Last week we heard four of six of what are called the six antitheses, or six opposites. They are called this because of Jesus', “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” formula. If you remember, those four were do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not divorce, and do not swear falsely. The sermon touched on three of those four: do not murder, do not commit adultery, and do not swear falsely.
As with the salt and light from two weeks ago, I said that Jesus wasn't addressing individual morality, per se, but the corporate behavior of the body of believers. As a body, we are called to be salt and light, respectful, safe, and honest. As individuals we don't always live into that. As a corporate body, we must. Those things are how we function; they are not necessarily reflective of our individual status.
Today we get the last two antitheses, or opposites. You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you turn the other cheek. You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
What Jesus is doing here is beginning to move us from one realm to another. Over the last two weeks we were hearing how to behave as the body of believers. We were learning what our corporate function was. We are salt and light. This body of believers behaves in a certain way, and in here you are respected and safe. It is these functions that are presented to the world as what the kingdom of heaven looks like.
That said, until the kingdom comes, we can't live in this space forever. We must get out there. And out there is filled with people and policies that are vastly different from how we behave in here.
Mosaic law provided for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This was a way to mitigate violence and push for restraint. In other words, you can only retaliate in like manner and with an equal amount of force. But Jesus is telling us that we are not to retaliate at all. All retaliation does is lead to more retaliation. All retaliation does is lead to a downward spiral of violence that begets violence.
There was an excellent Star Trek episode called, “The Day of the Dove,” in which a Klingon crew was brought aboard the Enterprise. Tensions predictably flared. Fights erupted. Phasers became swords and people were miraculously healed of deadly wounds. The stage was set for an eternal battle between humans and Klingons. Until they realized that it was only by not participating in violence that the violence would end. As Spock said, “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves; otherwise it is not stopped.”
In the world we live in, where are those places and times in which we must stop ourselves from violence? Should we retaliate with bombs, or with schools? Violence is easy. Peace is hard. Jesus is not calling us to be victims, allowing ourselves to be used and abused. But Jesus is asking us to look for the dignity in all people and see them as children of God. And that IS an individual act in which we must all participate.
This behavior ultimately leads to the next statement – love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This, again, is a mandate on how we are to behave as individuals representing the body of Christ. And again, it is hard work. Even tax collectors and Gentiles love and greet those who love and greet them. If that's all we do, then we are simply imitating the world.
But Jesus is calling us to live differently. He is calling us to live as God lives, and that is with a love for all people and all creation. Again, this isn't easy. The trick, I think, is to work at loving individual people, because it's too easy to dislike or hate other groups.
It's easy to hate “the Muslims.” It's much more difficult to hate a person that you sit down with for coffee or a meal who happens to have a different faith. It's easy to hate “those immigrants.” It's much more difficult to hate a family who escaped war and famine looking not only for a better life, but simple safety. And on and on and on.
We are all God's children. And like a parent loves all children equally, God loves everyone as equally. Jesus is asking us to follow that example and emulate God's love for all people. For if we only love those who love us, we are no better than those who live outside the kingdom.
On this seventh Sunday after the Epiphany we are being asked to live a certain way. We are being asked to be salt and light. We are being asked to treat each other with dignity and respect. We are being asked to create a safe place for all people. Today we are being asked to live out these functions in the world around us; and that starts by working to deescalate violence, love our enemies, and pray for those persecuting you.
Nobody said this would be easy. Many people say it's futile and pointless. But Jesus makes it clear how we are to act, both in here and out there. We can choose to either operate as the world operates, or we can choose to operate how Jesus operates.
That choice will determine what kind of church we become.