Sermon on the Mount Part 4: Theosis

This is the final sermon in a series on the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. It was preached on Sunday, February 19, 2017 at Bellwood and St. Luke’s United Methodist Churches.  The text upon which this sermon is based is Matthew 5:38-48. It builds upon the previous three sermons: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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Today is the end of our series exploring Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. In general, we’ve been asking two basic questions of Jesus and his sermon: 1) What does he show us about the character of God and God’s kingdom? 2) What does he show us about how to live into God’s kingdom?

As we’ve looked at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we’ve also explored United Methodism’s founder John Wesley’s understanding of salvation as a process of growing in God’s grace. He breaks down the God’s saving work into three parts. Prevenient grace is God’s love and leading that pulls us toward God. Justifying grace is God’s way of assuring us that, as we choose to receive it, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frees us from sin and death. And sanctifying grace is the process of being made new and like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit throughout our lives.

At the end of today’s reading Jesus says, “[Just] as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” John Wesley would say Jesus is claiming God’s sanctifying grace at work in our lives, which the Eastern Orthodox tradition would call theosis – becoming like God. But before we get into any more big words, perhaps a few stories can embody and interpret Jesus’ teaching today.

This week, PBS aired a documentary called Accidental Courtesy about a Black musician named Daryl Davis, a 58-year-old, who’s played with some famous people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. An experience while walking in a parade with his Boy Scout troop began to shape his life’s mission. During the parade, people began throwing trash at the scouts. Davis was confused by this. His scout leaders responded by surrounding young Daryl. After the parade, the leaders and his parents told them that the people weren’t throwing trash at the scouts. They were throwing trash at him…because he was black. That event, among others, eventually gave rise to his quest in life to build relationships with self-described racists, including high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan, in order to find an answer to this question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

Accidental Courtesy follows Davis into some of these relationships, these friendships, with current and former members of the KKK. It shows how, in many cases, as people get to know him, they discover that their hatred is unfounded, and it often melts away. Whenever one of his new friends leaves the KKK, they give him their robes, which he’s keeping to put in a museum someday. However, while Davis’ story is heartwarming, not everyone agrees with his tactic of befriending self-described racists. The documentary also shows an interaction between Davis and some Black community organizers, who simply cannot support Davis making friends with, and even loving, people who are their enemies. They think it’s impractical – How is this going to change anything? they ask– and they think it’s, quite frankly, disgusting. And yet, Davis persists.

Researching Daryl Davis led me to a 2008 NPR interview with two other unlikely friends: Timothy Zaal and Matthew Boger. As a teenager in the 1980s, Zaal was in a violent skinhead group in Southern California that would often hang out at a local burger stand looking to cause trouble. But as an adult, he had a change of heart and began speaking about his experiences leaving the hate-group. At one speaking engagement, he met Boger, one of the other speakers. As they talked about their stories, they discovered that they had something in common: they both used to hang out at the same burger stand. But, Zaal said he and his friends quit hanging out there after one especially violent night: Zaal said, “I think I killed a [gay] kid there.” Boger was that gay kid. And yet, somehow, they’ve become friends who speak together regularly to fight prejudice and demonstrate living without hate. In a world torn apart by “us and them” mentalities, hate, fear, walls, and violence, they are embodying a different reality, a different world, characterized by forgiveness and love. They persist in showing that love can overcome hate.

When we read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I think sometimes we’re tempted to soften it. Today, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you.” We hear him talking about turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and giving both our shirt and our coat too. We hear him say, “Love your enemies.”

Nothing about these instructions seems practical or efficient. In some ways, they don’t even seem fair or just. And so, we might sometimes say, Yes, Jesus. I know what you said, but that was then. Today, things are different. We can’t just go around loving everyone. It’s not safe: terrorism’s all around us, people want to harm us, they’re taking our jobs, they’re challenging our way of life. No, Jesus, that “love your enemies” stuff is good if we’re talking about my neighbor’s dog’s stuff in my yard, but not about the big stuff we’re dealing with. Does this sound familiar? Are we good with teaching our children in Sunday School that Jesus says, “Love others,” all while knowing that when they grow to be adults, they’ll need to choose certain people to exclude from Jesus’ instruction to love? Or do we persist in love?

I don’t want to – because it feels easier and safer and more practical – but I think we might have to take Jesus at his word here. Jesus is seriously calling for a world-shifting sort of love for others, a love he says is complete like God’s love is complete. And, he’s saying that this complete love should shape all of our interactions, from the way we deal with our neighbor and her dog to the way we think about any number of pressing social or political issues. Again, we might say, This is impossible. Jesus can’t mean we’re supposed to love them. It’s just not practical. After all, people said this to Daryl Davis, and they ask questions like this to Timothy Zaal and Matthew Boger. And still, they persist.

And if we ask this, we’re right: on our own, it is impossible to be complete in showing love to everyone. We cannot love so completely, on our own, but Jesus never asks us to do that which he doesn’t empower us to do. Jesus empowers us to complete love like God’s love, which brings us back to John Wesley’s sanctifying grace and the Orthodox doctrine of theosis.

Wesley spent a great deal of time studying the Greek early church’s theologians, which undoubtedly shaped his understanding of how God works in the world, so much so, that theosis and sanctification are almost synonyms. They start with the idea that God created humans in the image of God, but whether by sin or by creation, we’re not exactly like God. But, in Jesus – who is fully human and fully God – we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to grow in God’s likeness, through intentional acts of discipleship.

In the United Methodist Church, we talk a lot about discipleship, because we believe that through our practices, God makes our love complete: God makes us like God in love. This is why we emphasize practices of regular bible study and prayer. This is why we emphasize regular worship participation. And this is why we seek to find active ways of serving others. When we do these practices regularly, they allow God’s Spirit to work within us and draw us along on a progression toward complete likeness with God. So, the challenge, the takeaway, today, is, “What is one thing you can do this week to regularly invite the Spirit to make you more like God in complete love?”

Jesus says, “[You] must be complete” in showing love to everyone, just as God is complete. And he means it. God empowers us to be more than we are. God empowers us to love completely. God empowers us to show God’s complete love to others. And, in our little corner of the world, we can change the world through love. May we each make a commitment to develop practices through which the Holy Spirit can make our love complete.

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