Sermon: Welcome to Grace

I’ve noticed that few Evangelicals really understand grace. This sermon, I hope, helps us to receive it — and, just as importantly, practice it. — JA

Welcome to Grace

Scripture reading: Psalm 119:33-40.
Sermon text: Matthew 5:38-48.

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him — for we can prevent Him, if we choose — He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot not imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back on God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said. — C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV.ix

We all have our favorite passages of Scripture. We love reading where Jesus tells us, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1), “I with you always” (Matthew 28:20), or (probably our favorite) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We love these passages because they give us hope and comfort.

Then, we encounter the other passages, those we had rather avoid. Even the most devout believers will occasionally read something that convicts them and challenges them to do something they had rather not.

Today’s passage covers a set of verses most of us don’t want to hear. Few of us want to hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and I’ve heard more explanations for “be perfect” than I can count. Interestingly, almost every explanation I’ve heard of this passage — except for the explanation in the C.S. Lewis quote above — tries in some way to say, “Jesus didn’t really mean it.”

We’ll get to that passage soon enough. However, we need to realize that Jesus’ words today give us far more hope than any of the comforting passages I’ve already mentioned. Christian, I have great news for you: One day, you’ll become the perfect image of God He created you to become —

And you will owe it all to grace.

Jesus opened this section of the Sermon on the Mount with a reminder of Moses’ teachings regarding justice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Most of us today have heard this saying, usually when uttered by someone praying (or hoping) for God to put holy smite on someone who just wronged them in some way. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone use this phrase in a rational moment; it usually appears in the heat of the moment and at a decibel level approaching that of a jet engine.

We think of this kind of justice — often known by its Latin rendition, lex talionis — as cruel. Why should someone want to render exact payment like this in a justice system? It helps to know the history behind this version of justice.

In the ancient Mesopotamian world of tribes and clans, before the state assumed the role of arbiter in crimes, at least one member of every family served as the “blood avenger” who enforced the peace between families. If someone murdered or wronged a family member, everyone expected the blood avenger to avenge the murder or injustice. Lex talionis prevented the blood avengers from exceeding the bounds and inflicting more punishment than necessary to avenge the crime.

Jesus began with the Mosaic injunction of lex talionis and then redefined the law to describe God’s ideal: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” What did Jesus mean?

We must understand that Jesus did not refer to a judicial system. Instead, we must remember “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). If our true enemy does not exist physically, then we cannot treat other humans with disrespect; we cannot wish vengeance on others if we love them as ourselves. Even as we work to end injustice, we must do so without descending into vengeance.

This leads us to Jesus’ more difficult teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

“Wait,” you say; “I can do this!” Of course we can. We love to love those who already love us. Anyone can hate his enemy, the one that despises you and seeks your harm. I can always manufacture “warm fuzzies” for those I love, and I don’t have to work at all to viscerally hate my enemy.

Then, Jesus gave His interpretation. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

That hurts. It turns out Jesus expects us to love our enemies as much as we love our neighbors. It seems Jesus really means this “love” thing.

I don’t know if I can do this; in fact, I don’t think I can do it on my own. I have no problem loving those who love me, but to love those who hate me? Why did Jesus say I must love those who work to cause harm to me?

Jesus said this because He did it; He lived as He expects us to live. Jesus lived among sinful humanity, in spite of our hatred and rebellion. Jesus loved even those who killed Him. Jesus never met an enemy He didn’t love, and we had best thank God for that love; that love led Jesus to die for our sins and rise again for our salvation.

In short, welcome to grace.

By grace, Jesus died to save us. By grace, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We had rebelled against God, but Christ died for us anyway. By grace, He calls us to believe in Him as the Holy Spirit draws us to the cross for salvation.

In Jesus’ teachings, we see how He wishes us to treat one another. God knows the injustices we inflict on one another, but He still loves each human, so much so that He offers grace to us instead of condemnation and judgment. Because God has loved us, we come to love each other so much that we do not insist on our own rights, but we willingly forego our own rights for the good of others.

Do you see the implications? If we treat each injustice as an opportunity to minister to everyone around us — even our oppressors — we begin to open avenues to proclaim the gospel to those who mistreat us.

These teachings may sound incredibly difficult to us, but Jesus’ next words seem impossible: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I’ve heard a lot of interpretations of this verse. Some people want to interpret the Greek word “teleios” as “mature” so it sounds more as if Jesus didn’t mean “perfect,” but given the rest of the sentence, this doesn’t work. We can’t see a holy God as merely “mature.” (The Message sounds even worse: “Grow up,” as if God ever displayed juvenile tendencies.) No, Jesus said “perfect,” and He meant it.

Only Jesus Himself ever lived a perfect life, and perfection didn’t save Him from death. Why would Jesus expect perfection if no one has ever attained it? I can see at least 2 reasons why Jesus would seem to do this to us.

First, let’s go back a few verses, to the sermon text from two weeks ago, where we find these words: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees had tried to reinterpret holiness to mean adherence to their traditions rather than adherence to the spirit of the Law. The zealous protecting of the Jewish Law by the Pharisees had degenerated into legalism, so much so that the Pharisees demanded obedience only to the letter of their laws.

Legalism never works, no matter what day it rears its head or what group expounds it. If you’re expecting God to owe you a favor because you keep someone’s set of laws, you’ll find yourself in deep trouble. None of us will ever attain salvation by obedience; we will attain it only by grace, by coming to Jesus for forgiveness of our sins and spiritual rebirth. “You must be born again,” Jesus said to one of the foremost Pharisees (John 3:7).

Secondly, and more importantly, I believe C.S. Lewis accurately described the salvation lifestyle in the passage I quoted earlier. God loves us, but holiness defines God’s nature and character. God cannot and will not tolerate sin. We serve a holy God. Out of love, God forgives us of our sins when we confess Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection (Romans 10:9); out of love, God then adopts us into His family (Romans 8:13-17).

Then, by grace, God begins perfecting us. As Lewis puts it in the same chapter of Mere Christianity:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing a new wing here, putting on a extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Christian, I believe we can read this passage and instead of despairing at our imperfections, we find we can take comfort and hope from Jesus’ words. God will perfect all His children. No, we won’t like it; yes, we’ll experience pain in the process. We will, however, find the ultimate result worth everything we experience in this life.

In the meantime, we find we must live to a higher standard than the world’s. We must understand that our every action can help someone to immortal joy with our Creator. We must understand that when God said, “Love your neighbor,” He meant it, even if loving our neighbor brings us harm. We must work in this life to fight injustice. We must work now to spread the gospel so that everyone around us will one day, in a new creation, experience the perfection God has prepared for all of us. God has shown us grace, and He expects us to demonstrate grace to others on a daily basis.

Christian, I give you words of comfort: We live in grace. We live in hope. Through the grace of God, we have received forgiveness; through His grace, we can show grace to others. This week, live in grace in such a way that, when others ask why you love them, you can say: “Join me in grace.”