Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
24th of February, 2019
If last week’s extract from the Sermon on the Plain, with its terrifying ‘woes’ to balance the blessings, was difficult to hear, this week’s reading is even worse. ‘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. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ I have heard and read this passage over and over again through the years and it still makes me gasp. This is what Jesus wants us to do when he calls us to follow him, and it is absolutely impossible. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ might seem manageable, but ‘do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’? Surely Jesus cannot be serious here; the Sermon on the Plain can only be aspirational.
Yet Jesus does seem to mean it. In the following verses we are given two reasons for doing what he says. One is that as we do, so we will be done by. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we make the alarming petition ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. In the same way, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.’ We know that this does not always happen, whatever those who believe in the ‘law of attraction,’ or televangelists asking for donations, might argue. Is Jesus saying that God will treat us the way we treat others? If so, I suspect most of us will be in trouble. Bill Loader suggests that here Jesus is trying to appeal to basic human self-interest. He writes:
We may baulk at the notion of reward here, but perhaps we should not play games about why we make decisions. We want what is best for us. We are always acting in our interests. The bid being made by Jesus is to persuade us that it is in our interests to merge with God’s interest and with others’ interests – to live in love and compassion.
The other reason Jesus gives for loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us and praying for those who abuse us, is that in doing so we are imitating God. Jesus tells us, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’. Matthew, in recording the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus using slightly different words here: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. The commands in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are equally heavy, and the reason given for us obeying them is the same. If we follow Jesus’ teaching, we will be imitating the God who is our Father and so we will truly be able to call ourselves God’s children. These commands should not be seen as rules that we will, inevitably, fail to obey. They’re examples of what we may be capable of if we live as God’s beloved children, imitating the way in which God loves.
What would a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Plain look like? It would, of course, look like Jesus’ life. Jesus’ own life is the best exposition of his teaching. Jesus not only preached this sermon, he lived it – walking the way of the cross; refusing to resist those who betrayed, tortured and killed him; embracing death itself in order to show us all how much God loves us. It is Jesus who loves his enemies and prays for those who abuse him. It is Jesus who on the cross prayed, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’. In Jesus’ life and death we see how much God loves us all, and Jesus calls us to imitate that love.
Incidentally, just in case we think that the loving God Jesus calls ‘Father’ and the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures are two separate gods (and members of the Worship Team will remember that the first clause of the Apostles’ Creed specifically refutes that heresy), or that forgiveness is a purely Christian virtue, the lectionary today also gives us the story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, the men who tried to kill him and then sold him into slavery. When Joseph reveals his identity to them years’ later they are understandably so dismayed at his presence that they cannot speak. But Joseph kisses them and weeps on them; ‘and after that his brothers talked with him’. The Jews knew about the mercy of God and the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation long before the Sermon on the Plain was preached.
Challenging, frightening, as they are, the commands Jesus gives make sense if we imagine the world from God’s perspective. The late Henri Nouwen wrote that this would lead to:
the inner recognition that your neighbour shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subjected to the same laws, destined for the same end.
It is the recognition of this shared humanity, the knowledge that every single human being is the beloved child of God, that makes sense of Jesus’ teaching. We are to love our enemies because they too are God’s beloved; we are to do good to those who hate us because they share our humanity; we are to bless those who curse us because they are created from the same dust as us; we are to pray for those who abuse us because they, like us, will one day die and be judged by Jesus. This sense of human solidarity enables us to treat every human being, including ourselves, with the mercy, compassion and love revealed Jesus’ words and his life.
If every Christian truly remembered this shared identity and truly sought to live out Jesus’ teachings, to the best of our ability, no matter how often we might fail, the world would be a very different place. To begin with, the asylum seekers and refugees currently living on Manus and Nauru would receive the medical attention they needed. Many Australians, apparently including members of the government, see these people as enemies, calling them ‘boat people,’ ‘illegal immigrants,’ or ‘economic migrants’. Imagine if our Christian Prime Minister, who said of the people on Manus and Nauru without any evidence that ‘they may be a paedophile, they may be a rapist, they may be a murderer,’ treated them with mercy.
Can we really love as God loves? Of course not, not all the time and not by ourselves. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not! And I’m going to end by quoting John Wesley: ‘God knew well how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, This is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of God, to whom all things are possible.’ Amen.
 Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands (1972), quoted in Charles James Cook, ‘Matthew 5:1-12: Pastoral Perspectives’ in David L. Barlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), Feasting on the Word, 2010, p. 312.
 Quoted in Jason Byassee, ‘Matthew 5:38-49: Theological Perspective’ in David L. Barlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), Feasting on the Word, 2010, p. 384.