The Bible is the world’s best-selling book of all time. 87% of all households in the United States own at least one. But that doesn’t mean it’s widely read. A survey showed that less than half of those who own a Bible ever read it very often. Maybe you’ve heard some of the amusing but disturbing answers people gave. 10% thought that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. Only 1/3 knew that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, not Billy Graham. Most people acknowledge that the Bible is important for historical or literary reasons; it’s one of those books that people think they should own, like the collected works of Shakespeare, but most people don’t find it worth their time to read it regularly.
How did it happen that the Bible still holds some degree of reverence but is so rarely used? One reason is because the huge change that took place 500 years ago in the way we view the world is still catching up with us. Before the Enlightenment and the rise of the scientific method, the accepted understanding of the world was that the sun revolved around the earth, disease was caused by evil humors that could be bled out, and mental illness was due to some moral failure. If you asked a European 500 years ago if they believed in fairies, sprites and hobgoblins, they would have looked at you as if you were crazy, as if you’d asked them if they believed in air. In that context it was easier to grasp what the Bible says about matters of the spirit or to understand what Jesus was doing when he commanded demons to leave a person.
No sane person wants to give up what we’ve gained by seeing the world from a more rationalistic point of view. Our modern way of understanding how the world works has led us to cure diseases using medicine, not charms. Knowing that the earth spins around the sun and understanding the natural laws of physics has allowed us to launch weather satellites that save thousands of lives by tracking killer storms. We no longer believe that the gods made our tribe of people the true human beings and that we have to kill off the so-called lesser beings who live in a foreign land.
But as we’ve understood more about how the world works and the inner workings of the psyche, we’ve lost something important. We’ve reduced reality to what we can measure and control and understand. We’ve lost sight of that aspect of truth that’s beyond our comprehension, the reality that we learn about from the Bible.
You might ask So What? The Forbes Magazine happiness survey for 2018 listed the happiest countries in the world. The top four were in Scandinavia, where only 35% of the population say they believe in God. Rounding out the top ten happiest countries was Australia, which has one of the highest percentages of atheists in the world. By whatever standards are used to measure happiness – health or life expectancy or contentment – by those standards you can’t say that reading the Bible will make you happy.
But that still leaves a big God-shaped hole in the human being. Where do you find purpose in your life? How do you endure a marriage that’s breaking up? Where do you find hope in the face of death? The Bible may not tell us exactly what we’re supposed to do with our lives, but it does tell us why we’re supposed to do it. The Bible may not tell us how to cure cancer, but it does show us where to find hope when it invades our body. The Bible may not give us a how-to guide to salvage a marriage, but it shows us what true love is, love that’s grounded in something deeper than feeling and desire.
Those are the kinds of issues the Bible deals with, the deepest issues of the human heart. But it’s important to understand that the power of the Bible does not come from whatever wise advice or guidance its words might give us, although it does give wisdom that can benefit anyone who reads it, whether they believe in God or not. The power of the Bible is that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through its words.
John Calvin, that 16th century theologian, said that the Bible is the spectacles through which we see the world. He affirmed that there are plenty of ways to encounter God in addition to the Bible. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Acts of love are not restricted to those who believe in God, and every human kindness is a reflection of the loving God who made us. The Bible is like a pair of glasses that when we put them on we can see what we were unable to see with the unaided eye. When we read the Bible through the spirit of Jesus, we can see the beauty of nature around us and say with the psalmist, “O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” We can face tragedy and death knowing that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and that God’s goodness and mercy will be with us forever. We can find peace and joy in what we have because we know that what the Bible tells us is true: all we have is a gift from God.
The Bible lets us know the character of God. We know from reading scripture that God is not something we can measure, analyze and control. In the passage we read today from Exodus, Moses was on that mountain for six days before God even spoke to him. To the people gathered at the foot of the mountain, it looked like the summit was consumed in a devouring fire. Anyone who dared to go near that place where God was giving the law was struck dead. When Moses brought God’s words down from the mountain, those two tablets that summarized God’s law in the Ten Commandments were placed in a tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies where only Moses and those consecrated as holy could go.
Stories like the one we read about Moses receiving the law show us that God is majestic and glorious beyond our comprehension. God’s glory is sometimes compared to that of the sun. We can’t live without the sun. But if a spaceship ever took us too close to the sun, it would destroy us. For all the control we human beings have over our lives, we are totally dependent on the power that shines from the sun, which would overwhelm us if we tried to get too close.
So we read the Bible with humility because its subject is this God who is as bright and shining as the sun, but what we learn as we read it is that this God loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us, a relationship that ennobles us and gives us life. We learn that those laws that were given to Moses weren’t given to demean us or to keep us in line so God can lord it over us. The Ten Commandments tell us to worship no other gods because other gods like wealth and power and self-centeredness might appeal, but they don’t give life. We’re commanded to keep the Sabbath so we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that if we just work harder we can be in control. It’s a reminder that our loving God is in control of the universe, and we honor God when we slow down and revel in that goodness. Laws around sexual morality were given to protect our dignity and humanity, to keep us from treating each other as objects for personal gratification. Laws about stealing and honesty were given to protect our integrity.
How do we know that God’s word to us is for our benefit? How do we know that God gave us scripture for our welfare and not for our subjugation? We know through Jesus. In Jesus we know how to read not only the laws of God, but the whole story of God’s dealings with humanity. His life was spent drawing others to God through his teaching, his healing and his caring. His death on the cross showed the extent of God’s love for us, to give his life to deliver us from death. His resurrection affirmed the power of life over death, and his invitation to us to be with him in perfect love for eternity. Through Jesus, the Son of God, we know the One who speaks to us through the Bible, and because we know Jesus, we always interpret God’s word as it comes to us in the Bible through him, with love and charity.
The book of Romans in the New Testament says that God’s Spirit helps us in our weakness. That Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. That Spirit, which we know through Jesus, is what makes the Bible God’s word to us.
You’ve probably heard someone say that you can make the Bible say anything you want. And if you use it that way, you can. There are parts of the Bible that seem to contradict each other. In the book of Ezra, the Israelites are told to put away all foreign wives who don’t share their religion or nationality, but in the book of Ruth we read how the foreigner Ruth marries the Israelite Boaz to become an ancestor of Jesus. In one of the gospels Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” whereas in another gospel he says, “He who is not with me is against me.” The Bible was written for all people, across all time, living in very different situations. It takes discernment, through the prayerful guidance of the Holy Spirit, to hear what it has to say for us in our time and place. One of the most important ways to test if our understanding of scripture is God’s word to us is to measure our understanding against the main topic of the book, God whom we know in Jesus Christ.
There’s a story about a man who was desperate to know what God wanted him to do with his life. He decided he would open the Bible to a random page, close his eyes, put his finger on the page, and whatever verse it landed on would be God’s guidance for him. His finger landed on Matthew 27:5 – “Judas went away and hanged himself.” That couldn’t be right, so he tried again. This time his finger landed on Luke 10:37 – “Go thou and do likewise.” We know that’s just random chance, not the will of God because it’s not something that Jesus as we know him through scripture would command.
That doesn’t mean that the Bible will always be clear. Until Jesus comes again and sets us all straight, there will be many different interpretations of the Bible. One reason is that the one to whom it is a witness, the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is too big to be explained from any one perspective, whether that be Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. Even in a single congregation like Eastminster people will differ on how to interpret certain verses. However we see the world through the Bible, we see it through the lens of love, from the perspective of Jesus.
And it’s important to remember that the Bible is given to us, not just as individual believers, but as a community of faith. We need each other to be able to discern how God is speaking to us in scripture. We know from what others have told us that there is power in those words. From the prophets of the Old Testament, to the apostles like Peter, to our grandmothers and our Sunday school teachers, and our fellow church members, we have heard testimony that the Spirit of the all-powerful God speaks through Scripture and changes lives. Even the parts we don’t understand, we keep reading because we belong to a community of believers for whom those words have had power. There are some parts of the Bible that I thought I understood pretty well when I was younger, but now in light of years of experience, they’re not as clear as they once were. There are other parts of the Bible that I’ve been reading for years and now I think I’m starting to understand them. There are some parts of the Bible that I doubt will ever speak to my heart, but I read them and ponder them because somehow or other they are a witness to Jesus. I just can’t figure out how.
There are a number of opportunities to study the Bible at Eastminster. There’s an excellent class every Sunday morning at 9:00. Wired Word looks at current issues through the lens of scripture. Bible study is an important part of each circle meeting. Whatever vision God gives Eastminster for your future, it will grow out of a prayerful and consistent study of the Bible.
The Bible is not what we serve. We don’t worship the book. We worship Jesus. But the Bible is where we encounter the living Word, and it is the spectacles God has given us to see each other and this community as God sees us.
A preacher named Cleophus LaRue once observed that we worship in the church we remember. He said that his idea of what makes for a good church is based on the one he grew up in, where the songs were sung from a hymnbook, not a projection on the wall, and where the saints of his youth like sister Naomi and Deacon Brown shaped his formation in the faith. We worship in the church we remember, which I think is one of the keys to the success of so many modern mega churches. They don’t have to account so much for memories.
Congregations like Saddleback Church in Southern California are often held up as a counterpoint to the established main line churches like ours. Saddleback Church started in the early 1980s with a congregation that could fit into a living room, and today they have over 20,000 in worship every week. They’re doing a lot of things right that we need to learn about, but one thing Rick Warren had going for him when he started the church is that he didn’t have to deal with so many memories. When he graduated from seminary, he did what a business would call market research and found an area of the country that was underserved by churches. He moved there and went door to door asking people what they were looking for in their spiritual lives. He drew a profile of the typical residents of the area. He identified his target population whom he called unchurched Harry and unchurched Mary. Then he grew the church around their expectations and needs. It was brilliant, and a huge contribution to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But like so many successful new church development projects, he didn’t have to deal with institutional memories. They created their own traditions and expectations as they went along.
Eastminster Church has a lot of memories. Generations have been reared here, and each one has passed on to the next its wealth of knowledge and experience – and expectations of what church should be. The church has welcomed new members over the years, and they have all brought with them their own memories of worship and expectations for church. You’ve been able to incorporate new people and new memories into an ongoing stream. It hasn’t always been easy. There have been crises and divisions and setbacks. Each generation faces the question: How do we use what we’ve been given as means to accomplish what we’re here for, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ? That’s where churches like ours that have been around a while are going to have something to teach the newer churches as they move into their second and third generations. How do we honor those memories and traditions that have shaped us without making them the purpose that drives us?
That was the challenge facing the church in Corinth. Each person in the church remembered the one who introduced him or her to Christ, and that memory was the standard of what the church should be. Some had come to the church through the preaching of Apollos, an urbane, sophisticated speaker who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand with his skillful oratory. Some had come to the faith through the work of Cephas, also known as Peter, the rough-hewn fisherman whose hands were calloused from hard physical labor and had what we might call today a blue-collar work ethic. Some were introduced to Jesus by Paul, the intellectual who could quote the Greek philosophers and make a tight argument by citing the Law of Moses chapter and verse. And there were others who didn’t claim any theological lineage and said they got their faith straight from Jesus without it being filtered through anybody.
I can imagine if the people in Corinth were alive today. Those who were drawn to the sophisticated Apollos would become Episcopalians. The followers of independent-minded Peter would be Baptists. The ones who gravitated to Paul would be drawn to the tradition of that great lawyer and thinker John Calvin and become Presbyterians. And those who said they weren’t influenced by anyone but Jesus would start a new nondenominational church. But in Corinth in the first century, they didn’t have that luxury of splitting off and each going their own way. There wasn’t a critical mass of Christians that was big enough for them to survive if each group went off on its own. That’s why Paul pleaded with them to stop focusing on the things that set them apart and focus instead on what held them together – Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross.
Now, most sociologists say that one reason America has the highest rate of church attendance in the developed world is because we have such a wide variety of ways to practice our faith. The diversity of churches creates a market dynamic, where free choice and competition compel congregations to innovate and adapt if they’re going to survive. Most of us have changed churches in the course of our lives. Ministers do. I’ve been the installed pastor in four different congregations. As strongly as I felt God’s call to each one, eventually it was time for me to leave. I’d done my work and in order for the church, and for me, to keep growing in our faith and service to God, we parted ways, grateful for the time God had given us together. Many of you came to Eastminster from another congregation. Some are here because you moved into the area, tried out different churches, and felt that this is the place for you. Some belonged to another church in the area, but because of changes in that congregation, or because of changes in you, you felt the need to make a change.
But the freedom we have to move among faith communities makes us susceptible to the same tendency for which Paul chastised the Corinthians. We can get so focused on what works for us that we forget who we’re working for. We get so caught up in making the church what we think it should be that we act as if it’s our church, and it’s not. It belongs to Jesus. Paul compared what he had contributed to the church to the work of a skilled builder who works alongside others to build on the foundation that has been laid, and that foundation is Jesus. The church can tolerate a lot of diversity because it is built on the sure foundation of Jesus.
A building’s foundation determines what you can build on it. One church that I served as interim pastor was planning to build a new building for its growing ministry with youth. The biggest point of discussion was what kind of foundation the new building was going to have. The original plans called for the building to be built on a concrete slab, but lots of folks were asking if maybe they shouldn’t spend a little more and go ahead and include an unfinished basement that could be finished later, depending on future needs. That was a decision that couldn’t be put off. It had to be made before construction began, because the kind of foundation the building has determines what is built on top.
Eastminster was certainly built on a good foundation. The friendships and love that you share rest on that foundation, and they provide the framework for what God is building now. As our society grows more polarized, as social media sorts us into competing camps, the church is one place where people with many different points of view can come together under the Lordship of Jesus. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what we believe, what our politics are or how we feel about hot button issues. But the promise of the church is that we all belong to Jesus, who sees all the things that make our blood pressure rise from the perspective of eternity. And it’s love and respect that endure. That foundation that Eastminster is built on, that promise of a community that exists to serve others, that is what we build upon.
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, says half jokingly that he’s formulating a theology of grits. He tells about a friend of his, a Catholic priest, who made his first trip south of the Mason Dixon line. On his first morning in a southern city he went to hotel restaurant for breakfast. After studying the menu, he called his waitress over to his table and asked, “Miss, what’s a grit?” She replied, “Honey, there’s no such thing as a grit. They don’t come by themselves.”
And that caused Mouw to think about what happens when you go to Waffle House down South for breakfast. You may order bacon and eggs, but they come with grits, whether you order them or not.
That’s what the Christian life is like. It doesn’t come by itself. It comes with a lot of stuff we didn’t order. We can’t really fashion it to our own design. The church of our memories is a blessing, but God has more in store.
I’ll bet those who signed the church’s charter back in 1957 couldn’t imagine the world Eastminster would be ministering to in 2020. But this church has grown and prospered for so long because it has built on the good things that have gone before without letting those things weigh you down. No matter how well suited we are for the church as it exists now, we know that God always has more in store, and it’s only the best. “All belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” Let’s not settle for less.
People are drawn to church for lots of reasons. At one church I served, a Jewish family that lived across the street asked if they could take out a social membership. They enjoyed the Strawberry Festival that the deacons put on every June, the Election Night Supper that Presbyterian Women held in November, the special concerts that the choir gave. They even showed up every Easter at the sunrise service in the town park. Church was a great place to meet their friends, even if they didn’t belong.
Others are drawn by the experience of worship. They like to sing the hymns. Some love the sacred music repertoire, or the pipe organ. Some are intrigued by theology and the Bible and want to learn more. And some come because they want to be part of the church’s mission, a mission that helps make the world a better place by caring for the elderly and the sick, feeding the poor, and standing up for the oppressed around the world. They want to be part of something that matters.
But undergirding everything we do is the promise of a transformed life. How do I find meaning and purpose? What am I supposed to do with my life? Where do I find the wisdom to raise kids? How do I find strength to endure a loss? Along with all the things we do as a church, along with all our activities and our worship and our study is the hope that there is something more to life. Paul told the church in Corinth,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the
human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him” – these things God has revealed to us through the
For all we have in common with other wonderful organizations that help the poor, nurture kids, cultivate the arts or build community, what makes the church different is that we submit ourselves to the direction of the Spirit that is revealed to us through Jesus Christ. And, says Paul, “those who are spiritual discern all things.”
That’s a wonderful promise, but how many of us consider ourselves spiritual? That sounds like a tall order. Most of us think of a spiritual person as someone like Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, people whose commitment and zeal for God we find hard to imagine. You hear a lot of people these days say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” What they usually mean is that they’re interested in things of the spirit but not in institutions like the church. They’re describing their spiritual quest. But to be what Paul calls a spiritual person – that sounds like a tall order.
Yet think of the people Paul was writing. They weren’t perfect examples of piety. These were the Corinthians who were breaking into factions over their allegiance to Apollos or Cephas or Paul. They were the ones he went on later in his letter to chastise for sexual immorality and poor theology and selfishness at the Lord’s Table. Obviously, Paul thought they had it in them to comprehend the things of God, in spite of their shortcomings. He wasn’t giving them a secret formula to unlock the mysteries of the universe. He wasn’t prescribing a regimen of spiritual calisthenics to lift them up to heaven. He was just reminding them of what they already had and exhorting them to use it. He was reminding them of a simple fact: They had the mind of Christ.
When Christ puts his claim on us, he transforms our minds and our spirits to conform to the Spirit of God. That same Power that created and sustains the universe has come to us in Christ, and through him our spirits are transformed. We signify that claim in the sacrament of baptism. We become aware of that claim in different ways. Some become aware of Jesus’ claim on their lives in a dramatic conversion experience, like Paul had on the road to Damascus. Others become aware gradually, through the nurture of Christian parents and a caring church. Some like C.S. Lewis get there through an intellectual journey. Others have some life-changing event bring them face to face with God. The ways we become aware of Christ’s claim on us are as different as we are.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that regardless of how Jesus claimed them, they belonged to Christ. Through Christ the Spirit of God searches us and attunes us to the power of God at work all around us. It’s what lets us see the world in a different way. So much of spiritual growth is just being aware of what is going on.
Spiritual growth involves being aware of what is going on in yourself. An important part of growing in the life of the Spirit is understanding who you are, how your own human spirit works. There’s something in us that resists the guidance of the Spirit of God. There’s a perverse independence or pride that doesn’t want anyone, even the Lord of the universe, telling us what is best for us to do. A healthy spiritual life involves deep knowledge of yourself.
One of the blessings of friendship is that our friends help us understand who we are. One of the benefits of a Sunday school class or a small group is that in addition to learning about some topic, you also learn about yourself as you reflect on scripture and faith with others.
You can also learn from the people you meet
in the Bible. Something you might want to try when you’re doing your daily Bible reading is to figure out which character in a Bible story you identify with most. I don’t mean the one you’d most like to be, I mean the one that is most like you. It was a humbling insight to me a while back when I was reflecting on a story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and realized how much I have in common with those religious leaders, and it’s not very flattering. The Pharisees were the ones who wanted to make sure that everything was done properly and according to the rules. They were so concerned that things be done properly, that they resisted when Jesus pushed them out of their comfort zone to do the right thing. I’ve tried to be a little more open to looking for God in the messiness of life.
Another thing to acknowledge about the life of the Spirit is that we come in different spiritual types. There’s always value in setting aside quiet time and getting away from all distractions to focus your thoughts on God and open yourself to the movement of the Spirit. But that’s easier for some than for others. Some, whose spiritual type is more extroverted, are more open to God’s spirit when they’re with others. They can notice God at work more clearly in conversation with others. Some people have a hard time sitting still, and their prayers are deeper when they’re walking or running. Some find techniques from other religious traditions help them focus on the Spirit of God, and incorporate yoga or tai chi in their spiritual life. Knowing yourself lets you allow for what works best for you as a way to notice what God is doing and to discern how God is moving in your life.
Some worry that all this sounds self-absorbed. After all, didn’t Jesus come to serve others? Doesn’t he tell us that the way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves and to give freely of ourselves? Of course. The whole point of knowing yourself is so you can cooperate with what God’s Spirit is doing in you to shape you into a person who is more like Christ. Christ gave himself for the world, and as he shapes us, we become more and more for the world.
Isaiah describes what happens as we grow in the Spirit. He was addressing people who had become self-absorbed in their spirituality, for whom their prayers and their worship and their piety had become simply another means of self-fulfillment. Isaiah wrote:
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the
bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
As we grow in the life of Christ, we become more like Christ, who gave himself for the world. Just as he sought out the poor and the downtrodden, we become more aware of the needs of others. We notice the poor in our midst. We lose our complacency toward injustice. It starts to matter that so many people in Africa are dying of AIDS, that our government is in cahoots with oppressive dictators, that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.
And all that activity leads us back here to worship, and to prayer and to reflection so that we understand what we do and why we do it. We give thanks for what we have seen – the power of God working in places where it’s often overlooked. And as we give thanks, God’s Spirit searches the depths of our spirits and opens our eyes to see what else the redeeming power of Christ is up to and join with him, in our homes, our schools, our places of work, wherever we are, and receive what he has prepared for us, which is beyond anything we ever imagined.
These are some of the best-known sayings of Jesus: turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, go the second mile. And they’re also some of the hardest to understand. When I read these verses, I immediately start with my list of “what abouts.” What about the child who is bullied on the playground? What about the woman who is attacked in a dark alley? Are we really supposed to be passive in the face of aggression? Does Jesus really mean that we shouldn’t fight back when our basic rights or even our lives are threatened?
The Bible is full of stories about people striking back and giving bad guys what they had coming to them. Look at the story of David and Goliath. David met the giant’s taunts by knocking him cold with a rock from a slingshot and then cutting off his head, as gruesome as any Isis video. The oldest passage in the Bible, the very first verses that were written down, are what is called the Song of Miriam where Moses’ sister leads the women of Israel in rejoicing because their enemies have been wiped out, drowned in the Red Sea. And it’s not just in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the book of Acts tells how Ananias and Sapphira shortchanged the early church by withholding some of the income they had promised, then were struck dead at the feet of the apostle Peter. The book of Revelation is filled with graphic images of violent retribution against the enemies of God. There are plenty of heroes in the Bible who don’t turn the other cheek.
I personally find it hard to preach on this passage. Oh, I agree with it, in theory at least. But it does give me a thrill when the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Did you see that Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips that came out a few years ago? Somali pirates overran a freighter and took the captain hostage. I had a rush of adrenaline and gave an inward cheer when the Navy Seals took out the Somali pirates and freed Tom Hanks. It never crossed my mind while engrossed in the drama to ask WWJD – what would Jesus do?
It feels really good to see someone get even, for justice to be served. But retribution doesn’t last long. It’s not only Jesus who teaches that violence and retribution are short-term solutions. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote a book called The Art of War that is still studied by generals today, asserted that war is the failure of diplomacy. Retribution, whether among nations or individuals, doesn’t settle things. It just creates a cycle of violence, like the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys who fought each other for generations because they could never get even. Even though the Israelis have defeated the Arab states three times in war, the conflict rages on. Palestinians fight back through terrorism or random missile attacks, but the outcome continues to be a cycle of one side trying to subdue the other. Like family members that can’t stop fighting, the only solution is to find a different way of relating, some alternative to the old law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Even that law is misunderstood. It’s not a command to exact revenge for every wrong. It’s a restraint on revenge. It means that if someone takes out your eye, you can’t take out his eye and his tooth. You can only take an eye for an eye, no more. It’s not an invitation to a never-ending cycle of retribution.
On the cross Jesus showed how much more powerful God’s love is than any other force. There he died for us and freed us from all hatred and need for revenge. Jesus came to offer us a whole new way of relating to each other. He undermines violence and hatred at its source, by transforming us from the inside out. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the new creation that he is bringing in. He shows us how we live as those who have been transformed by his cross. He describes the power of loving our enemies and praying for those who harm us.
When Jesus spoke these words, his country was occupied by the Roman army. A Roman soldier could force anyone who lived in a conquered territory to carry his pack for him. That was an act of forced submission that riled the people because it was a reminder of how powerless they were before their conquerors. Jesus, however, said to carry that pack an extra mile. Can you imagine how stunned a grizzled Roman soldier would be if the person he forced to carry his pack volunteered, out of love for the soldier as a person created in the image of God, to carry his heavy burden for him an extra mile? All of a sudden, the lowly peasant has snatched away the soldier’s power of coercion. The peasant is no longer carrying the burden because the soldier has forced him to. He’s carrying it of his own free will, out of love.
Some of the most powerful images of our age are pictures of those who exercise this kind of power that undermines force with love. Think of the pictures of the children in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 who were sprayed with fire hoses in the struggle for civil rights in America. They galvanized the country by their courage. Remember the picture from 1989 of that lone protester in Tiananmen Square in Beijing standing in front of a tank. The tank could have crushed him, but that young man showed greater power than any armored vehicle.
The kind of love that Jesus describes, the kind of love that he lived, is not a passive emotion. It’s not something that just reacts to what it has received. Jesus asks, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Loving those who love us is admirable, and it’s not always easy, but the Corleones in the Godfather movies loved their family. Jesus is describing a love that can change things from the inside out, the way his love has changed us.
When Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was trying to convince Jackie Robinson to sign on as the first black baseball player in the major leagues, he realized the kind of abuse Robinson was going to receive because of his color. But Rickey told him that if he signed, he had to take what was dished out to him and not retaliate against the racism and bigotry he was going to encounter. Robinson asked him, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson agreed, and look what he did for baseball, for America.
Love has the power to change those who are our enemies, but it also has the power to change us. I have a friend whose job includes advocating for stricter gun control laws. Gun control is one of those hot button issues where people on either side of the issue tend to demonize their opponents with labels and stereotypes. My friend feels pretty passionately about the issue himself. His brother-in-law, though, is a state official in the NRA who feels just as passionately about the other side of the question. You can imagine what some of their conversations are like at Thanksgiving dinner. My friend says that he is grateful for his brother in law because he loves him very much, and because of him he can never think of his opponents as “those people.” He is always remembering that he is dealing with human beings beloved of God, not abstract demons he has to defeat.
Jesus reminds us of the power of prayer to nurture that kind of creative, powerful love. He tells us to pray for those who persecute you. Not many of us are persecuted like those ancient Israelites who were forced to carry the pack of a Roman soldier. Not many of us nowadays experience the same kind of hatred that Jackie Robinson did. But there are people who irritate us and anger us and who may even be out to get us in one way or another. It’s those people whom Jesus also tells us to lift up in prayer. Something amazing can happen when we do. We can find ourselves free from the grip of anger or revenge that might hold on to us. We might find that they don’t dominate our thoughts the way they once did once we commend them to God. We are likely to find that something inside of us is different.
You can do that even in everyday places with people you don’t know. I find that airports are a good place to practice this. I can get very out of sorts in an airport, especially if my travel plans are disrupted. There are all kinds of people to get irritated with – the person who is slowing down the security line, the agent who represents the airline that has lost your bag, the blankety blank who cuts in front of you in the food court. Each one of those irritations is an invitation to offer up a little prayer and recognize that God loves them just as much as God loves you. You haven’t changed the world, but something is likely to change in you.
Until Jesus’ perfect reign comes at last, we’re going to have differences. There are going to be times when we have to use violence to resist violence. But in the end, fighting fire with fire only means that more gets burned. Jesus gives us an alternative. We don’t fight fire with fire. We fight fire with water. We meet anger with love. We confront hatred with prayer. We turn the other cheek. And love wins.