As I sat on the runway at the airport in New York, preparing for the first leg of a flight that would carry me to Istanbul, Turkey, and then Tel Aviv, Israel, I began questioning my decision to to go on a Holy Lands tour. It suddenly seemed terribly selfish and self-indulgent, because I was nagged by three questions:
Would I be safe;
Would my family be OK while I was away
What would I accomplish in Israel that I couldn’t achieve just as easily by reading a book or watching a movie?
Safety On My Holy Lands Tour
Well, the answers to the first two questions came quite quickly. I was exceptionally safe and secure in Israel and the West Bank. Likewise, my family was fine while I was away. But that third question was more complicated. What did I think I was going to accomplish through this trip?
Connecting To Jesus
The answer came to me as I thought about Jesus. That’s the sort of thing one tends to do in the Holy Lands. And as I did so, I realized that my relationship with Jesus was not nearly as complete as I wanted it to be.
The easiest way to explain this is through our creeds. Each Sunday in worship we make use of either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Both of those ancient creeds, or statements of belief, represent the Church’s best answer to the most important question Jesus asked: “Who do you say that I am?” The Church’s response is that Jesus is 100% human and 100% God. It’s quite a puzzle, isn’t it? The “100% God” part comes easy for me. I have no difficulty thinking of Jesus as the Son of God, a divine miracle worker who can feed thousands with a few fish and loaves, heal the sick, and raise the dead.
Jesus is Fully Divine and Fully Human
But at times I’ve struggled to honor the fact that Jesus was also 100% human. I have to work to think of baby Jesus needing a diaper change, nursing from his mother, struggling through puberty, arguing with his parents (as all teenagers do), and learning a trade. But it’s that humanness which gives Jesus such richness and depth. It’s that humanness which enables Jesus to relate to our struggles. And it’s that humanness which loudly and profoundly testifies of Jesus’s love for us, because it proves there’s nothing he would not do or endure to be with us and among us.
Walking Where Jesus Walked
And so for my week in Israel, I set about trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. I was skeptical, because it seemed improbable, nearly 2,000 years later, that we would be able to have confidence in the accuracy of the Holy Land sites associated with him. Certainly there were some sites, like the Via Dolorosa or “Way of the Cross,” that, according to the archaeologists, simply aren’t accurate. But to my surprise and delight, the vast majority of the places we visited and venerated have been firmly and faithfully connected to Jesus since the time of the disciples.
Words cannot express my emotions at walking in the footsteps of Jesus. My knees buckled as I touched the spot where Jesus was born. I was awestruck as I stood on the hillside where he preached the Sermon on the Mount. It took my breath away to walk amidst the ruins of Capernaum and see the very house where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. I marveled as our boat glided across the same Sea of Galilee that was central to so much of Jesus’s ministry. I felt profound sadness as I stood in the lonely cell, a literal hole carved into rock, where Jesus was imprisoned the night before his crucifixion. And I was speechless as I touched the rock of Golgotha at the point where Jesus’s cross was affixed, and where he surrendered his life for ours.
Bringing My Faith To Life
Suddenly Jesus was no longer a two-dimensional drawing in a book. And he was no longer a God too distant, unapproachable, and big to understand me or care about me. At long last Jesus had flesh and bones. I could almost feel the coarse fabric of his robes, see his dusty, calloused feet, and hear that voice of his, soft enough to console a mourning mother, and loud enough to still a surging storm on the Sea of Galilee. I felt his love in a new way, and it enabled me to love him more completely as well.
It’s one thing to physically walk in the places Jesus walked. But it’s a very different thing to walk in the manner Jesus walked. That’s become clear to us over the last few weeks, as we’ve wrestled with his Sermon on the Mount. Today Jesus challenges us with these words: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” What do you feel in your heart as you hear that?
Well, if you’re like me, you feel convicted. Broken. Guilty. The law does that to us. It tears away the mask of self-deception and exposes who we really are, warts and all. Rarely do we love our enemies or pray for those who persecute us. Our world is organized around drawing lines in the sand separating them from us. We almost instinctively separate into camps based on race, nationality, ideology, and of course religion. Hating our enemies comes as easy to us as breathing.
As children, we label those who are different, and target them for bullying and exclusion. We adults are even worse. For example, take social media, like Facebook. It held the promise of uniting us like never before. But instead, we’ve turned it into a bitter, invective filled instrument of identifying and destroying our enemies until they are shamed, silenced, blocked, and defriended.
And what about our political atmosphere? People across the ideological spectrum have conditioned us to hate our enemies because, well, it’s good politics, and makes for a winning strategy. Eventually, there comes a point when our shame at hating our enemies gives way to defensiveness, and so we try to water Jesus’s words down as unrealistic. After all, we tell ourselves, “What does he really know? Up in the clouds, surrounded by perfection, he has no concept of how dangerous and divided this world is. If he could walk in our shoes, he’d understand why we must hate our enemies!”
The Sermon on the Mount
But in response, Jesus patiently extends to us his very human hands. Even in his resurrected state, those hands still carry the scars where the nails penetrated his flesh. Our very human Savior knew what it was like to have enemies. He was rejected by his family, his community, the leaders of his faith, and even his closest followers. He knew what it was like to be hated. And I suspect he felt very tempted to return that hate.
But instead, drawing upon all of his human experience, he tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He teaches this, not merely to convince us of our own brokenness, but because, as he says in verse 48, he wants us to “be perfect.” Frankly, that’s a lousy translation. A closer look at the underlying Greek reveals that Jesus isn’t holding us to some objective and unobtainable standard of divine flawlessness. Instead, his dream is for us to be whole.
The wholeness of a rose is distinct from the wholeness of a daisy. Those flowers each achieve a very different vision of perfection simply by being that which God created them to be. The same is true for you. God blessed you with a distinct personality and mix of gifts, and God simply calls you to be the very best “you” that God created you to be. That’s God’s vision of joyful wholeness for all of us. Jesus knows that for this to happen, we cannot be burdened by hate. Hate is a selfinflicted wound that stunts our growth and blocks our vision of Jesus. And so today he offers us holy, healing medicine to help us be “fully human.” Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I know that’s not easy. Jesus knows it’s not easy too. But for our own sake, he invites us to walk that sacred path. We can do it, because our Jesus – fully God and fully human - walks with us.