Epiphany 7A Sermon (2011)

7th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 5:38-48;
Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23


Has it been happening again over the past several weeks in Egypt? Has a group of mostly non-Christians been following the teaching of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel better than most Christians have over the centuries? It primarily started last century when a Hindu man by the name of Mahatma Gandhi led 350 million Hindus and Muslims in a nonviolent revolution against the Christian peoples of the British Empire. At the center of Gandhi’s brand of revolution were these eleven verses from Matthew 5 that we heard this morning.

The 1982 motion picture Gandhi (my all-time favorite movie) has a scene near the beginning in which Gandhi is walking down a street with Anglican priest Charlie Andrews. Menacing youths appear in their path. Andrews is about to suggest they change routes, but Gandhi wants to press the issue:

Gandhi: Doesn’t the New Testament say that ‘if your enemy strikes you on the right cheek offer him the left’?

Andrews: I think maybe the phrase is used metaphorically. I don’t think…

Gandhi: I’m not so sure. I have thought about it a great deal, and I suspect he meant you must show courage, be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show that you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred for you decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen it work.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Gandhi is fighting apartheid in South Africa, early in his career, before he returns to India. He organizes a rally in a theater packed with willing protesters, ready to go fight unjust laws. Gandhi outlines features of the new laws: mandatory fingerprinting for People of Color, only Christian marriages are to be considered legally valid (all the Indians are either Hindu or Muslim), and police may enter their dwellings without permission. There are outcries from the crowd promising violent resistance, ending with someone shouting out: “For that cause I would be willing to die!” To which Gandhi responds:

I praise such courage. I need such courage, because in this cause I, too, am prepared to die. But, my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. Whatever they do to us, we will attack no one, kill no one. But we will not give our fingerprints, not one of us. They will imprison us, they will fine us, they will seize our possessions. But they cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.

A person in the crowd interjects: “Have you ever been to prison? They beat us and torture us….” Gandhi continues:

I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow. But we will receive them. And through our pain we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then, they have my dead body. Not my obedience. We are Hindu and Muslim, children of God, each one of us. Let us take a solemn oath in God’s Name that, come what may, we will not submit to this law.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: If our world is to survive, we need more people to imitate Gandhi who imitated Christ, who imitated his Father in heaven. We need more people to imitate Martin Luther King, Jr., who imitated Gandhi, who imitated Christ. This is it! This morning! This is the very heart of our Christian faith! That cross which we process every Sunday morning — that’s what this cross is all about. It’s precisely about this teaching of nonretaliation and love of enemies, which Jesus of Nazareth not only taught but then lived out on the cross. In going to his death under our unjust laws, Jesus was able to live out perfect, universal, unconditional love of the true God — showing us that the justice of the true God is mercy.

It began with his arrest. One of his disciples begins violent resistance, retaliation, by cutting off the ear of a servant with a sword. Jesus heals his ear, and says, “None of this!” So the disciples run away. That’s been the sum of our human history: fight or flight. We either fight back or run away in the face of violence. But Jesus came to show us a third way, the true way, the Way of the Living God who lovingly created each of us, everyone on this planet.

So Jesus stood with courage before his accusers. When they mocked him on the cross, he asked his Father in heaven to forgive them. They mocked him, of course, with taunts from our false gods of violence: ‘If you are the Son of God,’ they said, ‘come down from the cross. Let God deliver you from this evil. Come down and get us, if you are the Son of God.’

But the fact that Jesus stayed where he needed to be as the true son of the true God is precisely the point. He came to show us the pure and unconditional love of that God who made every one of us. He showed us a love that does not retaliate, a love that forgives instead of forswearing vengeance. He lived out on the cross a faith in the God of Life who can give us life even in death. He showed us the God of Life who desperately wants us to understand how to live completely for life and never for death, never for killing. As Gandhi said, there are causes to die for, but not to kill for.

And so Jesus comes again to us this morning, showing us this love once again, and pleading with us to live it. He comes to us and says, ‘This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you, God’s unconditional love feeding you, so that you do this. Do this! Do this! Do this in imitation of me! You can do this! Because I have done it, a full blooded, fully embodied human being. I DID THIS SO THAT YOU MAY DO IT.’

Has it been happening again in Egypt these past weeks? Have a group of mostly Muslim people been living out this central Christian teaching, even if they are not aware of where it comes from? I’m not completely sure. We pray that it’s happening, and that it will yield a peaceful and just democracy. But this I do know: God needs us who do bear the sign of the cross to live it, to do this. God’s world, God’s children need us to do this. Amen

[Note: Presiders might consider a change in the ‘Words of Institution’ today from “Do this in remembrance of me” to “Do this in imitation of me.”]

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 20, 2011

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