Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Strange Way to Live

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 5:38-48
I was meeting with a group of fellow pastors when one of them brought up the subject of committed Christians they had known. “Being around people like that,” this pastor said, “always inspires me.” We all agreed. Then, one of our number said something I’ll never forget. “You know,” he said, “every committed Christian I’ve ever known is…sort of strange.” He didn’t mean it as an insult. He meant that the committed Christians he’d known weren’t afraid of being different, weren’t afraid, as Jesus Himself put it, to let their “light so shine before [the world]…that [others]…see [their] good works and give glory to [God] in heaven.” I think my colleague was right: People committed to following Jesus Christ are strange.

And that can be hard.

Australian Graham Stains and his wife, Gladys, became missionaries in India in 1984. There, among other things, they oversaw a leprosy hospital. In January, 1999, Graham and his sons, Philip and Timothy, 10 and 8, traveled to a village called Manoharpur. As Graham had done for 14 straight years, the three went there to provide Bible teaching along with training in health and hygiene. Graham knew that some of the tribal Hindus in the area opposed any Christian teaching. There had been at least sixty attacks on churches in the territory between 1986 and 1998. But felt called to share with them the Gospel of new, everlasting life with God for all who repent for sin and believe in Jesus. He also wanted to serve the people there. It was cold when Graham and the boys arrived. They slept in a station wagon. One night, about 50 people approached the vehicle, “screaming and swinging axes and other weapons.” They beat the missionary and his sons, put straw under their station wagon, and torched it.

If I had been in the position of Gladys Stains, Graham’s widow, I fear that I would have dissolved into a fierce hatred for the people in that region of India. I would, I fear, have become angry with God. Were I in her position, I think I might have looked for revenge. And I likely would have gotten the next plan out of India.

But Gladys responded strangely. She and a daughter, Esther, remained in India, continuing to share the Good News of Jesus and to minister to lepers until 2004, when Esther went to medical school and Gladys left to be near her.

In 2005, Gladys’ strange way of life was recognized when she was given “the Padma Shri award for distinguished service,” India’s equivalent to a knighthood in England. Gladys even said that though she loved and missed her husband and sons, she saw it as an honor to them that God had counted them worthy to give their lives in the cause of sharing the Gospel with those who, as evidenced by their cold-blooded murder of three innocent believers, so clearly needed that Gospel.

For a world that values self-preservation and self-promotion, Gladys’ faith is strange. But in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells us that it’s strange people like these who populate his kingdom and He wants us all to be like them.

Please pull out the Celebrate inserts from today’s bulletin and turn to this morning’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 5:38-48. Here, Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount. Read the first verses of the passage along with me silently, please:
[Jesus says:] You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 
Jesus begins here by citing Leviticus, chapter 24. It says, “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return; fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”

Let’s be clear about two things at this point.
  • First, God in the Old Testament is not commanding the rough justice of revenge. That’s not what “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” means. 
  • Second, God in the New Testament—Jesus—is not overturning Old Testament law. 
In Old Testament times, someone might steal a loaf of bread, for example, and be sentenced to having their hand removed. Or they might perjure themselves and be executed for it. In other words, punishments exceeded the crimes.

God gave the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" command to prevent that from happening. He wanted to ensure that the punishments meted out to people never exceeded the gravity of their wrongs. Revenge is never something human beings are to administer.

Jesus amplifies God’s Old Testament intentions with the commandment He gives to anyone who would follow Him in today's Gospel lesson. Never resist people who do evil to you, Jesus says. Keep doing good even when the world does its worst to you.
  • In Jesus’ day, being backhanded across the cheek was the act of an arrogant person who thought himself superior to another. The natural reaction for the victim is to slap back. But Jesus says, “Don’t stoop to seeking revenge. Maintain your dignity, rely on Me, and offer your other cheek as well.” 
  • In Jesus’ day, people were even more likely to take others to court than people are today. And in his day, most people owned only two articles of clothing: a cloak and a coat. One served as an outer garment, the other was like underwear. If someone sues you, Jesus says, don’t fight back. Let them take both your garments. Even then, you’ll remain clothed in the grace, love, and dignity of God. 
  • In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers who had something to be carried could, at will, pick an ordinary person from off of the streets and force them to act as a pack mule for one mile. Jesus says that if you’re forced to carry something for a mile, confound those who treat you as a slave and volunteer to serve them for an extra mile. 
Jesus goes on to command us to give to those who beg and to loan to those who wish to borrow.

Folks, this is a strange way to live.

And Jesus makes this way of life sound even stranger in the latter part of our lesson. Look at what He commands in verses 43 and 44:
You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." 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… 
One question that Jesus' words may bring to our minds is this: Why exactly would anyone want to live the strange lifestyle that Jesus describes here?

Well, it isn’t because, if you hang in there, the world will recognize what a wonderful person you are. For every Gladys Stains, who received a major award from the country where she rendered her service to Jesus Christ, there are millions of believers who are put down, despised, shunned, and forever ignored for being faithful.

One good reason for pursuing the strange life style of loving God with our whole beings and of loving our neighbors as ourselves is that, in fact, those who live any other way aren’t really living.

Author Lois Cheney tells a parable about a man who saw that love was hard and so kept to himself; saw that the striving for high ideals was strenuous and so put his head down and focused on surviving from day to day; saw that serving and giving to others got one embroiled in challenges they wouldn’t otherwise have and so just took care of himself. When the man died, he approached God and said, “Here I am, Lord: undiminished, unmarred, and unsoiled, no worse for the wear. Here’s my life” “Life?” God asked. “What life?”

The strange life of love in which we keep on loving even when others—even others in Christ’s own church—may hate us, is, truly the only real way to live. Every other way of living is a living death: no risks, no challenges, no fulfillment, no God.

But how do we live such a life? Just this past week in an email many of you received, I shared a story of Martin Luther’s. It’s worth repeating. Luther spoke of what happened when the devil tempted him to sin. “When [the devil] comes knocking upon the door of my heart and asks, ‘Who lives here?’ the dear Lord Jesus goes to the door and says, ‘Martin Luther used to live here but he has moved out. Now I live here.’ The devil, seeing the nail prints in His hands, and the pierced side, takes flight immediately.”

The strange and beautiful way of life Jesus commands in today’s lesson—the way of love that refuses to take revenge and stands strong in the power of God—is possible when we let Jesus Christ, the One Who died and rose to give us life—into the center of our lives. You see, Jesus lived the perfect life of love He describes throughout the Sermon on the Mount and if we will let Him into our every decision, our every moment of temptation, our every relationship, He will come to live inside of us and change our lives today and for all eternity.

Some of you have heard me say that there’s a prayer I offer up to God whenever someone vexes me, or is unkind to me, or just annoys me. First of all, I tell God how I’m feeling. Then I make a request. “Lord,” I say, “I find myself incapable of loving this person right now. But I know that you love him or her, just as you love me in spite of how annoying or wrong I can be. You sent your Son to die and rise for them, just like You sent Him for me. So, please God, love this person through me. Grant that they’ll only experience Your love from me.”

You know the strange thing? God has answered that prayer every time I’ve offered it. And, here’s something else: As I’ve let Jesus into those relationships in this way, God often has transformed those relationships and made a way for me to truly come to love as I love myself the very people I once found so impossible to love.

If you’re serious about living the life style of the Sermon on the Mount, there’s only one way for that to happen and that’s to let the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ, be the Master of your whole life.

Jesus will take up residence in your life.

He will give you a strange way to live.

But truly, it’s the only way to live!

No comments: