A FEW YEARS BACK, there was a commercial that featured an older man and an older woman sitting across a table from one another.
A candy bar lays between them on the table. The man reaches for the candy bar, tears oﬀ the end of the wrapper, and takes a bite, with a certain amount of gusto. He smiles as he chews, obviously enjoying the candy bar.
The camera cuts to the woman, whose face seems marked by an expression of longing.
Back to the man, who takes another bite, chewing with delight.
And then to the woman, who licks her lips.
Back to the man; and then back to the woman.
His delight dims as he recognizes her discomfort.
He places the candy bar on the table top and slides it over to her.
She looks at him, somewhat blankly.
The man raises his hand to his mouth as the camera cuts to a shot from behind his head. He removes his false teeth and places them on the table and the woman’s face beams with joy, for clearly she has been waiting not only for the candy bar, but for the teeth with which to chew it.
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NOW, MOST OF US might be — notice I said “might be” — willing to share a candy bar with someone. How many of us would be willing to share a set of false teeth? — setting aside for the moment the fact that false teeth are rather user-speciﬁc in their design.
The commercial is humorous.
Some might — because they are squeamish about the concept of sharing teeth — be put oﬀ by its premise.
It was certainly produced in the hope of boosting the sale of a certain candy bar through the application of a little humor and cleverness.
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BUT TUCKED WITHIN IT, for those who wish to see it, is a lesson on love.
Though the relationship between the man and the woman is never explained in the commercial, we are permitted to assume that they are probably husband and wife.
Now, traditional wedding vows include the promise to abide with one another for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, good times and bad times — but the vows say nothing about sharing dental work or candy bars.
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ONE OF THE GREATEST CHALLENGES we encounter in the gospel is the length to which it calls us to go for the sake of others.
The gospel, it seems, is always calling us to stretch beyond our level of comfort, our level of interest, in order to go further in carrying out the commands of the gospel.
We probably like to believe that we are willing to do what we are called upon to do in service to the gospel and in obedience to Christ.
But in reality, while we hope to be conformed to the way of Christ, we are probably more closely related to the one who asked of Jesus — “Who is my neighbor?” — than we are to the Lord we wish to serve.
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TIME AND AGAIN, Jesus is asked by someone what limits we may impose on this discipleship business. And instead of drawing a line and saying “there, that’s enough,” Jesus challenges us to go to greater lengths than we imagine or desire.
How many times must I forgive someone who sins against me? Peter asked Jesus. Seven times is enough, right?
“No, not just seven times,” says Jesus, “but seventy seven.”
So, we might ask, is that the limit? Seventy-seven? If someone oﬀends me 76 times, they get one more? When the reach 77, that’s the last free ride? If they reach 78, no more forgiveness and a green light for me to retaliate as I see ﬁt?
But we know better than that. Jesus was a master of hyperbole. We know that for Jesus, 77 is not an absolute number. It is a symbolic number. Seventy-seven does not mean 77. Seventy-seven means “more than you can imagine.”
Jesus’s answer is meant to be understood to be representative of unlimited forgiveness.
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IN BASEBALL, it’s three strikes and you are out.
In basketball, ﬁve fouls and you are sent to the bench.
In football, well, it seems sometimes like manslaughter is required and even then . . .
With the gospel, grace seems to know no bounds.
We — because we live in a world with limits — may ﬁnd ourselves scratching our heads and sputtering, perhaps bargaining with ourselves and with God, about just how far we can realistically be expected to go in making room for those who oﬀend us, or simply ask something of us.
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SOMETIMES, WE MIGHT ﬁnd ourselves struggling with the question of the limits of what is reasonable and hear ourselves voicing our exasperation in words not far oﬀ from those hurled at Jesus by the man possessed of the multitude of demons:
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
What do I have to do with you? I’ll tell you what I have to do with you. Listen:
■ Love your enemies.
■ Do good to those who hate you bless those who curse you.
■ Pray for those who abuse you.
Surely not, Jesus. Certainly there are some limits.
■ If anyone strikes you on the cheek, oﬀer the other also.
■ From anyone who takes way your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Yes, but … .
■ Give to everyone who begs from you.
■ And if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
■ Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Holy cow! Those are pretty tall orders.
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MY MOTHER ONCE sent me a little plaque that claimed to be an Irish blessing. It said:
Bless those who love us.
Curse those who hate us, then turn their hearts.
And if you cannot turn their hearts, then turn their ankles
That we may know them by their limping.
It is possible that the saying is of Irish origin, but it cannot be rightly termed a blessing, nor can it be confused with the gospel.
The gospel pushes us always to go beyond that place we are willing to go when the decision is left up to us.
And, man, is that tough sometimes.
Which is precisely why these sayings are included shortly after Luke narrates the choosing of the 12 named disciples. He is letting them know, and letting all others who follow after them in following after him know, precisely what they are in for.
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DISCIPLESHIP IS a hard road. It is not for the faint of heart, the weak-kneed, or the slight of spirit.
The world is going to reject the disciples. The world is going to persecute the disciples. The world is going to martyr some of the disciples. They are going to be turned away from homes and villages as they go about their labors. They are going to run into circumstances and situations that they cannot master. There will be times when they will fail miserably at what Jesus is sending them to do.
But the chief counsel that Jesus gives them is to respond humbly and peaceably to the conﬂict that will ensue and, more importantly, to whomever it is that confronts them. Retaliation for slights and injuries is not in a disciple’s toolkit.
Forbearance, restraint in the face of insult and injury, is not the natural posture of the human creature. It is contrary to who we are. We are more naturally prone to ﬁght back.
And to many ears, admonitions against returning violence for violence, insult for insult, sound like the Christian disciple is called to surrender dignity and freedom and self-respect by knuckling under to those who take advantage of them.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
The humility to which disciples are called, and the forbearance we are called to exhibit, do not result in a passive posture toward the world.
Far from it.
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THEY ARE, INSTEAD, a complex and active posture of deﬁance that seeks to draw the world away from what appears to be the natural order of things and toward the extraordinarily graceful posture of kingdom living by refusing to give in to baser impulses.
It is not natural to love one’s enemies — but it is the ethic of the kingdom.
It is not natural to bless those who curse you — but it is the ethic of the kingdom.
It is not natural to demonstrate forbearance toward those who have wronged you — but it is the ethic of the kingdom.
And it is the ethic of the kingdom because it is the way of Christ — and the way of Christ is the way of God:
■ Gracious and merciful.
■ Slow to anger.
■ Abounding in steadfast love.
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TIME AND AGAIN, that is how the Old Testament describes God. It is how God describes God’s self in Exodus at the manifestation to Moses on the mountain top.
They are the words Moses uses to remind God of God’s own self-disclosure and reputation when God’s anger burned hot against God’s people when they were worshipping the golden calf made from their jewelry.
They are the words that Nehemiah uses to describe God in leading the people in a time of national confession.
It is how the psalmist describes God in Psalm 86, 103, and 145.
It is a description of God that scholars have concluded must have been used as we use a catechism to teach the people of God that the foundation of the covenant in which they live with God rests upon the graciousness and the faithfulness of God.
And because that is the nature of God — to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love — it is to be the ethic by which the people of God are formed and shaped and live.
And not just with one another. Not just in life within the family, or the inner circle, or the network of friends.
It applies to life in and with the world.
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AND WE ARE LIVING in a culture that is increasingly inhospitable.
We are living in an age of anger, worldwide.
It seems, at times, as if there are those in this world who are itching for a ﬁght, and if not itching for one at least willing to engage in one and waiting for someone else to start one because, boy howdy, they are going to ﬁnish it.
It is tempting to accept that that’s just the way of the world. Nature is red in tooth and claw, according to Alfred Lord Tennyson. In the animal kingdom, it is kill or be killed.
In the animal kingdom.
And, even though we are creatures of God’s making, and therefore, animals in a sense — we do not live in the kingdom of animals and we do not live by the rules of the animal kingdom.
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WE ARE SUBJECTS of the kingdom of God and we live by the ethics of the kingdom of God — or, at the very least, we are called to live by the ethics of the kingdom of God.
We are called to be diﬀerent. We are the church, the ekklesia, the called together, the called out.
We are called to be God’s people and live by God’s rules, hard as that may be to do.
Because if we are to be salt and light in this world, it is not enough to say that we are salt and light.
We must live as salt and light, and you know why.
Not so that others will see and admire us, or so we can feel good about ourselves; but so others may see and give glory to God, who is at work in our lives and elsewhere by the power of the Spirit.
Christians are called to refrain from returning hatred for hatred, violence for violence because an eye for an eye only perpetuates the cycle. Enduring in the face of such things is not passively standing there and taking it. Enduring in the face of hatred, violence, rejection, is a constructive and redemptive act. When we refuse to join in the melee, we leave others standing there alone with their guilt; we have no share in it.
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AND THAT IS HOW the ethic of the kingdom creates the context for the conversion of conscience — the conscience of those who are called to live by kingdom ethic, and the conscience of those who stand in active opposition to it.
To live prophetically according to the ethic of the kingdom, to live by the rule of love, the love of God and to love of others.
While that may be harder than we wish, it is also easier than we imagine, when we submit ourselves to the reign of Christ in our lives and in the world.
I think it is the submitting ourselves to the reign of Christ part that is the hardest of all, because we often think we already have.
After all, we gave them the candy bar.
But Jesus says give them your teeth.
To God be all glory. Amen.
Almighty and most holy God, we give you thanks and praise.
You have revealed yourself to your servants and to your peoples in acts of mercy and of judgment, in times of provision and in times of scant supply, in Word and in commandment; but, supremely, in Jesus Christ, who is your Word made ﬂesh and the fulﬁllment of your law.
We give thanks for the grace we know through him and for the high calling of discipleship in his way; and pray for your Spirit’s testimony of your love and assurance that you are with us in all things, even those that are most trying.
We know we do not always live into the way to which we are called, that we stray from the path of discipleship, and wander in lanes of our own choosing. We give thanks that you are there to guide and correct, to chasten and welcome us, that you do not abandon us.
So give us the fortitude to embrace our calling to be and live diﬀerently from the world around us, that we might more nearly embody the way of your kingdom and give the world cause to wonder what life in your grace must be like.
Do not let us be self-satisﬁed but keep us always on guard against pride and conceit and self-delusion. Give us the gift of self-control that we might manage our actions, and our behaviors, more faithfully.
And that we might always remember that your grace is beyond our imagination, teach us to pray for those whom we hate and those whom we assume hate us, teach us to pray for our enemies, and to do so with no self-righteousness, but only with the best of intent and the greatest hope that the people of this earth might be reconciled with one another through your grace and that this corner of your creation in which you have caused us to dwell might know shalom and sabbath rest.
We ask these things in Jesus’ name, praying as he taught:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.