“Jesus Really Means What He Says” (Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
“Jesus Really Means What He Says” (Matthew 5:38-48)
Listen again to what Jesus says to us in today’s Gospel reading, and tell me what you think: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Or again: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . .”
So what do you think about these sayings of Jesus? Do we take them seriously? Or do we find ways to slip out from under what he is saying? Friends, I am here to tell you today: “Jesus Really Means What He Says.”
Now let me begin by demonstrating for you a couple of convenient avenues of escape that people use to distance themselves from Jesus’ teaching.
The first move that people make to get away from taking Jesus’ teaching seriously is to dismiss it as impractical and idealistic. “Oh, sure, Jesus, I suppose it’s to be expected that you would tell us this stuff. You are a religious teacher, and this does sound nice and all. But really, come on! Who can do these things in the real world? Don’t you know it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there? And I’m not about to be somebody’s Kibbles ’n Bits! Don’t resist someone who wants to do you evil? Turn the other cheek? Give a guy the cloak off your back? Go the extra mile? And–are you kidding me?–love your enemies?? Easy for you to say. Maybe even easy for you to do. You’re the Son of God, after all, and I’m not. So, no, sorry, Jesus. Nice idealistic teaching, but it’s just not practical in the real world.”
So that’s move #1, the “Dismiss-it-as-too-dreamy Maneuver.” And so we slip out of whatever impact Jesus’ words might otherwise have on our lives.
Move #2: I call it the “Stereotypical Lutheran Oversimplification.” It goes something like this: A) Jesus tells us to love people and to do them good. B) We don’t do this, because we’re poor lousy sinners. C) God forgives you. D) Class dismissed. Go home.
And so, once again, we fail to take to heart, and take seriously, the teaching that Jesus gives us here. It makes no significant impact on the way we live our lives.
But dear friends, I’m here to tell you today, Jesus really means what he says! He does expect his followers, his disciples, to live the way he describes. He really means it. So let’s not dismiss his words too quickly–or at all, really.
Now, to be sure, is there some truth, some grain of truth, in those two moves I demonstrated earlier? Yes, for one thing, Jesus does tend to speak in dramatic, very vivid language, to make his point stand out. For instance, you may not literally get struck on one cheek and then turn to offer the other. Jesus does like to speak hyperbolically.
Also, this teaching of Jesus is not meant to do away with the police or the judicial system and the legal restraint of wrongdoing. That’s government’s God-given responsibility, for the sake of keeping good order in the world. But this passage is talking, not about that, but about personal vengeance.
So whether or not you are literally struck on the cheek, and whether or not there’s a matter of criminal justice involved, the principle involved in Jesus’ teaching still stands. It’s the principle of non-retaliation, of not taking personal revenge. It’s the practice of forgiveness and of returning good for evil. That’s what runs through this teaching. And Jesus really means it. He expects his disciples will live this way.
Now that leads to the grain of truth embedded in move #2, the “Stereotypical Lutheran Oversimplification.” It is true that none of us lives this way sinlessly. We all fall short, in one way or another. We are always going to be in need of God’s forgiveness in Christ, for we all mess up, even as longtime Christians.
And, thank God, God gives us that forgiveness, freely, for the sake of Christ. We’d be sunk without it. But God’s grace in Christ is so mighty, so all-availing, that he does forgive our sins, even after we mess up, time and time again. Have you messed up, have you fallen short? Take your anger and your unforgiveness to the foot of the cross. There you will hear your Savior praying for you–and for all of this world’s sinners, for whom he died. Jesus is praying for you today: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus prays this prayer for you, as he lays down his life for you. You know, Jesus, God’s own Son–he himself was struck on the cheek and did not strike back. He himself endured the whip and wore the thorns. He himself took those nails in his hands and feet. Yes, Jesus, God’s own Son, the sinless one, endured all this and shed his blood for you, so that now you are forgiven, and will be forgiven, and made to stand when you stumble and fall.
And yet, and still, Jesus does expect his disciples now to be able themselves to forgive others. Yes, he really means it. He expects his disciples will live differently than the children of this world. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers,” and so on. And he’s talking about you, dear friends. He’s talking about his disciples, that is, all of us who are following him in faith. He says that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. And he means it. He’s not kidding. He expects–and he enables and empowers–his disciples to live lives of love and good works. Jesus means what he says, and he has the means to back up what he says.
Here’s how. Through faith in Christ, and through Holy Baptism, you and I now really are children of our heavenly Father. We have this Father in heaven, we really do! Or should I say, he has us! God claimed us as his children in Holy Baptism, placed his name upon us. We belong to him now. We have a new nature. We’ve been brought into the family. Through God’s one and only Son, capital “S,” we now, being joined to Christ–we too are sons of God, small “s.” And so we share in the family characteristic, which is mercy and love and forgiveness. God our heavenly Father is merciful, so we his children will be merciful. God our Father is forgiving, so we his children will forgive. It runs in the family.
So first, we are children of our heavenly Father, and we share in and reflect his character. Second, we are followers of Jesus, his disciples. We hear from Christ, not only instruction, but also promise. We see in Christ, not only example, but also the one who makes disciples out of faltering fishermen. Christ calls us, and with that call comes the life-transforming power to make of us what he will. And he wills that we become what he calls us to be. We are new creations in Christ. We are God’s workmanship, designed now to do the good works he places before us. Those good works include showing love and doing mercy. They include practicing forgiveness and restraining the urge for revenge. More and more, we are being conformed into the image of God’s Son, into the character of Christ.
On what basis can Jesus expect us to live in the way he describes? First, because we are children of the heavenly Father. Second, because we are followers of Christ, his disciples. And third, because we are temples of the Holly Spirit. That’s brought out in today’s Epistle reading, isn’t it? In 1 Corinthians 3, St. Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Well, if you didn’t know it before, know it now: You are that temple. Yes, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of holiness, does dwell in you. You were given this gift in your baptism. The Holy Spirit lives in you, enlivening your walk as God’s child and Christ’s disciple. The Spirit will lead you in the way you should go. This is the extra “power bonus” you have working for you–and working in you.
So for all these reasons, Jesus really means what he says. Jesus means what he says, and he has the means to back up what he says and make it happen. Those means are the means of grace, which Jesus gives to his disciples every day in our baptismal walk and every week in our life together here in church. The means of grace, Word and Sacrament. Not a cliché, but a real caché–yeah, I know it’s supposed to be pronounced “cash,” but “caché” works so much better with “cliché” that I couldn’t resist. Yes, they are a real ca–a real treasure trove, a storehouse of goods for the growing disciple. Your baptism into Christ has ongoing power to get you back up and going every single day, dying and rising with Christ. The Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood will not only forgive your sins, God will also strengthen you through the same, in faith toward him and in fervent love toward one another. You will even be strengthened and renewed in Christ-like love for your enemies–the people you need to forgive, even as you yourself have been forgiven.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: Does Jesus mean what he says when he calls his disciples to a life of love and forgiveness and non-retaliation? Yes, he really means it! This is not some game he’s playing. He says what he means, and he means what he says. Don’t do those easy escape moves that I explained at the start, the “Dismiss-it-as-too-dreamy Maneuver” or the “Stereotypical Lutheran Oversimplification.” No, those moves do not do justice to Jesus’ words. And really, it’s much more exciting to believe and live like Jesus is saying here. It’s a life–new life, a different life–that is the birthright of God’s dear children, who share in their heavenly Father’s character. It’s the way of discipleship that our Lord opens up for us, for all those following him in faith. It’s life in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit who dwells in our bodies, his temple. Yes, in his teaching today about love for others, even for enemies, our Lord Jesus really means what he says. And he has the means to make it happen.