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“God’s Peace Plan”
Leviticus 19:18


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany—February 20, 2011

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

It would seem that religious faith should draw people closer together.  But, instead, all over the world this Sunday morning there are wars being fought and people being killed in the name of religion.  The news media has not really explained that in many countries in the Middle East the current unrest is actually the latest outbreak of long-standing animosity between rival branches of Islam, which have been engaged in an ongoing civil war with each other for centuries. Until recently the Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland had waged a similar sectarian war against each other for decades.  In the past few months there have been massacres of Christians while worshipping at their churches in Iraq and Egypt.  And just this past Friday a Christian clergyman in Tunisia was martyred for his faith, beaten and beheaded by an angry mob.

But, this ungodly religious warfare isn’t limited to strange religions in far-off lands.  Near Fort Wayne, Indiana this Sunday morning a small country church stands empty.  It is empty because the congregation there was destroyed by year after year of religious warfare.  Not with missiles, bombs, and bullets, but with harsh words and angry emotions.  Year after year in this little church brother fought against brother, the feud passed down from generation to generation.  Like many country churches they were all interrelated, so it was not only a church squabble but also a big family squabble.  Pastors came and went, unable to negotiate peace.  The bitterness and hatred drove people away to other churches.  But, even in the end, when there were only a handful of members left, they still fought and argued until that congregation was totally destroyed.  Like a war memorial, the quaint old white wooden church building still stands, deserted and lifeless, a silent testimony to the destructive power of harsh words and angry emotions.

But, the reality is, that same awful fate could befall any Christian congregation, or any family.  For, none of us is immune from the temptation to fight with one another, to wage war with harsh words and angry emotions.  As Paul warns in Galatians, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

In today’s Old Testament Reading, the God of peace gives his peace plan, for his church family, and for within your own family.  “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

The dictionary defines revenge as “repayment for a wrong that has been inflicted.”  Perhaps you have truly been wronged by someone, perhaps you have had a deep emotional or spiritual wound inflicted, perhaps you feel justified in taking revenge.  But, God says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”

It is very revealing that the Hebrew word used for “bearing” a grudge is the same word used when someone “tends” crops or “cultivates” a garden.  God is saying: Your anger and bitterness would eventually die down, but you won’t let it.  Instead, you tend your anger, you actually cultivate your bitterness.

It may have happened years ago, but you’re not going to forget, you’re not going to forgive.  Keep the feud going, keep the hatred boiling, cultivate your bitterness, tend your anger, and someday you will get your chance to get even, to take revenge.  But, God pleads with you: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

Forgiveness and love; that is the attitude we should have toward one another.  The Good News is, despite our sins and failures, that is the attitude God does have toward you.  For God himself does not seek revenge for your sins.  He does not bear a grudge for your wrongs.  As Psalm 32 says, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.”

The Good News is, that psalm is speaking about you.  Your transgressions are forgiven, your sins are covered.  You are blessed, for the Lord does not count your sins against you.  Why?  Paul puts it this way in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” 

God’s own Son took your place.  In his suffering and death, he took upon himself the punishment, the curse, the damnation your sins deserved.  As Paul says in Colossians, “He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death, to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”  On account of Christ’s sacrifice your sins are all forgiven, you are now “holy in [God’s] sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” 

The Apostle John says, “He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  In response to God’s gracious love and full forgiveness toward you in Christ, you as a follower of Christ will show gracious love and full forgiveness toward others.  “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Paul describes in Ephesians how your Christian love will demonstrate itself in your life: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

And in Colossians: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.”

Jesus beautifully expressed at the Last Supper how his followers will show his love in their lives: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

At the Last Supper Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which in the New Testament is called the “love feast.”  It is called a love feast, first of all, because here we remember the great love of Jesus for us, so great that he gave his body and shed his blood to earn forgiveness for our sins, and not only ours but for the sins of the whole world.  He loved us and gave himself up for us as an offering and sacrifice to God.  “This do,” Jesus says, “in remembrance of Me.”  In remembrance of his love toward us.

Holy Communion is called the “love feast” also because communing together at the Lord’s altar is a symbol of love and harmony, and this Sacrament is also a means God uses to increase our love and harmony.  This is expressed in a familiar prayer, written by Martin Luther for use after Communion: “We give thanks to you, almighty God, that you have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore you that of your mercy you would strengthen us through the same, in faith toward you, and in fervent love toward one another.”

Jesus describes the attitude of his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, in today’s Gospel Reading: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Jesus refers to the “law of retribution” as contained in the Old Testament civil law, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”  Unlike God’s moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments, which is timeless and still fully in force for us today, the civil law was time-limited, valid only for the Old Testament nation of Israel, and no longer applies to us in the New Testament era.  As Paul says in Colossians, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Christ’s followers are still permitted self-defense of ourselves and our loved ones.  Jesus actually told the disciples at the Last Supper as they faced imminent danger, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

Also, in the New Testament era properly constituted government still has both God’s authority and  a divinely mandated obligation to punish wrongdoers.  As Paul says in Romans, “The authorities that exist have been established by God. . .  if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” And Peter writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men . . . who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

But, besides the exceptions of self-defense and the government punishing criminals, in all other circumstances Christian love must be willing to patiently suffer wrongs against us, and not seek revenge.

“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.”  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

In the midst of so much strife in our world, keep your church family and your own family an island of peace, by following in your life “God’s Peace Plan”: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

Amen.

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