Be perfect, therefore, as your God in heaven is perfect.
|Main Street, Sunrise|
Epiphany begins, for the church at least, in the river, with Jesus and John, and the heavens splitting and a voice claiming Jesus as God’s beloved. It’s like the key signature for the song we Christians want to sing. There’s something about this story, there’s something about this prophet, this teacher, that manifests God’s love, God’s power, even God’s delight. The whole earth is bathed in that one light. The whole creation dances in that one light. And as we step into it ourselves, as we dare to dance with it, we begin to see beyond the world’s many divisions, beyond the world’s many suspicions—to a communion of siblings, to a festival of friends, to a planet of possibilities. Jesus is the Wisdom of God, for us at least, and God’s unbroken promise of grace and hope and wholeness.
This seems especially important, urgent even, for us now. Our calling—as a people, as a church—is grace and hope and wholeness. Not blame and despair and division. To be a Christian isn’t to rise above all the rest, to prove ourselves somehow more righteous, more holy, more blessed than others. To be a Christian isn’t to pass judgment. To be a Christian is to devote our lives, our churches, our energies to that wild communion of siblings, to the great commonwealth of creation. Again, take a look at that sunrise on Main Street. “Earth is crammed with heaven,” said the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “and every common bush afire with the glory of God.” To go where Jesus goes is to dare to dance in that one sweet light: the light that shines on all the world and delights in us all. “Earth is crammed with heaven.” Jesus reveals that. Jesus manifests that. Jesus asks us to live in that faith.
So with that in mind, that faith, that Jesus: we turn to one of his most radical teachings, these words from the Sermon on the Mount:
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;The kind of love Jesus is describing, the kind of love Jesus himself offers and extends to friend and foe: it’s a love that seeks communion and community, a love that invites companionship and even conversion in the midst of conflict. That’s what’s going on in these first verses. If that Roman soldier strikes you on the right cheek, and you turn the other to him, you have both honored your own humanity and asked him to return to his. See how that works? This isn’t passive, this is active resistance. You’re not asking for more punishment, a more sustained beating. Quite the opposite. In turning back to him, in showing that Roman soldier your courage, your dignity, you are looking him in the eye—human to human—and inviting him to change, to see in you the image of the divine he missed. Always, with Jesus, a love that seeks communion and community, a love that invites companionship and even conversion. The Greek word here is ‘agapé.’ Agapé!
and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give
your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile,
go also the second mile…
I think this is the kind of love we’ve encountered time and time again this past year. Just last week, in the courageous words and testimony of Pastor Renée Rouse: challenging us to stay awake, to keep watch, to be accomplices in dismantling racism and oppression. Agapé! Love leaning into partnership. Love sharing the burdens of social change and transformation. Love manifesting faith itself. Or last fall, in the bright eyes and testimony of Pastor Mariama White-Hammond: insisting on solidarity and friendship, and the Holy Spirit’s passion for human connection and collaboration. Agapé! Love refusing to settle for violence. Love refusing to settle for injustice. Love refusing to settle for brutality and despair.
Martin Luther King said it best in his book, Strength to Love. He put it this way: “Agapé is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when another seeks to break it. It’s the willingness to go to any length to restore community.” And watch how Martin King picks up on Jesus’ teaching, gets to the heart of it: “Agapé doesn’t stop at the first mile, but goes the second mile to restore community. Agapé is our willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community.” And then this stunning celebration of Easter faith: “The resurrection itself is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community.” Let me repeat that. “The resurrection itself is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community.” And then he finishes this way, Martin Luther King: “The Holy Spirit is the continuing community-creating reality that moves through history.”
So maybe then, what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount, and especially in this morning’s teaching: what he’s doing is articulating his own Easter faith, his own resurrection commitment, his own sense of the Holy Spirit in his life and ours. There's no Easter without this. Easter isn’t magic, right? Easter is love. Easter is agapé. God’s love. In our lives. Seeking community. So be perfect, Jesus says. Be compassionate in all things and perfect in mercy. Because love has already saved the world.
When we love like Jesus loves, when we love our enemies and pray for those who divide and demoralize, we insist that God will not be divided; we insist that God’s people will not be demoralized. When we love like he loves, when we stretch beyond our comfort zones and dig deep for compassion and recognize the humanity of those we hardly understand, we insist that God’s mercy is not strained; we insist that God’s compassion is wilder and bigger than any of us can possibly imagine. That’s the whole deal with Epiphany, right? Jesus is the Wisdom of God, for us at least, and God’s unbroken promise of grace and hope and wholeness. Jesus is the Light of the World. One world. One beloved world. One sweet communion of many siblings. One great festival of friends. Because, after all, God makes the great fiery sun to rise on us all: on the evil and the good, on the broken and the not-yet, on the grieving and the satisfied. Because, after all, God sends the rain on the generous and the stingy, on the violent and the sweet, on lovers of the earth and hoarders of its riches.
I’m thinking now of Renée Rouse and last week’s conversation in worship. I’m remembering her invitation to partnership and brotherhood and sisterhood. “I want you to be our accomplices in ending racism,” she said. Not just allies. Not just along for the ride. But accomplices, active, engaged partners in ending racism, bearing the burden, dismantling the systems that perpetuate it in our country.
I hope you caught that moment when Renée said: “It’s so easy to leave God out of this. And we can’t do that.” All the work she described to me last week, all the good work she imagines faith communities doing to heal the country and the world: it’s about remembering God’s radically inclusive love, God’s commitment to us and to communion among us. The whole point of becoming accomplices in that work is learning to embrace that love, daring to trust that love, risking a faith that believes that love is stronger and wiser and more enduring than all the despair the world can throw our way. “It’s so easy to leave God out of this,” Renée told me. “And we can’t do that.”
What was that that Martin Luther King said? “The resurrection itself is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community.” That’s what Renée’s talking about. That’s what Jesus first experienced in the Jordan, in his own baptism. And that’s the truth, the grace, the promise that claims you and me in our own baptismal faith. We are not baptized into some snarky sense of spiritual superiority: we are baptized into partnership, we are baptized into communion, we are baptized into the promise that God will triumph, has already triumphed, “over all the forces that seek to block community.”
And so we boldly, bravely turn the other cheek when the Roman soldier strikes us. We turn back to him and show him the courage in our hearts, the spirit in our flesh, the God who works in us. And then we go the extra mile when he forces us to carry his pack. We shock him by giving him not just our coat, but our cloak as well. When we love like Jesus loves, you see, when we love our enemies and pray for those who divide and demoralize, we insist that God will not be divided; we insist that God’s people will not be demoralized. We will not be demoralized.
Friends, we do this together. I can’t live into this kind of faith alone. You can’t live into this kind of faith alone. Renée Rouse knows that she can’t live into this kind of faith alone. God gifts us with community. God gifts us with the church. God’s gifts us with a covenant of friends, partners and, yes, accomplices. So that we can laugh together when we don’t understand, when it all seems too much for us. Agapé. So that we can cry when it hurts so bad we can’t imagine carrying on. Agapé. So that we can pray for one another and embolden one another. Agapé. Because that’s what we’re here for: you and me, Renée and her friends, the people of God. We’re here to shine. We’re here to love. We’re here to shine and love together.
Be perfect, Jesus says. Be compassionate. Because God is perfect. Because God is compassionate. Because God is love.