We have fond memories of my internship. When you know you’re going to be in a place for only a year the gift of friendship means even more; mind you, having had a brand new baby may have helped a little.
A couple of years ago, when at a board meeting of our seminary in Saskatoon, I had a bit of time before my return flight, I decided to drive up to North Battleford, and about half way there I decided that I should try to drop in on a family we had been good friends with.
It was lovely seeing them and one of these days Jackie will come to a meeting with me and we’ll drive up together.
There are other members of the congregation I remember well. One of them is Dave with his nuclear and his extended family. I remember him bringing us a bag of potatoes for the winter. Dave farmed, but he was also a hobby philosopher and theologian. Dave went into the ministry some time after we left. And it was from Dave that I first heard the saying, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” It is usually attributed to Saint Francis. It makes some sense to attribute it to St Francis because Francis was so concerned about caring for the poor and imitating Jesus. However, I read all the Francis legends and don’t remember coming across this saying. Besides, Francis was not shy to use the name of Jesus.
And yet, the saying makes sense, certainly in a world that does not ask much about Jesus. Proclaiming the Gospel by embodying it is important for at least two reasons.
One is that it is some kind of proclamation that the world needs and that comes part and parcel of being a disciple of Jesus. It is not an optional piece of being a follower of Jesus, and it’s not just for the professionals either.
Two, it helps us not just say words but live them. The saying that we should proclaim the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words suggests that our faith is about life and living, and therefore not only about heaven, unless we mean by heaven that heaven has come near (remember how Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom had come near, which means that it was no longer just in the future).
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’s teaching to the disciples, he is teaching them about the life with God, about being like him. Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Christian tradition has a few names for this, one is holiness – perhaps intimidating to us, yet expressing what we long our lives to be. That why the lives of people who embody holiness, even if imperfectly, intrigue us; think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, and Mother Teresa. Sanctification is another one, meaning the same thing, becoming holy. Transformation is another word. It speaks of change, change into God’s likeness. It speaks of being restored and made whole.
Whatever we call it, it requires our participation. While we will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet, the transformation Jesus is talking about with his disciples requires effort, discipline, and practice. But it is no less Good News because it places demands on us. That transformation is possible is in fact Good News. It is Good News that God wants not only our soul but our whole life.
Last week’s passage spoke of anger and murder, lust and adultery, oaths and truth telling. Jesus pointed to the connection between thought and deed. This is why our common worship is so important, because for the time we are at worship we are not governed by whatever desires may pop into our head. They are not gone, but in worship we subordinate them to the love of God. We remember that the love of God is the highest good, the greatest gift, and we remember our calling to love as God loves. Worship gives our lives direction.
And today we see how God loves. By turning the other cheek, giving his coat when someone demands the shirt, and finally loving his enemy.
Jesus practised this and we see this most clearly illustrated in the account of Jesus’ passion.
Yet to us, it seems a tall order. At least if we know that we have enemies.
I used think I did not have enemies, until a young man moved in next door to us, many years ago. He was not only rude to us but also to my father-in-law – which was worse. I was surprised how angry he could make me. Though, that was of course the problem, if it is he who makes me angry, then I do not have to own my anger. And this, I think, is what Jesus is getting at.
Richard Rohr says that until there is love for enemies, there is no real transformation, because the enemy always carries the dark side of your own soul. Normally the people who threaten us carry our own faults in a different form. The people who really turn you off are very much like you. Jesus offers not just a suggestion; you’ve got to love your enemy to grow up. Jesus rightly puts it in the imperative form: Do it!1
Until there is love for enemies, there is no real transformation.
That this command is tied in with the exhortation to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, is not as intimidating as it sounds, for our loving God knows that we are slow learners, but relating our attempts to learn God’s ways and to love as God loves back to our heavenly Father, shows us that God is not a vengeful God and that God is not a violent God, because the God we are to imitate is the God who loves his enemies. And if God even loves his enemies, God will also love his stumbling children.
To return to the beginning and to the quote attributed to St Francis, about Preaching the Gospel with our lives: If we believe that the Gospel is an alternative for the world, and if we believe the church has something to offer to the world beyond emotional assurance and eternal life, something for the world now, how could we not want to love as Jesus loves, how could we not want to learn from him, how could we not hold on to him that we may be made new daily, that we may be transformed in his image.
This has a eucharistic dimension: As bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, may we become the peace of God that the world may see the way of Christ.
1Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, p. 157-158, quoted at http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/epiphany7a/