What difference does being a Christian make?

Colin speakingThe following is adapted from Colin’s sermon on Sunday 26th May 2008.

Being a Christian is meant to change you. It is meant to make you a better person. It is meant to take you beyond the normal standards which the world considers reasonable.

The normal standard is “an eye for an eye” or, more positively, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. That is the normal standard of fairness which most people recognise. If you do me wrong I am entitled to some proportionate retribution. You damage my car I’m entitled to compensation; you hit me and I’ll either hit you back or sue you; you say something nasty about me and I’ll spread some gossip about you. On the other hand if you help me out then I’ll help you out; do me a favour and I’ll do you a favour; you lend me your lawnmower then I’ll lend you my hedge trimmer; you invite me to your party and I’ll invite you to mine.

That’s the normal standard of fairness. It is based on mutuality. We instinctively recognize that as just.

But Jesus says that’s not enough. His followers are meant to stand out from the crowd. It is not enough just to love those who love you. You are meant to go beyond the normal standard:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
(Matthew 5:38-41).

That is not fair. It is not just. We are called to go beyond fair.

On 2nd October 2006, Charles Roberts took hostages and eventually killed five girls (aged 6-13) and then committed suicide at West Nickel Mines School in the Amish community in Pennsylvania. Just hours after the shooting an Amish neighbour comforted the Roberts family and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

That is the real thing. That is real Christian faith lived out. It is almost shocking. Some commentators were offended by it. They thought it was wrong to forgive like that.

Could I have done it? Could you? I don’t know, but those Christians had really let Jesus get under their skin. They had understood what he meant when he said to go the extra mile and to love your enemies.

Loving your enemies sounds good in principle, as a notional idea, but whenever we are actually wronged all our instincts say an eye for an eye. I have been around in church for long enough to know that people in church, myself included, have exactly the same instincts as everybody else. The question is whether, when something happens, do we go with those instincts or do we overcome those instincts and follow the path that Jesus calls us to? If we do not we are just like everybody else. If we do then we stand out from the crowd. I regret to say that the church is littered with petty feuds and unresolved grievances over far lesser things than the Amish had to handle. That is the result of Christians simply failing to follow their faith through.

Jesus is not calling us to be weak or to allow ourselves to be used as a doormat. He is certainly not calling us to acquiesce in exploitation in general. It is a call to be strong. It is a call to be so strong that we overcome our instincts to retaliate and to put our own personal interests first.

But surely that is a kind of strength which is naturally beyond most of us?
Jesus’ call can sound ridiculous:
“Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

“Perfect” here means whole and complete and good in the sense of reflecting the character of God in your whole being.

The question has to be “How?” How can we hope to live like that? How can we be perfect? Nobody’s perfect!

But I believe Jesus is offering us a real and practical way to live. The clue to how is there in the statement itself: “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”.

Jesus is assuming a relationship with God. He is assuming that you know God as your own personal heavenly father; that God is in your life at the deepest heart of who you are. He is assuming that you have experienced the amazing love and acceptance and forgiveness of God. He is assuming that you know that that relationship between you and your heavenly father cannot be broken. Your heavenly father is not standing in judgment over you. He is not condemning you. He loves you passionately and will never abandon you and wants the best for you.

If you have a child who you want to grow up into a whole and complete person you do not do it by condemning them and threatening them and constantly telling them how disappointed you are in them. That’s the way to make a neurotic child. You give a child a chance of wholeness by loving them. Discipline is a part of that love but first and foremost they must know that they are loved. That is the foundation upon which everything else can be built.

That is exactly how God works. He wants you to be complete and whole and perfect. He knows that to grow up into that you must first know your heavenly father and feel his embrace and know that you are secure in his love. He will not let you go. Then you can look up from that security – not frightened of rejection or punishment – and you can begin to allow that love of God to work through your whole being.

You can begin to become the person God has always meant you to be. You can begin to grow towards that completeness and wholeness and perfection in which you will reflect the life and character of your heavenly father.

That is why Jesus can dare to ask of us that we love our enemies; that we go the extra mile; that we turn the other cheek. Because he knows that if we are truly his followers and we have allowed God into our hearts then that kind of love is already alive in us. It may be only a flickering flame but it is ready, if we are willing, to be nurtured, grown, shaped and moulded by our heavenly father until his image is fully restored in us.

It may seem a long way off, but isn’t that something worth growing up into?

(based on a sermon preached on 25th May 2008)

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