Sermon delivered during the 45th year celebration of the SU College of Mass Communication.
To begin with, let me first ask you, “How did you feel when we read the scripture passage where Jesus was telling us of turning the other cheek, going the second mile, returning good for evil, loving our enemies? And as if all of that were not difficult enough, Jesus concludes by saying, “Be perfect.” Did you feel that following Jesus is next to impossible?
When I was in the seminary, we were told that our religion should be one that helps us. Having been a pastor for more than 40 years, I have learned the hard lesson that there is often a difference between what is supposed to be, and what is.
Thus, there are many people who experience religion as a burden, especially when they read this passage. If they were honest, they would say, “This Jesus is just giving us more burden to carry!” Of course, we know this is not the way it is supposed to be.
But for many people, religion for them involves rules, regulations, obligations, responsibilities. And God is experienced as a stern taskmaster.
I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that the prevalent image of the Christian gospel for many goes something like this: God wants us all to be good. And the Bible is there to show us how to be good. We are to go to worship, read the Bible, say our prayers, give one-tenth of our income, love our enemies, serve our neighbors, give to those in need, go the second mile, turn the other cheek, and on and on it goes.
And we are to do all of those things, and more, smiling all the while, while refraining from lying, cheating, stealing, swearing, and being unkind to children, pets, and mothers-in-law!
I get tired just thinking about it all! It is a heavy weight to carry! And watch out if we make a mistake! God watches our every move and records our behavior in a grade book. We receive a gold star for every good deed we do, and a black mark for every bad deed. When we die, God adds up the gold stars and black marks. If we have more gold stars than black marks, we go to heaven. If we have more black marks than gold stars, then we go to hell.
With that picture of the Christian life in mind, I can understand why a great many people do not want any part of it. I can understand the response one man made when a friend said to him one day, “Wouldn’t you like to be a Christian?” He answered, “No, thanks. I have enough trouble as it is!”
If we are caught up in a narrow, legalistic world in which the dominant word we hear is “You ought, you should, you must,” then that is a heavy load to carry, and life is probably experienced as a gray, joyless, duty-filled burden.
But we know that the word, “gospel” means “good news”. Where is the good news in that?
Let me share with you a different perspective that will help us understand this passage. If we read the Bible, I believe that the emphasis is not primarily about what God demands; the emphasis is on what God gives.
God gives us love in Jesus. Once we receive that, trust that, and begin to live our lives according to the guidance and strength of that, then we begin to be able to live lives that Jesus wants us to live.
In other words, God shapes our lives not by passing down a lot of rules from “out there,” beyond yonder, but by loving us and empowering us from “in here” within ourselves.
If you read the gospels, they tell us that Jesus wants us to have all the best that life affords, including life in this world. Remember Jesus saying, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The emphasis is not on demands. The emphasis is upon gifts–those gifts God gives us to ease our burden.
This is not to say that there are no demands — there are. There is a cost to discipleship, and the cost is high. In fact, it may demand for your life. It may break relationships. It does not mean that we tolerate some high-ranking officials of the military stealing from the government because of their greed at the sacrifice of the ill-equipped soldiers who are in the war zones. It does not mean we just keep quiet when people abuse their power. And for future journalists as well as the present, it can mean using the media to present the truth, even if sometimes it may be difficult.
But because of God’s love for us, God always gives us enough grace to meet the demands.
What God wants to give us far outweighs what God asks of us. When God asks us to do something, it is because the fullest possible life is in that direction. And, God is always willing to give us everything we need to do it. So, God not only asks, God also enables.
Just listen to the encouraging words of the scripture: “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” “My grace is sufficient for you.” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. But not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
Those are the gifts that God wants to give us. Life is to be an adventure, a blessing, a celebration. What God wants is for our faith to enable us to spread our wings and fly! So our boundaries are expanded, and we can sing our songs of praise. That is the nature of authentic Christianity!
The most important thing is how to make the transition from a God “out there” telling us what to do, to a God “in here” helping us to become all we can be, and helping us to do what we ought to do.
It makes all the difference in the world to understand that we receive God’s gifts not because we have obeyed the rules; rather, we are able to obey God’s rules because we first have received the gifts that are offered to us!
Thus, as look at our scripture passage in that light, we hear these words of Jesus not so much as demands to be obeyed, but with the promise that God will empower us.
God is not saying to us, “These are things you must do before I can love you.” Instead, God tells us, “This is the kind of person I will help you to become.” That changes everything.
Take that most difficult verse of all, the one about being perfect. What if “be perfect” is not a commandment, but a promise? And what if perfection really means complete — the complete you — the complete person God has created you to be? What if that is not something God demands, but something God wants to give?
When we understand it that way, we then come to know not a God “out there” making demands upon us, but a God “in here” giving us everything we need, and enabling us to grow into the persons God intends us to be–the perfect you or the perfect me! That to me is good news! That is the gospel. Boundaries are expanded. And I see a lot of opportunities open before us.
A member of the church where I served before was diagnosed with cancer. But the doctors also found out that she was a few months pregnant. She decided not to have the chemotherapy before the baby was ready to be born. But then, after delivering the baby, the cancer had already spread. She was given a few months to live. I visited her at the hospital where we talked about death and about her faith. She said, “Pastor, having known Jesus, I am not afraid to die. I am thankful to God that I am given a few months to be with my baby.” As I looked into her eyes, I did not have to ask her whether her faith was a burden or one that opens new boundaries. Her faith was her single greatest source of meaning and strength and hope. I know that it was her faith that offered expanded boundaries for her, for her family and her baby. And that is the way it is supposed to be.
And if that is our faith, it too can expand boundaries for us and our lips will be filled with song of joy and praise.