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20th February 2022

A Whole New World

Passage: Luke 6;27-38


George Caird: eminent theologian and leading light in the early days of the United Reformed Church, wrote this comment about the extraordinary teaching of Jesus on loving rather than retaliating against your enemies: “He who retaliates, thinks that he is manfully resisting aggression; in fact, he is making an unconditional surrender to evil. Where before there was one under the control of evil, now there are two. Evil propagates by contagion. It can be contained and defeated only when hatred, insult and injury are absorbed and neutralised by love. “

A vivid example of what Caird is saying is found in the musical “Les Miserables.” Remember how Jean Valjean, released from prison, facing prejudice and abuse wherever he went, furious at the injustice which had sent him to prison in the first place, eaten up inside with anger and bitterness, is caught by the police with the silver he has stolen from a priest who had been kind enough to give him food and a bed for the night. It is over…..
But, when summoned, the priest tells the police that the silver had been his gift to Valjean. They could set him free and go on their way. What a fool, you might think. But the priest then speaks forcefully
to Valjean. Because you have been forgiven for stealing; because I have spoken up for you under no obligation whatsoever; I have bought your soul for God.
This is not religious blackmail. The priest is asking nothing in return save that Valjean no longer lives under the law of the jungle- kill or be killed; be struck and strike back. Born into an unjust society; suffering poverty, pain, imprisonment, humiliation; through that loving forgiveness and generosity, Valjean has been set free from the “contagion” of evil. Now he must take the opportunity to live as a child of God. And if you have seen the film or the stage show, you will know that his life is indeed turned around from that moment.

What do you do when you are living under a regime which is harsh, oppressive, and not of your making? This was the underlying issue behind people’s reaction to Jesus Christ. Their country had been taken over by the Roman Empire. They suffered poverty, they witnessed barbaric cruelty, lived in fear and where was God in this?

There were three basic options open to them. First, they could give in and collaborate with the enemy. Find a way of getting onto the “right” side, earn a comfortable living and enjoy a higher level of security even if it did mean turning a blind eye to the human rights abuse going on right under your nose. This was the way of the people known as “tax collectors;” paid by the Romans to squeeze as much as possible out of their own people, so that Rome got rich.

Second, they could nurture their anger and channel it into violent aggression and acts of terrorism. Get their own back on the regime which was cruel to them. These people were known as the “zealots,” the freedom fighters.
Or third, they could choose the way of Jesus and react to ill treatment with forgiveness; respond to theft with generosity; react to hatred with love and gentleness.

What would you do in that kind of situation? What would I do? I don’t know. But I do have to admit the truth of what George Caird said about evil propagates by contagion. To collaborate with an unjust system is to propagate evil. To retaliate with hatred or violence is to propagate evil. Caird is right, just as Jesus was right. Evil can only be contained and defeated when hatred, insult and injury are absorbed and neutralised by love.“ The law of the jungle is for wild animals, not for human creatures made in the image of God.

Of course. there are powerful arguments against what Jesus said and I can think of three right off. One- you might say that not everyone who is offered forgiveness turns their life around as Valjean did. Many just carry on doing evil and sneer at those who reach out to them. That is sad and very disappointing, but is it then better for those who have tried to forgive to become resentful and bitter instead? I remember a mother who was at the end of her tether with a daughter whose life was falling apart and was simply rejecting her mother over and over again. The mother told me of some wise words spoken to her “you only fail when you stop loving.”

Second- you might say that religion has often been seen to be cruel, unforgiving and harsh in its judgements on fragile men and women. I can’t deny it but the fact that organised religion might take a path directly opposed to what Jesus taught does not mean that Jesus was wrong. It means that organised religion gets it wrong.
And third- you might say, well look at what happened to Jesus and his teaching on non-retaliation. He ended up crucified for goodness’ sake. But this, the Bible tells us, was what he chose. He chose to suffer as an innocent victim rather than succumb to violence and hatred. He chose the law of God rather than the law of the jungle. And so, the Bible tells us, he bought our souls for God.

How do you work that one out? Sin, guilt and regret are built into our lives from the start. No-one ever gets everything right. Each of us will have weaknesses as well as strengths in our DNA. And because the world is populated by yes, let’s be honest, sinful people, it will always be a world of pain and injustice; fear and trauma, all of which will undermine our strengths and play on our weaknesses.
And evil is like Covid- it can spread very fast. And, just like Covid, its origins go way, way back. The political situation which is causing us so much fear at present, with Russia, Ukraine, Nato, USA on the brink of war is no overnight crisis nor is it just about Putin. It is the result of centuries of false ideals, power-hunger, racial prejudice, hurt, revenge, mistrust and lack of compassion. But fighting evil with yet more evil achieves nothing good in the long term. Caird is right: evil can only be contained and defeated when hatred, insult and injury are absorbed and neutralised by love.“ It is just that that love is costly, very costly. Which is why our salvation lies in the fact that the most costly love of all is rooted in the heart of God himself; God, who chose to enter human life in Jesus; God, who can hold out free and full forgiveness because he chose to pay the price of human sin and evil. If we believe and trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God then our lives will inevitably be turned around. We shall abandon the laws of the jungle and follow the law of Christ. Our souls, our very selves will belong to God.
In a world of sin; with frailty and failure built into us from birth; we have little hope of forgiving or of being forgiven; little hope of throwing off the guilt and regret which eat us up inside; without a belief in God’s ultimate forgiveness.

So yes, as I see it, it was Jesus Christ who sets us free from the laws of the jungle and who has “bought our souls for God.” And by doing so, he has enabled us to see a whole new world of hope and possibility.
The law of the jungle is remorseless and unchanging. A wild animal will remain for ever wild. The law of Christ holds out hope for every single person to love and to be loved; to forgive and to be forgiven; to break free from the chains of their past and to create a new future.
The law of the jungle is the law of the herd, with each creature living in fragile community only amongst their own kind. The law of Christ breaks cultural, racial, gender barriers down, creating new and ever-growing human families and communities.
The law of the jungle is about personal survival and the survival only of the fittest. The law of Christ is about love for the weakest and protection for the most vulnerable; it is about seeing and valuing the uniqueness of every individual.
The law of the jungle is about claiming and protecting territory. The law of Christ is about sharing, respecting and even transforming those who were once your enemies. For the Christian faith came to embrace and to include even the Romans.
The law of the jungle is a fight to the death. The law of Christ offers hope even beyond death.
The law of the jungle is an instinctive reaction to what is going on in your life right here, right now. The law of Christ turns us to the God of eternity who can see far more than we can; understand more deeply than we can; and lead us into a life of trust and grace.

And so, we shall inhabit a whole new world as we learn to live as children of God. Amen.

MEDITATION from the URC Prayer Handbook 2022
Father God, you see the end from the beginning;
We are creatures of the here and now.
You dwell in eternity and rise the waves of time;
We see only our present surroundings.
You unfold your plans across millenia and galaxies;
We measure our lives in years and miles.

As we look at the world around us, we are tempted to fret:
Those who are evil seem to thrive, those who do wrong are rewarded,
The innocent are imprisoned and the meek do not inherit the land.
And yet….. and yet……
You are my stronghold in times of trouble;
I trust in your righteousness and justice.
I will still my heart before you;
I will commit my ways to you.
I will trust in you and do what is right
For you see the end from the beginning.