Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
What do we see in the Gospel today? We see the Lord Jesus making trouble in his hometown synagogue, and then we see the locals turning against him and even trying to kill him. Were some of them his relatives? Isn’t this story rather too extreme? Overly melodramatic? How enigmatic is it? Are we seeing it only dimly, like a distant image in an ancient mirror? Are we seeing only in part?
Why did Jesus speak like a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal? Why didn’t he show them more love? Why wasn’t he more considerate of their feelings? Why did he push them so? Was he not on their side?
It’s remarkable, according to St. Luke’s version, that the first opposition to Jesus came not from the scribes and Pharisees, as in St. Mark, but from his own people, and that the first people who tried to kill him were not the Romans but the very people he had come to save.
A prophet is without honor in his own country. No prophet is accepted in his own home town. I am no longer honored in the Classis of Brooklyn, though I’m the senior pastor in it, and of all the pastors in the Classis I am the only one who spent my childhood within it, and this is the Classis I wanted for years to come home to.
I am a life-long member of the Reformed Church in America, I have devoted my life to it and all my scholarship, and I have been blackballed for leadership in it. I am treated as a trouble-maker because I have spoken out to welcome and affirm LGBTQ Christians. Of doing that I have no regrets, and I stand by it, but you can understand my sense of loss.
Why were the people of Nazareth so suddenly upset? I think it was only natural. Their condition under the Romans was poverty and oppression. They were like captives in their own land. And as we saw last week, Jesus had just read out from Isaiah the prophecy of bringing good news to the poor, and lifting the oppressed, and liberating those in captivity. And then he said, “The time is now, and the Messiah prophesied is me!” So the people were delighted with their hometown boy.
If he was going to do that, then it was natural to expect him to judge those who kept them poor, and punish their oppressors who taxed them so, and vanquish the occupying soldiers who treated them like slaves. Be the enemy of our enemies.
But then the Lord Jesus reminded them of stories of God being as good to their enemies as to them, even to healing an enemy soldier who had defeated their own in battle, and it hit them that Jesus did not intend to be the enemy of their enemies. Of course they felt betrayed by him, and hurt, and enraged, with the extreme emotions of a crowd.
When we cry out for salvation, when we cry out for God to intervene, we naturally want God to fix our circumstances but leave us as we are, thank you very much. Save me, and save me as I am. Fight for me, that I win, and I get back what belongs to me. But the Savior has to save us mostly from ourselves. Our own worst enemy is us. So it’s good news that the Lord Jesus befriends our enemies, as that includes us! He has no enemies, only friends. Which sometimes hurts our feelings. But our feelings are what Jesus does not come to save. This is important.
It’s not that our feelings are not important. Jesus shared our feelings. This is one reason that our Savior had to be a fully human being, to feel first-hand the things we feel. Parents are right to care for their children’s feelings. Friends are careful of each other’s feelings. Lovers are all about each other’s feelings. If you love people, you care about their feelings.
It’s because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings that you might not say what you know to be true. Discretion is the better part of candor. And you have to ask yourself, Do they really need to hear it or is it my felt-need to say it? My mentor once explained to me that as a pastor I should tell somebody something only if that person is able to hear it. If he or she can’t hear it, then I am not obliged to say it.
Was that the problem with the people of Nazareth, that they were unable to hear the good news in what Jesus said? It’s why depressed citizens often respond to politicians who will end up hurting them more instead of responsible leaders whose truth is hard to hear.
But at the same time, when we say that we don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, it’s often as much our own feelings we’re protecting, because if you tell that truth they will think less of you, or even get angry with you, like with Jesus. I confess the many times I did not tell the truth about myself because it was my own feelings I was protecting as much as the feelings of the person I was speaking to. Is it their feelings that you do not want to hurt or in fact your own? Or both? It’s hard to distinguish when it’s your family with whom you share your feelings or any group of people that you love. So how is Jesus loving here, when love is patient and love is kind, as in First Corinthians 13?
But love has its distinctions. It’s worth remembering, that the Greek language has three words for “love” to only one for English. Three kinds of love, and they blend into each other. Two of them are all about feeling and one is not. The first kind of love is eros, intimate love, sexual attraction, the love between lovers and spouses. It’s based on feelings and is very physical. It is wonderful and powerful and it can be dangerous and to keep it safe requires great protections.
The second kind of love is philia, brotherly love, sisterly love, family love, tribal love, even patriotic love. Its feeling is affection. At one end it’s family feeling, and at the other it’s the friendship of best friends. It’s based on shared genetics and language or shared experience and loyalties. It has to mean that some folks are in and some folks are out. These two kinds of love are good and natural, and they occur among animals. But they are not the kind of love that’s in First Corinthians 13.
I often notice Christians saying that the church they belong is like a family. They mean well, but the New Testament never uses “family” for the church, but for the whole of humanity. That’s because the church has to be based on the third kind of love, which is agape.
This is a rarer kind of love, Godly love, Gospel love, love beyond affection, love beyond feeling, love beyond friendship because it treats its enemies as friends, love beyond family because it treats strangers the same. It is not based on feeling and your feelings can confuse your loving this way when you want to. Feelings can oppose it, and hinder recognizing it when you receive it, especially if you’re judging it by the other kinds of love. Like at Nazareth. It is often unrequited—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King loved his country with Gospel love and was killed for it. You live by this kind of love and it will get you into trouble. It’s unrealistic and practically impossible.
But I invite you to not rule it out because you fear it’s unrealistic, rather that you keep coming back to it and always imagine again, in both expectation and humility, how to try again to put this love into practice. Don’t ask how you can adjust the claim of love to conform to our reality, but how you change yourself to conform to the claim of love. What losses can you anticipate and accept as worth it, and what loss can you even welcome in order to gain the salvation that it offers?
This kind of love cannot depend on feeling, so it requires faith and hope. You can approach the claim of love when you live by faith instead of your own internal certainties. You can answer the challenge of love when you live in hope instead of your own realities. Love is always beyond you, so to attain it means the constant exercise of faith and hope. Faith and hope are the means to the goal that is love. You practice faith in order to love. You practice hope in order to keep on loving. And you can do this, love this way, if you do it by faith and if you accept the proof of it in your hope.
This kind of love is beyond your possession. It is in you but beyond us. That’s simply because it belongs to God. It’s not that love is God but that God is love. God defines what love is. Love is patient and kind because God is patient and kind. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God does not insist on God’s own way. God bears all things, God believes all things, God hopes all things, God endures all things, and God will never end. For now you love as in a mirror dimly, but then you will love face to face. Now you love in part, but then you will love fully, even as you have been fully loved.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.