Expanding our idea of love

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Expanding our idea of love, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday 19 February, 2017. The Reading was Matthew 5:38-48.

Who wants to hit me?

Last week, I talked about how Jesus expanded the law from just the command against murder to say that we shouldn’t get angry. Bill cornered me after the service to remind me that there are different sorts of anger – there is violent anger, which is was Jesus was speaking about, and there is a just or a holy anger. And sometimes it is good for us to get angry about some things – for example we should get angry about injustices. However, in all things, we should  not get violent in our anger – instead, we should seek a response that is grounded in love, and invites the oppressor to change their ways.

So to start with today, I’d like a volunteer who is willing to hit me.

Now don’t all jump up at once!

Now, before you hit me, I want to explain some of the customs that were happening in Jesus’ day, as it goes in to explaining some of the things that are happening in this passage.

Now firstly, there are two ways to hit someone. You can hit them with your palm, or you can hit them with the back of your hand. The way you were hit would mean two very different things. If you were hit with the palm of the hand, it meant that the person hitting you saw you as an equal. On the other hand – as it were, the back of the hand is how you would have hit someone lesser than you – a slave for instance.

There was also a very important rule in what hand you would use to hit with, and it has to do with this.

toilet-paper

Now does anyone know when this was invented? Toilet paper wasn’t commercially available until 1857, but the first references to paper being used after, well, you know, was in the 6th century AD in China. Now, was Jesus’ sermon on the mount given before or after the 6th century AD? Well, before obviously, so you don’t have access to this.

And because of that, society dictates that there are certain ways that these things are done. For example, you would clean with the dirty hand, that is, the left hand. Everything else was done with the right hand.

Ok, so you’re going to hit me with your right hand. Now, Jesus says if anyone hits you on your right cheek. If you can only hit me with your right hand, and you wanted to hit me on my right cheek, how would you hit me, with your palm, or with the back of the hand?

It can only be with the back of the hand, indicating that you think of me as someone lesser, such as a slave.

So, go ahead, and (gently) hit me.

So I’ve been hit on the right cheek. What does Jesus instruct me to do? Turn the other cheek. So I turn my head, and present my other cheek, my left cheek, for you to hit. Now, remembering that you can only use your right hand, what is the only way that you and hit me?

By presenting my left cheek, the only way that you can hit me is by hitting me with an open hand – signifying that you recognise me as an equal.

This has the effect of forcing the oppressor to think. He can either hit me again, recognising me as an equal. Or, he can choose to walk away.

Jesus is teaching a way of returning power to those who are powerless.

The following two examples also show a way of returning power to the powerless, and if you’d like to know about them, I’ve summarised them in the handout, or you can talk to me later.

Where do you place yourself?

I’m interested to know where you place yourself in that situation?

If we believe that Christ’s teachings can be personally applicable to our lives, then we have to believe that this teaching can also be personally applicable to us. Which means that we should be able to put ourselves into this example, and see it from our own situation.

I think for most people reading this passage, they would put themselves in the place of the person being oppressed – that is, the person being hit, the person being sued, and the person being forced to go the mile. And that is the most easy, and the most direct reading, because that is who Jesus was speaking to.

The crowd in Jesus’ day were the ones who were oppressed. They weren’t the rich and elites who were accepted in the Synagogues and Temples where they could receive religious instruction. Jesus went out into the world, sat on mountain tops, and allowed the everyday, common person to come and listen.

And similarly, the Jewish people as a whole were an oppressed people. Israel was an occupied land, being governed by a Roman authority, who took orders from Rome, and looked after Rome’s interests first. There were Roman guards, soldiers and Centurions roaming the streets, and it was impossible for the Jewish people to escape the influence – and the imposition – of Roman society.

So in many aspects, the Jewish people were in the place of the oppressed. They were the ones being hit. They were the ones being sued. They were the ones forced to carry the soldiers packs.

But is that our situation? For some – it might be? There may be situations where you are oppressed. And you can take Jesus’ lessons here and apply them to your own situations, and think about how you might return power to your powerless situation.

But I suspect for the majority of us, we are actually in the situation of the oppressor. And that is sometimes hard to hear. But I have to recognise that I am a Christian Caucasian Male, living in a country that inherently is a patriarchy governed by other Caucasian Males, who nominally align to a Christian heritage. My life is privileged, due to my gender and the colour of my skin, and in some ways, my religion.

And I have to recognise that if I were living in this country, and I happened to be Aboriginal, or if I happened to be from the Middle East, if I believed in a different religion, or even if I happened to be Female, then I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities that I have. The reality is that I am closer to being the Oppressor than the Oppressed.

So when looking at this story, I cannot immediately put myself in the shoes of the oppressed.

However, it is still important for me to do so. Because as I consider what is happening to the oppressed in these situations, and I accept Christ’s teachings for how they should respond, as someone who is closer to the Oppressor than the Oppressed, I cannot do, or even condone the actions by the Oppressor.

If I accept this teaching, then I cannot think of anyone as beneath me, of being worthy of being hit as a slave. If I accept this teaching, I cannot sue someone for everything that they have and have them left with nothing. If I accept this teaching, I cannot force others to do my work for me.

If I accept this teaching, I cannot sit idly by while others are oppressed in our society. That is why we as a Salvation Army have Justice as one of our values – because we recognise our position as one of privilege, and in order not to be the oppressor, we actively seek to bring justice to the lives of the oppressed in our society.

Expanding our idea of love

We are a privileged people. We have to recognise that. We must always be aware of our privilege, and whether our privilege might be preventing others coming into the love of Christ. And this is something that we need to be aware of – whether we are privileged, or whether we are the oppressed, and something that is actually the crux point of Jesus’ Sermon on the mount – everything that we’ve been looking at over the last four weeks has been building up to this point.

In verse 43, Jesus quotes and paraphrases some teaching that would have been heard from the pharisees and teachers of the time – Love your neighbour, and hate your enemy. Now, hate your enemy doesn’t appear anywhere in scripture, but Love your neighbour does – in Leviticus 19:18, we read:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

In some ways, it seems clear. But in Moses’ day, when Leviticus is said to have been written, the word that is used for neighbour, רֵעַ (re-ah), is invoking an understanding of neighbour that is limited to your family, or your tribe. It was a very exclusive love – it was limited to those who were part of the Kingdom of Israel.

But Jesus expands this concept.

He says to the crowd, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Now, I would hope that I don’t have any enemies. I certainly don’t think that I do. I can’t think of anyone that I would count as my enemy. But for a people who were living in an occupied land, who were faced every day with the reality of Roman centurions and soldiers enforcing their law, not the law of Israel, this was a teaching that they would have to face immediately.

Instead of just looking after their own families, Jesus taught that they had to expand their idea of who God loved, and who we should love. And that message is confronting and challenging.

Christ calls us to expand our idea of love, because – as Christ said – “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Even Atheists love those who love them. Christ is calling us to go above and beyond – to love the unlovable, to love the unwanted, to love the undesirables, to love our enemy, to love those who would normally be excluded.

In the first letter of John, 1 John 4:7-21, there is an incredible explanation of God’s love. Verse 11 and 12 reads “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

We need to show love to everyone that we meet. And sometimes that will be confronting. Sometimes, that will force you to face previously held convictions. Sometimes, it will force you to show love to someone you previously hated. Sometimes, it will force you to show love to someone that you thought was previously impossible.

And that’s the confronting and challenging part of this message. That’s the part that I have struggled with on this message all week.

You see, if you take it to it’s logical conclusion, there are some pretty confronting people that Christ calls us to love.

For example, let’s say a bikie in full Hell’s Angels regalia walks through that door. How would we welcome him? Or a girl walks in who appears to be dressed like she’s just finished a shift in a brothel? What about someone who we know to be a murderer or a child sex offender? I’m not saying that we should let them do whatever they want, and we certainly have to have protections there, but would we show them the same welcome as anyone else?

Or what about things that aren’t a choice? What about people born into poverty – do we welcome them as well as we do the rich? Or those born in another country, or those who have a different skin colour?

I’m sure you can think of other people that it might be confronting for you to love. But all the same, Christ calls us to love them. Because, if we do only the same as the non-believers, then what good is that? We need to expand our idea of love – in order to show Christ’s love to all people.

Go and Live God’s Expanded love in Community

Last week, I talked about the need to be in a faith community. And that is important. But, we always need to remember that our faith is meant to be lived in our community – that is, outside of the church. Christ said at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.” This line doesn’t mean that we have to go into another country to do that – Christ was commanding his disciples to leave Israel, we have already gone into the world. We can go and show Christ’s love in the world where we are, here in Rochester. There is no-one in this town, whether living here, or just passing through, who isn’t deserving of us showing them the same love that Christ has shown us.

So Go and live out God’s expanded love in community. Because if we are all created in the image of God, then we are all deserving of Christ’s love.

I invite you to spend some time reflecting on this message. There may be someone, or a group of people that have come to mind that you would like to pray for – that they would feel welcome in the church. Or maybe, you would like to come and ask God for guidance over how to show someone God’s love. Maybe you have been guilty of a narrow view of God’s love, and you would like to come forward and ask for help in expanding your own idea of love to be more in line with Jesus’ expanded idea of love.

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Author: Ben Clapton

I'm an Officer in The Salvation Army, currently appointed with my wife as Corps Officers at the Rochester Corps in country Victoria (20 minutes out of Echuca). I play violin and guitar, amongst many others, and love golf and running.

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