Above AND Beyond
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 20, 2019
Readings: John 13:5-17; Matthew 5:39-42
It was in 1975 that the Huizinga Lectures at Leiden University were given. The Huizinga Lectures are known far and wide in political science circles for having some of the finest lectures. That particular year the lecturer was the French philosopher, Jean-François Revel. He gave a groundbreaking lecture. He was known for his book, Without Marx or Jesus, which was a humanist liberal look at totalitarianism, whether it is of a Marxist variety or a capitalist and so-called Christian variety.
His lecture, “The Totalitarian Temptation” looked at moments in political history where even in the Communist world – because remember this was before the fall of the Berlin Wall – countries had become nation states that were headed by dictators. He also noticed that they were emerging within Capitalist states, nationalisms that were leading to forms of totalitarianism, where people’s speech was limited, their associations constrained, and there was a totalitarian mentality that suppressed freedom. One chapter in that book is, “The State Narcissus”. Narcissus, as many of you know, was one of the Greek gods who’d seen his reflection in a pool, and being very handsome, fell in love with himself. He then became self-absorbed and conveyed in everything, his own sense of his own wonder and glory, hence the word narcissism.
Revel argued in that lecture that the State can become self-loving to the point and exclusion of everything else, and that its actual propriety or its sense of justice becomes secondary to its own survival and power. He said, “The 20th Century, instead of making the value of a nation conditional on the value of the civilization it houses, has conferred status on the nation as such, free of any moral, political, or humanitarian consideration.If you have a nation and a state, you are endowed with all rights; you are above criticism. The absolute nation has succeeded the absolute monarchy.” He was of course suggesting the danger of totalitarianism. You might be wondering why on Earth are we talking about Jean-François Revel and the totalitarian temptation, and yet hearing our readings from the Gospel of John, and the Gospel of Mark? What has one got to do with the other, you might be thinking.
Well, the answer is that Jesus is speaking in both the gospel of John and Matthew in the context of an empire that was totalitarian, namely The Roman Empire. And the disciples to whom he was speaking were having to live within the confines of this empire, while giving a certain degree of autonomy to some regions – nevertheless imposed itself on the countries that it had invaded. That the Roman way of law, the Roman way of doing things, even the Roman peace, the Pax Romana, was imposed upon even the smallest of nations such as Israel.
Jesus is writing to people who live under a totalitarian regime. He was also writing at a time when the religious leaders of the day were being co-opted by that totalitarian power, and were adding their own religious rules, and laws to those of the Romans. It was a difficult time, but Jesus, in these two incidences, at the beginning of his ministry, and at the end of his ministry, are examples to all how disciples should live. It’s not just then that it applies, it applies now. It applies in our world, in our era. That there was something radical about Jesus and what he had to say about how disciples should conduct themselves that goes right to the very heart of what it means to follow the Cross of Christ.
Let’s look at these two incidents and you’ll see what I mean. The first I’ll call, Part 1. It’s the moment in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus is addressing the crowd, but most especially the disciples, as to how they should act under the tyranny of Roman law. You see, there was a Roman law that said that if a Roman goes up to a non-Roman and asked them to carry their bags for them, the non-Roman must do so for up to the equivalent of a mile.
In other words, a Roman could demand this of a Jew at any time, and in fact, it must’ve been a common practice or else I doubt Jesus would’ve mentioned it. What does Jesus do and how does he think disciples should deal with this tyranny? You would think that he would support the notion of a zealous uprising against Roman rule, as many of them were advocating, but Jesus does the exact opposite and makes him all the more dangerous. He says, “If you’re asked by a Roman to go one mile and carry his bag, carry his bag the second mile.” This of course would completely confuse a Roman. It would embarrass them because it was beyond what the law had prescribed. It was going beyond the confines of their own experience, and it would appear to humble them in a sense. Jesus applies to other things as well. “If someone insults you by slapping you in your face, rather than slapping the person back you give them the other cheek.
In other words, you deflect the hatred and the evil. If people insult you, you turn the other cheek, you don’t fight back. If someone comes up to you and says that they want your coat, which is an inner garment, give them your cloak, which is your outer garment as well. If they want something from you, give them beyond what they’re asking because in so doing you humble them. Likewise, if somebody asks you for money, give it to them, embarrass them. Put them in another state of being. This is consistent all the way through the life and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This was his whole approach. “An eye for an eye might be in the law, but I tell you to forgive your enemies, and pour coals upon them.” By doing so you expose their tyranny and you reflect your compassion. The Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans picked up that similar sentiment when he was expressing what a Christian life should be like. He says, “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with the good.”
During the Reformation there was a big debate between Zwingli, who was a Swiss theologian, and Martin Luther, who was a German. They’d reached a theological impasse, and they were getting worked up with each other and they didn’t know how they were going to resolve their fundamental disagreement. Until one day Zwingli heard a story of two goats. These goats are on a hillside in Switzerland and it’s a very narrow path that only one goat could walk along at a time. One goat was coming from the top of the hill and one was coming from the bottom, and they were going to meet in the middle. Normally, two goats, two sets of horns, two massive collisions until one of them prevailed but in this particular story Zwingli said, “One of the goats that was descending decided to lie down so the other one could walk over him, and then the two of them would be saved.” This he said, “Is what Luther and I should do.” This is the power of self-sacrifice. So often we’re bashing heads, suing one another, in conflict, and trying to rise above one another, finding our differences and seizing upon them by either conflict or law; we demand our equal rights.
But Jesus says, “If someone insults you, turn the cheek. If someone wants something from you, give them something more. If they want you to go the one mile, you go the second mile.” Jesus is was very dangerous to the Romans. He was very dangerous to those who were the advocates of the law, and Jesus knew that his way, God’s way, was truly the only way that could be seen in the Cross.
Some years ago I wrote in a magazine called The Second Mile that was published in Nova Scotia. They had some great writers in that magazine from Jim Perkins to John Sumarah to Jean Vanier. I contributed to the magazine from time to time. The purpose of the magazine was to show how going the second mile makes a difference in the world. While the world’s values and standards might be an eye for the eye and demanding your rights, and questioning things, the way of Christ is to go the second mile and do something completely other. I’ve gone back and I’ve read man of those essays again over the years. They are inspiring because they are so different from narcissism, from totalitarianism, and oppression. They speak of the Cross of Christ lived every day by those who follow him.
Look, this is not easy, but it’s the way of the Cross, and right now our world needs to hear that. The problem that Jean-François Revel had is, while he conceived of a world without Jesus, unfortunately Revel had not read these texts sufficiently. These are the antithesis of Narcissus.
Part 2 is from the last days of Jesus’ life. He’s now completed his ministry; he is celebrating the Passover meal right before the days of the trial and the Crucifixion. And we read of Jesus meeting with the disciples and offering to wash their feet. This is a memorable moment that was captured beautifully in our anthem a few minutes ago, and it’s powerful because we find Jesus doing something that would not be expected of him. He is treating the disciples as if they are the guests and he is the host: He washes their feet. This is a sign of welcome, of hospitality, and of humility. Peter, who had followed him all those years, objected. He says, “You are our teacher, literally our rabbi. You are our Lord,” literally in the Greek, the Kurios, “the Lord of all Lords. You are above all of this. Surely you shouldn’t be washing our feet. I don’t want you to do this,” He objected, but why did he object, because he had a high view of Christ that was loyal? Possibly, but also because he knew that if the Lord of Life himself was washing his feet, how much more would he have to do the same in life?
Jesus even said, “You are clean but there are others in this place that are not” referring to Judas Iscariot, who would betray him. Jesus even – get this now – washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, knowing he was going to betray him. That is the turning of the other cheek. That is going the second mile. That is not an eye for an eye; that is loving your enemies. Jesus then says quite clearly and quite bluntly to Peter, “You must let me do this because this is what I am about and this is what I want you now to go and do.” Jesus as the leader had completely caught Peter completely by surprise. Peter wanted a Lord who was all-powerful. What he got was a Lord who was all sacrificial.
It reminds me of the true story of Steven Farrow, who was a very well-known photographer. He was asked by a magazine to go and take photos of a very serious bushfire. He was to go up in a plane and take aerial photographs of the bushfire, similar to what people have been doing as we know recently in the Amazon, having an above-ground view of things. Farrow goes to the airport and he sees a plane, a Cessna, sitting on the runway. He assumes that that plane is for him and hops onboard, jumps into the seat and says to the pilot, “Okay, let’s go now.” The pilot looks surprised but starts up the engine, taxis down the runway, and takes off smoothly. After a few minutes they get close to where the fire is and Farrow says to the pilot, “Can you go a little lower?”
The pilot said, “Why would you want me to go lower. Why would you want me to do this?”
Farrow responds, “Because I want to take photographs of the fire down below.”
The pilot looks at him and says with bewilderment, “You’re not my flight instructor then?”
“Not a good moment,” said Farrow, “Not a good moment at all.” He caught him by surprise. He expected one thing and got another.
It wasn’t what Peter expected. Peter wanted a zealot. He wanted someone who would stand for the rights of the disciples. He wanted someone who was strong and firm. Jesus’ firmness was to wash the disciples’ feet, and to tell them to do the same.
My friends, I believe that the very nature of the Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is far more radical, far more challenging, far more contrary to narcissism than we ever imagined. These texts show us that Jesus goes above and beyond. He goes the second mile. He turns the other cheek when he’s being insulted’ When he is betrayed, he washes a person’s feet. When he’s asked to give one thing, he gives everything because that is the nature of the Christian life. “Go and do likewise,” said Jesus. Amen.