Walter Brueggemann is a contemporary theologian who does not hedge his words. He is one of the most prolific and prophetic preachers alive. A popular quote of his aligns closely with the point of our scripture lessons today. He says, “The crisis in the church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and practice of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
I think that analysis is true, but insufficient. I also believe that Christianity has been coopted by the eons-old human desire to control faith by removing it from worldly purposes. We have in our American protestant tradition this long-held idea that (1) faith is a private “spiritual” affair; (2) that the essence of Christianity is that a loving God saved us from deserved eternal punishment by executing his Son on a cross and then securing our eternal reward by raising him from the dead; and (3) that we will show that we subscribe to all this if we live lives of relatively moral rectitude without making waves against authorities. Where Lutherans are densest that is called “Minnesota nice.” So, because we think we are blessed with an escape clause thanks to our violent crucifying—but loving!—God, we do not worry about how we ignore the direct commands of our lord to love each other and our enemies. We weren’t electing a Sunday School teacher to high office after all, said the loudest self-identified Christians in our last election.
Wrap this warped version of Christianity with the almost inevitable cultural idols to which we fall victim again and again (the patriotism, consumerism, etc.) and we have a fairly full picture about what has gone wrong in Christianity and why so many choose to walk away from it.
It cannot be any clearer this morning, however, that to be holy—per Leviticus—is to care always for the poor and hungry, to live with the neighbor honestly and justly, never to hate, and always love the neighbor as yourself. And it cannot be any clearer that Jesus not only intends that his movement fulfill this law, but to love the enemy neighbor as well. Christians are the people really called to be exceptional! Christian practice of divine love is to do what no earthly power no matter how punitive and violent could ever achieve: God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. To do this, not only will the Christian not practice scorn, hate, and violence, which of course any fine civic group can and should do. The Christian will pray for and love the enemy.
Having said this, this is when to the lips of self-proclaimed realists come profane exclamations that begin with the word “holy” or the letters W and T. If that isn’t unrealistic enough, Jesus then says “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Really, shouldn’t every self-proclaimed realist be walking out of the church by now?
But thanks be to God, the realists of this age are the ones who fail. As we heard from Paul today, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” and “the thoughts of the wise…are futile.”
Here’s the thing: God is not far off and away, thereby requiring us to invent religion so to reach God. God is near and intimate, providing already the other-worldly power of love in the here and now everyday so to change us and our distorted perception. “The notion that God is absent is the fundamental illusion of the human condition (Thomas Keating).” God is present in, with, and through the risen Lord Jesus Christ, not as a calculus for our salvation from the world, but as a gift of power to live lovingly in the world, to the point even that we would pray for and love our enemies.
So are you tired of the hate parade against the president? I am. And I am guilty of walking in it. I will pray for and love him. I may not want to. But I am told to. I will not have to agree with him. But I am not commanded to agree with him or any of my enemies. I am simply commanded to pray for and love those who trouble me. Does that mean I must reach out with a hug or a bromance? Of course not. It does mean I will accord every respect that a human being created in the image of God is due, including Levitical fairness, honesty, and reproval when timely.
Similarly, I will pray for and love all the others so easily named as my enemies. Why? Because, yes, speaking selfishly, it will lower my blood pressure. But it will do more. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized, the enemy’s very incapacity to love requires my stepping forward as a little Christ to love for him. THAT is one of the baptismal practices of which Brueggemann spoke. And THAT stepping forward to love me when I had no capacity for love my self is the work of Christ that took him all the way to and beyond the cross. On that basis I would hope to achieve his example. I would hope to be perfect, as God is perfect, which means finally to be made whole and complete in love.
That’s what Christian perfection is. It is maturity in what God means me to be. It is completion. I can only strive toward it, which is a matter of daily baptismal practice. And my striving daily with baptismal practices of love, prayer, forgiveness, fairness, and so on, is necessary for others rightly to name me as a Christian. I cannot therefore even call myself a Christian. That is what others are to call me when they see it. By my fruits they shall know me. I can only strive, by Christ’s help, and never presume. Because of Christ for me and for you, I would strive to become whole and complete in love. Realistically, would you want it any other way? For me? For you?
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX