Yr A ~ Epiphany 6 ~ Matthew 5:38-48
I think I’ll start at the end of today’s scripture passage, and then go way back to the beginning of the whole section, and then do some highlights! Because if I don’t start at the end there’s a word that will hang over the whole proceedings today and unhelpfully colour how you hear anything I may say. I want a different word to hang over us. I want the word love to be ringing in your ears this morning, but I fear the word you’ve already latched onto is perfect. It comes from the last verse of today’s reading, Matthew 5:48 – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Does that trip you up? Are you thinking that perfection is impossible so why bother even trying? Are you thinking Jesus is bonkers?
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking those things, if Jesus was talking about actually being perfect. But again, as happens so often, he isn’t. How we hear the word is not how the word was intended.
We hear the word perfect and we think “without fault or error, flawless.” We can probably agree that God is without fault or error but we are absolutely positive that we are not!
Try hard? Yes. Perfect? Never make a mistake? Not on your life.
But even in English that is only one very limited meaning of the word. Happily, that is not what this verse means.
The Greek word is teleios which primarily means “mature, full grown, complete in all its parts.” Perfect because the goal has been consummated.
Jesus is not asking us to strive to be flawlessly perfect but to strive to be mature, and full grown or fully orbed in our faith. God is obviously the fullest completeness of loving-kindness and holiness, for God is love.
We can’t be God (that job’s taken) but we can absolutely strive for spiritual maturity and depth.
We can strive to love like Jesus, like God.
So if we start there – knowing that the goal here is not perfection but maturity – spiritual maturity – then maybe we can hear the whole thing in a much better light. Now let’s go back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, but we’ve only had time to do the first chapter of it, chapter 5.
We’ve done it as a four-part series (and today’s the last one). The overarching theme of Jesus’ teaching is about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is nothing less than a full-blown reordering of reality with God and God’s values at the centre. It’s a spiritual orientation that we can be immersed in right here, right now.
I can’t emphasize that enough.
God’s kingdom is not a reward for being good that you get when you die.
It’s a realm and a way of being that is utterly and inescapably enfolded and immersed in God’s Presence and God’s love – here, now.
Jesus is inviting his disciples, his followers, us, into that kingdom, into that love, right at the start of the journey.
In order to describe this realm of abundant life for us Jesus starts with the Beatitudes in which he teaches us, “You have heard it said that power over and self-sufficiency and survival of the fittest are the ways you should live in this world – but I say God calls us to live surrendered, sensitively, gently, justly, being compassionate, with pure intentions, being diplomatic, staying on the path even when facing obstacles.” These are what we called kingdom values.
Then Jesus calls those who inhabit the kingdom of heaven (us) to be salt and light in the world. He teaches that the purpose of living kingdom values by being salty and shiny is so that we might draw others into living kingdom values and being salty and shiny too.
So the first thing we do upon receiving the kingdom is to share it.
And then he talks about raising the bar of ethics and love and challenges us to go above and beyond the expectations of the world, or even religious requirements, and aim for the stratosphere in our ethics. And if we aim higher – if we strive for spiritual awesomeness – then we will live different. We’ll shine. We’ll love.
We will set our aim on the kingdom of heaven – not as a reward for a life of good behaviour, but as a way of being right here and right now that we inhabit through our inner spiritual orientation that celebrates surrender to God and shining for the sake of others.
That’s been the sermon series so far.
Jesus teaches us that there is a kingdom of heaven, that sharing its existence is our purpose, and that living there means transcending the ordinary ways of the world, and then today we learn about him telling us that the key to all of this is spiritual maturity – growing ever deeper in his Way.
In fact, without that journey toward maturity trying to live out the stuff he calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount would be impossible.
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Only an eye for an eye and only a tooth for a tooth.”
39 But I say to you, Do not physically stand your ground against a difficult person. But if anyone tries to demean you by backhanding you on the right cheek, turn the other also as an act of strength and defiance;
40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic (meaning your main clothes or undergarment), give your cloak as well;
41 and if anyone compels you to adhere to the oppressor’s right to make you go one mile with them, go also the second mile.
42 Give to everyone who asks you, and do not turn away from anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Not fighting back, standing there and taking abuse, risking embarrassment, going beyond the requirements, giving selflessly – these are ultra-high levels of discipleship. I hope you can see that these are not acts of cowardice or weakness but are actually acts of tremendous personal courage and power.
The obvious, go-to examples of this kind of non-violent resistance and power are Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Talk about fully mature examples of spiritual perfection!
Then Jesus says something that Christians have been trying to come to terms with for millennia:
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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 only love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the so-called bad people do the same?
47 And if you welcome and accept only your kindred and friends, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles/outsiders do the same?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It starts with loving enemies and ends with being perfect.
Them’s a challenging couple of verses!
I don’t know about you but I don’t have any enemies that I can think of.
I get that there may be some people out there who don’t like me (although, really, how could you not!) but I can’t imagine anyone is plotting against me or wishing me harm. So loving enemies is simple (because it’s abstract and doesn’t require anything of me).
Except the word means more than just enemy – it also includes people you may be in conflict with, or difficult people in your life.
I think we all know difficult people or have difficult relationships in our lives. I bet you can picture a difficult person now. (I hope it’s not me!)
Of course we find certain people difficult. We’re human.
Love calls us to treat those people like friends and not like enemies.
That takes some spiritual maturity!
And did you notice that Jesus slipped another so that into this bit?
Verse 44-45a – 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 a crucial verse for us.
When dealing with people or relationships that are particularly challenging for us Jesus arms us with two incredibly powerful weapons – love and prayer.
Love your enemies. Pray for your persecutors.
Why? So that you may be God’s children.
But that word translated as “may be” we’ve run into many times before – in Greek it’s ginomai which more accurately means to be born, to come into being.
It means begat.
Love people and pray for people, even difficult people, so that God can beget you, so that you can be born of God’s love, so that you can come into being as an expression of God’s love, so that you can be God’s.
Physically, you are made up of your parent’s DNA. The substance of your parents is what brought you into being and is shaping your life.
Spiritually, if you’re a disciple of Jesus striving for the kingdom of heaven, shining for others and sharing the kingdom, aiming high in your ethics and living above and beyond the world’s ways, and practicing love and prayer as your primary means of dealing with people – if you’re living that Way then you are God’s begotten, then you are consummating your goal and growing deeper and more mature, you are an expression of love, you, my friends, are…perfect.
Be perfect as God is perfect.
Be a spiritually mature embodiment of love as Jesus is a spiritually mature embodiment of love.
The Sermon on the Mount is not a to-do list of actions that followers of Jesus are supposed to check off in order to acquire the kingdom of heaven.
As usual with Jesus’ world-reordering wisdom it’s the opposite.
We start with the kingdom. We have it from the very first.
The Sermon on the Mount outlines what it’s like to live there – and to the outsider, to the person who hasn’t surrendered and opened themselves to God’s loving Presence, it all seems like ridiculous, weak, foolishness.
Loving enemies? Turning the other cheek? Puh-lease!
Because the world has taught them a different set of values.
The world has taught them to love those who love you and hate those who hate you.
But God’s ways are different. Sometimes infuriatingly so!
God’s sun shines and rain falls on both the good and the bad. God’s love flows to everyone, regardless of how righteous or spiritual or ‘difficult’ they may be.
The difference is, some people let down their guard, open their hands, and receive that love and let it renew them and reshape them.
As God’s children, as expressions of God’s love, we are called to share our sun and rain, our love and prayers, with everyone – everyone – just like our heavenly parent does.
And as we do it will change us, change the people we encounter, and change the people watching us.
Love has that power.
Love, God’s love, is the whole point of this sermon (and the one on the Mount too.) It’s hard teaching.
Sometimes I wonder if there were dozens of disciples at the start but only a handful left by the end of it! It’s hard – but it’s God’s message for us.
Will we hear it?
You have heard it said “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” and “hate your enemy and fight your persecutors.”
BUT I SAY…love. Pray.
You have heard it said that religion is about being good.
But I say transcend! Don’t just be good – be God’s!
You have heard it said that religion is for personal gain.
But I say shine!
Be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.
You have heard it said that people like us, who live this way, are foolish, or weak, or losers – but I say we are blessed, for ours is the kingdom of heaven!
And then they got up from their Sermon on the Mount teaching,
went back down the mountain and out into the world,