Epiphany Two Sermon 2008
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
When Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding he showed his creative power as the almighty God. No man has ever done what Jesus did because it is humanly impossible to do. He showed his divine glory when he changed water into wine. Only God could do what he did. Therefore, Jesus is God.
And Jesus is a man. He is the true man. Do you want to know what God intended for us to do when he made us in his own image? Look and see how God lived when he joined the human race and became our brother. There you see the perfect man. You see the ideal man. You see the kind of living that is true living. He who is the way, the truth, and the life lives the true life.
He does his first miracle at a wedding. He doesn’t search out the high and mighty to win them over and obtain their support. He doesn’t call a news conference and get the more prestigious reporters to give him good press. He shows the glory of God at an ordinary wedding of a couple that obviously didn’t do a very good job of planning their celebration. They should have known to have enough wine. It was likely their own fault that they ran out. But Jesus comes to those who, by their own fault, make a mess of things and he comes to straighten things out.
Now it won’t do for us Christians to think of Jesus primarily as our example to follow. We need a Savior more than we need an example. Every time we think of Jesus and every time we read the Gospel accounts of his life we should be thinking in terms of what Jesus has done to deliver us from our own sins. Had God wanted merely to send us a hero to emulate, he could have done so. In fact, he has done so repeatedly. The fact that heroes all have clay feet doesn’t mean that we can’t imitate their heroism. Consider such people as Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Ruth, David, Daniel, and the list goes on. Jesus is more than a hero. He is the Savior of sinners. He is our God. He assumes our humanity not just to show us how life should be lived. He does so to live our life for us as our representative and so to fulfill all of the demands God places upon us.
But Jesus is our example. By his holy living he wins a life for us to live. By his holy living he shows us what holy living is all about. And it is not what we would expect.
Wise people of every generation come up with various systems of ethics that are designed to show us how to live the good and virtuous life. Some teach that if we do what will result in the most good for the most people we will be doing the right thing. I suppose that makes sense, but how can you know how your actions will affect others? Others teach that if we learn a list of virtuous rules to follow and religiously follow them we will be doing the right thing. Well, that may be true too, but there are so many situations in life where specific rules don’t apply. What do we do in those situations? And sometimes we find ourselves in situations where it appears as if there is no right thing to do. No matter what we do we will be wrong. What then?
The various humanly developed systems of ethics and morality fail in two crucial respects. First, they cannot deal with sin. Second, they cannot deal with Jesus the Savior of sinners.
The reason humanly devised ethical systems cannot deal with sin is because they ground what is right and what is wrong in their own minds. They don’t reckon with the fact that they are sinners. They think like sinners. Consider the words of St. Paul: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Now who would come up with such an idea? Clearly, it makes sense to bless those who bless you, but it makes little sense to bless those who curse you. But this is precisely what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. We are to repay evil with good. Those who demand from us what they have no right to demand should receive from us even more than what they demand. We should compliment those who insult us. We should speak well of those who slander us. We should accept abuse, insult, scorn, and every other kind of evil and we should accept it all with humility. This is the good life. This is the way we should live.
This doesn’t conform to any system of ethics with which I am familiar. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense. Any parent knows that if you tolerate something you generally get more of it but if you stand in opposition to something you just might be able to discourage it. How can blessing those who curse you possibly bear good fruit?
Consider the life and death of Jesus to see how doing what makes no sense to sinful man is the very wisdom of God. They lied about him. The lies were vicious and disgusting. They twisted his words to make them mean the opposite of what he said. They deserved to be opposed, struck down, and punished. They deserved to be cursed, not blessed. What did Jesus do? He prayed, “Father, forgive them.” He not only suffered at their hands, he suffered for them. He gladly took upon himself their sins, even though the payment that would be required of him would literally be a living hell for him. But when he asked his Father in heaven to take the cup of pain away from him he qualified his request with the prayer, “Thy will be done.” Doing the will of his Father required him to bless those who cursed him. It required him to utter no curse and to make no threats. As St. Peter writes:
Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
Jesus willingly did this. Had he done so unwillingly or grudgingly it would not have been the pure and holy gift that it was. It was in responding to evil with good that good triumphed over evil. It was as he – the real man, the perfect man, the righteous man – committed himself to God’s judgment, that we were justified. In him, in his doing, in his loving, in his suffering we are forgiven of all our sins of thought, word, and deed.
We cannot judge what is right and wrong, good and evil, by a human standard. Only the unchanging divine standard will do. And that standard is seen most clearly as the pure and holy and sinless Son of God blesses those who persecute him.
Here we need to make a distinction. We are not to curse those who curse us. This is clear. But it should be just as clear that we cannot bless evil. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, God cursed the devil. He did not curse Adam or Eve. So when we Christians respond to persecution with blessing, we are not condoning what is evil or false or wrong. As far as love goes, it must tolerate all wrong done against it for that is what Jesus did. Love overcomes evil. It does not imitate it. It does not embrace it. Love destroys evil by means of loving in the face of evil. This is how Jesus redeemed us. His life was a life of pure love and by refusing to give way to cursing and threatening he caused grace to triumph over judgment. This is how we are rescued from divine judgment against us. This is how we are forgiven. The perfect man did what all mankind was required to do. Jesus loved.
Love gives in. But faith refuses to budge. Love blesses those who do wrong and it doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. Faith holds with confidence to the word of God, takes its stand upon God’s promises, and curses any other gospel than that once and for all delivered to the saints and recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul pronounced a divine curse upon those who would preach another gospel than the one he preached. Faith lives on the truth. This is why faith is intolerant and closed minded. When God speaks faith shuts its ears to anything that would call God’s word into question.
There are many false gospels promoted these days. They are invariably reruns of former errors, just dressed up in new language. There’s the false gospel of self-esteem. You must love yourself. There’s the false gospel of inclusiveness. There is saving truth in every religion, so this notion goes, so nothing is entirely true and nothing in entirely false. Faith can’t put up with this sort of thing. Jesus didn’t. He condemned the Pharisees for enslaving souls in the trap of legalism. True faith was at stake. Love must bear with patience unkindness, persecution, slander, and many other evils. But none of these things can deprive us of God’s forgiveness. Eternal life in heaven does not depend on our getting our way here on earth. We can tolerate the loss of all sorts of temporary things. We’ll lose them anyway. Love tolerates every loss as it looks to Jesus who emptied himself and suffered poverty, rejection, and crucifixion.
But faith requires the truth. It insists on God’s truth. It tolerates no false teaching because false teaching leads us away from Christ by bringing into doubt his promises. So faith won’t yield to error, while love covers a multitude of sins. Faith exposes and rejects anything that goes against the gospel of the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. Love bears all things. Faith insists on hearing the saving truth that reveals Christ. We can lose what our pride would protect without losing anything valuable. But we cannot lose what faith receives without losing forgiveness of our sins and our hope for eternal life.
So we bless those who curse us and we confess the truth by which we are saved. Our love remains imperfect in this life, but when faith gives way to sight our love will be perfected. What a joy that will be!
Rolf D. Preus