To see sin, not as simply rebellion, or coming from a horrible, worthless person, but more Christianly as a self-inflicted wound, is to see it more clearly. Sin wounds me. Sin wounds others. Sin wounds creation. God is a loving Father who doesn’t want to see His children hurt themselves or others. Nor does He approve when they burn the house down. It’s not a matter of divine anger. It’s a matter of divine love.
I’ve often wondered about David’s statement in Psalm 51 when he says that he has sinned against God and God only and done this evil. I’m pretty sure Uriah would disagree with that.
And, along the same lines, I have wondered about Paul’s declaration in 1 Timothy 1:15 that he is the chief of sinners. How did he know he was the worst? Was he the worst of all time or just the worst so far? And, really, the worst? Worse than Caesar Nero and Attila the Hun (not to mention Hitler)?
It recently struck me that these statements are not hyperbole, expressions of a false humility, or evidence of very low self-esteem.
Both of those statements can only be honestly made by someone who is profoundly humble and completely nonjudgmental. The nonjudgmental person doesn’t see anyone else’s sin, only his/her own. She sees actions that hurt others and condemns injustice, but never judges the motives and hearts of those who commit the actions. She sees only the image of God in others.
Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
I assumed that purity of heart was only something that would be eventually achieved, or rather, granted as a grace, when we gather in God’s eternal home. After all, purity equates with perfection, to be without blemish, and I, for one, am light-years from perfection.
And yet, Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” (Matthew 5:8) and it is a colossal theological error to assign the Sermon on the Mount to the sweet by and by. Only after nationalism invaded biblical Christianity did anyone imagine that Jesus’ teachings were not for his apprentices here and now.
Is it possible to be pure of heart? Is it possible for us to see God today? Or, is all of this so figurative as to become imaginary?
Moses saw YHWH on Mount Sinai and felt the need to veil his face so the Israelites would not witness the glorious brilliant light that radiating from his face.
Nevertheless, referring to that same story, the Apostle Paul assures us: “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NLT).
So, apparently Paul agrees with Jesus (surprise!) that we can, and should, see God here and now. And, as we gaze steadfastly on Him, Paul assures us that we will be metamorphosed from who we are to who He is.
We can see God today, but only if we are pure of heart. So, what does it mean to be pure of heart?
“Heart” is of course used metaphorically to refer to the center, the essence of our beings.
The word translated “pure” in Matthew 5:8 is the Greek word καθαρός (katharos, pronounced: kath-ar-os’) from which we derive the English words “catharsis,” and “cathartic.” Catharsismeans to cleanse, purge, the purging of negative emotions, an abreaction, or purgation. It is exactly backwards to try to define an ancient Greek word by its English derivative, but we can follow the evolution of katharosto catharsis.
In the context of the New Testament and other ancient Greek literature, καθαρός can mean, depending on the context:
- To be physically clean, as in you just took a shower
- To be purified by fire, like a gemstone
- To be pruned like a vine so that it bears more fruit
- To be ceremonially clean, as in the Levitical law
- To be ethically free of corruption
- To be free of guilt
- To be free of sin
- To be sincere, genuine
- To be clear like sunshine
- To be clear and open, like a meadow free of weeds
- To be free of pollutants and impurities, like pure water
- To be centered, balanced, like harmonious music
- To have balanced financial accounts
- To be honest
- To be without blemish
- To be free of chaff, like winnowed grain
Now, you’re going to have to take your own shower, and, unless you’re a Jew living in the year 412 BC, you don’t need the Levitical rituals. And, of course, I realize you are not a meadow, a grapevine, a river, or a ray of sunshine (although your mom may disagree with me).
But, Jesus’ cruciform love frees us of guilt, shame, all sin, and every transgression, and the Holy Spirit is in the business of making you and me ethical, free of corruption, and genuine followers of the Master.
In other words, it is all of grace. Ask for the grace to be pruned, purged, invaded by the loving fire of the Holy Spirit, and transformed. Ask for the grace to be balanced, centered on Jesus, and live harmoniously with YHWH.
Beauty from ashes – God will take our polluted lives and make them pure streams of perfect love.
Slow down. Breathe deeply. Observe the beauty of creation. Read Scripture prayerfully. Imagine yourself in the Gospel story. Meditate. Focus on Jesus. Gaze into His beautiful face today.
The Lectionary reading for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany (this year on Sunday, February 24) continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, verses 27 and following:
27 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Many denominations, especially those of a conservative bent, including those that do not consider themselves denominations but are, emphasize their “distinctives” – the things that set them apart (and by implication make them better than other Christians in their own estimation). But what are Jesus’ distinctives? What is the core of His teaching?
Before Constantine’s Edict of Tolerationin 313 AD, which halted the persecution of Christians and ushered in a homogenizing of Empire/State with selective Christian theology dressed in Christianeze (from which Christendom has never recovered), by far the most quoted verse in the Bible was Luke 6:27: Love your enemies.
Loving our enemies and practicing nonviolence are the core distinctives of Christianity. Nonviolent enemy love is the essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God, as opposed to the kingdoms of this world, all of which worship and venerate Mars (the god of war) and Mammon (the god of consumerism, capitalism, and wealth). Look, for example, at the USA with its more than $600 billion military budget and $13,000,000,000,000 in consumer spending. Since the Eisenhower era, the motto of the United States has been “In God We Trust.” Nothing could be further from reality. We do not trust in God, perhaps we may as individuals, but not as a nation. As a nation, we trust in missiles, bombers, warships, stock markets and real estate.
In an effort to hold onto the gods of war and wealth while deceiving ourselves into believing we are following Christ, many argue that Jesus’ words in the sermon cited above are meant to be personal, not national. We are to love our personal enemies while killing our national enemies. Similarly, some have sought to internalize the command. To appease the Empire, Augustine devised a theology that maintained one could (and should) love one’s national enemies internally while killing them. But if Jesus’ command to love our enemies is meant to be only personal and not also national, then we have exalted nation over the Kingdom of God. We are nationalists, not Christians, and you cannot be both.
The call of Christ is radical. It is contradictory to nationalism. It calls us to respond in every instance with love, never with violence or retribution. It calls us to willingly choose our own deaths rather than taking the life of another human being. For the first three centuries of Christianity, baptized believers were forbidden to bear arms, serve in the military, or use violence under any circumstances.
The early Christians were not passive. They rejected flight, fight, and freeze. None were viable options. Instead, they insisted, based on the clear teachings of Jesus in His Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain (Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6), on resisting evil with active agápēlove. Nonviolent resistance exposes and shames the injustice while maintaining the dignity and humanity of the oppressor, thus transforming not only the situation, but also those who caused it.
Someone invariably will bring up Hitler. Others will invariably bring up a hypothetical scenario of a home invader about to kill a person’s spouse or children.
Hitler came to power because people who called themselves Christians elected him to office. Had they been living by the teachings of Christ, there would have been no Third Reich.
If I love everyone, as Jesus commands, I will love the home invader as much as I love my family. Greg Boyd (Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota) uses an illustration: Suppose my son (whom I love) goes nuts and is trying to kill my grandson (whom I also love). How do I respond? I do whatever I can to prevent my insane son from harming my grandson. I would rather have him harm me. But I wouldn’t kill my son. We are called to love the imaginary home invader as much as we love our children.
The way of love.
The way of nonviolence.
The way of Christ.