EPIPHANY VII - A - 17 MATTHEW 5. 38-48
For the past several weeks we have been sitting at the feet of Jesus as if we were part of the crowd that followed him up on a grassy hill-side over-looking the Sea of Galilee. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s gospel constitute the Sermon on the Mount. As Matthew’s 5th chapter unfolds we’ve listened and continue to listen as Christ teaches us about what it is to be a disciple.
It all began, you may recall, with a series of “blessings” or “attitudes” that Jesus said we as kingdom people are supposed to live by. Next he told us what our vocation as disciples is to be - “salt and light.” By salt we are to preserve the commandments of God by teaching them and living them. We are to be light by bringing the light of the gospel into the dark corners of the world in order to reveal the knowledge of God.
Jesus promised that the reward for living as kingdom people in the here and now would come in heaven. If the sermon had ended there we would have more than enough to do to try and live up to our calling. But it doesn’t end there.
Jesus goes on to expand our understanding of God’s laws by re-interpreting them in such a way that we are able to see that we can order our lives around them. The key to doing so is that we as God’s children are to imitate God’s deeds, that is, His love and mercy in our dealings with other people.
Jesus doesn’t say that by imitating the deeds of God we become Children of God. What he says is that by doing so we may be what we already are in the eyes of God.
Underneath it all we discover that God’s laws are based on love. The first and great commandment is to love God above all else. Jesus goes on to summarize the rest of God’s commandments by teaching that love of neighbor coupled with the first and great commandment constitutes all of the law and the prophets.
Jesus warns us not to resist violence with more violence. Evil can only be overcome by good. Thus the Old Testament “eye for an eye” type of retribution, for example, he refers to in today’s passage, is to be replaced with a response of positive good, which is an expansion of loving one’s neighbor; the main point of Jesus’ teaching.
We all know how difficult that can be. Let’s face it, some people refuse to be loved, and then again we have all encountered people, at least in our opinion, only God can love. If loving one’s neighbor as oneself were not difficult enough, Jesus concludes today’s reading with his expectations of his disciples; “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
God has great expectations for his people as evidenced by today’s first lesson. God declares that his people are to be holy because he is holy. Holiness comes in imitating the deeds of God. But first the Israelites had to learn who God was and what God was all about before they could begin to imitate God’s love and mercy in their dealings with one another and their neighbor.
The easiest part of becoming a Christian is to undergo the sacrament of baptism. After that, it is all an uphill climb; a striving to be what we already are. Trying to live the new life in Christ to which we have been called through the waters of Holy Baptism by making good on our vows and promises in a hostile world, is impossible to do on our own.
As last week’s collect reminded us, it is only by God’s grace that we can hope to live such a life. Is it possible, then, to be perfect in imitating the deeds of God? Is it possible for us to be holy?
The Hebrew word for “perfection” connotes peace and wholeness. In this case to be perfect would be to share in God’s reconciling work; a work that is manifested in a surprising response of love and grace.
For that’s God’s way of responding to us. He continually surprises us by his love and grace both of which are unmerited. To adopt the good is to reverse the ordinary pattern of human behavior.
The “perfection” which God has given by grace includes a will to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As children of God we are to be perfect in order to be what God has created us to be. It is a perfection that includes kindness, sympathy, and generosity.
When we look at it through the lens of love we see that Jesus’ moral appeal is grounded in nothing less than the nature of God.
Just think about it. What would it mean to reflect God’s generous love despite the pressure and provocation, despite our own anger and frustration? Impossible? Well, yes, at one level. Jesus’ teaching, however, isn’t just good advice it is good news.
Jesus did it himself and opened up the new way of being human so that all who follow him can discover it. When they mocked him, he didn’t respond. When they challenged him, he told quizzical, sometimes humorous, stories that forced them to think differently.
When they struck him, he took the pain. When they nailed him to the cross, he prayed for them. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about us. It’s about him. This was the blueprint of his own earthly life. He asks nothing of his followers he has not faced himself.
In this Jesus shows us what God is really like and what God expects from us. Christian “heroism” consists in elimination of all vindictiveness and in detachment from worldly self -interests. Freed from hate and anger we are able to receive the greatest virtue; perfect love.
To follow Jesus is to be transformed into disciples; to live a dedicated life to God; one based on love, love of God and love of neighbor. This is not a human kind of love we are called to practice, for human love is often flawed, but a forgiving and reconciling love that imitates the deeds of God, whose source is God alone.
The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about how to behave. It is about discovering the living God in the loving and dying Jesus, and learning to reflect that Love ourselves into our world that so desperately needs it. AMEN+