Saturday, February 22, 2014

An Eye for an Eye?

"An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind"
~Mahatma Gandhi

An Eye for an Eye 

Modern history teaches us where this ancient ethic leads; pick a war, any war. One act of violence leads to another. You kill our thousands on 9/11, we’ll kill your hundreds of thousands in two wars in two nations thereafter for more than a decade. Recriminations between Palestinians and Israelis leads to one attack after another. In the land of my countrymen on the Irish side, need we say that Christian Catholics and Christian Protestants pluck an eye for an eye with impunity?

Whether it is in our political life as Republicans and Democrats, as Conservatives or Liberals, whether we are Corporations or Union folk, rich or poor, male or female, whatever race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; however we identify ourselves, this ethic; “an eye for an eye” is all too operative.  

“You have heard that it was said of old; an eye for an eye”. Thus Jesus begins this Gospel. He seemed to know that given the nature of human nature, this ancient ethic would more than likely live well into every human historic epoch. After all, if anyone knew the intrinsic nature of the human heart, it would be the Logos, the very Word of God made flesh and blood in Jesus.  According to the Scripture, after all, it is through his instrumentality that God made us the way we are.

Yet, having done so, he asks us to do the impossibly perfect thing; “You hit me here” he said pointing to one cheek, “and I will give to you the other one to hit as well. I will not resist you. You ask of me my coat, and I’ll give you my cloak as well. You ask me to go one mile with you, I’ll go the second also.”

This Jesus! These things are impossible! Has he not read history? Even the history of his own Church? We have been the source of countless wars. From Charlemagne, to the Great Christian Empires of Britain, France, Spain, Germany and now the United States of America. Each of these great empires have armed themselves to the hilt with armies and weapons able to defend and attack. It is just the way it is.

Even Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pacifist of World War Two finally gave in and participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. It was the right thing to do! With the millions dying and the millions more about to die, it was the right thing to do, he reasoned with himself. It was his moral duty. Alas the plot failed. He and those participating in the plot were found out. Only two weeks before the end of the war he was executed on Easter Sunday at prayer and at peace we are told by his biographer and student Eberhard Bethge. He gave in to the will of God and commended himself to his fate.

It is the way of humankind; “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. What can one man or woman do in the face of history? 

Well, there was Mahatma Gandhi. Through the methods he learned in non violence he participated in the civil rights struggles in South Africa long before Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. He led the struggle for independence in India. Although he never became a Christian as such, he found the teachings of Jesus to be absolutely essential to the formation of a soul in love with God and humankind. After all, it was Gandhi who said; “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind”.

And another student of non violence, Martin Luther King, led our own civil rights struggle in our own nation. There are those of us who marched with him and met him and listened to him and were inspired by him. These people have changed my life and many more.

But above all there is Jesus. No weapons please. At the arrest of Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, one of the disciples of Jesus drew his sword and cut off the ear of the slave to the High Priest. Jesus said “Enough of this. Those who live by the sword, shall die by the sword”.

Here is the one who really changed my life. I dare say, everyone here has had his or her life changed by Jesus in one way or another. And the change, the conversion continues. This Christ-like becoming takes a life time. He wants us to turn the cheek to those who strike us. He wants us to love our enemies. It is hard enough to love our loved ones, let alone those who wish us harm and violence. How then is it that we are to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect?

The Greek word for “perfect” used here in Matthew is “telios”. Perfection here has to do with our end or our completion; or God’s intention for us. What is missing in us if we are unable to love? How utterly at odds with God if we cannot be filled with love. It is our end, our “telios” to be filled with such love that it utterly conquers all else. Paul advises us in his letter to the Christians in Colossae; “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” ~Colossians 3:14. 

And in John’s proclamation that God is Love he uses the word “perfection” in its proper biblical sense; “Love has been perfected among us. (  ). There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” ~1 John 4:17-18 

So then, yes we are to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect. The human heart is the mansion in which God seeks to finds a home. “In my father’s house there are many mansions” ~John 14:1. And the more we allow God to enter our hearts the more perfect we become. For it is in this very journey inward to the center of the human heart that we come to the heart of God dwelling within us. Thus indeed it can be said that in my father’s house there are indeed many dwelling places.

Be careful now. Jesus did not say that we are to love others instead of ourselves. Jesus commanded that we are to love others as we do ourselves. It always sounds funny to demand that we love ourselves. But how can we love others unless we begin there? For those of us who have ever flown with children, we learned in the pre-flight safety instructions somewhat counter intuitively, that if there is a sudden loss in cabin pressure, you are to take the oxygen masks that automatically fall from the overhead consoles and first take the mask on your own face before you place it on your child. Otherwise you risk the loss of your own life as well as the life of your child. 

The move to perfection includes first our love of God, then our love of one another as we love ourselves. It is a challenge that takes a lifetime. Just this week I came across a graphic that spells it out. I posted it on my Facebook page. I found it interesting how many there were who found the graphic compelling. A challenge to love includes a fundamental change in the formation of our character. 

Among the things love means are the following;
1. Listen without interrupting. ~Proverbs 18:13
2. Speak without accusing.  ~James 1:19
3. Give without sparing. ~Proverbs 21:26
4. Pray without ceasing. ~1 Thessalonians 5:17
5. Answer without arguing. ~Proverbs 17:1
6. Share without pretending. ~Ephesians 4:15
7. Enjoy without complaining. ~Philippians 2:14
8. Trust without wavering. ~1 Corinthians 13:7
9. Forgive without punishing. ~Colossians 3:14
10. Promise without forgetting. ~Proverbs 13:12

There’s not a one of us who can claim perfection in any or all of these things. If you think you can, I’d like to meet you in my office. 

But the more and more we fill our hearts with the love of God and the love of one another and spell that out not just as a word but as a way of life, the more complete; the more “perfect” we become as Children of God.

Your vestry is struggling in these days with many very thorny issues.
  1. How can we develop this congregation in such a way that it becomes a viable and self supporting congregation?
  2. What is our particular mission in our setting?
  3. Can we really afford a full time priest or is it time to face the music and admit our limitations?
  4. Should we move toward the Holy Eucharist as the Principal act of worship on Sunday it is supposed to be? If so, how? If so, when? 

What characterizes this congregation as mature in its discipleship of Jesus is its willingness to speak the truth to one another in love.

It would certainly be easier for me personally, to just come in here and take services and preach the Gospel and let you take care of all these thing and enjoy the relative ease that any one of us could expect in our retirement, especially after retiring three times already.

But God is in the heart of things, stirring us to do what God would have us do. That’s how I awaken with each new day. What would God have me do today? How would God invite St. Paul’s Church to live and move and have its being?

It seems fitting that Jesus would preach these words in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said of old, .... but I say unto you”. 

“Therefore you must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Paul

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