The Character of a Christian

Sermon Given Feb. 20, 2022

After Jesus shared the beatitudes with the crowd gathered on the level plain, he turned to them all and shared about how to live together in Godly community. Jesus is really speaking to two separate topics in this text. There is the issue of how to treat people who actively oppress and there is the issue of how to live in community with one another as Christians. 

He knew that some in the crowd had been slapped around. They had their things taken by Roman officials who didn’t give grabbing a coat off someone’s back a second thought. A Roman official could do whatever they desired to a Jew. Unless they were like Paul, part of a tiny population of Jewish people with Roman citizenship, they had very little rights. They were suffering abuse. 

When Jesus tells them to turn the other cheek, to give their shirt along with their cloak, he isn’t telling them to give into injustice. Rather, he’s showing a loving way to rebuke injustice. It’s the same principle those who did sit ins at lunch counters did when they sought to end segregation. They were well dressed, hospitable and kind. They never said a mean word. It was the oppressor who refused service, who called them vile names, refused them service, poured food on them, and beat them. In the acts of the oppressors, we see the injustice clearly. We see the lack of equity in segregation, the hatred that it endorses and supports. Those who supported segregation had to take a closer look as it exposed the ugliness of the ideology behind the practice.

Turning the other cheek, taking off all your clothes for the one who ripped your coat off your back, exposes the injustice. It calls it out and names it as it is: ugly. It calls the oppressor to a change of heart and life, to put down their fist, to drop the coat, and to instead see the other as fully human and worthy of respect. It is the act of having wounds documented, sharing the story, and refusing to keep everything quiet about things that aren’t right. It does this all with love, not hate. There was a demand for equity within those actions. The philosophy is, “I will expose your hate with love.” 

While this gospel passage has been used to encourage people to stay in abuse, I think that interpretation goes against Jesus’ message. We are asked to lovingly expose injustice and call the oppressor to change of heart and life. We are not called to then stay with the oppressor through the process of repentance. The actions of exposure seek to bring about a better life for all involved. A better life for the abuser is to see their actions in a new light and change their ways. A better life for someone who is abused is for the abuse to end by any means necessary. The abused need not stick around to try to bring about a better life for the abuser. That’s God’s job. Boundaries and separation are holy vehicles to a better life, not unloving actions. 

Forgiveness is also not saying the oppression or abuse was okay or that everything is better. It’s an act of looking at the situation, seeing it as it fully is, the good, the bad, and the ugly and then choosing to give it over to God. Forgiveness seeks to release anger, frustration, and bitterness so it doesn’t contaminate your life. Things don’t have to be okay. People don’t have to kiss and make up. The person who is forgiving recognizes the harm the other person caused and decides it doesn’t have to influence the rest of their life. It’s an act of healing that can take place whether or not the two ever see each other again. The harm is given over to God. That’s what forgiveness is.

Jesus speaks to how we are to treat anyone as children of God.There is a love that is greater than the love of friends or family being shown. There is giving without concern about getting anything back in return. It doesn’t matter who it is. It doesn’t matter the relationship, whether you like them or not. What matters is that they are human and in need too. Even if they are wicked or ungrateful. They still have needs that can be met. 

A couple students from the Episcopal Campus Ministry and I went to volunteer for Soup for the Soul on Thursday. While the word soup is in the name, we learned that they very seldom actually serve soup, preferring to give out heartier meals. The meal we prepared was hamburgers, fries, baked beans, and a dessert. While they fed homeless people, they also fed tired people who didn’t have time to cook that night, college students who wanted something different, literally anyone who walked through the doors. There was plenty to go around. 

Can you imagine being a person who has never had that kind of love? What would it look like for them to experience someone who loved them even though they didn’t think they were worthy of love? That they would have people go out of their way to do good things for them? That they were given things with no expectation of them returning the favor?  It would break the mold of conditional loving relationships and bring them into unconditional love. That’s the kind of love that heals, that brings wholeness, and a better life. 

At the end of the day, the way of love is a way of transformation. Paul reminds us today that we are all in the process of creation. We are moving from the ways of the world to the ways of the Spirit, coming ever closer to the likeness of Christ. Even death is not the end of our transformation. 

We’ve heard Paul talk about death and resurrection in our passages from First Corinthians over the past few weeks. He is adamant that the dead are raised, that we shall become part of the second creation, people born of the Spirit. In all his letters, Paul continually brings people back to the resurrection, to the risen Christ. He talked about Jesus coming back soon for sure, but I think there is more to these teachings than a conversation about what happens after our bodies cease to live, though today’s passage is certainly about that. 

I think the main emphasis is on what deaths Jesus can bring about in us that lead to new, Spirit-filled lives, both now and later. We are to die daily to the ways of the world, ways of transactional love, of tit for tat, of superior and inferior people, and live in the ways of Christ, who overflows with love for all, no exceptions. That’s not to say that we don’t set boundaries and separate from others when our relationships aren’t healthy, but we do so asking God to help the other change. We don’t condemn them forever. We don’t judge. We leave them in God’s arms.

We are in this liminal state, both flesh and Spirit. One day we will enter the chrysalis of our death and be born into the heavenly butterflies of resurrected life. But right now we are caterpillars, growing and maturing. We can eat the fruits of God’s unconditional love, or we can eat the fruits of this world, the transactional kind of love. Luke shares that the fruits of this world aren’t bad. People love their friends and family, they do good for those who have done good to them, they lend to each other with fair interest rates. The world produces perfectly good, happy people. The problem is that if you only care for those you like or think deserving, it’s easier to build unjust systems that favor one group over another. The Spirit gives us an even better way. The Spirit links us with everyone, helps us see all clearly as who they are, children of God alongside us. We have the power to express unconditional love, declaring our full worth right alongside everyone else, sharing with others without worrying about their worthiness. 

At the last day, we will be reborn into spiritual bodies, brought even closer to the likeness and image of Christ. Who will we be when we get to that stage? And why should we wait for that now? We already have the Spirit, even in these flesh-filled bodies. So let us live in ways that support the Spirit in ourselves and one another, embracing all that it means to be the people God dreams we can be. Amen.