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Jesus Teaches about Transforming Love
Summer Quarter: Living in Covenant
Unit 2: A Heartfelt Covenant
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 21, 2019
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48
Key Verses: Matthew 5:43-44
Purpose: To discover the love that overcomes evil with goodness
Yours, Mine, and Ours
This happened many years ago, so I may not remember all of the details exactly.
Laine and I were visiting some friends of hers in their home. We were sitting in the den chatting with the wife, who has been one of Laine’s friends since elementary school. Her husband came into the room and she asked him if she could buy a stamp from him.
I’m not sure why I thought that seemed strange, but it was certainly different from what I was used to. In our house we had a sheet (or sometimes a roll) of stamps that stayed in the desk drawer. If you needed a stamp to send a letter, you went to the drawer, tore one off, stuck it to the envelope, and put it in the mail.
Anyway, the wife had her quarter ready to make her purchase. Like I said, it was a few years ago. In fact, the rate for first-class mail had not gone up to 25 cents yet. At the time a first-class stamp was only 22 cents. And this was where it really struck me as unusual: her husband did not want to complete the transaction until he had the three cents he needed to make change. He started digging through his pockets and the drawers, looking for three pennies.
He found one and she was willing to let the rest of it go, but he didn’t want to leave it there. I reached into my pocket to see what change I had. I was going to give him the two cents, but he didn’t want to take it. He kept looking, finally found the three pennies he needed, took the quarter, and handed her the stamp and the three cents.
We went back to our conversation.
I guess that kind of strict accounting worked for them, although it did raise questions about how they handled other household expenses. Did they each have to purchase their own shampoo and body wash? What about the dishwashing detergent? Did they split the electric bill down the middle, or did they monitor who watched more television or kept the lamp on longer before they went to bed to determine who owed more? Groceries? Lawn care? Auto expenses? Insurance?
I know there are lots of couples who keep separate checkbooks. He has his money and she has hers. Laine and I have a few areas of our family budget that we keep divided. Nevertheless, it seems that big part of being a family is about sharing what we have. Relationships grow when people are more focused on how they can give to one another, rather than on what they get.
How do you keep an account of the debts in your relationships? Are you more careful in some relationships than others? How different do those relationships feel?
Turning the Other Cheek
A slap in the face is not only physically painful, it is insulting and humiliating. It is a deeply personal injury that is impossible to ignore. How could Jesus ask his followers to not only forgive such an act, but to offer themselves for more such abuse?
When our closets can scarcely hold another outfit, it might be difficult to imagine the threat if someone took a shirt. For those listening to Jesus, a shirt and a coat may be all that stood between them and standing naked before the world. How could Jesus ask his followers to voluntarily surrender their protection from the elements?
The Roman soldiers took great liberties as an occupying force in Israel in Jesus’ day. They had the legal authority to compel a civilian to carry their pack for a mile. There were no grounds for negotiation. How could Jesus ask his followers to offer to double the distance?
There seems to be no end to the line of people with their hands out. They need help with a project. They need a few more dollars to reach their goal. They have a special role in mind that only you can fill. How could Jesus ask his followers not to refuse anyone who asks?
Some have suggested that Jesus was being aspirational. Many have raised questions about the practicality of such instructions – personally, socially, and politically. But what if Jesus is serious? What if Jesus really, truly means what he is saying?
Jesus has been describing a community that reflects the character of God. It is the community Jesus is establishing through the new covenant. Those who are invited and empowered to be part of this covenant community are the ones who are favored by God: the “blessed,” the “happy.” As members of this covenant community, their relationships with the world will be transforming – as long as they reflect the character of God.
How does each of the following passages illuminate one of the characteristics of God? How do these characteristics inform our life in community?
Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness (Isaiah 55:7).
The Lord is a sun and shield; God is favor and glory. The Lord gives – doesn’t withhold! – good things to those who walk with integrity (Psalm 84:11).
The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you just as he fought for you in Egypt while you watched, and as you saw him do in the desert. Throughout your entire journey, until you reached this very place, the Lord your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child (Deuteronomy 1:30-31).
Bless God! He didn’t reject my prayer; he didn’t withhold his faithful love from me (Psalm 66:20).
Complete in Love
If it wasn’t already clear that Jesus is serious about inviting people to participate in a new community – one established through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and one that expresses the very character of God in its shared life – then it should become apparent as Jesus commands his followers to “love their enemies…so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).
Jesus acknowledges that this principle – this vision of God’s people – has been lost. It has been superseded by the forces of hate and selfishness. Even the “worst” people – “the tax collectors” – recognize the expediency of quid pro quo. Jesus challenges his followers to trust that love without reservation, without restraint, without limits, will extend God’s reputation more fully than anything else they can do. When they love the way God loves – completely – the world will be transformed.
It is also worth noting that Jesus is confident that they are capable of showing love to everyone. It almost sounds like Jesus is suggesting that the only thing that has kept them from showing this kind of love – God’s love, a love without limits – is their focus on themselves.
Jesus has begun this sermon by reminding his followers of God’s deep love for each of them, in spite of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Now Jesus encourages them to remember that God’s love will empower them to live a new life. As Wesley taught his followers, “Love has purified [the believer’s] heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.” God’s love has set them free to love without limits.
What does it mean to you that God sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous? How do people see this generosity expressed in you?
Ashley Randall is pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church. If you want to explore Wesley’s understanding of “Christian perfection,” you may want to read his pamphlet, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. It’s available online here.