a sermon on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 and Matthew 5:38-48
preached on February 23, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone.
Those are such wonderful and important words from our last hymn, such important statements of our faith that help us describe God’s presence in our lives, such seemingly simple approaches to belief that will help us fit into what God is doing in our lives and in our world. These great words dating from the medieval church echo the wonderful words of the apostle Paul from our first reading this morning that help us to identify the source and foundation of all that we live and all that we believe—yet that too often leave us thinking that the pathway to following Christ is easy.
The bigger reality is that our two readings this morning from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth and from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the gospel according to Matthew both tell us that it will be hard to follow Jesus in our world. First, Paul insists that the way of life in Jesus Christ doesn’t fit into the ways of the world. We are holy temples, he says, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and God will defend that temple against any worldly enemy. But even more, he declares that the wisdom of this world is not wisdom in God’s eyes:
Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.
Paul suggests that we must set aside even our best attempts at our own wisdom and instead trust that God will guide us. In this, then, we will gain so much more, for “all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
But if that challenge weren’t enough to make our faith difficult, today the Lectionary also guides us to one of the most difficult portions of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. As one commentator describes it, “The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus at his ornery best: offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one giving it.” (Jason Byassee, “Theological Perspective on Matthew 5:38-48,” Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, p. 382.)
Here Jesus instructs the large crowd who had gathered to hear him teach that they must change their ways. He first suggests that we must set aside our hopes for vengeance and instead seek transformation and reconciliation. His instruction here is not easy to hear:
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.
This is dramatically different from our human instinct. We seek self-protection at every turn rather than risking our safety to bring the possibility of transforming those who attack us. We hoard what we have rather than offer from our abundance to respond to the needs of others. And we do only what is absolutely required rather than literally going the extra mile for anyone.
If all that weren’t enough to scare us away from following Jesus, we need only continue to Jesus’ second instruction:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Some days it is hard enough for me to love my friends, let alone even begin to think of loving my enemies! But here Jesus insists that even the deepest-seated enmity must be addressed not through ever-more-hardened hearts but through love and grace for everyone. Then he sums it all up with the most challenging words of all:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
For our great foundation, our head and cornerstone, to insist on this way of life is quite a challenge. Setting aside the wisdom of the world, approaching enmity with hope for transformation, praying for our enemies, even being perfect—all these things go against the grain for us, and our initial response is all too likely to try to give up on it all. Commentator Jason Byassee clarifies the challenge—and the solution:
We are called here to love as God loves. This cannot be done out of our own resources. So this is no admonition to try harder—if it were, it would indeed be recipe for despair. It is a plan of action rooted in the promise to be made ‘children of your Father in heaven’ (v. 45). The Sermon [on the Mount] here and elsewhere is a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go another mile, lend, love the enemy—because that is how God loves. If you want to follow this God, fleshed in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing. (Jason Byassee, “Theological Perspective on Matthew 5:38-48,” Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, p. 382.)
As some of you know, I spent a good bit of my college coursework studying and thinking about the Civil Rights Movement, and I’m still learning about this incredible time in our nation’s history. I am increasingly convinced that this movement was one of the great embodiments of these challenging texts. The Civil Rights Movement set aside the wisdom of the world that encouraged patience and careful obedience to the rules and replaced it with a worldview that said that civil disobedience would call appropriate attention to the unjust system of racial segregation that bordered on apartheid. The philosophy of nonviolence that prevailed through so much of the Civil Rights Movement was built on these very words of Jesus that sought to transform violence against African Americans into real and direct action against injustice. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, women and men built up the spiritual capacity to turn the other cheek, to offer more than what was unjustly requested of them, to go beyond the basic expectations, to love those who were declared enemies, even to pray for those who persecuted them. All this love for the other was grounded not in digging into one’s own personal resources but in the foundation of God in Jesus Christ.
These ideas echoed throughout the movement. Whenever organizers were planning and executing direct action campaigns, participants gathered in regular mass meetings that resembled revivals as much anything, encouraging the community to stand firm amidst the challenges of the world and instead turn the other cheek, pray for the enemy, and give of everything that they had.
During the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, as he stood on the porch of his parsonage that had been bombed just hours before, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggested that these ideas of Jesus ought to be made real.
Let’s not become panicky. If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ Remember that is what God said. We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. (quoted in Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, p. 37-38)
And even years later, an African-American activist who had faced the worst of white treatment and persecution made her understanding of Jesus’ message clear:
Of course, there is no way I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face. (Lou Emma Allen, quoted in Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, p. 309.)
These challenging and hopeful words of Paul and of Jesus, then, have been and continue to be a real challenge to us. Every day, we are called to set aside the wisdom of the world and insist that there is a deeper and better way in Christ Jesus. Every day, we are called to turn the other cheek and offer even more than what is asked of us. Every day, we are called not to work against our enemies but to seek God’s transformation of them and us and our whole world as we work to embody God’s amazing grace and love. It seems almost impossible to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Yet while it may be impossible for us, “nothing is impossible with God”—and God is working in us and through us and in spite of us to bring about this perfection in our lives and in our world.
So may we join in this difficult but certain work of transformation and new creation each and every day, strengthened by the love of God that makes it possible for us to be something more than we have been, empowered by the grace of God that shows us the depth of mercy gifted us in Jesus Christ, and guided by the light of God that shines on us and shows us the way to join in this work in our lives and our world. Thanks be to God for this incredible challenge and hope! Amen.