our life.

There are Christians who talk a lot about God but very little about Jesus… Why might that be? I want to suggest that ‘God’ can be very abstract. You can fill it with whatever meaning and content you like. Jesus on the other hand is very particular. In him God’s way is very particular. If Jesus really is God’s way, God in the flesh and blood, then we shouldn’t be able to separate this from our talk about God. To believe in God should mean for us, to follow Jesus … same thing. But, of course a lot of people believe in God and don’t follow Jesus. And of course a lot of people talk about Jesus as Lord but don’t actually follow.

It seems to me that there’s every reason to talk about God but not much about Jesus. That way is a religion that belongs comfortably in the world we live in. You can make of the term God, what you like. A lot of nice people believe in God. But it’s not Christian discipleship.

What today’s text does is that it presents us with the teaching of Jesus in a way that is so inextricably bound up with his life and destiny, his saving act, his death, the part of his life that makes all the difference to us. And by holding together his teaching and his person it makes it crystal clear to us what it means to be a disciple, rather than just a good person with a religion.

You might say that the very heart of our faith is learning to love our enemies, the ministry of reconciliation, the breaking down of lines of division, the creation of a new people beyond the old divisions, not defined by flag or interest or blood (at least not by our blood).

This is God’s gift to us in Jesus. This is the Way that we follow or refuse. This is the big either-or that we all face.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 19, 2011 9:27 pm

    Very good on the authority which Jesus does and does not claim over the Law – he reads out a piece of it (in this case the lex talionis) and then he simply states his higher view, challenging us to accept his truth not because it is written (not even because it was later written in the NT) but on the authority of his life and the manner of his death.

    Also benefitted from your point about Jesus somehow representing to us an ideal more demanding than God.

    “‘God’ can be very abstract. You can fill it with whatever meaning and content you like. Jesus on the other hand is very particular.”

    thanks very much for the take-home.

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