Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (A)
February 19, 2017
Text: Matt. 5:38-48
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45; ESV). It’s a tall order. Yet this is what God expects of His people. This is what God expects of you. And to love your enemy means not only to pray for him, but to take his abuse, to turn the other cheek, give him the very shirt of your back, go the extra mile, and give him whatever he needs, freely, without expecting anything in return. God expects nothing less than perfection, and if that perfection depended on you, you’d be toast. All have sinned. All fall far short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Thank God, as is the case throughout the Sermon on the Mount, this is not first a description of you, but of Jesus. Jesus turns His cheek to the fists and spittle of the soldiers. Jesus is stripped of His robe and His seamless woven tunic over which His executioners cast lots. Jesus carries the burden of the tree to Golgotha, the Place of a Skull, and is mounted to that tree for the sins of the world. He gives His all, everything He has, everything He is, in sacrifice for sinners. Jesus loves His enemies even unto death. And as it all happens, as the nails pierce His flesh and the bystanders mock and the soldiers hurl abuse, as ultimate injustice is served, Jesus prays for His enemies, for the soldiers, for the crowd, for you: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Our Holy Gospel this morning is not first a description of you, it is a description of Jesus for you. He does what God commands, and His doing is done for you. He does it, and does it perfectly, and you get all the credit, poured out upon you in Baptism, received in Word and Supper by faith. You don’t do it. You do the opposite. And He takes all of your doing and not doing and makes atonement for it on the altar of the cross.
Love your enemies. Pray for them. Serve them. Give yourself into death for them. This is not the way it works in this world. This world’s economy is built on tit for tat, I scratch your back and you scratch mine, and you get what’s coming to you. This is how it works among the pagans, as Jesus points out. You love those who love you. You greet those who are useful to you. You shun those who are not. You look the other way as they pass by. And that’s just the strangers. The enemies you actively despise. That is why you find it so hard to let go of the trespasses committed against you. Old Adam keeps a thorough record of wrongs. Repent.
Things are different in the economy of God’s Kingdom. Who does God love? Tax collectors and prostitutes. Sinners. Even pastors. You. God loves you. He loves world. So He gave His only-begotten Son into death. That is how He loves you. Jesus is God incarnate, God in the flesh, the only-begotten Son of the Father. Why are the Pharisees always so upset with Him? Because He hangs out with sinners and eats with them. He has mercy. He does not despise the lowly. He heals the sick and casts out demons. He touches the unclean and takes their uncleanness away. He gives His all, His very self, for those who can give nothing in return, for those who hate Him and despise Him, reject Him and kill Him. Because that is how it works in God’s economy. That is who God is. He is mercy. He is forgiveness. He is life for the dead. He is life for you.
And if that is true (and it is), and if you are baptized into Christ and therefore a son of God, an heir with Christ according to the promise, what does that mean about how you treat your enemy? Our Holy Gospel, thank God, is first about Christ. He is the only One who can do what is here commanded. But now as you are in Christ, it is also about you. These are the things God wants you to do as sons of our Father in heaven. He really does want you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. St. Matthew records our text for a Church under tremendous persecution. Jesus meant it when He said it, and He meant it when His Spirit gave Matthew to write it. And He means it now. “Yes, those guys who are out to get you because you believe in Me. Those guys who want to arrest you and burn your house down and throw you to the wild beasts, or behead you, or crucify you, or burn you alive. Those guys. The Romans. ISIS. Love them. Pray for them. Turn your cheek to them, give them the shirt off your back, go the extra mile for them, even if that mile is to carry your cross to Golgotha.” Jesus does not call us to kick back in this life, eat, drink, and be merry until we continue the good life in the sky. There is a time and place for all of those joys, of course. But our Lord, the crucified One, bids us take up our cross and follow Him. He bids you come and die. It hurts. There’s a cost to it.
Our sister, Barronelle Stutzman, knows that cost intimately. She’s lost everything for refusing to arrange flowers for a gay wedding, for a couple, I might add, whom she knows and loves and has served faithfully for over a decade. Just this week the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that she violated anti-discrimination laws, that the State could compel her to provide services against her conscience, and that the couple can sue her to recoup legal expenses of over a million dollars. It makes you angry that this sort of thing can happen here in America, and right across the state border from us, no less. But you know, throughout this ordeal and in all the years leading up to it, as one of the gay men in this case himself testified under oath, Barronelle has shown nothing but love and compassion to those who are seeking her ruin. She’s lost everything, her livelihood, her reputation, and now she’ll likely be sued for every last penny. Yet she loves. She loves those who are doing this to her. And she prays for them. And she forgives them, even as she suffers the abuse. How can she do it? Why does she do it? She knows what you know. She knows that is precisely what Jesus does for her, and for you. She knows that all of this has been put to death with her Savior on the cross. She knows He is risen and lives and reigns, and she will rise and live and reign with Him. So she loves and she prays and she suffers, now, for a little while. She takes up her cross and follows Jesus. Be like Barronelle. Be like your Christian brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who have loved their captors and prayed for them even as they were led to slaughter. And rejoice! They can kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul. Jesus will raise you, soul and body, to eternal life. You are a son of God! What can the world do to you? It can’t touch you. Not really. Not in any lasting way. So when your Father gives you to suffer affliction, when He lays a cross upon you, greet it as did St. Andrew: “Hail, precious cross, you who were dedicated by the body of Christ; may He receive me through you, who redeemed me through you.” Indeed, he said, “If I feared the punishment of the cross, I would never have preached the mystery of the cross.”
Now, if it’s true of those who want to strip you of your possessions and kill you, that you should love them and pray for them, what does it mean for those who have simply trespassed against you in some way? Forgive. Love. Pray. Suffer. So you were wronged! So you were hurt! So you lost out! Have mercy. Let it go. Free your neighbor from his guilt. Understand, Christ has freed you from your sin and selfishness for this very thing. He has given you to be His priest, to extend the freedom of forgiveness. He freed you. You free your neighbor. He loves you. You love your neighbor. That is how the gifts of God work. God pours out His gifts upon you abundantly and unfailingly, and those gifts flow through you and toward your neighbor. The more you give those gifts away, the more they fill you. Your cup is always full to the brim and overflowing. God is faithful. He will not withdraw His fountain of blessing. There will always be enough. He will always provide for you and keep you in His love.
And now there is an unfortunate translation issue in the last verse of our Holy Gospel. The ESV reads, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). But a better translation would be, “You therefore will be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s not an imperative, it’s a future. It’s not a condition. It’s a promise. You will be… All God’s promises have their fulfillment in Christ. Christ is the Father’s perfect Son. And in Christ, you are perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. And the word “perfect” there is so much more than just morally flawless. It means complete. It means whole. It means you’ve reached the goal, you’re full to the brim, you’ve reached full stature. The word actually comes from the same root as a very important word uttered by Jesus on the cross. There it is not translated as “perfect,” but as “finished.” “It is finished,” Jesus said, “and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). This is no accident. Your perfection is in the sin-atoning death of Jesus, even as your life is in His resurrection. You don’t love your enemies and pray for them in order to be perfect. You love your enemies and pray for them because you are perfect in the death and resurrection of Christ. You are complete, whole, fulfilled, spotless in the death and resurrection of Christ. That’s the promise. That’s how God sees you in Christ. It’s how you’ll see yourself when that Day comes. And maybe, God grant it, that’s how you’ll see your enemy on that Day, because your love and prayers brought him to Christ. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.