February 24, 2019 – The 7th Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
In last Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 6:17-26), Jesus gave us a glimpse at how strange the kingdom of God really is: “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…blessed are you who weep…blessed are you when people hate you.” It is a strange place indeed where those who suffer are identified as the blessed ones. Similarly, Jesus proclaimed woes to the rich, the full, the laughing, and the well-respected because, it seems, in the reign of God, those who enjoy blessings in this life are destined to experience hardship in the next. Jesus wanted his hearers to understand that success isn’t a sign that God loves you. On the contrary, it’s those who struggle who have God’s heart. Last week, Jesus told us what the kingdom of God looks like, and this week he picks right up where he left off and tells us how we’re supposed to live in it.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.” That’s how people who live under the reign of God behave. We turn the other cheek. We give freely to those who would take from us. We share what we have with those in need and do so without expecting anything in return. In short, we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And that makes sense. If God’s blessings belong to the poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the abused, we must pursue those blessings by giving up our riches, by letting go of our claim on our possessions, and by accepting with dignity the abuse that others would give us.
But that’s not just kingdom advice. That’s good human advice. What benefit is there to carrying around unresolved anger? And do you really want to lie in bed at night wondering when your neighbor is going to give back the cup of sugar that you lent her? There is deep peace in giving up our claim to retaliation. There is true joy in letting go of our attachment to the material world. Jesus might deserve credit for teaching us to love our enemies and to commit random acts of kindness, but you don’t have to be a Christian to think that’s a good recipe for life. Our community is full of agnostic hippies who have believed that for a long time. But it turns out that that’s not really the point of this gospel lesson.
Instead, there’s something that Jesus wants us to understand that really doesn’t make sense. After telling his disciples how those who live in God’s reign are supposed to behave, Jesus offers an even stranger rationale for it: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?...If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you?” It seems odd to me that Jesus would use an economic framework to explain why his disciples should behave the way they do—that the purpose of engaging in such counter-instinctive behavior is to earn some sort of credit. But, when he describes the reward that is waiting for them, we see how strange God’s kingdom really is.
“Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High,” Jesus tells them, “for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” But that can’t be right. Didn’t Jesus mean to say that God is kind to the generous and the faithful? Wasn’t he supposed to explain that those who love their enemies and do good to those who hate them and lend without expecting anything in return will receive the kindness—the blessings—of God? Why would he tell us how we are supposed to behave and then let us know that God is kind to those who don’t follow his instructions? What difference does it make if God is going to bestow God’s kindnesses upon us anyway? If God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, then why would we bother taking the moral high ground? Why? Because we can’t be children of the Most High until we love others the way that we have been loved.
The strangest truth of all is that God does not love those who love God back. God does not love those who endure suffering unjustly. God does not love those who turn the other cheek, who do good to those who hate them, or who lend without expecting anything in return. Actually, God does love them but not because of how they have behaved. God also loves the ungrateful and the wicked. God loves the selfish and the retaliatory. God loves those who only love themselves. Regardless of who we are or how we act, God loves us and proves that love in the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. In every generation, we reject God’s love, crucifying Christ yet again, and still God brings us to the new dawn of Easter, forgiving us, redeeming us, and calling us God’s own children. But how do we know that’s true? We can hear those words with our ears, and we might even be able to understand them with our minds, but we cannot know them with our hearts until we, too, have loved others like that.
Jesus wants us to know what it means to be children of God. What does it mean to belong to the family of God? What does it mean to be one of God’s beloved children? It means sharing the life of our heavenly Father. It means loving as we have been loved, forgiving as we have been forgiven, sharing our riches even with those who take advantage of us, and opening our hearts even to those who would stomp on them. Does it make a difference in how God loves us? Not at all. God’s love is already guaranteed regardless of how we act. We already belong to God. But living as God’s children completely transforms the meaning that our lives have.
Love like that is illogical, and, in a very real way, the only way to understand it is to practice it. Loving others the way that God loves them teaches us what it means to belong to the One who loves the world without limit. It shows us who we really are. It sets us free from our need to protect ourselves and get our due and win at the game of life. When we love others with the same reckless abandon with which God loves us, we discover the truth that the world cannot teach us—that we are all children of God not because of who we are or what we have done or what we believe but because of who God is. And those who love the world like that are the only ones who can see it.