Do you mean it? I mean seriously, do you mean it? Did you really just hear everything I read, everything that Jesus had to say and then respond “thanks be to God?” Really? Thanks be to God? If you really meant it, then, by all means, please come up here and preach for me. Because my first reaction to a reading like that is “the Gospel of the Lord” and me responding “nah. I don’t like it.” Now before you clutch your pearls and think “Pastor! You can’t talk like that! That’s the bible.” Yes I can. God invites us to wrestle with scripture. Scripture should make us joyous, and should make us think, and should make us uncomfortable. There are stories in our bibles that might make your skin crawl. If you don’t believe me, go home, open your bible to Judges, and read the story of Jael driving a tent stake through a man’s head, killing him instantly. There’s a story we don’t hear on an average Sunday. Thanks be to God?? Let’s be honest with ourselves friends, sometimes scripture is hard. Sometimes scripture is uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just may not like it.
What Jesus is proposing in this continued sermon on the plain is almost impossible. He once again is preaching. This is a continuation of last week’s readings when we heard the beatitudes. If there’s anything that Jesus does well, it’s not sugar coating things. We never hear Jesus say “well, if it’s okay with you” or “if you aren’t too busy” or even “if it will make you feel good.” Jesus is a pretty black and white kind of guy. The first sentence alone is enough to make me want to check out. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Nope. I’m out. If this what it means to be a Christian, I’m not sure I want to participate any more. I want to pause here really quick to make sure that while the bible talks about abuse, it is never okay. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, either mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, or otherwise, God does not desire for you to stay in that relationship. Additionally, if you need resources for yourself or someone you love, I am here to help.
I think what makes this reading so incredibly difficult is that the idea of forgiveness is incredibly powerful and, at the same time, runs contradictory to everything we may feel or desire. Forgiveness, especially for those who wish to do us harm, curse us, abuse us, or takes from us (maybe, or especially) without asking, can feel impossible. Remember that we are still in the season of epiphany. God is still revealing to us, to the disciples, to all people who God is and will continue to be through Jesus Christ. This is a God who has come to turn the world upside down. This God, who became flesh, has come into our lives, and has changed the way we respond to other people. Or, at least it should.
The challenge, of course, comes from what our natural inclinations may be to what God is calling us to. I mean, if we’re honest, our natural instinct is to go blow for blow and cutting words to cutting words. But, how do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness instead of reacting with words or actions that may answer hurt with more hurt. And again, if we’re being honest, we may not always want to respond with grace and kindness. I mean, if you can think of (or picture) the person in your life that has caused you the most heartache and pain, do you really desire to respond to him or her with grace and kindness? Yet that is what God challenges us to do. I’ve read and heard more than once that hurt people hurt people, or that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes those hurts can only be healed by grace.
I know I talk about grace a lot. But when you have experienced the life changing power of grace, you can’t help yourself. God’s grace literally changed my life. Once I learned about God’s grace, my entire relationship with God changed. Here’s a strange thing about grace: I hate that you may have needed to experience it, but at the same time, I am so grateful if you have experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace. Grace is just unmerited love, forgiveness, and mercy. And maybe you have felt it from God. But, more likely, you have experienced grace in relationship with someone else. Even though that grace may have come from another human being, let us not kid ourselves, my beloved. Grace can only be accomplished with and through God. We can’t experience grace without God and really, isn’t that a great place to be?
When I say that grace has the power to change lives, I’m not over exaggerating. It really does. Grace transformed me and my life in such a way that my heart was healed and I felt redeemed. Grace is what called me into ministry. How have you experienced grace? Once you are able to recognize grace in your own life, you are then able to recognize the ways it changes your life and leaves you completely vulnerable. Believe it or not, this vulnerability is a good thing. You may not hear that idea very often. Society wants us to believe that being vulnerable is bad. Vulnerability and shame all too often go hand in hand. But, what if being vulnerable just meant leaving our hearts and minds open to what God can and will do?
When grace leaves us vulnerable, which it often does, then the Holy Spirit is allowed into our lives in such a way that we see and feel a new way of living and loving through Jesus Christ. What Jesus demands of us as disciples is a complete and total change; a repentance and leaving behind of our old selves and instead invites us into holy and wholly living. This holy/wholly living isn’t always neat and tidy. There will be times when we feel rejected. There will be times when we might wonder if this discipleship is all it is cracked up to be. And those times, my beloved, are when we must rely on God. The great reward that Jesus speaks of isn’t material items. We will not gain cars, wealth, or fame from following Christ. But what we will gain and what our reward will be is a better version of ourselves.
None of this happens by chance. We may do our best to live a Christian life daily but we will always fall short because of sin. The temptations of this life are far too great for us to resist. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give to everyone who asks of you, there may be times that sin seems almost appealing. The life that Christ calls us to isn’t easy. But the life we are reformed into through that journey of discipleship and following Jesus has a great reward of a better self and a better, greater, deeper love for the world God made. None of this is possible, of course, without grace. Grace is stronger than our sin. Grace is stronger than even our best intentions. Grace is stronger than our hard work. Grace is stronger than our resistance. Which means, even in the moments when we resist God’s grace, it is changing and transforming us for the better. The path is difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. It can feel lonely, and at times, insurmountable. But, the path is lit by grace. And it is a path that rewards us in ways that are almost unimaginable. Thanks be to God!