Children of the Most High
A sermon on Luke 6:27-38 by Nathan Nettleton, 18 February 2001
Gods generosity provides the context for our worship and the model for our living, especially when we are faced with hostility.
I saw (and loved) the play Corpus Christi the other week, and one of my favourite lines came after Jesus had violently confronted the abusive and exploitative practices taking place in the temple. One of the disciples said, But you told us to turn the other cheek, and Jesus replied, I must have been in a very good mood that day!
I sometimes wonder whether Jesus sometimes wishes he had never said it at all because it has so often been used to justify allowing violence and abuse to go unchallenged. One of the smaller problems created by this saying is that it is so stark and confronting that it nearly always overshadows the rest of the passage we heard read and as a result we hear almost nothing else and leave it almost without context. So tonight I want to try to turn it back around the other way. I wont spend much time on the turn the other cheek verse, but I realise that it is not fair to ignore it, so I will touch in it briefly and Ive also provided a completely different sermon in the notice sheet that addresses it directly, so you can read about it at home.
The passage as a whole is not about passivity, but about active generosity. It begins with some sayings about how we should behave towards those who are hostile to us, and then works backwards to show that such behaviour finds its source in the way God treats all of us. I think we may be able to hear it more clearly if we hear it the other way round and look at the way God behaves first and then work through to the ways we respond.
The statement Jesus makes about the way Gods behaves is brief and to the point. God is merciful and generous to everyone, whether they deserve it or not, whether they are grateful for it or not. God is kind even to the ungrateful and wicked.
We often hear those words without giving them much thought, but they are a bit of a bombshell if you think much about their implications. Many of us like to think of God as being first and foremost a God of justice and we understand justice to be a two-sided coin: the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished. Sometimes the only thing that stops us taking the law into our own hands is the thought that vengeance is mine says the Lord. We rest assured that God will deal out justice. Those who have been deprived of justice will get the good things they so richly deserve and those who have abused and exploited and oppressed will get their just deserts. Providing youre confident about which side youre on, that is a very popular image of God. But it is not what Jesus says here. If God is a God of justice, its not the kind of justice we are used to thinking about and wishing for. God is, says Jesus, merciful, generous and kind to everyone, whether they deserve it or not. Jesus does not say Love your enemies and do good to them because what youd really like to do to them can be safely left to God. Instead he says, Love your enemies and do good to them because thats the way God treats enemies. God loves and does good to those who hate and curse and abuse God.
Now this does not sound like good news if you are desperately waiting for God to sort out some mongrel who richly deserves the fires of hell. But when you stop to think about it, it is very good news and we actually celebrate it as good news every week when we gather to worship. We celebrate it because when we take a good hard look at ourselves we see that we too have an ugly side. We know that God searches us and knows us, and we know that if God treated us as we deserve on the basis of what that searching reveals about us, wed be too busy fearing for our own skin to worry about what just deserts anyone else might be going to get. So we cry out, Lord, have mercy and we celebrate the fact that the Lord is merciful and generous even when we havent deserved it and long before weve shown any gratitude for it.
We come to the Table and we are reminded over and over again that God does not return the worlds hostility and violence in kind. Instead of seeing a God who takes it on the chin only to wait patiently for an eventual day of judgment, we see Christ absorbing all the hatred and hostility of the world in the worst that human beings can do to each other, and crying out, Father, forgive them, they dont know what they do. And more than that, we see Christ offering his own broken body back to those who broke him to be the source of their own healing and wholeness. The whole context of the praise and thanksgiving that we offer is a context of completely undeserved love, generosity and mercy.
It is in that context of a celebration of Gods completely undeserved love, generosity and mercy, that we hear Jesus say, Go and do likewise. We hear it very explicitly in the gospel reading this week, but this too is a call we hear every week. Every time we gather for worship, after hearing the good news and celebrating Gods love and mercy, we are sent out to Go and do likewise. We celebrate Eucharist and then go out to live eucharistically to live in the spirit of the gratitude we have expressed here; to live out the generous love and mercy with which we have been fed here.
Now if you begin to get your head around this image of Gods extravagant love and mercy, shown to the deserving and undeserving alike, then you can begin to see what Jesus is saying when he says, Love your enemies and do good to them. And if someone gives you a humiliating smack around the ear, turn the other cheek.
Perhaps you can even begin to see that Jesus is not calling for a passivity that allows violence and abuse to go unchallenged. Rather he is calling for it to be challenged with love and mercy rather than returned in kind. You see, when Christ turns the other cheek, it is not as a frightened abused child who has no other option, it is as one who knows that he has the power to say the word and an army of angels would march in to dispense justice. It is only one who has the potential to respond to violence with equal or greater violence who can meaningfully choose to turn the other cheek. In that context, turning the other cheek is a strong act that unmasks the unjust hostility of the attacker by refusing to come down to the same level. It challenges them to choose between making themselves look even worse or backing down and apologising.
It is never ever ever the Christian response to tell someone who is a helpless victim of violent abuse to turn the other cheek. Only if they could meaningfully stand up on an equal footing with their abuser could such an option mean anything. What this passage is calling us to do if we were dealing with a person who was suffering such abuse would be to step in and put ourselves in the firing line in their place. We are called to be the other cheek. When we and I mean we, this is not usually something to mess with individually when we offer to be the other cheek, we are unmasking the evil that is taking place and offering back the same kind of undeserved and outrageously generous love and mercy we have encountered in Christ. We are refusing to let the evil continue unchecked, but we are also refusing to be dragged down to the level of responding in kind.
Not only is that actually a lot more likely to lead to genuine repentance on the part of the abuser and therefore reduce the likelihood of them just repeating it all over again elsewhere, but it is also a far more faithful response to totally undeserved love and mercy that has enabled us to begin our own journeys into healing, wholeness and fullness of life.