Let’s Open Our Arms A Little Wider

February 20, 2011

The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor

Montgomery United Methodist Church

Matthew 5: 38-48

38 "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;
40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;
41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
43 "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

 

Our title and our topic for today begins a sermon series called "Let's Live Graciously" and our topic for today's sermon is:  Let's Open Our Arms a Little Wider.

 

The Theory of the Unwritten Question

I want you to come with me on an exploration of an idea. I have an idea that's called “the unwritten question.” It goes like this. What if the people that had gathered to hear Jesus weren't just there on a pleasant Sunday morning, ready to hear whatever the Master had planned. Suppose they had within them a question or a tough situation they were going through and what we are reading is Jesus's response to that tough situation.

 

For instance, what if this group of people gathered together on this particular occasion and said to the Lord, “Master, someone from that tribe over there hit Uncle Roscoe and we're sure it was unprovoked. We're organizing a posse and we're going over there to get that guy’s family and his whole tribe. First we thought we'd stop by and see what you think before we go.”

 

38 "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;
40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;
41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.

 

Could Jesus have been speaking to a potentially explosive situation like that? His words may be, in essence, “Let's all take a deep breath. Let's all calm down and think this through. If you are my followers, your consciousness has got to be much wider. Your spirit is going to be much more gracious. Vengeance will not be your rule. Getting even will not be your principle - but a much greater, merciful, loving principle will be yours because you are followers of Me.”

The Tradition of Vengeance - and a Step in the Right Direction

Can you imagine this tough situation happening in the Middle East? Well, you know the answer. These people were coming from centuries of heritage based on vengeance. Jesus is saying, let's lay it aside. Let's do something different.

 

Now, you may have looked at the phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and thought. "wow, that is tough justice. That's pretty barbaric." But hold on for a second. What was the rule before? The rule before was not “an eye for an eye.”  The rule before was “your whole tribe for an eye.” The rule before was not “a tooth for a tooth”, and it was “your whole clan for a tooth.”

 

 This statement of the law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, was actually a step forward in mercy for the justice system of the time.

 

Historically this was not a something for an individual to carry out against another individual. This was a guideline for a judge to follow. The other piece of it is that, in point of fact, it really wasn't carried out very much. This was a guideline. It was translated into monetary terms and, if there was a fight or there was an accident, the judge would determine what the cost was, and the person was fined accordingly. (almost sounds like our own justice system, doesn't it?) So, Jesus says, I've got a rule even greater than "an eye for an eye." I've got a rule of “let it go.”  And he's inviting that from us too.

 

Jesus goes on to say.
 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

What does this mean? Should I love them like I love my family?

 

Love Your Enemies?  How?

Let's stop and take a look at what Jesus was saying. The language that we get this part of the Bible from was Greek. Greek is much richer in its vocabulary than English is. In English we have the word, “love” and that's the word that's used here. But the Greek language has at least four words for love. Storge (pronounced, "store-gay"), eros, philos, and agape.  Let's take a look at them.

 
Storge means family love. The love of a parent for a child and the love of a child for a parent.
Eros is the beautiful love between a man and a woman.
Filos is brotherly love, the love of a person for their best friend.
Agape is divine love.  Agape is very closely related to grace.  Undeserved love. The kind of love that God gives. “Heavenly Goodwill” is one translation. 

 

God's love is not dependent on family relationships, romantic relationships or best friend relationships. It is the kind of goodwill that's there because you make a decision to do it. That's the word that Jesus uses and that's what he's calling us to do for even those that aren't on the same page that we are or are different than we are or that are opposed to us. God says love them with agapaic love. Love them with God's kind of love. Love them with gracious love. That's a big part of what it means to live graciously. To love, with gracious love. God's love covers over our sins. Christ's love covers over our imperfection. And that's what we are called to love with by Jesus.

 

 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.  What does that mean? Does that mean we're not God’s children if we don't do things this way? No, it means love so completely, so faithfully, and so decidedly that people say that man's love is like God's love. How can man do that? He loves just like his heavenly father loves. That's what Jesus means here.

 

for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Do you see where Jesus is headed? He says God lets the rain fall on the earth and the sun to warm it for Field A and Field B. Field A belonging to a righteous person and Field B belonging to an unrighteous person. God's love and God's goodness goes out and so should ours. So should the power of our prayer. So should the power of our goodwill. Go out to those we love and to those who are hard to love. That's the kind of goodwill Jesus is calling from us. Live by a higher law. Live by a higher idea.

 

 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

What? Pastor, what are you saying? I'm not perfect. Isn't one of the first requirements for being a Christian admitting you're a sinner and you're imperfect?  Yes.  That's me, imperfect and a sinner. Let's try a different word. Could we substitute excellent? Be excellent, even as your heavenly father is excellent. Be the fulfillment of your nature even as God is the perfect fulfillment of love. Let that be your aim. Go to a higher calling. Not just the fulfillment of the law but to a higher call of love. The word “perfect” here means completely fulfilled in nature.

 

God's love is perfect and that's what Jesus is calling for us to do, too:

To open our arms a little bit wider.
To be a little bit more accepting.
To reject prejudicial ideas.
To give the other person a fair hearing.
To live graciously.

 

We are called to do it in our everyday lives with folks that are hard to get along with and with folks that are easy to get along with. We are not called to love people who are hostile to us the same way we love our dear ones and dear ones. Sometimes love calls for boundaries and limits and saying no.

 

 I had an interesting experience this week. My wonderful godson, Dylan, and I were out bowling. I took him to a place he loves to go, an old-fashioned bowling alley in Bordentown. We were bowling and having a great time. The gentleman on our left who was bowling was a tough looking guy. He had this habit. He'd throw the ball down the alley and if not all the pins went down the way he wanted them to, he would yell. Well I'm not going to say what he yelled, but he would yell this bad word. Very loudly and robustly. I felt very uncomfortable.

 

He even got to the point where he yelled it out when he bowled well, sort of a celebrative outburst over his victory over the pins.

 

What shall I do? Usually in cases like that when kids are involved, I say gentlemen, gentlemen, please, language, language. English is a rich language. Surely you can say something different. And that usually does the trick. Well, with this guy I didn't think that was going to work. I thought I could say, “Sir, please, if you say that when the bowling pins don't go down, what will you say when someone backs into your new car? You'll have nothing saved up. If you use it then, what will you say when your parachute doesn't open? You'll have nothing saved up.” Well, I thought, no, that's not going to work. I thought, I know, I'll take an empathetic approach. So, perhaps I’ll say, “Sir, I don't blame you for saying what you say. If I were you and I bowled the way you do, I'd probably say the same thing.” (laughter) No, maybe not good judgment.

 

 But I had had it. I didn't want to be in that negative environment. So, I simply went up to the desk.


I said, “Is it okay with you if we change alleys?  Can you do that for us?”
The desk person said, “Sure, what is the matter?”
 I said, “Well, the gentleman in the other alley is using some profane language and we don't care to be in that energy.”

He had us move down a few alleys. And nothing more was said. That seemed to work pretty well. I think they were regulars there because I'm pretty sure that the gentleman went up and asked why we moved. Because after that there wasn't any more shouting out. Sometimes you have to choose your battles. Sometimes caring about a person means setting boundaries and setting limits.

 

Also, this week, I was approached by a family who had a problem. (These folks are not from this church or this community.) They were riding in the car. Mother and father were sitting in front and a daughter and a friend were sitting in back.
The daughter said, “You know that some people actually believe that men have one less rib than women?
And the other little girl said, “I believe that. The church my parents and I go to preach that.”
The daughter replied, “But, that’s not true. Science class says we have the same number of ribs.”

The friend replied, “Oh no, we don't.  In the Bible it says that women were made from Adam's rib so men always have one less rib than women.”

 

The girl felt the need to press on with it and to teach the other a lesson and it got a little tense. The friendship was affected. The family came to me and asked how they should have handled this. The friend felt very threatened that if this particular part of her religious faith wasn't true, then what else might not be true?

 

I said I thought that in the context of what was going on, why argue? In the context of what was going on we need to say, that's this person's faith. We are all working with our faith. They are struggling to get close to God. Religion is a language and we are trying to all get close to God. What is important is the friendship and the dignity. Instead of feeling the need to teach a lesson at that very moment, why not just affirm the friendship and affirm that some people's religious beliefs are a little different than ours? Let us be more careful of love and dignity than anything else. Sometimes we just have to open our arms a little bit wider.

 

And so, my dear friends, as we go into this week, I invite you to think of a person or situation that God may be calling you to live graciously with. To open your arms just a little bit wider and let the rule of love and the principle of God's love preside over all your choices.

 

God loves you, I do too, have a wonderful week. Amen.

© 2011 Anthony J. Godlefski