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Sunday, June 14, 2020
I had a moment when I had to decide what mattered more, my position on an issue, or my love for my friend. I believed anyone in the United States illegally was a criminal, and should be deported. I was unflinching in my resolve. Then, I found out that one of my closest friends was in America illegally. Fernando was my brother in Christ. Truly seeing him my attitude toward the immigration changed. I share this not to sway your view but rather to invite you to pause. Regarding any issue, see the human beings involved, God’s image bearers.
I had prejudicial LGBTQ-related opinions, but then became close friends with gay people. I have seen the fruit of the spirit produced in the lives of gay Christians. I still hold what I think is the Biblical view in this conversation, but I tremble as I hold that view, and I appreciate the tension. I am as much a sinner in need of love as anyone. Jesus came to love me and calls me to love people – those who agree with me, those who despise me, those who hold me in contempt, and even those who would attack me.
Matthew 5:39 is among the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings. The life of a disciple is more demanding that other paths we might choose.[i] Jesus is not looking for believers, converts, or admirers. He doesn’t have a logbook where he charts church attendance, hours spent reading the Bible, and how much Christian music we listen to. Jesus calls disciples. If you have any interest in the way of Jesus, listen. Pay attention. This demanding life? You’re called to it.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39a). Much ink has been spilled by theologians and pastors trying to wriggle out of the full implications of Jesus’ word. He couldn’t have really meant let people punch you. Could he? There’s has to be some deeper explanation that frees me up from actually applying this to my life.
You don’t think Jesus meant it? Read any of the Gospel accounts of him being arrested. He was punched. He had thorn hammered into his head. He was flogged and his hands were pierced. When he was arrested, Peter whipped out a sword and chopped the ear off one of the assailants. Peter did what you or I would do. He hit back. Jesus’ harshest rebuke that night came against Peter as Peter defended him. He healed the man’s ear and said to Peter, “Do you think I cannot appeal to my father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels” (Matt. 26:53; Jn 18:10-11)? But he didn’t lift that prayer and no sword-wielding angels came. Jesus turned the other cheek. He talked the talk in the Sermon on the Mount and walked the walk in the Garden of Gethsemane.
He expects us to follow his lead, but how do we do that? And what does it look like in our lives? I don’t usually have people actually try to punch me. I think it last happened in the 1980’s. I was a school kid and I punched back. What does the turn the other cheek look like in a disciple’s actual lived experience? The answer lies in our attitude and in how we see people. We will act out of who we are. Who defines who we are?
If we want to follow Jesus, we have no role models in the White House. There’s a cut-up video montage of all the times President Trump has threatened to punch someone in the face, wished he could punch someone in the face, or urged his supporters to punch someone in the face. This is literally the opposite of what Jesus teaches. It’s not just him. President Obama killed far more people than Trump through the drone strikes he so often ordered. Before him, President Bush sent thousands of Americans to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What do we have to show for it? Before him President Clinton bombed Serbia.
A lot of church-going people feel emboldened by face-punching bravado. It shows the difference between a church goer and a disciple. The disciple takes his cues on how to deal with conflict and react to aggression from Jesus’ words. The disciple follows the example Jesus modeled. I have cited two Democrats and two Republicans who fell woefully short of the standard Jesus set. It is more demanding to be a disciple of Jesus than to be a draped in the flag, no matter what country or ideology one defends. We belong to Jesus.
Is it possible for us to see as he sees? Whether it is emotional or physical, threat takes over your body. You feel your heart race. Your throat gets dry. Your brain starts to kick into fight, flight, or freeze. You can’t control that.[ii] You can train yourself to be more willing to fight that flee, but it is another matter altogether to rewire your brain so that you, like Jesus, can rhetorically or literally turn the other cheek. Only with commitment to the way of Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit can this way of seeing be ours. Fortunately, we can choose to commit to the way of Christ, and the Holy Spirit does want to help us.
How then, can we see threats differently? How can we see with the eyes of Christ and respond in love? Get to know God. Especially understand that God sees you. Look to the story of Hagar in Genesis 16 & 21
Sarah, over 80, growing impatient for God to fulfill his promise of offspring, told Abraham, over 90, to lay with her Egyptian servant Hagar. He did, and Hagar got pregnant and had Ishmael. She was of a different ethnic group than what would become the Jewish people. She was Gentile. Once Isaac was born to Sarah, she no longer had use for Hagar or the boy Hagar had by Abraham. So, she convinced Abraham to kick Hagar out of the community.
We humans do this too easily. We deport the unwelcome foreigner. We call the police when someone looks like they don’t belong in our neighborhood as the neighborhood belongs to us is ours, and it’s our prerogative to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. It’s a selfish, self-righteous, arrogant attitude.
Now consider God and Hagar, the Gentile. Her child Ishmael only existed because Sarah and Abraham did not trust God and saw her, a slave, as property to be used, not a human being to be respected. Kicked out, about to die of thirst in the desert, Hagar heard God speak. He provided food and hope. She did not die. Hagar called God “El-Roi,” the God who sees (16:13).
That God came to earth in human flesh, Jesus. Jesus was fully human. He was able to love those who attacked him because he spent his life studying the scrolls, God’s word, praying, and seeing people the way God saw Hagar. He trained his own brain to react differently to threats than we naturally do. Instead of his brain automatically, in a matter of nanoseconds, running through fight/flight/freeze options, he saw the other person.
He saw the angry mob ready to stone the woman caught in adultery. He saw the man tormented by 1000 demons. He saw the humanity in Pilate even as Pilate condemned him to death. When you or I are prepared to strike someone, we see a target; the other’s face; the other’s gut; the other’s status; the other’s vulnerability. We see “other” and we see a target. When Jesus sees another, even if that other is throwing a balled up fist at his face, he sees one made in the image of God and he loves that person. His decision to turn the other cheek is an invitation to the other to stop being an ‘other’ and instead become a neighbor.
We are called to see as he sees. “I say to you,” Jesus says to each one of us, directly into our hearts, “Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; do not refuse anyone.” Theologian, Miroslav Volf, writes “No one can be in the presence of God the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming the double exclusion – without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humility and without transposing herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.”[iii]
We can see the other and ourselves and God because Jesus has died on the cross and freed us from sin. We aren’t locked into punching others in the face, or sending out murderous drones, or marching off to war, or fiercely defending our identities and egos in the Facebook comments section. Neither country nor identity nor status owns us. We belong to the Crucified One. In bondage to Him, we are free. When we turn the other cheek, we exercise our freedom. We live in it. We take the initiative to show grace – to mark the world with the grace of Jesus. We begin stepping out of this present, dying age, and into the new age, the Kingdom of God.
How does this play out daily in our lives? Will you accept being handcuffed by retribution. If you insult me, I must punch you. I punch you, then you must sue me. You go after me, and I attack you someone you love. Where does it end? Where is Jesus in any of that?
Or, will you and I live in the freedom we’ve been given? Will we stop and see the “others” around us? Are they rioters, or are they people in pain? Does the other spout offensive politic rhetoric? Can I respond with kindness and love? How can God rewire your brain so that instead of fight, flight or freeze, you see others? Pray about it this week. Who does God want you to see? Your black neighbor? You gay neighbor? You Republican neighbor? Pray about that this week. You are disciple of Jesus. Commit to his way, demanding as it is, and live in the freedom he gives.
[i] F.F.Bruce (1996) in Hard Sayings of the Bible, by Walter Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred Brauch, Intervarsity Press (Downers Grove, IL), p.362.
[ii] Carolyn E. Yoder (2019), chapter 4 in When the Center Does Not Hold: Leading in an Age of Polarization, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.70-71.
[iii] M. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.127.