Well, aren’t we in a pickle! We had quite the positive sermon series begun between Pastor Karin and me, but now this! Two weeks ago I observed how Jesus gathers us together and makes us by his saying so “blessed” when we are mocked and persecuted for bearing his name. Of course, the presumption was and is that we are so distinguished that we are mocked and persecuted. Pastor Liebster spoke similarly, declaring that we all together are created by Messiah Jesus to be salt and light for this community and the world.
But was it all bait and switch? Are all those uplifting words now compromised by fine print? Are we now wondering what we signed up for? Does it feel now like those sermons had the shelf life of inspirational posters we see at the dentist’s office of soaring eagles’ or dogs with roses in their mouths? Or, so you can maintain emotional distance, are you simply wondering “Gee, I wonder how Pastor Duane’s going to pull a holy rabbit out of this hat of hard words today?
Jesus is not trivial, and only partially hyperbolic. When it comes to creating the community of God that will change the world, Jesus is serious. Those people at his mountain pulpit were of mostly no social standing and no promised prosperous future. He declared them as a new community. It is to each of us to decide whether we are with them. Jesus states that there are behaviors of this new community that will clearly distinguish them. This new community will so challenge and change a broken world that its members simultaneously will be celebrated as saints and mocked as snowflakes.
“You have heard it said,” Jesus says. Then new stuff happens! He equates anger against your fellow human with murder, and counsels that if you have a problem with him or her, you’d better make peace before you two are next to each other at God’s table. He equates familiar human desire with adultery, and divorce and remarriage with adultery too, thereby declaring that if we see each only as objectified terms for satisfying the self, like digital images today to swipe right or left, then we’re all the more hollowing out our own humanity on the fatal trajectory of sexual addiction. Jesus equates making vows with unfaithfulness, too. How is oath-taking so wrong? Because oath-taking presumes the normalcy of lying. Only in a culture addicted to lies and lying can taking oaths be called virtuous. For the truly human community of God to thrive, trustworthy human action coheres with words taken always as sincere. Our accommodations otherwise show just how normalized instead is sin personally, socially, and structurally.
Goodness! Jesus is either the toughest and most moral coach ever at Christian Astros Spring Training or he speaks so truly that very few of us even want to imagine following. Jesus isn’t easy precisely because he is infinitely gracious. Because Jesus has chosen us and is shaping us, we have to follow. It is not that we don’t decide. We do. But we decide only because he already has decided and dedicated his life for us. And apart from his life there is no possibility of real life for us, of life really lived wherein women and men are equally treated with the highest regard, where words foundationally stand for something because the relationships that words describe and convene are already recognized in the dignity and communality of love, freed from the oppression of boundless ego. We follow Jesus even if we cannot or dare not imagine what it means. If we give real thought to it notwithstanding our usual impatience, we just follow.
Shallow interpretations don’t get this “following” business. So let’s talk about shallow hearing and so interpretation of Jesus’ words. The shallowest interpretation takes Jesus’ words literally. With legalistic stupidity they opt for a graceless authoritarianism that isn’t Christian. On such literal terms religion could only be wholly sight and hearing impaired and without limbs, about which unreflective atheism with ample evidence mocks Christianity.
Still shallow is the interpretation that tries to defuse these words by claiming that Jesus was merely hyperbolic so that we would trust him instead of our own actions. That’s the so-called “Lutheran” escape clause, which it really isn’t, but finally implies that Jesus says all this so that we would affirm our inabilities, call ourselves “only human,” and so count sin in all its personal and social forms as no big deal. It is not a big step from that level of shallow to the next to say that we Christians are freed by grace and so don’t have to follow divine law, while everyone else must. That’s just dumb. And selfish. And pretty much bigoted toward all other religions. It isn’t even religion. It’s just another instance of the “Christians gone wild” genre of sociology, what Bonhoeffer made famous as “cheap grace.” “Try not to do what we shouldn’t, but if we do, cuz, you know, we like it, God loves us and will take care of us anyway.” This is fatal, of course, because if plumbed, it finally reveals no self-respect and no love of God.
But what if you do know the love of God? What if it really is the case that because you have known at least sometimes the ecstasy of God’s love in you; that you’ve been so joyous in love at least enough to know that the choice for real life is real in you, so that everything is seen anew and truly beautiful because you see with the eyes of Christ; that everything you do comes from the desire more to love and so therefore to follow and so therefore to treat one another and the world not as opportunities for self-aggrandizing, but as those and that with whom and with which you are in love?
And to recognize that you are in love with God’s people and world because Christ chose you for this is also to recognize that there are things to which you say “no.” That’s not being unwelcoming or “unchristian.” “Yes” to God’s love means “No” to being defined by anger toward our neighbors. “Yes” to God means not just a passive “no” but an active “No!” to all evil, to all lies and liars, “to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy.” So Bonhoeffer.
We have one master, Jesus Christ. Insofar as we serve him wholeheartedly, we are on the better trajectory of loving each other more dearly, thinking more clearly, and even finding that our plain words in solidarity with each other are sufficient for the good life.
The totality of Jesus’ giving of himself into us is his uncompromising grace. For our times of lesser loyalties it is uncompromisingly hard. Coming toward Ash Wednesday, we’ve been given our prayer orders. They’re not cheap. But neither is Christ, who spends all of himself for you. God’s love, which defines God’s law, is that immeasurable. This divine truth gives the most profound gravity to Mary Oliver’s words: “It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world.”
Duane H. Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX
February 16, 2020