Sermon on the Mount: Golden Rule

One of the things I love about scripture is there is always more than what we see at face value–there are layers and layers to discover, and new lenses through which to see. It never gets old.

Our passage this week is Matthew 7:1-12. The last verse is one that, even people who don’t follow Jesus know well: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (NIV)

We’ll come back to the little word “so”, which is sometimes translated “therefore”–but I want to spend a moment on the last clause–this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Remember that Jesus is teaching on a hillside. His audience is Jewish–the Law and the Prophets are what their belief system is founded upon. In this entire sermon, Jesus has been teaching them that rather than the “dos” and “don’ts” they’ve subjected themselves to in their faith, there is a different way. It began with the beatitudes, and moved through being salt and light, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” statements and more–each one addressing the transformation of the heart and the valuing of others. There are 12 verses in this week’s portion of chapter 7. “The Golden Rule” is in verse 12 and we’re beginning there, because while Pastor John was preaching, the Law and Prophets phrase leapt out to me. Why? Because this isn’t the only time Jesus said these words.

In this very sermon, right after the salt and light portion, and right before the “you’ve heard it said” statements, Jesus told his audience: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (5:17).

And in Matthew 22, we learn …an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (36-40)

Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He teaches us that all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the greatest commandments and the Golden Rule: “Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you. (TPT), Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you...or as J.B. Phillips wrote in his translation, treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them.

Love God, love people, treat others well–this is the fruit of being connected to Jesus–the fruit of the Spirit filled life. It’s what faith lived out on planet earth looks like…this is how we become the answer to the prayer, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth…”

With that as our foundation, and backing up to a verse from last week’s sermon, Matthew 6:33–seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and God will take care of the rest…, let’s look at Matthew 7:1-11.

I don’t think I’m going to write a lot of commentary…I’m just going to put the commandment to love and the Golden Rule next to the verses.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Okay, This one might need a little commentary because this dog and swine thing seems so bizarre in the middle of this beautiful sermon. Jesus has just taught us not to judge and nitpick another’s shortcomings–is he now telling us to decide who is a dog, who is a pig, and withhold sacred things from them? Would that make any sense in light of the rest of what he’s teaching? No. So…what could this mean that’s not that?

I read a number of thoughts around this, and some don’t take the context into account, but others say that Jesus is not teaching us to judge, but to be discerning. One said “Do not persist in offering what is sacred or of value to those who have no appreciation for it,…” (Expository Files, April 2000) Pastor John said be careful about how you convey the precious to others. He went on to remind us that if we see others as “dogs” and “pigs” we’ll treat them like “dogs” and “pigs”, they’ll reciprocate and the precious will get trampled. When I think of it that way, and think of it in light of not judging others, and in treating others the way I want to be treated, this makes sense to me.

I work in a secular environment with at risk teenagers. The best way for me to share my relationship with Jesus at work is to love people and treat them well. Then, because of the relationship we’ve established over time, some of them will trust me enough to share “the hard”. I can tell them that I believe in Jesus and I pray for them. Sometimes that leads to deeper conversations–sometimes not, but I’ve not yet had anyone ask me not to pray for them. Sometimes it even leads to tears. Those moments are sacred, but they’re not forced. People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. I’m a Jesus-follower and I cringe at pushy gospel presentations. Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated.

So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred.

The discernment insight leads right into the next verses: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

And then: Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

The IVP Bible Commentary explains that “Jesus adapts a standard Jewish argument here called qal vahomer: arguing from the lesser to the greater (if the lesser is true, how much more the greater). Fish and bread were basic staples, integral to the diet of most of Jesus’ hearers; they do not stand for the fineries of the wealthy.” Good parents give good, life sustaining things to their children, not things that will harm them; how much more is that true of God–who always loves us, and always treats us as he wants to be treated… SO (therefore), in EVERYTHING, do to others what you would have them do to you.

All the Law and Prophets hang on this.

We love God by loving others. 18th century theologian John Wesley summed this passage up by saying, “The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

I think that’s Jesus’ point.

–Luanne

I thought I had an idea of what I would be adding to the blog this week… Until I read Luanne’s masterfully woven words. She captured so beautifully the main points of this passage and connected them to everything we’ve been learning over the last five months. What I find so interesting is how, as we dig into these words from Jesus week after week, we find that everything he taught circles back to what it means to be one who lives out the love of God according to the kingdom Jesus brought to earth.

We could dig into any one of the verses from this week’s passage and take it apart word by word; we could talk about what it means to judge and to be judged by God in the manner we judge… Or, we could do exactly what Pastor John and Luanne did: filter every bit of it through the main point, holding onto what Jesus really desired his listeners to understand. Luanne identified above what that main point is: Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Love God with our whole heart. Love our neighbors (which, we remember, includes all others) as we love ourselves. Seek first the kingdom–find over and over again that when we seek, we find Jesus–and live according to the ways of that kingdom that Jesus modeled. As we seek the upside-down kingdom and are molded into the image of Jesus, our King, that kingdom comes alive in us and we carry it to the world around us.

These are the concepts we continue to land on as we study the sermon from Jesus. It matters that we understand the main points, and beyond simply understanding, that we allow ourselves to be changed by them as we embody the words and ways of the One we follow. It matters so much. Why? Luanne explained exactly why with these words:

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness.

As I read through her portion, that line caused me to pause. The words came off the page and everything in my heart responded, Yes and amenThis is the whole point, friends. We can know the scriptures, be able to define the Greek roots of words, hold our own in theological debates, stun people with our head knowledge of Jewish culture and the customs of that time. But nobody is going to come to Jesus because of our well-designed arguments. It is his kindness that leads to repentance–to the willingness to see things a different way, change our minds, and begin a journey with Jesus–not pushy, clumsy appeals to say yes to the gospel, not defending our faith against the ways of the world, not mean, ugly judgments of how hell-bent “they” are if they don’t listen to “us.” It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his life growing roots in us that produces good fruit for us to offer the world around us. That’s how people meet Jesus and fall in love with him–the same way we did.

Love your neighbor as yourself, and do… The only other thing I want to highlight is the way Jesus presented the “Golden Rule.” As Pastor John emphasized in his sermon, Jesus did not focus on the negative, on what not to do. He didn’t say “Whatever you hate, whatever makes you angry, whatever you don’t like–don’t do that to others.” No. He said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This directive does not allow us to be apathetic rule-followers. We don’t get to say, “I didn’t treat them badly,” and think we’re living in obedience, because Jesus didn’t tell us what not to do. He told us to do. To go do good. That’s what love does.

And… as we do good to others, as we love, we find that we move forward, we grow. Moving toward others according to Jesus’ ways of love grows our capacity to love more, which makes us more like him. It’s how the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Simply choosing to not do bad, to not be unloving, will not birth the kingdom within us or around us. What speaks a better word to the world around us is our embodiment of the heart of Jesus. “For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers.” (John 13:35) And what does love look like? Let’s refresh our memories…

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, TPT, emphasis mine)

Love never stops loving… Love keeps moving, keeps doing good to others.

As I paused a moment ago, the prayer of St. Francis came to mind…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is dispair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
 

As I ponder this prayer in light of what we are discussing this week, I can’t help but consider the word instrument. Its roots go back to a Latin verb that means “equip.” I love that, because this prayer then reads in my mind: Lord, equip me to do your peace; equip me to sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy. And when I think of an instrument–whether in the musical sense, or as a specialized tool used for an intricate, delicate process–it strikes me how useless an instrument is if it’s not set into motion. It may be beautiful sitting stagnant in place, and certainly does no harm by simply staying put. But it only puts good into the world when it is played, when it is utilized. The kingdom cannot come by us simply choosing not to do bad to one another. We must actively do good and choose love, which is always active and moving.

Luanne closed her portion with these words from John Wesley:

“The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

She thinks that’s Jesus’ point in this passage. I agree with her. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

–Laura

A life of love shine and submit

Sermon on the Mount: Do Not Worry

Do not worry.

That’s much easier said than done, right? Yet, it is what Jesus explicitly teaches his followers. What are these words from Jesus doing here, in the middle of the sermon on the mount? And how can we actually not worry?

As we prepare to walk through some of what Pastor John set before us, I’d like us to remember what Jesus has been teaching through his epic sermon to this point. He is revealing to his listeners a new way–the way of his kingdom. He is reminding those with ears to hear that, more than behavior modification, he is after heart transformation. The condition of our hearts matters more than anything we say or do externally, because our hearts are what lead us, always. Hearts that are willing to learn and grow, hearts that make space for his kingdom to grow inside of them, produce good fruit.

This week’s passage is not a sharp turn away from these things that Jesus has reiterated over and over to this point. It is deeply connected to the rest of his teachings. I think that might be easier to see in these verses if we look at them backwards, because the key point–what everything else hinges on–comes at the end. If I were to summarize this passage (Matthew 6:25-34) backwards, it would read like this:

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Matthew 6:33 tells us to, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I believe this is the verse the rest of the passage hinges on. And I won’t pretend for one second that this isn’t a hard teaching. Many of the verses in our passage are so familiar because they’ve become clichés, happy phrases we see on notecards and couch pillows. These are not easy teachings. Nothing Jesus has taught thus far in the sermon on the mount is easy. But his teachings are simple, in that they’re not complicated or designed to trip us up. Remember, we learned that his yoke–his teachings as our ultimate rabbi–is light and not burdensome. Let’s carry that understanding with us as we dig into this week’s passage.

Is Jesus saying that if we seek his kingdom above all else, we will escape trouble and hardship and have everything we need in this life? I don’t think so…

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Jesus speaks these words to his disciples as his crucifixion nears. He assures them there will be trouble. Makes it pretty clear that there’s no escaping it. But he also tells them that in him they can have peace. He tells them, even before his death and resurrection, he has overcome the world.

So what does it mean when Jesus says that if we seek first the kingdom of God, we’ll have all we need? And how do we not worry when he guarantees that this life will bring us trouble?

Once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place…

What do we find when we seek first the kingdom?

We find Jesus. Our daily bread. The rabbi whose yoke is unlike any other.

If we seek the kingdom above all else, we will always be led straight into Jesus’ arms. I am slightly concerned about sounding redundant here, but God won’t let me get away from this. The entire sermon on the mount unveils the kingdom and every bit of it points us back to the One who’s doing the teaching.

What does it mean that if we seek first the kingdom, we’ll find Jesus? And how does that keep us from worrying? Look with me at Revelation 1:18. Jesus says,

“I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (NLT)

If Jesus holds the keys to death and the grave, what is there to fear, really? Even if the worst comes, he is Lord. Even over death.

I don’t mean any of that to sound superficial or easy, because I know it’s not. This life is painstakingly hard. Our hearts are broken over and over. Suffering is part of each of our stories. Which is why it is so key to remember that we are loved, held, pursued, and rescued by a co-suffering God, revealed in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

Pastor John talked to us on Sunday about rescue, how our limitless God comes for us. He also asked some questions that aren’t easy to answer, at least not for me. He asked if God has ever abandoned us, let us down, not shown up? Has he ever walked out on us? I wish I could say no to all of these questions. But there are still loose ends in my story, times I did feel let down by God, moments when he didn’t show up–at least not in a way I could see. Some parts of my story have found resolution over time–but sometimes it is only in looking back that I can see I wasn’t ever abandoned, because it sure felt like I was in some of my most desperate moments.

I wish that I could say that as my faith has grown and my maturity has deepened, I have ceased worrying. But that wouldn’t be true. The things of this world can feel so big–at any given moment there is much to be concerned about globally, nationally, politically, economically, ecologically, relationally, personally. There are issues accosting every part of our humanity, because in this world there is so much trouble.

And this is where it is essential to remember Jesus’s words, “Take heart. I have overcome the world. I hold the keys to death and the grave.”

Jesus’s assurances don’t deny our struggles and pain, but they do remind us that we are humans with limitations, living in a toilsome world that Jesus has already overcome.

There are parts of my life that to this point lay unresolved. Things I don’t understand–yet. But for every one of those moments, there are multiple stories of rescue, times when my God has shown up and revealed the voice, heart, presence I needed at just the right time. Because the truth is, our God never leaves us alone. Even when we run in fear or anger or confusion, we never reach the edge of his gaze, his hand, his pursuing love.

Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

To choose to focus on our worries is to elevate them, to worship the power of our own (unproductive) thinking, which leaves us spinning. Nothing changes by placing our minds on these concerns, by allowing our thoughts to consume us. All that changes is our own emotional, mental, and physical health. To worry actually takes hours off our lives. It harms us.

Instead of setting our minds on such things, we are exhorted to,

“. . .keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.” (Philippians 4:8, TPT)

Or, in other words,

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33, NLT)

Seek first the kingdom. Find Jesus there. He has overcome this troublesome world, and he holds the keys to death and the grave. So don’t worry. His love conquers all our fears.

–Laura

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday it’s God who gives us life. When he said that, the chorus from the song Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters came to mind: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise.” Your breath. God’s breath in our lungs. Pause for a second. Inhale deeply. The air, the lungs, the muscles that allow the breath to happen…it’s all a gift–or millions, and millions, and millions of gifts, from God, that happen all the time.

Which of us by worrying can add a single moment to our lives. Which of us by worrying can even provide our own breath? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can’t “make” any of it happen. God gives life, and breath, and designed us for every movement, every thought, every emotion. He’s given us the ability to reason, to learn, to grow. He’s given us talents and gifts. Each of our five senses are gifts. He’s given us a spirit so that we can connect with the Spirit of God. We are completely and totally dependent upon God for the design and functioning of our very beings. Yet we worry. We think: What if God isn’t really enough? And then fall for the lie, and live as if it all depends on us.

Laura and I took last week off, but I’m going to go back and retrieve the verses that come right before the worry passage and then paste in Laura’s inverted paraphrase from above so we can see these two passages together. Matthew 6:19-24 (TPT) reads like this:

Don’t keep hoarding for yourselves earthly treasures that can be stolen by thieves. Material wealth eventually rusts, decays, and loses its value. Instead, stockpile heavenly treasures for yourselves that cannot be stolen and will never rust, decay, or lose their value. For your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure. The eyes of your spirit allow revelation-light to enter into your being. If your heart is unclouded, the light floods in!  But if your eyes are focused on money, the light cannot penetrate and darkness takes its place. How profound will be the darkness within you if the light of truth cannot enter! How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t worship the true God while enslaved to the god of money!

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Laid out this way, it is easy to see the connection between the two passages. We seek treasures on earth, Jesus wants us to seek first God’s Kingdom. We seek money so we can take care of ourselves, Jesus tells us God will take care of us. Jesus warns us that the pursuit of stuff, the love of money, our focus on the kingdom of this world will lead our hearts away from God, and he reminds us to store up treasure in heaven, which The Passion Translation footnote defines like this: Heavenly treasures are eternal realities, such as loving others and doing good, revealing truth, and bringing Christ’s light to the world. None of these “treasures” can be stolen or ever lose their value.

So we have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount. What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded, and Laura reminded us above, the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation.

I think we can all admit it’s a struggle. We vascillate between worry and faith, between seeking our kingdom and God’s kingdom, between living for ourselves and living for others, between self-strangulation and Spirit transformation.

We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Laura beautifully reminded us that the whole sermon on the mount points us to Jesus–no matter what things look like on this side of the veil, he is with us and will never let us go.

Seek the kingdom of God above everything else, for your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure.

–Luanne

Ian Barnard | Words, Cool words, Lettering

Sermon on the Mount: A Call to Forgive

Before we look at this week’s verses, it is imperative we remember that throughout the entire Sermon on the Mount up to this point, Jesus has been teaching us how to “be”–how to “be” in the world, how to “be” in relationship with God, how to “be” in relationship with others. “Being” this way comes from the deep inner work of the Holy Spirit in our inner being–it’s a heart matter–and that deep inner work happens as we spend time with Jesus, as we learn from him, as we allow his way of thinking to become our way of thinking, and his way of being to become our way of being.

Pastor Beau, in last week’s sermon, reminded us that Jesus teaches:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT)

I was blown away by what Pastor Beau taught us regarding the word “yoke”. Laura wrote in last week’s blog: In ancient Judaism, the teachings of a rabbi were considered his “yoke.” Each rabbi’s yoke was different, as it contained his own subset of rules and interpretations. Jesus says here that his yoke is different from all the others. His teachings, he said, are easy, light, not burdensome or hard to bear. He asks his followers to take his teaching upon them and learn from him, to watch how he does it. And he says that in doing so, we’ll find rest for our souls.

Keeping all of that in mind, let’s look at this week’s verses–verses that many commentaries don’t even attempt to tackle.  Keep in mind that Jesus has just taught his followers to pray the Lord’s Prayer and he follows up that powerful, beautiful prayer with these words:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Mt. 6:14-15)

Where does your mind go when you read those verses? Does it make God seem cruel? Does it make you think that you don’t have a chance? Does it seem out of character? If you answer yes to any of those questions, this is the perfect time to remember that the scriptures weren’t written in English and our English translations don’t always get us to the heart of the matter… so we dig deeper. 

Digging deeper is actually a practice that was considered noble. In Acts 17:11, Luke wrote: The Jews of Berea were of more noble character and much more open minded than those of Thessalonica. They were hungry to learn and eagerly received the word. Every day they opened the scrolls of Scripture to search and examine them, to verify that what Paul taught them was true. (TPT)

Back to this week’s verses–what is Jesus teaching? Does God withhold forgiveness? 

Jesus taught us, just a few verses before, to pray forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We tackled those verses a couple of weeks ago in the blog, and learned that, based on the Greek word for forgiveness, this phrase could be read: let go of what we owe you as we let go of what others owe us. 

The same Greek word, aphiēmi, is used in this week’s passage, so could this week’s verse be read like this: For if you let go of what other people owe you,  your heavenly Father will also let go of what you owe him. But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will not let go of what you owe him… ?

Pastor John reminded us that our attitude toward others reflects our attitude toward God, and our attitude toward God reflects our attitude toward others. We can go all the way back to the Ten Commandments and see that God’s heart is that we live in right relationship with him, and right relationship with others. The Ten Commandments are all about relationships. So is the Sermon on the Mount. In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. To do so doesn’t minimize what we’ve been through, but we don’t carry the burden of another’s actions when we choose to release them into God’s hands.

Unforgiveness creates a barrier between us and others, and us and God. Disconnection is not God’s way. We can’t offer an openness to God and refuse to offer grace to others. We can’t bless God and curse others. Jesus’ brother James wrote, We use our tongue to praise God our Father and then turn around and curse a person who was made in his very image!  Out of the same mouth we pour out words of praise one minute and curses the next. My brothers and sister, this should never be! (James 3:9-10 TPT)

And later in that same passage he wrote: Wisdom from above is always pure, filled with peace, considerate and teachable. It is filled with love and never displays prejudice or hypocrisy in any form and it always bears the beautiful harvest of righteousness! Good seeds of wisdom’s fruit will be planted with peaceful acts by those who cherish making peace. (3:17-18)

These verses remind me of what Jesus taught in the beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon on the mount: 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.. 

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God…

It’s all connected. 

When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do. If we look at the story of the prodigal son, the youngest son created a barrier between himself and his father by leaving the father’s care and squandering what he’d been given. The oldest son created a barrier between himself and his father by refusing to celebrate the younger son’s return and by holding onto his anger at his father’s grace toward his younger brother’s actions. The father went to both with an invitation to come home–a desire to restore relationship with both

Could this week’s verses be read…For if you let go of what other people owe you,  there is no barrier between you and your heavenly Father, But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will allow the barrier between you and him to remain?

When I write it that way, it makes sense to me. God has not created the barrier, I have. God will come to me, he will invite me home to his heart, but I can’t bring the barrier with me. If I choose to harbor unforgiveness, if I choose the opposite of the beatitudes, if I choose not to be salt and light, I choose the barrier–I choose a heavy yoke. I choose separation. 

You all, I’ve lived in that space–I’ve created barriers as I’ve tried to self-protect by harboring resentment, unforgiveness, and a “you owe me” attitude. It doesn’t lead anywhere good. No doubt, forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus. Corrie Ten Boom wrote,  “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart”  

She forgave Nazis who killed her family and locked her up in a concentration camp during World War 2. She knew something about being owed a debt that can never be repaid. And she knew the heavy weight of carrying unforgiveness. She wrestled, she battled, she returned to God again and again asking for help, and she let it go as an act of the will–then, over time, the temperature of her heart changed. 

My own hard forgiveness journeys have been a battle of the will. I asked God to help me let offenses go and surrender them to him. I didn’t “feel” it, but I desired it. I would have to remind myself over and over that I had made the choice to forgive and push away thoughts that would lead me back into the spiral of bitterness. Over time, and with intentionality, true forgiveness happened. In some of those journeys, relationship was restored, in some, it wasn’t; however, at this moment I can say that I have sought to heed Paul’s words: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)  

Do I have to check my heart many times a day? Yep. Do I have to confess that I have not loved God with my whole heart and have not loved my neighbor as myself many times a day? Yep. 

But when I think of Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and when I think that he offered us forgiveness while we were still his enemies, when I remember that he wants us to love others as he has loved us, and when I remember his goodness, his kindness, his grace–how could I not offer it to others? And in offering it to others, the walls come down.

–Luanne

I am finally starting to write after much prayer, after reading dozens of articles and the few commentaries I could find, after looking up Greek words, and scouring the scriptures. This week’s passage is HARD, as both Pastor John and Luanne identified. I don’t know if these verses used to be as difficult for me, because I used to understand God and salvation in a transactional way, rather than in the relational and transformational way in which I’ve come to understand my faith as I continue to journey with Jesus. But these verses sound pretty transactional, right? If we don’t… God won’t. Or something like that.

Gratefully, Pastor John, in his sermon, gave us some things to consider as we seek to understand Jesus’ words. Luanne expanded on his points as she reminded us to connect these verses to what we read just prior (what we know as The Lord’s Prayer), and also about what we learned last week about Jesus’ yoke not being hard to bear. She explained what it looks like when our refusal to forgive creates a barrier between us and our experience of God’s forgiveness, which I want to come back to in just a bit. She also wrote, …forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus...”

This is where I want to begin, because I don’t believe forgiveness is possible in our humanness. I believe it is possible only as we “align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus,” like Luanne said. Forgiveness is born in–and then can flow out of–us as we are formed more and more into the likeness of Christ. Philippians 2:13 comes to mind as I think about becoming more like Jesus:

For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure.(Amplified Bible)

The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God.

I am reminded of another hard verse that we explored six weeks ago:

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48, NLT)

I wrote these words that week regarding this call to be perfect, and I think they fit well here, as we wrestle with another difficult call from Jesus:

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

I would say the same about forgiveness… On our own, our forgiveness–like our love–has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way. He gave us a new yoke–one we never carry alone. Just as we are not called to find a way to love perfectly outside of the perfect love of God, I don’t believe we’re being told to forgive without accessing the divine forgiveness of God. There is no other way for us to truly forgive.

And here is where our own will, which Luanne wrote about above, comes into play. She explained that, “When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do.” When we choose not to access the divine forgiveness that is readily available to us–which we carry as recipients of that forgiveness–we choose to replace the yoke of Jesus with the yoke–the burdens, regulations and rules–of the offense and the offender we are refusing to forgive. Yikes.

While there are teachings that hold to the belief that God’s forgiveness of us is dependent on our forgiving others first, this is not what I believe Jesus is saying here, not what I hear Luanne saying above, and not what I heard Pastor John teaching us on Sunday.

My understanding is that God’s forgiveness is whole, complete, finished and stands outside of and above all human actions. The God of the universe is not dependent on my ability to forgive others before I am forgiven. However, my ability to experience that forgiveness and to live in the freedom I have been offered can absolutely be hindered by my unwillingness to forgive.

Unforgiveness creates barriers, replaces the yoke of Jesus with an oppressive yoke of offenses and offenders, and can make it difficult to live in step with the unforced rhythms of grace. This yoke cloaks and overshadows us–it attempts to hide us from the light of God’s love. Now, God’s love is too bright, too powerful, too warm and ever-present to be denied, so it still breaks through as he constantly pursues our hearts. But our experience of his love is limited by the barriers we have erected. And if we’re not allowing much of his love to come in… there won’t be much of his love pouring out of us, either.

As John 13:35 reminds us, we are known as disciples of Jesus by our love for others. It really is all connected. Jesus has expressed in so many different ways during the sermon on the mount how vital it is that we love God, love others, and live according to the ways of the kingdom. This week’s passage once again emphasizes the same thing in a different way.

I will admit, this passage is still a struggle for me to wrap my mind around. Digging in has helped, but I expect these to be words that I wrestle with a bit every time I read them. I also trust that the Spirit of grace will continue to reveal truth and speak to my heart as I continue to journey with Jesus. That said, I’d like to leave us with beautiful words from someone far more learned than myself, a brilliant pastor and theologian whose insights are rivaled only by his kindness and commitment to cruciform love. I hope that these thoughts from Brad Jersak stir your heart to dig deeper, to linger longer, to be enraptured by the beauty of the One we follow as we all continue to grow and be formed into the image of Christ…

“The Gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness… Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… And if God is quiet at all, it’s because I’ve jammed my fingers into the ears of my heart. Yet somehow, I still can’t shake the feeling that God is there, watching, waiting, perhaps grieved, but if he ever seems ‘mad’ or ‘absent,’ again and again I find the real blockage is my own filters or projections–my pride or shame–distorting the presence of Love. The truth is, God is always there. And here. And now. The pure fire of divine Love is longing for you, my friend, his beloved–not merely waiting, watching or even following, but in vigorous, stalking pursuit…

I hear the voice of Grace say, “Oh, Brad, you aren’t merciful yet–certainly not to your haters. It’s not yet engrained in your character–mercy is not yet who you are. But I’ve given you the Grace to participate in Abba’s transforming mercy. You could begin by becoming an agent of Abba’s Grace, one act of mercy at a time. Freely you’ve received it, now freely give it away. Abba in his mercy pardons and forgives, so pay it forward. Receive Abba’s kindness and give it away. You might not feel merciful yet; but as you share Abba’s little mercies one day at a time, lo and behold, one day you find that you have become a mercy-bearer. It is who you are. You didn’t generate it… you received it; you obtained that mercy-trait of Christ as a Beatitude from Christ.” To summarize, we receiver by Grace what we could never muster on our own: Abba’s mercy for our debtors. And we become mercy in our nature as we freely distribute the mercies we receive from Abba. The reality of our Grace-transformation is revealed most thoroughly by the mercies we show our enemies.

(excerpts from: A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, p. 294-295; A More Christlike Way, A More Beautiful Faith, p. 170-171)

–Laura

Chapter 9 |