Sunday, February 26, 2017

Listen to Jesus (a sermon on Matthew 17:1-9)

Mountains are great places for spying out the lay of the land. Down in the valley you can easily get confused about which direction you’re heading in and which road you should take, but up on top of the mountain you can look down and see the whole land laid out before you.

Today’s gospel reading takes place on top of a mountain – not just literally, but metaphorically too. It’s part of a cluster of readings that reflect back on what has been happening in the story of Jesus up to this point, and then look ahead at what is to come.

This cluster includes three distinct units. In the first, Jesus gathers his disciples together and asks them “Who do people say I am?” “John the Baptist”, they reply, “or Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks; “What do you think?” Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. This confession of faith is a pivotal moment in the life of the disciple community, and in response Jesus says that this confession – that he is the Messiah – is going to be the rock on which he will build his church.

This unit is immediately followed by a second one, in which Jesus begins to tell his disciples what is to come. They’re on the way to Jerusalem, and he’s going to be rejected by the leaders and killed, but on the third day he will rise again. Peter can’t take this in. He’s just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but the Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and be killed; he’s supposed to be a king leading an army to set the people free and establish the earthly kingdom of God. So Peter rebukes Jesus - “This will never happen to you!” – and Jesus, who has just praised Peter’s faith and told him that God was speaking through him, now hears another voice, a tempting voice, and he says “Get behind me, Satan!” He then goes on to tell his followers that being his disciples isn’t the road to glory; in fact, they will probably die as he will die (that’s what ‘taking up your cross’ meant – being killed as a traitor to the Roman empire).

Then comes today’s reading. Six days after the previous incident Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and there he is transfigured before them, so that his face and clothes shine as bright as the sun. The two greatest figures in Israel’s history – Moses and Elijah – appear there with Jesus. Peter blurts out, “Lord, this is a fine thing! Why don’t we build three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – then we can stay up here forever!” But suddenly a bright cloud comes down over them, just like the cloud that came down on Mount Sinai when Moses talked with God, and they hear a voice speaking to them from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” When the cloud disappears, they see only Jesus.

This cluster of stories is like a high mountain from which we can look back on the road we’ve travelled to get to this point, and also look ahead to what’s coming. Let me explain.

The question ‘Who is this man?’ has been heard frequently in the story of Jesus up to this point. Not only the crowds, but also his disciples, are trying to figure him out. He travels all around Galilee, healing the sick and casting out evil spirits. Then he takes the crowds and his disciples up a mountain and teaches them in the words of the Sermon on the Mount; the crowds are astounded at his teaching, because he seems to assume an authority not even the scribes and Pharisees assume.

He goes out on the lake with his disciples and a storm arises, but Jesus rebukes the storm and it stops. The disciples are amazed: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Jesus stands over the bed of a paralyzed man, saying “Your sins are forgiven”. The religious leaders are incensed: “Only God can forgive sins!” But Jesus confounds them all by healing the man, and Matthew says that ‘When the crowds saw it they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings’ (9:8).

As the story goes on, Jesus continues to heal the sick and drive out evil spirits. He calls people to follow him and tells them that their loyalty to him must come before their loyalty even to the closest members of their families, and that they must even be ready to give up their lives for him. He tells them that if they welcome him they are really welcoming God who sent him.

By the time we reach chapter twelve the crowds are beginning to whisper the title ‘Son of David’ – in other words, the Messiah, the king like David who God was going to send to drive out the enemies of Israel and establish justice and peace for his people. But the religious authorities scoff at this: he’s in league with the devil, that’s why he’s able to do these amazing things!

And so we come to this cluster of readings, this mountain top half way through the gospel. The question of the identity of Jesus is front and centre in these three stories. Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter speaks for them all: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. A son in those days was the authorized representative of his father and could speak on his father’s behalf. So Peter was saying, ‘Lord, we believe that you’re the one we’ve been waiting for: you’re the King like David, sent by God to establish God’s Kingdom in Israel. You’re God’s Son and you speak to us with the authority of God’.

And Jesus is not just one son of God among many; he’s unique. This is underlined when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain. Imagine how the disciples must have felt; these were the two greatest figures from the history of Israel, who had lived many hundreds of years before. Moses was the one who had given Israel the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law of God. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. When people spoke about the Scriptures in those days they often referred to them as ‘The Law and the Prophets’; well, here were the two embodiments of the Law and the Prophets, speaking to Jesus! Most Jews at that time would never have imagined that anyone could be equal to Moses and Elijah, but now here they are, having a conversation with Jesus as equals. And Peter wants to make them equals: ‘Let’s build three shelters so we can stay here and listen to God’s wisdom from the three of you!’

But this isn’t what God wants. Jesus is not just equal to Moses and Elijah; he’s superior to them. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him’. Moses and Elijah point to Jesus; in him the story of Israel has reached its climax.

So this passage calls us to give our highest allegiance to Jesus as God’s Son. He isn’t just one religious leader among many; at the beginning of his gospel Matthew calls him ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God is with us’. In Jesus God has come among us in a unique way, and in his life and teaching and death and resurrection God has acted uniquely to save us from evil and to bring in his kingdom. ‘This is my Son’, God says to us; ‘listen to him’.

But we also need to look forward, to what is to come in the story. The disciples have a script in their mind about what it means to be the Messiah; he’s the one who will lead God’s armies, defeat Israel’s enemies, pull down the corrupt leaders and establish God’s justice and peace forever. This script is well founded in the Old Testament prophets and it plays into our hunger to have a black and white world where there are goodies and baddies. In the end, the goodies will be rewarded and the baddies will be slaughtered.

The problem is, we’ve tried this script before and it hasn’t worked. In the Old Testament kings have led the people to battle and established freedom and peace for a while, but it’s never lasted. And in the years since the time of Jesus we’ve fought wars to end all wars over and over; we’ve had supposedly Christian rulers who have imposed Christian morality by force from on high, but people’s hearts haven’t been changed.

So Jesus is going to try a new script: ‘taking up the cross’. Yes, he’s going to oppose the tyranny of the Empire and the collaborators in Jerusalem, but he’s not going to try to overthrow them by force. Instead of working by the love of power he’s going to work by the power of love. Instead of forcing people to obey him he’s going to invite them to make a free choice to follow him, and if they do, he’s going to teach them the way of the Kingdom of God, the way of justice and peace and generosity and love for enemies and love for God above all. And when people kill him because of this, he’s going to forgive them, because nothing, not even death, can destroy his love for the world God has made and the people in it.

So this is the view from the mountain. We can look back on the road that’s led to this point, a road in which the disciples have been getting more and more clues as to who Jesus is: the unique Son of God, the one above all who speaks to us with the authority of his Father in heaven. And we can look ahead to the road to come, when Jesus will live out his vocation as God’s Son, not by killing his enemies but by being killed by them, offering his life willingly on the Cross to bring reconciliation between God and us, and to win the great victory over evil by his resurrection.

This has been a different sort of sermon for me today; I haven’t given you lots of illustrations and I haven’t talked about how we should put the message into practice. That’s because this story isn’t really about us; it’s about Jesus. But nonetheless, there is something for us to do. “This is my Son, the Beloved”, says the voice of God: “with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (v.5).

Who do you listen to? Who do I listen to? There are many voices trying to tell us what our life should be all about.

This week I was talking to a member of our parish who was telling me that she feels a lot of pressure because of the fact that she lives in a neighbourhood where people live a very materialistic lifestyle. Her neighbours obviously have a different vision than she does, a vision based on being good consumers, buying lots of things and going on expensive holidays and so on. Those voices are loud: “This is what life is all about! Spend more, enjoy more! You can have it all!”

There are other voices, angry voices, voices telling us that there are people coming into our country who we need to fear. “You’re in danger”, these voices say; “You need to be protected! Forget all this romantic stuff about loving your enemies; it isn’t practical in times like these! You need to be realistic; you need to know who your enemies are and protect yourself against them, and if that means that some innocent people get hurt along the way, well, that’s too bad, but that’s the world we live in!”

There are other voices telling us that we need to tone down this idea that Jesus is unique. After all, “Everyone’s got their way of looking at the world and their way of thinking about God. It’s arrogant to think that one way is more true than another. Jesus was a man of his day, but we’re modern people; we know it was wrong of him to send his disciples out to persuade people to leave their old beliefs behind and follow him. Nowadays we need to be more open-minded; maybe Jesus isn’t such a good guide for us in 2017”.

So many voices; how do we know what’s true? What yardstick do we use to evaluate the many messages we’re hearing? Because we all have a yardstick, whether we think we do or not. There’s a famous story about different views of the world; it says we’re all like blind men feeling an elephant. One man thinks the elephant is long and snake-like, because he’s feeling the trunk. Another one thinks the elephant is like a tree trunk, because he’s feeling the legs. Another one thinks the elephant is flappy like a sail; he’s feeling the ears! That’s how different views of God work, we’re told; we’re all like blind men feeling different bits of God, but because we’re blind, we can’t see that they’re all true.

It sounds like a good and wise story, until we see the fatal flaw: the person telling the story assumes that they’re the one person in the story who isn’t blind! They’re the one person who can see reality as it really is; the others are blind, so they can’t. So who’s the arrogant person here? The person telling the story has a point of view just like everyone else; they’ve got a yardstick they use to judge what’s right and what’s wrong. Everyone has a yardstick, whether they know it or not.

Our Scriptures today call us to listen to Jesus. He is God’s yardstick for us. John’s Gospel tells us that he is the Word of God, the one who embodies God’s highest revelation to us. This doesn’t mean that everything spoken by other voices is always wrong, or that we won’t sometimes hear good and wise things from them. Rather, it means that because Jesus is the unique Son of God, he is the best and most accurate picture we have of what God is like and what God asks of us. So we will listen to him.

But if we truly listen to him, we will have to face up to the life he’s calling us to live. We will have to learn to do the things we’ve been hearing in the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks: turning away from anger and working for reconciliation, turning away from sexual immorality and being faithful to our marriage vows, turning away from lies and being honest in all we say and do, turning away from vengeance and loving our enemies instead. We’ll have to turn away from a life of storing up treasures for ourselves on earth, and work on the heavenly treasure instead: seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.

This week we begin our Lenten journey. On Ash Wednesday we gather together again here at the church to confess our sins, ask God’s forgiveness, and accept the ancient symbol of ashes on our foreheads. Ashes are a symbol of the frailty of human life, but they’re also a sign of true repentance. And if we’re serious about our repentance, we’re going to have to face the issue of who we listen to. What are the most compelling voices in my life today? How do they influence the way I see the world and the way I live my life? And how am I going to make sure that as I start out my Lenten journey this year, I’m intentional about turning to Jesus and listening to his voice?

Maybe this prayer is a good way for us to start: “Lord Jesus, I want to be your disciple. Help me today to learn to see life as you see it, and to live life as you taught it. Amen”.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Famine in South Sudan

Dear Friends at St. Margaret's:

You may have heard on the news that a famine has now been declared in South Sudan, and millions of people may well starve to death in the not too distant future.

You may be wondering 'What can we do?'

Answer: we're already doing something.

This year, our church once again has a year-long fundraising project for World Vision's 'Raw Hope' initiative. Simply put, 'Raw Hope' is World Vision's way of providing essential emergency care in areas of the world so dangerous that a basic WV infrastructure (eg: child sponsorship) can't be set up.

Raw Hope is currently funding emergency work in eight countries: Afghanistan, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and... SOUTH SUDAN.

You can find out what Raw Hope is funding in South Sudan on the World Vision Canada website here.

How are we supporting Raw Hope at St. Margaret's? In three ways:

  1. Three times a year we have special offering envelopes included in our envelope boxes: Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday, and Christmas. Those special offerings will be sent to 'Raw Hope'. If you are on pre-authorized giving (PAG), you can put in a special cheque for that day, made out to St. Margaret's but clearly marked for World Vision. It will be forwarded to World Vision in its entirety to support 'Raw Hope'.
  2. Special events. In late November or early December we hold our annual Christmas concert and all the ticket sales go to World Vision. Other events are sometimes held as well; for instance, a couple of friends and I are in the beginning stages of planning a folk music event to support World Vision in the spring.
  3. Offerings at other times. At any time of year you are welcome to add a little extra to your weekly offering and mark it clearly to be sent on to World Vision. Again, if you are on PAG and don't have offering envelopes, you can write us a cheque and mark it clearly for World Vision.

Many churches are getting involved in refugee sponsorship and this is a vital work. However, our vestry has chosen to focus on supporting relief and development efforts in the countries where so many refugees come from. 'Raw Hope' is a vital part of that. To support the suffering people of South Sudan (and the other countries 'Raw Hope' works in), we'll keep right on with our current World Vision support. Your help is of course the essential component of that. Thank you for your generosity in the service of Christ!

Yours in Christ,

Tim

P.S. Please note that Charity Intelligence Canada recently rated World Vision as one of the top charities to support (see their report here). You can give to World Vision with confidence.

Upcoming events at St. Margaret's

Upcoming events - week of Feb 27th to Mar 5th

February 27th, 2017
Office is closed
February 28th, 2017
5:00pm  Shrove Tuesday pancake supper @ church
7:30pm  Pilgrim course on The Lord’s Prayer @ church
March 1st, 2017
7:30pm  Ash Wednesday Holy Communion
March 2nd, 2017
7:00am  Men’s and Women’s Bible study @ Bogani CafĂ©
March 5th, 2017 (Lent 1)
9:00am  Holy Communion 
9:45am  Combined coffee hour
10:30am  Holy Communion & Sunday School

Last chance to sign up for St. Margaret’s Shrove Tuesday pancake supper which is this Tuesday February 28th. Please use the sign up sheet on the table in the front foyer to let us know if you will be attending the 5pm or 6pm sitting.

There is a roster volunteer sign up sheet for Ash Wednesday Holy Communion on the table in the foyer. Please sign your name if you will be attending and are able to help with any of the roster duties.

Please check out our monthly announcement sheet for more upcoming events. If you have not received a copy or have changed your email address, please update your email with Tim or Melanie. Extra copies are available on the table at the back of the church.

The Commandments, a ‘Pilgrim’ course for Lent will be starting on Thursday March 9th, not March 2nd as previously advertised. It will run for six Thursday evenings from 7:30pm to 9:00pm. To register please use the sign up sheet in the front foyer or contact Tim at stmrector@gmail.com or 780-437-7231.

We are having a family pizza and games night on Friday March 10th at the church. It will start at 5:30pm, with pizza at 6:30pm. Everyone is welcome. If you have a favorite game, please bring it along. There is a sign up sheet on the table in the foyer to let us know if you can come, and another if you’d like to help with some food/snacks. Any questions, please talk to Melanie or email her at stmargaretsedmonton@gmail.com.

Please join us for Lunch Bunch on Thursday March 16th at the church beginning at 11:30am with lunch starting at 12:00 noon. Please come and join us for a time of fellowship.  Everyone is welcome.  There is a sign up sheet in the front foyer or contact the church at 780-437-7231 or stmargaretsedmonton@gmail.com.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

March 2017 roster

March 5, 2017 (Lent 1)
Coffee between services
Greeter/Sidespeople:  M. Cromarty / T. Cromarty            
Counter:  M. Eriksen / M. Cromarty                                   
Reader: D. Sanderson                                    
(Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19)
Lay Administrants: C. Aasen / T. Wittkopf            
Intercessor: C. Aasen                                    
Lay Reader: D. MacNeill  (Matthew 4:1-11)                                   
Altar Guild: M. Lobreau / L. Schindel
Prayer Team: L. Sanderson / M. Rys                                   
Sunday School (School Age): M. Aasen
Sunday School (Preschool): M. Eriksen
Kitchen: - 9:45 am: B. & M. Woytkiw                        
Music: M. Chesterton
Altar Server: G. Durance

March 12th, 2017 (Lent 2)
Greeter/Sidespeople: B. Cavey / T. Wittkopf            
Counter: B. Cavey / F. Chester                                   
Reader: N. Gutteridge                                   
(Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17)
Lay Administrants: M. Rys / D. MacNeill                                                
Intercessor: T. Chesterton                        
Lay Reader: B. Popp  (John 3:1-17)                                   
Altar Guild: P. Major / T. Wittkopf 
Prayer Team: M. Chesterton / L. Sanderson                       
Sunday School (School Age): M. Rys           
Sunday School (Preschool): T. Laffin 
Kitchen: B. Cavey
Music:  E. Thompson           
Altar Server: No one available

March 19th, 2017 (Lent 3)
Greeter/Sidespeople: J. Durance / D. Legere              
Counter: J. Durance / B. Popp                                     
Reader: T. Cromarty                        
(Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11)
Lay Administrants: D. MacNeill / B. Popp                       
Intercessor: D. MacNeill                                   
Lay Reader: D. Schindel  (John 4:5-42)                       
Altar Guild: M. Woytkiw / L. Pyra  
Prayer Team:  M. Chesterton / L. Sanderson                                      
Sunday School (School Age): K. Durance
Sunday School (Preschool): T. Laffin           
Kitchen: V. & J. Goodwin                                   
Altar Server: G. Durance

March 26th, 2017 (Lent 4)
Greeter/Sidespeople:  The Schindels            
Counter: L. Schindel / D. Legere                                   
Reader: D. Schindel                        
(1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14)
Lay Administrants: B. Popp / T. Wittkopf            
Intercessor: B. Popp                                   
Lay Reader: D. MacNeill  (John 9:1-41)                       
Altar Guild: M. Lobreau / A. Shutt  
Prayer Team: M. Rys / L. Sanderson                          
Sunday School (School Age): E. McDougall           
Sunday School (Preschool): D. Legere            
Kitchen: M. Rys                        
Music: M. Chesterton

Altar Server: No one available

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Be Like Your Father - Love Your Enemies (a sermon on Matthew 5:38-48)

In 1569 a young man named Dirk Willems was burnt at the stake for heresy in the town of Asperen in the Netherlands. Some of you have heard me tell his story before; for others, it will be new. Today many Christians around the world look on him as a hero. Let me tell you why.
When Dirk was a teenager he met some Anabaptists. In 16th century Europe, these were the Christians who opposed the idea of having a state church. They didn’t believe that people could be Christians just because they were citizens of a so-called ‘Christian country’; they believed that you had to choose for yourself to become a follower of Jesus. They thought you should be baptized as an adult as a sign of this commitment, and you then would become part of a fellowship of people who were learning to put Jesus’ teaching into practice. In particular, most Anabaptists believed followers of Jesus should not participate in war, and should literally love their enemies as Jesus taught. The state churches considered the Anabaptists a threat to their power, and so hundreds of them were horribly tortured and executed.
Dirk was attracted to Anabaptist ideas, and he was baptized as an adult in Rotterdam. Then he returned to his home town of Asperen and quietly began to host illegal Anabaptist meetings in his house. At those meetings, he and others taught a way of being Christian that was very different from the way the established church taught it. Eventually he was arrested and imprisoned, but he managed to escape from the prison by climbing out of the window and clambering down a rope made of knotted cloths, and he ran for safety. However, he was seen from the prison, and a guard ran after him. It was early spring; Dirk approached a pond that was still frozen, but he had been eating prison food and didn’t weigh very much, so he made it across the thin ice. But the guard had been eating rather better, and he broke through the ice and sank into the frigid water. In terror of drowning, he cried out for help.
If you had been Dirk, what would you have done?
Dirk turned back. At great risk, he reached across the ice to rescue his pursuer. When the guard was safely on dry ground, he promptly re-arrested Dirk and incarcerated him in a more secure prison – the tower of the Asperen parish church. This time there was no escape. Dirk was tried for heresy and condemned to be burned to death at the stake. The execution was exceptionally painful; the wind blew the fire away from his upper body and he died very slowly. Witnesses are recorded as having heard him cry out many times, “Oh Lord, my God!” as he was being burned.
Was he right to do what he did?
For centuries, Christians have disagreed over the issue of war. Is it right for Christians to participate in wars and kill the enemies of their country? Those who say it is right have argued that Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies was intended to guide personal behaviour, not state policy. Personally I think there’s a lot more too it than that, but be that as it may, what we have here is precisely a story about personal behaviour. So at least in theory, all Christians should be agreed that we can’t wiggle out of this one! Dirk did as Jesus commanded in our Gospel for today, and he was not miraculously delivered; he suffered horribly for his decision. Why did he do it? And why did Jesus command us to do it?
The reason Jesus commanded us to love our enemies is because this is the way God treats us. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies. And that’s what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.
But before we look again at the words of Jesus for today, let’s remind ourselves of what he’s doing in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier in the chapter he told us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter God’s kingdom. The scribes and Pharisees were the most religious people in Jesus’ day, so this would have seemed like a tall order – rather like me telling you today that unless your righteousness exceeded that of Mother Teresa, you’d never measure up.  But Jesus had a different view. To him, Pharisaic religion was often only skin deep; too often, the Pharisees were satisfied with outward conformity to the letter of the law, while ignoring the spirit. So Jesus challenges us, his disciples, to go beyond the letter of the Old Testament law and to focus on the inner transformation that is God’s dream for us.
So as we saw last week, we aren’t to be satisfied with just avoiding murder while all the time nursing anger and resentment against others; rather, we’re to do all we can to be reconciled with one another. And it’s not enough only to tell the truth when we’re under oath in court; we’re to be such honest people that no-one would even think of asking us to take an oath, because they know we always tell the truth.
In all the examples Jesus gives in this chapter, he calls his followers to move beyond the Law of Moses and to learn to live by the more perfect law of love. He’s quite clear about what he’s asking his followers to do with regard to the Old Testament; over and over again he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…”. Obviously, though he respects the Law of Moses, he doesn’t see it as completely adequate as a basis for living a godly life. So he ‘fulfils’ it, in the sense of exploring its deeper meaning and even, in some cases, apparently overturning it in favour of a more perfect way.
This is particularly relevant to today’s passage. In the Old Testament, as you know, there are many stories of wars and violence apparently being sanctioned by God, but Jesus offers his followers a completely different way of dealing with evil. Let’s listen again to his words, this time from the New Living Translation:
     “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.
     “You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect”.
I wonder what your instinctive reaction is when you hear these words of Jesus? Perhaps you think he’s being outrageous: how can he possibly demand such a thing? Doesn’t he understand that if we act in this way we’re just going to encourage people to continue their evil behaviour? Isn’t he being impossibly idealistic? I’m reminded of the story of a pastor who was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. An old lady objected to his sermon about loving enemies, and when he replied that he was simply quoting the words of Jesus, she replied, “Yes, but he was a very young man when he preached that sermon!”
But here’s the catch: don’t we assume, every one of us, that God will treat us like this? Don’t we almost see it as our right?
The God Jesus describes to us in the Gospels is constantly loving his enemies. As Jesus says, God doesn’t check to see if you believe in him before he lets you benefit from the sunshine. He doesn’t check to see if you’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he decides whether or not it will rain on you. No, ‘he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (v.45).
The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly loving people who don’t deserve to be loved. It’s almost forty-five years since I first gave my life to Jesus. I have to say that I’m still confessing some of the same sins, on an almost daily basis, that I was confessing forty-five years ago. I’ve made progress in some areas, but in others I’ve gotten nowhere at all. Sometimes I put in an honest effort; at other times I just like an easy life too much. Sometimes, to be honest, I find a particular sin just too enjoyable to give up! And yet, day by day, I go to God and ask him to forgive me. I never say, “I don’t think you should forgive me for this, Lord – if you do, you’ll just reinforce my bad behaviour”. Do you? Of course not! I ask for forgiveness, and I know I’ve received it because he continues to bless me with a sense of his presence and an awareness of his mercy and grace. That’s what the Christian gospel is all about: a God who loves people whether they deserve it or not, because it’s his nature to love.
The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly turning the other cheek. And in this case, it’s like Father, like Son: Jesus was the ultimate practitioner of his own sermon. He loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted him. When the soldiers were nailing him to the Cross he prayed for everyone involved in his execution: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. His death was the ultimate example of how God treats human sinfulness. God chose not to send the entire human race to hell for our rebellion. Instead, he came among us in Jesus and took the sins of the world on his own shoulders. Rather than making us suffer for our sins, he chose to bear the suffering himself, so that we could be forgiven.
So you see that this passage is rooted in the Gospel, the good news of God’s grace. Grace is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t deserve’. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to do something to purchase it; it just comes to you for free, because God is that kind of God. God doesn’t love us because we’re loveable; he loves us because he is love, whether we’re loveable or not.
That’s the wonderful good news Jesus has commissioned us to announce to everyone, everywhere: God has declared an amnesty to all who take advantage of it by coming to Jesus and putting their trust in him. You can be the older brother who never left home or the younger brother who squandered his father’s property with prostitutes. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee or a tax collector who’s broken every rule in the book. God’s not choosy – if you turn back to him and put your life in Jesus’ hands, you can be forgiven.
But here’s the catch: if you want to take advantage of God’s grace, you have to commit yourself to living by the same principle of grace in your own life. Jesus spelled it out for us in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. He goes on to say, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Yes, we were God’s enemies, but fortunately for us God is in the habit of loving his enemies, and so instead of being cast into the outer darkness we were welcomed home to the Father’s house. Very good, Jesus says – now: go and do likewise.
The way Jesus sees it, children who have good parents should want to be like them; if they don’t, there’s something wrong. So often when we’re confronted with our own sinfulness, we say, “I’m only human, you know!” And of course God understands that, which is why he’s such a patient and merciful God. But he longs for us to aim higher than that! He longs for us to look up to him and say, like a little child who is so proud of his father, “When I get older, I want to be like my Dad!” And so Jesus ends today’s reading by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v.48). This sounds like an impossible ideal, and no doubt it is very difficult, but let’s remember that the word ‘perfect’ in this context means ‘complete, with nothing left out’. What Jesus is saying is ‘Our heavenly Father leaves no one outside the circle of his love, and you must do the same’.
No one ever said this would be easy. No one promised it would never get us into trouble; Jesus certainly never promised that. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). People who were carrying crosses were on their way out to be executed; they weren’t on their way to an uplifting discussion about the meaning of life at their local Starbucks!

Dirk Willems was well aware that turning back to help his enemy would probably mean his death. But he did it anyway, because he wanted to be like his heavenly Father, and like his Master Jesus. Followers of Jesus are content to do as Jesus says, and trust that the same God who vindicated him will one day vindicate us as well. And so, like Jesus, we modern Christians are also called to walk the costly path of love. Let us pray that the God who strengthened Jesus will strengthen us also, so that we too, like our Father in heaven, are able to leave no one out of the circle of our love.