Epiphany 7a, February 19, 2017

February 20, 2017

God’s Perfecting Love

Matthew 5:38-48


38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


The lessons from the last few weeks are all a part of this larger narrative that’s known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a series of lessons that pretty much indicate that everything you thought you knew is wrong. It begins with these verses that highlight the blessedness of all the conditions we generally try to avoid. Jesus said it’s good to be be poor in spirit, and that mouring is valuable, that meekness is rewarded, and that you are doing the right thing if you’re being persecuted. In those first verses Jesus reversed the notion of what it is that will truly make us happy, and then he proclaimed the need for his disciples to let these principles define our lives.


In the second installment of that sermon he said we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus came to reveal to the world a new way of living, but it wasn’t just him who was to live in that new way. Jesus wanted those of us who claim him as our Lord and Savior to exhibit such new life. We aren’t to hide our light under a basket or keep the salt locked up in the pantry. We are to shine and to share our flavor with the world.


But it was in the third section of the sermon that Jesus got really clear in regard to what he was talking about, and you might say it’s some of the most difficult instruction that anyone has ever uttered. What we heard Jesus say last week is that we aren’t just violating God’s commandments when we act on our self-serving intentions, but that we are guilty as soon as we harbor unrighteous thoughts about other people. I did my best to argue that he was wanting us to forget about being righteous enough to be acceptable to God, but that’s not the only thing Jesus was doing when he spoke those words. I believe he was advocating that we hold ourselves to the spiritual standards of the law and not just to the letter of the law. Jesus was telling us to have true integrity. He instructed us to be profoundly honest, and open, and genuinely good hearted.


As I say, we’ve had some difficult lessons over the past few weeks. Clearly Jesus didn’t intend to market this new movement in a traditional manner – he didn’t sell it in an appealing way. Although he seems to have known what he was doing because we’re still talking about what he said and did, but it’s not a message that matches up well with the way we generally operate. And today’s passage contains the most difficult instruction of all.


What we have in this morning’s lesson is pretty much the opposite of what we generally value and practice. Under normal circumstances, we hate our enemies. We cherish retaliation. We love to win in court. We are careful about who we lend to, we are suspicious of those who beg, and I’m not just talking about you unprofessional Christians. I’m talking about us all. I think I’m talking about most of us when I say that we are not inclined to operate the way that Jesus tells us to be.


And it may be true that we North Americans are particularly good at resisting our enemies, winning in court, and taking care of our money, but this isn’t anything new. I dare say this instruction from Jesus was as foreign to his peers in ancient Palestine as it is to us. We North American Christians are a lot like other imperfect human beings, but Jesus is telling us that we can be better than that. We aren’t to simply be like other human beings – we are to be like our perfect heavenly Father.



Speaking as a person who isn’t great at anything, I find the thought of becoming perfect a daunting quest. Now I’m not being overly modest when I say I’m not great at anything. There are things I would consider myself to be good at doing. As I’ve indicated in previous sermons I think I’m pretty good at building things. I’m not fast, and I’m not outstanding, but I’m good at figuring out how to put things together. And I think I’m a good-enough pastor and preacher. I’ve never experienced miraculous growth or sparked a spiritual revival, so I wouldn’t call myself a great church leader, but I think I’ve taken good care of the flocks to which I’ve been appointed. I continue to aspire to be a good golfer. I would currently call myself a decent golfer, but I want to step up to the next level and actually think of myself as a good golfer. It’s too late for me to become a great golfer, but I still harbor the fantasy of becoming a good one.


I could go on about the things that I think I’m good at or aspire to become good at. I’m good at talking about myself, but greatness is an illusive thing. I’ve just never had the drive to pursue greatness in anything. And I would be in total despair about this instruction of Jesus to become perfect if I thought it was going to require the same kind of effort it takes to become a world class athelete or musician or pastor for that matter.


No doubt there’s some practice involved in becoming a more perfect follower of Jesus Christ, but I don’t think there’s a level of effort that will get us there. I think what Jesus is calling for us to do is not so much a matter of working harder as it is of becoming more familiar with the one who can enable us to become more than we could ever train ourselves to be. If we want to become more than the average human beings that we find it natural to be, I think we must find ways to spend more time with the perfect One who made us.


I’m having a little lesson in this right now. I’m not taking a class on centering prayer or anything like that – although I think that’s something that might be good for me to do. But I am studying under a great master – that master mechanic, Tommy Clark. He’s not here today, so I feel free to talk about him. Tommy is currently revealing a great mystery to me. He’s guiding me through the process of overhauling the engine of the parsonage lawnmower.


Now I’ve had a basic understanding of how an internal combustion engine works for as long as I can remember, but I had never actually taken an engine apart until about a week ago. And I never would have undertaken such a project if I didn’t have someone like Tommy Clark in the shop telling me what to do next. A person might could have found enough youtube videos to guide them through the project, but that wouldn’t have worked for me. I’m glad to have a live person on hand who knows the territory and who provides me with the confidence that we’re actually going to get the thing back together. Everything we’re doing makes sense to me, but it’s not something I would ever have done without his assistance.


Now granted there’s some difference between learning how to put new rings on a piston and learning how to engage with an enemy in a loving way, but the similar thing is the necessity of a partner in the mission. Jesus isn’t telling us to independently gather our resources together and teach our hearts and minds to do everything differently from the way we’ve been conditioned to behave for our entire lives. Jesus knew enough about us to know that we don’t have the wherewithal to behave in an entirely new way because we’ve been told to do so, but he also knew that we aren’t on our own in this endeavor.


He told us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. I don’t think any of us have the discipline to do all of the things Jesus said to do on our own. None of us would ever become adequate disciples if it was up to us to train ourselves to react to our adversaries and our solicitors and our tormentors with anything other than predictable resistance and conventional wisdom, but through Christ we have access to some unconditional love and some unconventional wisdom.


Jesus isn’t just giving us some verbal instruction on a new way of living, Jesus is providing us with access to a new form of instruction and a new resource for life. Jesus isn’t just telling us how to behave, he’s telling us to give ourselves to the One who can enable us to be different.


These aren’t easy days for us to know how to treat one another. This world is an unpredictably dangerous place. Certainly there’s a level of conventional wisdom we need to exercise in order to keep ourselves and our families safe from people who are guided by malice and greed and endless need. But Jesus doesn’t want us to simply be safe and removed from the needs of other people. Jesus wants us to abide with God in heaven. Jesus wants us to open our hearts to the presence of God, and to allow God to instruct us on how we treat other people.


Learning how to treat our enemies and our adversaries with something other than animosity and revenge is an incredibly difficult thing. It’s not as easy as loosening some bolts and inserting some new parts. It’s an overhaul of our soul, and it requires some work that’s beyond the expertise of anyone other than our heavenly master-mechanic.


There is some work for us to do, but I don’t believe we are just to try harder to be nicer people. I believe our work is to become more committed to opening our hearts to the loving presence of God. I don’t really know how to instruct you to do this, but I believe we all have an instructor within us who is seeking to guide us in that more perfect way of living. We call that instructor the Holy Spirit.


Now I hate to think of having to do something like this, but maybe what some of us need to do is to spend more time with the television off. Maybe it means being being less attached to our phones and computers. Maybe it means spending more time alone. Maybe it means making yourself more available to other people. The Holy Spirit has unique instructions for each of us, but I believe there’s something each of us can to to make ourselves more available to the guiding hand of God in our lives.


Our objective is clear – we are called to become perfect. It’s a high standard, but Jesus wasn’t you’re average self-improvement coach. Jesus didn’t just want us to get a little better at being spiritually minded. Jesus wanted us to be born again as children of the most high God. It’s the challenge of our lives. It rewards for eternity.


Thanks be to God.





2 Responses to “Epiphany 7a, February 19, 2017”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thompson, Your phrase depicting Jesus as our partner was wonderful !! That really hit come with me !!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you! I’m glad it meant something to you!

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