Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Matthew 5:43-48
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)
Sunday, February 20, 2011
During several past Bible classes, we discussed the four different Greek words for love. If you are studying a section of the New Testament and come across the word “love,” you may want to use a commentary or another tool to find out which word for “love” is used so that you can get the real meaning of what the verse says. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but one word refers to love of equals, another refers to love of opposites, a third refers to love you feel toward someone who is loving to you, and the final word refers to love you show regardless of whether or not you receive any love or kindness back from the other person.
Jesus discusses Christian love in the Gospel for today. The particular Greek word that Jesus uses is agape, which is the fourth word I just described—love in action for someone else regardless of anything that person does for you. This love is the kind of love that Jesus says should permeate our lives no matter who we are dealing with. That simple summary alone makes us sit up and listen to our Lord’s words, perhaps with a sense that what he calls us to do is going to be higher than the standard for love that we would set for ourselves. But that is precisely Jesus’ point. Christian love—agape—is a high calling! Christian love is a high calling because it extends to everyone, and because its standard is perfection!
Since my roots are from Wisconsin, you could safely guess that I was interested in the news coming out of Wisconsin last week. The newly elected governor and some members of the state senate are having a legislative showdown right now, and the battle is getting pretty heated. Unfortunately, this has become another example of the way political speech gets way too out of hand. Both sides of the aisle are more than a little guilty of this. Some on the right will suggest that our Democratic president is in league with the antichrist, while others on the left compare the Wisconsin Republican governor to Adolf Hitler. It is one thing to have an opinion; it is quite another to slur your duly elected government official.
Sadly, some of the religious teachers in Jesus’ day would have condoned the behavior that assumes the worst and says the worst about our opponents. In today’s excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus observed, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Jesus is not quoting the Old Testament here. He is summarizing popular religious teaching in his day. In fact, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls several decades ago included documents with ancient Jewish religious teachings that taught this very concept—love your neighbor, hate your enemy.
The Son of God was never one to go along with the majority view—particularly when the majority view was sinful! Jesus explains the high calling of Christian love, which extends to everyone. “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Christian love doesn’t stop when we encounter someone outside our circle of friends. Jesus command continual love and even continual prayer for our enemies! And he tells us that this continual love for our enemies will show us to be children of God. Biological children tend to act like their parents: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” as the saying goes. So God the Father wants his spiritual children to act as he does. When it comes to daily blessings, God doesn’t pick and choose. The sun shines and the rain on the good and the bad, and children of God ought to likewise show love to their friends and their enemies.
Just in case we are not inclined to take Jesus too seriously, he continues with a statement that gets us to think about the extent of Christian love he has just described. “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” If believers in Jesus only show love to people that they consider friends, how is that any different than your run-of-the-mill crook? How is that any different than your run-of-the-mill atheist? In his usual, blunt, earthy manner, Luther says it well: “Do you see now how pious you are if you are friendly and kind only to your friends? You are just about as pious as the thieves and the scoundrels, as the whores and the criminals, or as the devil himself.”
Luther really hit the nail on the head! The kind of attitudes and lack of courtesy that infect public political discussions also infect the way we act towards those for whom we don’t feel much affection. Whether it’s the boss or employee, the driver in the car next to us or the neighbor in the house next to us or even the church member in the pew near us, we show the ungodly limits of our love when we assume the worst in their actions and treat them in a way that reveals our ungodly assumptions. And if that is the extent of our love, then Jesus and Luther are both right—our “love” is no better than crooks and convicts. And if that is the extent of our love, then we deserve the same judgment of God that crooks and convicts deserve.
Do you consider yourself to be a “perfectionist”—someone who has to do everything “just right” or else it’s not good enough? Doing your best at work or on another project is admirable, but being a perfectionist isn’t always an ideal characteristic. A perfectionist has a hard time getting something done because, well, it’s not quite ever perfect. A perfectionist may have difficulty beginning a project because, deep down inside, he knows that the final product won’t be “perfect.”
Perhaps it is wise not to be too much of a perfectionist in everyday life. But when it comes to the high calling of Christian love, Jesus tells us that the standard is nothing short of perfection. In the last verse of today’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That translation captures Jesus thoughts, but I want to bring your attention to some details that don’t come through in the translation. First of all, Jesus adds the word “you” in an emphatic way so that his disciples know that he’s speaking to them. And second, Jesus’ sentence isn’t a command in Greek, but a future tense verb: “Therefore, you will be perfect!” When a parent tells their children, “You will do this,” they mean business, don’t they? Jesus means business when he reveals God’s standards for Christian love. Christian love is a high calling because its standard is perfection.
Could there be any worse news than this? Christian love is already a high calling because it extends to everyone, but now we find out that we are supposed to achieve that high standard of Christian love perfectly. We have a natural tendency to selectively listen to God’s commands, finding fault with others without any effort, yet coming up with every excuse under the sun for ourselves. But this command from Jesus leaves no wiggle room, no excuses, no exceptions, and no hope for sinful people. I have yet to meet a perfect Christian—you and I included.
If we page forward several chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, we will come across another section where Jesus talks about the way his disciples are to act, and then concludes the discussion with a statement about his own actions. At the end of Matthew chapter twenty, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Notice carefully what Jesus does here. Jesus gave the disciples a command that they had just broken—to act as a servant—and then he points to his perfect service for them, offering his life as the perfect payment to free them from sin. He tells them to imitate his humility, and his humility for them would not only forgive their sins but enable them to carry out the command he had just given them.
Now come back to Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter five. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus essentially says, “My standard for your Christian love is perfection, just as God your heavenly Father is perfect.” And while every honest Christian must confess that he will never achieve that high standard on this side of eternity, the words of Jesus direct our minds to the perfection of God.
Look at God’s perfection in action—actions of perfect love that he carried out for you. God the Father has a perfect track record of keeping his promises, especially the first Gospel promise he made to our first parents in the Garden of Eden after they first fell into sin. God the Son, Jesus Christ, fulfilled his Father’s promise and entered into this world as our perfect Savior. From the moment of his conception throughout his life, he perfectly obeyed his Father, his earthly parents, and the earthly authorities in place over him, so that he could offer that perfection for us on the cross as the perfect payment to free us from our sins and imperfections. God the Holy Spirit uses his perfectly simple yet sublime tools to create the faith that receives Jesus’ perfection as our own. Those tools are the Word of God and the words of absolution, the forgiving waters of the font and the forgiving meal at the altar.
If you ever needed “fuel” for your spiritual “tank,” if you ever wanted the energy to live for the Savior who lived and died and lives again for you, if you ever wanted a real and remarkable reason to love your neighbor as yourself, then look no further than the perfect love of God shown to you by his perfect Son.
What is the “highest calling” a person could have? Would service in public office qualify as the highest calling there is? Is a person’s highest calling a bit simpler—such as parents who raise and love and take care of their children? Or perhaps the highest calling we could have is right before us in our Lord’s own words! You have been called to faith in the Triune God, and as his child, you have also been called to love others just as God has loved us.
Christian love is a high calling! You will never achieve the standards of this high calling perfectly on this side of eternity, but you have been equipped and prepared to carry out this calling through the redeeming love of Christ for you! Go and live out your calling! Amen.