The Sunday Sermon: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48
Cross and Crucifixion
The Spirit moves in fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious ways in the community called the Church. It moves in this community, too, as we journey through season after season, holiday after holiday, celebration after celebration, year after year. We’re only two and half weeks away from our Lenten journey 2017, and we’re following the breath of God on these Sunday’s between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday , March 1st this year.
We followed into Corinth a month ago and remained there with with Paul, and with the members of this early Christian community: We heard and experienced the “Set-up,” explored what divided this early community and what divides us even today; we spoke about what unites (or what ought to unite) us – a cross, a crucifixuion, and a confession; and we gathered around our Communion table only last week. This week we are led out of Corinth and into a community that shared the Good News through a writing by a man named Matthew.
Listen for the Word of God … Read Matthew 5:38-48 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So … after speaking of and experiencing the unifying meal that is our Communion every month, I heard from a few of you about how that Sacrament does indeed “unite” us. One of you shared with me a memory of church members in a congregation you were a part of before this one who disagreed on “seemingly everything.” Yet, every time the Communion Meal was shared these members, both Elders, stood side-by-side and shared the bread and the cup together. The Communion table is a powerfully “tangible” symbol of our common call.
Those thoughts and memories, called to mind by last week’s service, sent me back to the week before where we shared other “unifiers,” other teachings and symbols that unite (or ought to unite) us: The preaching of Christ crucified and our cross. What do those two things really mean for us? What do they look like “at work” in the world?
It seems to me the symbol of the cross and the sharing of “Christ crucified” that Paul encourages can be “tangibly” experienced in the teachings, and the behavior that should follow. And that behavior is laid out for us by Jesus in chapter five of Matthew. In these confusing “you have heard it said, but I say” teachings, we are called to behave differently, abnormally. The cross – a symbol of death in the Roman Empire’s – and crucifixion – death, itself – are central to our Christian identity. That sounds … well, abnormal – like “foolishness,” Paul notes. So, the behavior, the way of life, that Jesus tells us to engage is not normal behavior, at least by the worlds standards. And just as the cross and crucifixion have been confusing us for over two thousand years, the later part of chapter 5 of Matthew have been confounding and confusing for only a few less years.
We have never taken the lessons in these verses to heart in the way that we do the Beatitudes that start this chapter or the descriptions of ourselves as salt, light, and a city on a hill in the middle. We don’t spend much time with them on Sunday mornings, let alone any other time of the week. They make us uncomfortable. We read the closing verses of the “you have heard it said” teachings, but the begin with lessons that speak of murder and anger, adultery and divorce, false witness and retaliations, loving enemies and being perfect.
We can get our heads around the opening verses of chapter five, being peacemakers and mercy-givers, being salt, and light (even when we may not be so good at it). But to not lose your temper or strike back? To be lovers of our enemies and “pray-ers” for our prosecutors? We live in the real world, and that’s not normal behavior.
My guess is, like me, you “spin” these lessons, these instructions, in ways that water them down or that allow for exceptions. This done nobly, I’m sure, which is to say “realistically” for the “real world.” We imagine that these verses were never really intended to be implemented. After all, we are incapable of satisfying our call, of satisfying God and God’s demands for justice and righteousness, for we are after all, “only human,” and capable of no such things as this: perfect love.
But even if feel strangely comforted by this doctrine of “human helplessness and weakness,” particularly as they allow us not to feel so bad about hating our enemies and cursing those who persecute us, a little voice (still and small) remains. I’ll be that voice this morning: We are God’s anointed, and God doesn’t “anoint” worms. We were created in the image of God. Given a choice every second of every day to do exactly what we were created to do: to tend and nurture, to love and pray. Created human to become human. Our self-assessment has been wrong for quite some time. We are not incapable of God’s calling. Just not willing, finally. We recognize that we keep coming up short and we gratefully acknowledge our dependence on God’s grace, on God’s saving act of Love for us. That’s why we are called “Christians!” But the way that Jesus saves us is … he shows us how to love and then insists that we do it! He can’t do it for us, so he tells us what true Love entails, models that Love himself – unto death (crucifixion) on a cross, and tells us, “Now go … and do likewise!”
What is both paralyzing and exhilarating in these verses of scripture is coming to the realization that they, and all like them, in our Gospels and beyond, are not intended to drive us to despair. They are intended to save us, individually, as a community, and as a human race! They show us, again, the Love that was ours to share “in the beginning” and that is ours to share even now … especially now. They preach the Christ – God’s anointed one, in every age – crucified. That’s us, too.
We are comforted thinking that all that is required of us is our profession of faith that God’s kingdom will come on earth. But our faith, the radical trust in and fidelity to God in the Way of Jesus, has a second part proclaiming to the world that a new era in God’s relations to humans has already arrived and there’s work to be done. If we dare to profess faith in the new life that Jesus offers, we can no longer wait passively for God to get busy. We must understand that God is waiting for us to get busy. The cross is ours to bear and the death is ours to go through, for new life and transformation.
All of Jesus’ teachings, including (perhaps especially) these, reveal the nature of this new world already among us and of the work ahead of us: human beings, you and I, must conduct ourselves in ways that become signs of God’s peace and justice on earth. It’s not the improvement of the world as it is, or some self-help program for us as individuals in it, that Jesus is about. It is the vision of the world as it was created to be. Life in the Garden. For the world “as it should be” we heed God’s call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We “crucify ourselves,” hang our self-centered, survival instincts, on the cross that we may “die to new life.”
It is within this context, with these reminders of who we were created to be and what we need to be busy doing that we hear our commands to love and pray and be perfect. Love your enemy … It’s not normal. You’re right. But, our response, if we are to be saved and be an agent of salvation in the world we’ve created, must be abnormal! To negative attitudes and acts we must make positive responses.
So how do you do that? What does the cross and crucifixion look like in our life? Where to begin? There is so much negative in the world, in our country, in our lives. Where in this world are we to begin? Let’s begin with ourselves. Where is, I believe, it all must begin for us as Christians: Crucify your fear.
I remind you over and over again – from Advent through the Reign of Christ Sunday that “do not fear” is the Gospel call on our lives. On angels lips in the beginning at the birth of Christ and on the lips of Jesus at the end as we are commissioned to “go.” Be not afraid. We are living in a moment in time where fear is winning the day. All around the world, all over our country, in our communities, and in our own lives. “Fear the stranger, fear the foreigner, fear the refugee, fear the other – ‘Bad people.’ Fear disagreements and differences of opinion, fear the present state of things, fear the future coming if we continue on our present course, fear those who dare challenge and question. Hunker down, wall in, wall off, and be afraid.” Our cross stands ready to hold our fear, to hang is up, so that we may be born into a new life – unafraid to live fully and to love wastefully.
To paraphrase our scripture reading this morning: You have heard it said, “Be afraid.” But I tell you, “Be not afraid.” Resist, crucify that fear. Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds. It’s time for a change. We have a few weeks before our Lenten journey begins again. No better season to examine and change …
As “abnormal” as it may be, this behavior is ours as God’s anointed ones. Jesus accepted his call. His teachings express the Kingdom of God on earth and God’s way of dealing with all of us, all of humanity: Love and prayer, Cross and Crucifixion, forgiveness and reconciliation, transformation. And, yes … most often it doesn’t make any earthly sense. But after all is said and done, after all my words or the millions that will follow after, these teachings are not to be made “reasonable.” They are to be made “real.” They ask whether we are oriented toward retaliation and violence, or forgiveness and reconciliation; toward hatred and fear, or love and courage. Toward a pedestal and glorification, or a cross and crucifixion.
The miracle of our faith is that our God redefines power and kingship in the life and ministry of one who was crucified on a cross.
Now, you have heard it said … go and do likewise.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 12, 2017