The Seventh Sunday After The Epiphany
Feb. 24, 2019
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
I am deeply grateful to be with you this morning and to be reunited with my longtime and treasured friend, Bill Danaher. I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you and hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. This passage has no parallel in Hebrew scripture, Midrash, goren king religion, Gnosticism, Persian religion, Greek philosophy, any of the other places that we normally look for parallels.
There are parallels for the kingdom of God and the golden rule and even dying and rising savior gods. But none whatsoever for love your enemies, which Jesus said twice in today’s reading. Matthew has a version of today’s reading that we call the Sermon on the Mount and in Luke it’s called the Great Discourse. Matthew speaks objectively about the poor and oppressed, but Luke is always conscious of his audience, speaking to you poor and you oppressed. Matthew stresses that the law remains in force for Christians in some way but Luke always has his eye on the whole word, stressing that the way of Jesus is for everyone.
And it’s not what the world calls wisdom.
Luke begins his gospel with a story about the world being enrolled for taxation. And he ends the book of Acts with Paul, a symbol of universality to him, getting to Rome, which is the symbol of universality for Luke. Luke spends quite a few chapters getting you to care about Paul. And yet he doesn’t even bother to tell you what happened to Paul because his work was done when the symbol of universality, Paul, gets to Rome.
Back at the beginning, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem because of the census. This is actually not a good way to conduct a census, but for Luke this story sets the theme of his entire gospel and Acts. Salvation comes from the Jews, it saves the entire world. And the saving grace of Christ is not what the world calls salvation. The tax registration was a legal measure used by the Roman empire as a mechanism of revenue collection and social control. It was part of a system that was called, without irony, the Peace of Rome.
At the center of the Roman empire was a city state known for its material abundance, its greed for new commodities and pleasures and its moral corruption. On the edges of this order, in the dominated provinces, were the ravages of imperialism, misery, lack of food, shelter, and work, hopelessness among the masses of the impoverished. This situation is reflected in Jesus’s parable of the vineyard and in many scriptural texts that refer to the hunger and diseases of the poor. The Roman empire was reasonably tolerant by historical standards. It was efficient, productive, and cultured.
And some of its propagandists were morally reflective. But they barely mentioned the malnourished, the depressed, and the destitute that you find throughout the New Testament. Some of us were raised on the school books that echoed the Roman propagandists who called the exploitation of other people order and their subjugation peace. The Great Discourse of Luke 6, love your enemies, comes two chapters into Luke’s account of the Galilean ministry of Jesus. Rejected by his own townsfolk at Nazareth, he proceeds to Capernaum where outsiders welcome his message. The eschatological urgency of Jesus comes through in Luke.
From the census narrative to the temptation in the desert to the Galilean ministry to the journey narrative to the Jerusalem ministry to the passion and glorification of Jesus, Luke presents Jesus as the prophet of righteousness who renounced every form of exploitation and violence. Who took into himself, by his violent death, the suffering of the world in order to redeem it. To the early church, the cross was the symbol of the way of Christ. The way of fellow suffering, love divine.
Jesus preached and showed the power of spirit filled love as an alternative to the power worshiping way of the world. That’s what came through to me long before I understood anything else about Christianity or had any glimmer that I was heading toward a theological career. I grew up about two and a half hours from here in a lower class patch of Michigan called Bay County between Bay City and Midland. Later my family moved to Midland in time for me to go to Midland High School. But I am a product of semi-rural trailer park America.
My family was not religious. But we got to mass on occasion. Sometimes I caught a ride to mass with a Catholic family down the road. And we owned a family Bible that my parents received as a wedding gift. That was just enough for me to be caught by the image of a suffering God on a cross.
What was being said in this stunning, disturbing, violent image? What sort of religion shows the God figure opening his arms to his enemies and dying on a cross? That question caught me long before I knew anything about Christian doctrine or ever heard there was such a thing as theology. The crucifixes in Catholic churches and the renderings of Good Friday in Christian art drew me into the passion of Christ. Christ crucified broke through my everyday horizon of lower class culture and the next gain.
Then the stunning witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement similarly broke through, eventually melding in my thought and feeling with the cross of Christ. Breaking through comes closest to describing it. An intrusion of something that called my environment and school and everydayness into question, seizing my attention, opening a horizon beyond Bay County and compelling me to question a great deal of what they taught in school about America the great.
Then King was assassinated when I was in high school and he became not merely a great moral leader and a critic of American racism. He was a Christ figure who died for us. The exemplar of the peace making and justice making way of Christ. That was the sum total of my religious worldview when I squeaked into college, mostly to play sports. All these years later it is still my bedrock.
On the lecture circuit I meet people every week for whom Christianity is a ruined word. When they ask why I’m a Christian, I try to explain that I was drawn long ago into the question of what it means to follow Christ. The story of Christ draws me like a magnet into its gravitational force. The meaning of suffering, the acceptance of my limitations and failures and pain, the gift of Christ’s saving death for me, a challenge to overcome every form of exploitation and violence in the world. The willingness to give my life to others and the promise of new life that it brings.
I am held and energized by these experiences which shaped my understanding of how I should live. The gospel says that the enemy loving way of Christ reveals the grace of God. In that case, how we think about God should be shaped by what we see in Christ. In the gospels, the disciples never get it. They’re stuck in conventional piety and nationalism and they just don’t comprehend the spiritual drama in which they have a role.
To them, God is a sky father who determines everything that happens. And religion is about doing things to incur God’s favor. To search for God is to search for strength through God’s omnipotent power. And when they lose faith in God it’s because they just don’t see God acting in a dramatic way. So we are told that while Jesus hung in his death agony on the cross, the disciples fled the scene.
And the Roman soldiers yelled at him, come down from there and then we’ll believe in you. Certainly they were being contemptuous toward Jesus. But from their standpoint, it’s a reasonable test. The Messiah should be powerful, a conqueror. If you’re really the Messiah, come down from the cross and then we’ll have sufficient reason to follow you.
But the gospel is that God is revealed through redemptive suffering and compassion, not overpowering force. The grace of the redeemer is revealed through weakness. As Paul told the Corinthians, the way of the cross is foolishness to those who believe in this dying world. But to us who are saved from that spiritual death, it is nothing less than the very power of God.
Horace Bushnell, a 19th century theologian in Hartford, Connecticut put it this way, “There is a cross in God before the wood is seen upon Calvary, hid in God’s own virtue itself. Struggling heavily in burdened feeling through all the previous ages and struggling as heavily now,” unquote. That sentence scandalized New England in 1866. Neo-Calvinist New England theology was totally geared to deny that God experiences mortal suffering. To be a theologian was precisely to be skilled at explaining away the last words of Jesus on the cross.
The early church was a kingdom of God movement fixed on love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you, pour yourself out for the poor and oppressed. It was an illegal pacifist eschatological sect that worshipped as divine a criminal who was crucified by the empire. Later, the church’s legal status changed dramatically, engendering new ethical questions.
What does it mean to exercise our power in a morally responsible way? How do we claim moral responsibility for it? At what point is it morally imperative to prevent the slaughter of innocents? For the early church, these questions were unimaginable. For us, they’re elementary.
I teach social ethics for a living and in my field of social ethics we spend a great deal of time parsing the differences in ethical obligation for majority and minority communities in differing social, political, and historical contexts. The way of Jesus means different things in differing communities and contexts. Always, there’s the slippery task of discerning what God is doing in any situation. The gospels give us a picture of Jesus to help with this problem. I believe that this picture is more important than any historical detail in the scriptural witness and any doctrine we might derive from it.
In theology we have debates about everything. And for every biblical text, we have debates about historicity, oral transmission, redaction, literary form, and so on. But you don’t need a theory to catch the crucial thing in the gospel, the picture of Jesus that comes through to us. A figure filled with God’s spirit who preached about the kingdom of God and loving your enemies and who made an impression of divinity. Good theology does not say that unearned suffering, as such, is redemptive.
We are indebted to feminist and womanist theology for stressing this point. And I believe that Dr. King got this right, although this is very much a disputed point in theology today. Having suffered much, King sought to make his suffering a virtue, to save himself from bitterness, and to call white racists to repentance. In his experience, unearned suffering offered the opportunity to turn suffering into something redemptive. Suffering itself was not redemptive, but suffering could be made redemptive when people struggled against it in the name and way and spirit of Jesus.
Jesus did not talk about the things that people like me talk about in social ethics. He did not talk about problems of proximate means and ends, theories of justice, intersectional criticism, critical race theory, calculated consequences, postcolonial criticism, or defending structures of justice. The gospel has no theory of politics or economics. But the teaching of Jesus impels us into the struggle for a just and peaceable world and holds us there.
Whether or not we succeed, that is its social relevance. To love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself is not merely the content of an impossible ethical ideal. It’s the motive force of the struggle for the flourishing of all human life and creation. The love ethic of Jesus makes you care, makes you angry, throws you into the struggle, keeps you in it, helps you face another day. We’re not in control, it’s not up to us to make history come out right.
In drawing closer to God we’re thrown into work that allows others to share in the harvest and that is enough. After our struggles have ended, it is the ever gracious God of light and love who will make something of them. The words are from 2 Peter. God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and goodness. That through these we may overcome the violence that is in the world and become partakers of the divine nature.