Epiphany 7A (February 19, 2017)

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ Great Commission: “Go, make disciples of all nations…teaching them all that I have commanded you.” This does not come naturally to us. We don’t seek to persuade others, or be persuaded by them, but to find those who agree with us. We tend toward in-groups, bubbles, echo chambers. Social media has made it easier to confirm our biases. We are told that this is new, something that has infected our society recently, as opposed to in days past when people were polite and civil and women stayed in the home and certain color people couldn’t use my water fountain. So, excuse me for not buying that. Our gospel reading suggests this is not a new problem. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Where? Where does it say, “Hate your enemy?” It is not in the Torah. We read Leviticus. It says, “Love your neighbor.” I don’t think Jesus is misquoting Leviticus; I think he knows that his listeners have heard this before. Jesus had at least one noteworthy contemporary group that commanded hatred of the enemy: the Essenes, the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Essenes tried to live according to the rules laid down in a scroll we call “The Community Rule,” This was, the scroll claimed, so “that they may love all that God has chosen and hate all that God has rejected,” and that they “may love all the sons of light, each according to his lot in God’s design, and hate all the sons of darkness, each according to his guilt in God’s vengeance.” (1QS I: 3-4, 9-10) We don’t know that Jesus was opposing the Essenes when he said, “Love your enemies.” We do know that they and their message fit the bill. The Essenes, like Jesus, called people into a holy, perfect community. But unlike Jesus, the Essenes believed they were pure and God would reward their purity by putting them in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem. See, 180 years before Jesus’ ministry, the Essenes split from the Temple in a dispute over who became High Priest. (This, of course, marked the only time in history anyone left a faith community because they didn’t like a decision someone else made there.) The Essenes were sure they would be placed atop God’s new power structure. This puts them at odds with community as Jesus preaches it.

Jesus calls us into community in today’s gospel. He calls us not to retreat into isolated purity, but to seek our enemies. We don’t give in to their demands. We don’t lie there like a doormat while they abuse us. We act with a love and grace that refuse to back down. Therefore, Jesus says, If someone strikes you on the right cheek, show them the left cheek. It’ll completely confuse them. If you’re out in public (which you probably are in that society), it puts the attacker in an awkward position: it throws your human dignity in their face in front of everyone and says, “Why are you doing this to me?” Same thing applies if someone sues you for your coat (which they are not, by the Torah, allowed to keep); offer them all your clothes. Strip naked. They will be the one in the awkward position. If an occupying Roman soldier forces you to carry his stuff, refuse to put it down. Follow him around and keep asking for jobs. It is what we call active nonviolence.

This is not passive resistance; it is hard work. And it is for the sake of community. You won’t achieve domination doing this. Rome didn’t conquer the Mediterranean by giving away coats. But Christians aren’t supposed to be aiming for domination. We are aiming for community with our enemies. We want them to see us as human. We want them to join us. Our community consists of would-be enemies.

From the outset, Christian community has been odd. Just look at the disciples Matthew describes. Andrew, Peter, James and John? They were fishermen. Matthew? Tax collector: the worst thing possible. Simon? Zealot: religious fanatic. Judas Iscariot? Betrayer. This is an odd group of people. And while Judas gets all the bad press, remember that they all abandon Jesus in Gethsemane. It is only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that they become the apostles who preach and live and die for the faith. At some point, every one of those disciples was a backhanded slapper or a coat taker, a user of forced labor, denier of alms, hater of neighbor, denier of Jesus. Something. They are broken sinners. Jesus redeems them. Jesus makes his community out of the broken. He still does it. Does it to each of us. At every funeral when we commend our brother or sister in Christ, the presider asks Jesus, “Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you… a sinner of your own redeeming.” It is a celebration of how Jesus Christ mended our broken loved one, how the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus refused to back away but instead redeemed someone. It is the same commendation for all of us. All of us are broken, and Jesus mends us.

This plays out between Saint Paul and the Church in Corinth. I’ve mentioned the Church in Corinth had problems. Members were obsessed with social status within the Church, and this had led to Eucharist being a dinner party for the rich, to a man marrying his stepmother, to people dragging the courts into church, to people demanding to be allowed to take over worship and say whatever they wanted. Paul writes them patiently but presses them hard: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” That sounds like something your mom says when you tell her you want a tattoo. In Paul’s day, temples are places where gods dwell. They’re politically charged institutions, therefore, because the priests control access to gods. Occasionally this leads to people like the Essenes splitting from the Temple.

In a sense, Paul says to Corinth, “You’ve got God dwelling in you deeply, and Christ the priest is trying to use you to love the world relentlessly. You’re not listening to God, and you’re not loving the world relentlessly.” The letter we call 1 Corinthians does not persuade the Corinthians. Things get worse. Some Corinthians accuse Paul of not even being a genuine apostle, and say they’ve got Super Apostles. Now, Paul’s got a church in Galatia that’s gone completely nuts; a church in Thessalonica where beloved members are dying and the people are asking questions about the resurrection; a great church in Philippi—would be a nice place to settle down and do some real ministry; and he’s got a trip to Rome he is planning. Paul could just let go of Corinth, or, given his background as a guy who arranges the stoning of Christians, he could go to Corinth and smash a few heads.

Instead, Paul comes back as a relentless, crazy lover. What we call 2 Corinthians is at least two letters out of order, and the last four chapters are a desperate, relentless love letter. It’s not “Baby, come back. You can blame it all on me.” Paul didn’t do anything wrong here. Instead, Paul responds to what they have said. “Oh, you’ve got Super Apostles. Have they been beaten and whipped and starved and jailed and left for dead on your behalf like I have?” “Oh, you prefer a stronger apostle who doesn’t preach the cross. I suppose he performed the same signs and wonders I did?” “Oh, you think this is about me? You’re the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and all I want to do is see the Spirit flowing out of you, and I am not going to stop telling you that.”

Through Paul, Jesus calls the broken people of Corinth into being a genuine community. Jesus bursts the bubble and tears down the echo chamber. The Corinthians become reconcilers, ambassadors for Christ, fundraisers for the poor. The Spirit who dwells in them flows forth. They become the Church that turns the other cheek, offers the cloak, and walks the extra mile. They become the Church that can make disciples with the same relentless love that was given to them.

Jesus’ relentless love for us forms us into the Church that bursts the bubbles and tears down the echo chambers. We do that not by coming up with killer slogans, eviscerating Facebook memes, or sharing op-ed pieces by our favorite partisan sites. We do that not by seeking out those who agree with us. We do that by carrying the love of God in Christ Jesus out into the world. We do that by listening to what the Other has to say, and by refusing to be silenced. We do that by putting on display before the whole world our humanity. We do that by being crucified with Christ. And crucified with Christ, we are able to say to all people, “You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and all we want to do is see the Spirit flowing out of you, and we are not going to stop telling you that.”