By Daniel Martins
Many of us were taught the Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me” when we were children. Even in this post-Christian culture of ours, that little children’s song remains, even among non-Christians, one of the most widely known examples of the sort of thing that Christians sing. And it certainly expresses a wholesome truth — “Yes, Jesus loves me” — a truth that is appropriately repeated routinely by teachers and preachers toward people of all ages, not just children, and repeated toward the world.
Yet we too often don’t feel in our gut what we sing with our lips. Ten days from now, on Ash Wednesday, we will all collectively pray, with the Psalmist, “I know my transgressions only too well, and my sin is ever before me.” On other occasions — again, with the Psalmist — we confess that “my wounds stink and fester by reason of my foolishness.” Where, then, is that “due sense of all thy mercies” that we ask for when we recite the General Thanksgiving at Morning or Evening Prayer? It’s like when you know the Cubs-Cardinals game is on TV, but you don’t know what channel and you keep searching for it, but unsuccessfully. It’s frustrating. We might well ask, What channel is God broadcasting on? How can I tune in to his love and mercy? I want to find that channel!
As always, Jesus comes to the rescue … only it’s not obvious at first. He’s giving a bit of teaching, as recorded for us in Luke’s gospel, continuing from last week in what’s sometimes called the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke’s equivalent of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”). And it’s not easy teaching for us to hear; not for us, and, I suspect, not for Jesus’ original hearers or Luke’s original readers. Our Lord’s counsel goes against human nature — well, sinful human nature, to be specific:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
Now, this is counterintuitive in every society, but certainly in ours. Our culture is organized around winners and losers, perpetrators and victims, revenge-based justice. Did you look at me cross-eyed? That has to be a hate crime. I’ll see you in court! Our economic and social system rewards those who can spot advantages and loopholes early, who can figure out a way to exploit a competitive edge, even, much of the time, if it involves exploiting innocent bystanders. Enemies are to be defeated, crushed. Look at the way we do our elections. Candidates hire investigators to dig up dirt on their opponents and then run vicious attack ads. This is all a very long way from what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Plain.
Yet what Jesus teaches is precisely the place where we will encounter God’s love and mercy, where we will feel in our gut that “Jesus loves me.” The effect of God’s mercy toward us is delivered in and through our acts of mercy toward others. As Christians pray virtually every time we come together for worship, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God’s love toward us is not conditioned on anything; it’s absolute. But our ability to feel and access that love is conditioned on something. It’s conditioned on our willingness to “pay it forward,” to love others as God loves us. The effect of God’s mercy toward us is delivered in and through our acts of mercy toward others.
So, what does this look like in practice? What are some of the ways that we can show mercy? How can we receive God’s love and “pay it forward” so we can enjoy its effects in our lives, so we can truly know in our hearts that “Yes, Jesus loves me”? It’s a long list, actually, but I’ll just suggest three:
First, we can make a habit of assuming the best about a person’s intentions. This is so hard, isn’t it? Even within marriages and families, where you would think there would be a predisposition toward giving others the benefit of the doubt, we find ourselves taking what people say and putting the least charitable construction on it, assuming that there must be a hidden malicious agenda. But this is a habit that can be broken. It takes lots of intentionality and lots of persistence and truckloads of divine grace, but we can break that habit and replace it with the habit of starting out believing that everyone in our lives has good and honorable intentions, even if their behavior may not be always consistent with those intentions. After all, that’s the way God behaves toward us, and he certainly knows that our behavior is not always consistent with our intentions!
Second, we can refuse to use violence or coercion as means of achieving personal justice or revenge. And by “violence,” I don’t mean just physical harm or the threat of physical harm, but abuse of power or authority, and emotional blackmail or intimidation, or anything of the sort. Of course, a commitment to refrain from violence in any form can logically put us in the position of needing to suffer injustice, to just swallow it, rather than getting what we believe we rightly have coming to us. When St. Paul scolds the Corinthians for suing one another in the secular courts, he asks, “Why not rather be defrauded?” Indeed, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Our society conditions us to do the exact opposite. But allowing ourselves to be defrauded is a concrete way we can “pay forward” God’s mercy toward us, and thereby experience that mercy as a concrete reality.
Finally, we can resolve to treat everyone as a neighbor. Fred Rogers, bless his heart and rest his soul, had it right: “Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?” Of course, Jesus had a few things to say about neighborliness as well. And who is our neighbor? Well, I’m suggesting that we start with the presumption that everybody is. Of course, some of those whom we try to treat as neighbors will not return the favor. So we open ourselves to being rejected, to being hurt. I won’t lie to you about that; being a neighbor is not always a walk in the park. But as we extend ourselves toward others in neighborliness, we become channels of God’s love and mercy for the benefit of others. And, in so doing, we open ourselves to that same love and mercy.
What happens, then, when we do these things — when we assume the best about people’s intentions, when we refuse to use violence to get justice for ourselves, and when we treat everyone as our neighbor? The effect of this sort of behavior is that we begin to participate in the all-merciful character of God. We are conformed, in our own souls, to the all-merciful character of God. And, almost as a bonus, we become part of a community that makes a credible witness to the world about the power of the gospel. We become evangelists, heralds of good news, the good news that there is another way to live, there is another way to be, other than the way the world gives us, the good news that “Yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.” Praised be Jesus Christ.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.