The Sermon on the Mount represents the ethical embodiment of God’s coming Kingdom. In these verses, Jesus outlines a picture of what starts with his own life and will come through the power of the Spirit This sermon is the picture of what it looks like if Christians lived together Christian-ly. If we lived under the assumption that our Christian witness could fit into neat left or right categories, this Sermon obliterates our naïveté. Jesus begins with blessings for the poor (Mat. 5:3), and then it gets more radical. In Matthew 5:38-48, we are given a glimpse of how Christians live together in a world bent toward violence and injustice.
A few weeks ago, we received a message from some friends on the mainland. They had saved enough airline miles to visit Hawaii, but wanted to save a little extra. They inquired whether they could stay in the lower level of our home, which is unsuitable for children and conjures images more of a dungeon than a living space. But we are friends, and ministry colleagues, so we of course agreed that they could stay for a few days (after acknowledging the dungeon-esque space). This was an easy decision to make space for those we love.
A couple of months ago, a woman we’ve been counseling during a time of separation from her husband and children needed to find a new place to stay. Affordable housing being one of the premier challenges on the islands, we knew this would be difficult to find. And as a particular deadline loomed, we discussed all the reasons we could or could not invite this woman to stay with us: we rent our home — the space isn’t ours; it’s too small; it would add a level of stress upon our already stressful year. We acknowledged our family rhythms would be a healthy antidote for her, and it would create a stronger relational bond between us, perhaps paving the way for healthy change.
To our friends, we had no problem extending our space for a few days. But when it came to another in need (not even an enemy), we began listing the limitations that would hinder an extension of our love. And I hear Jesus echo, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get…don’t even the pagans do that?” This Sermon ought to mark us Christians as different.
I remember the night Osama bin Laden had been killed. The United States had hunted down this man for years, inciting two wars in the process. Countless dead littered fields, deserts, cities, and mountains. More innocent lives were lost than combatants — collateral damage for catching the world’s most wanted. I had family in town when President Obama made the announcement. While other Christians in the room possessed an air of celebration, I couldn’t join them. I could not help but think on this passage of scripture. We are to "love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” I could never celebrate death, nor the deaths of all the innocents left in the wake to catch this man. The world knows a kind of violent vengeful justice that is anathema to the justice and righteousness of Christ.
Sure, we say, God is like that, but we are not God. We cannot live such a life, we insist. We are human and finite. Our lives are always conditional, limited, bounded by our circumstance. God may cause the sun to rise on the just and unjust; God may possess no partiality, but living like that is not possible in this world. My family comes first — I must provide for them before others. My country comes first — I must protect my own before my enemies. My retirement comes first — I must ensure my future before I give to the poor. Each argument resting on a system of meritocracy and prejudice. I care more about my own life and those closest to me than the lives of others. And yet, in God’s Kingdom there should be no limit to our goodness, no system of qualification; only benevolent grace.
Even more, we are Wesleyan-Holiness folk. Our doctrine of sanctification teaches us that God’s undiscriminating and unlimited grace and love can penetrate the limits we place on ourselves. God’s grace not only teaches us to say no to ungodliness but nudges us toward the hard practices of reconciling with our enemies. Too often, we allow our humanness to keep us from growing into the nature and likeness of Christ. We make a mistake, and we blame it on our humanity. When we sin, we explain it away: “We are only human,” we tell ourselves.
But Wesleyan-Holiness folk do not define our humanness by way of our fallenness. We do not sin because we are human. We sin because we are not yet human enough. That is, we define our humanity by the one true human. Jesus is what it means to be human, and in Matthew 5, Jesus explains that the way to be human is through the same nonviolent love of the one who climbed Golgotha. We are not to take vengeance in our own hands; we are not to retaliate; rather, we are to extend the same love to our enemies that we would extend to our friends. This is what it means to resemble Christ, to pick up our cross and follow him. No theology of holiness can survive without a foundation in the nonviolent love of Christ.
One of my teachers in grad school was Rev. James Lawson, the chief architect and instigator of the Nashville sit-in Movement in 1960. He told our class this story of “nonresistance” in the face of appalling injustice; a kind of “turn-the-other-cheek” moment. Lawson, a Divinity student at Vanderbilt at the time, had spent months training young black activists to sit at “white-only” lunch counters and not respond to the hostility, beatings, and arrests that would inevitably come. During one such altercation, Rev. Lawson monitored the streets to help de-escalate any conflict that would arise. He was approached by an onlooker who screamed a racial slur and spit in his face.
Lawson, keeping calm, simply asked the man if he happened to have a handkerchief he could borrow. The man, surprised by the response, quickly gave him the one in his pocket. At that point, Lawson noticed the motorcycle nearby, and asked if it was his. The next five minutes they conversed about bikes, mechanics, and horsepower. By the end of the conversation, the man asked if there was anything the activists needed.
What strikes me about this story is the imagination of Rev. Lawson to see a different outcome. His unexpected response caught the man off guard, unshackling him from the prison of his own prejudice. This is the beauty of enemy-love; it refuses to define someone by their worst characteristics. Rather, it recognizes Christ in the other. With this picture, there are countless possibilities to imagine new ways forward in otherwise impossible situations. Rev. Lawson shows us what it means to be perfect in the same way as God. This is perfect love: a radical concern for the redemption of your accuser. May it be so with us.