“Our Telos” on Matthew 5:43-48 by Joe Ellis — November 20, 2022

How did you take Jesus saying, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” in Matthew 5:48? It can make a person nervous. You might think, “Really? Be perfect like God? Uh, sure, no problem.” The Greek word here is telos. That’s one of those ancient Greek words that occasionally finds its way into everyday English, if you’re talking to a nerd.


Imagine you’re talking to somebody at a party, and they start throwing into the conversation some of the Greek words they know. Maybe they’re a biologist, and they casually mention how the telos of a sunflower seed is to be a sunflower. Or that the telos of a tadpole is to be a frog. Or the telos of a caterpillar is to be a butterfly. You begin wondering how obvious it would be if at this moment you excused yourself to go to the bathroom. But, let’s say you hung in that conversation with your nerdy biologist friend about seeds, tadpoles and caterpillars achieving their telos of becoming sunflowers, frogs and butterflies. Now, let’s go further and imagine Jesus was entering that conversation with you. You might just hear Jesus interjecting, “Yes, and did you know the telos of humans is to reflect the character of God? You go through no less a transformation than a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Reflecting God glory, that’s your telos!” What does that stir up in you?


That’s the goal of your existence: reflecting God’s character to the world. That’s what the whole of Matthew 5 is about, Jesus is teaching us what that looks like in different areas. Jesus invites us to look into our hearts and see what’s there. Is there anger? Is there lust? Is there a string of broken relationships? Is there dishonesty? Is there a desire for vengeance? Is there a proclivity to prejudice? Those are not our telos. Those aren’t the goals for which we were born. Those aren’t the telos for which we were born. Instead, Jesus calls us back to our true telos — mirroring the heart of God.


In Matthew 5, Jesus has been showing us what it looks like to live into our telos, our purpose. Cultivating the heart of a peacemaker, a heart that is sexually pure, honest, steadfast, forgiving, genuinely hospitable — you know, the things we see in our heavenly Father. Just like a caterpillar’s telos is to be a butterfly, the telos of being a human is to reflect God’s character back to the world. That is the journey we are on. We begin by imitating what we see in Jesus and by following what we hear Him teach. Throughout chapter five of Matthew, Jesus shows us a number of ways to live into our telos. In today’s passage, He tells us that our telos is found in being the kind of people who can love our enemy.


Love your enemy. Pray for people who persecute you. That way we will be children of our Father in heaven.” If we’ve been tracking with Jesus throughout the Sermon on the Mount, we’ll have been prepared for this. Jesus hinted at this in the seventh Beatitude when He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Again, being a peacemaker, or a person who is able to love their enemies, is a powerful and demanding way of growing into our telos. Here Jesus is deepening one of the most famous laws you’ll find in the Old Testament in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 19:18 reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” This was a hugely significant bible passage for Jesus. For Jesus, the only Bible passage that outstrips loving your neighbour is the famous passage called the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” When Jesus was asked which of the 613 Old Testament commandments was the most important, he boiled them all down to these two commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus goes on to say, “This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”(Matthew 22:37-40)


In the passage we read this morning, Jesus is certainly not downplaying the call to love our neighbour, but rather he is highlighting the human tendency to hate everyone else. When Jesus says, “You heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”, it should be noted that hating your enemy is nowhere commanded in the Bible. However, Jesus is simply pointing out that loving our neighbour and hating our enemy is sadly often our human default. It’s much easier to like people who are like us. That is not our telos. We are made by God to love our enemy.


Love your enemy, pray for people who persecute you,” that way you’ll live in to your telos — or as Jesus puts it, “You’ll be children of your Father in heaven.” In the Gospel of Luke 6:27-31, Jesus says: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” You were made for this. Loving your enemy looks like doing good to those who hate you. This doesn’t go against the grain of who God made you in Jesus Christ — this is who you are. We are made to not just sit by idly and passively in the presence of our enemy — we are made to pray for them, and maybe bake them a cake.

Of course, the type of enemy we’re talking about will shape the way you love them. Each broken relationship will require loving the enemy in a unique way. This is a matter for much prayer. When we pray, we pray as much for God to change our enemy’s heart and we are praying for God to show us how to actively love our enemy in practical challenging ways. Let’s not use prayer as an excuse to not actually love our enemy with our actions. We can’t just pray for them and then think, “There I’m done.” We need to reach out and show them our love.


Can we have enemies at church? It just feels like a relevant question, given the listening circles we’re having. After all, we are having these conversations not because we are in total agreement with each other and can’t help but hold hands, singing Kumbaya around the fire. We’ve found ourselves taking hard positions, creating huge relational strain. Some relationships have strained to the point of snapping. Can we have enemies in the church? Can we love the enemy sitting across from us? Historically, church hasn’t had a great track record on loving the enemy sitting next to us at a worship service. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America.


I had a recent conversation with a couple who, knowing we are a Christian Reformed Church, and knowing that they don’t share many Reformed convictions, were wondering if they would be eventually seen as an enemy if they don’t believe what we do. The question had been born from the painful experience of rejection in other churches.


The word enemy might feel strong when we are talking about someone who is sharing the pew. Maybe it’s more comfortable to say they’re not my enemy, they’re just a jerk. Or they’re not my enemy, they’re just wrong. Or they’re not my enemy, they’re just lost. Or even they’re not my enemy, but I sure wish they weren’t here. Let’s just use Jesus’ word “enemy” and be done with it. So, why do Christians have such a hard time loving their enemy, especially at church? Listen to how Dallas Willard tries to answer this question:


Well, there actually is an answer to that question. And we must face this answer and effectively deal with it, or Satan will sustain his stranglehold on spiritual transformation in local congregations. Christians are routinely taught by example and word that it is more important to be right (always in terms of their beloved vessel [that is: their particular doctrinal beliefs or practices of their denomination] or tradition) than it is to be Christlike.


Did you hear that? We are taught that it is more important to be ‘right’ than it is to be Christlike. Take that thought and turn it around in your mind for a minute — we are taught that it is more important to be ‘right’ than to be Christlike. It’s funny how those can be in tension, isn’t it? Valuing being ‘right’ over being Christlike? When we prefer to only have the people around us that we regard as being ‘right,’ it can very quickly communicate that people who are ‘wrong’ are certainly not welcome in church. And, quickly we will find that Willard’s words are fulfilled in our congregation, that we have traded being Christ-like for being ‘right.’


How so? Well, if it is only people like ourselves who gather with us in Church fellowship, we’ll find ourselves in the cross hairs of Jesus’ statement when He says in Matthew 5:46-47: “If you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even tax collectors do that, don’t they? And if you only greet your own family, what’s so special about? Even Gentiles do that, don’t they?” Is that the kind of church we want to be? A church that has flushed out all the enemies and replaced them with the ‘right sort’ of people? People who are in our circle, our family, our ethnicity, our social class, our income bracket, our same set of interests, those who check the same set of religious boxes? That description of such a homogeneous church makes me want to gag. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s far easier to be church that way. Sean Baker, the denominational guy who was here two weeks ago said that the churches that sailed through Covid were the churches that had very little diversity in their congregation, they all thought the same. In that sense, I’m glad that we took such a beating. At least beforehand, something good was going on in these walls.


Worshipping alongside your enemy was the reality that the early church had to contend with frequently. Enemies were coming together to worship God. It wasn’t easy and seamless. There was a lot of conflict. That’s in fact the reason for the majority of letters we have in the New Testament, they’re letters trying to sort out the explosions that can happen when enemies come together and worship God together in church. It was incredibly messy. Hugely messy, hugely grey, hugely unclear at times about how to move forward in unity. Read Acts 11 through 15 if you want a taste of how hard it is to sort out worshipping with your enemy — balancing the need to be ‘right’ against being Christ-like. When you see me as ‘wrong,’ you might want to throw in the towel when my actions unintentionally cause hurt, offence or worry; you might want to check out when you feel insulted or sidelined by your brother or sister. You might want to duck out or check out when you recognize that the person sitting in front of you is one of “those people” that you caricature in private conversations. Yet this is the glory of the church! The glory of the church! This is our telos! This truth leaps off the page when you read Ephesians 3 — Paul is trying to let the Greek Christians he’s writing to know that it’s for them that He is in prison. These were former enemies, and now he’s in prison for them! He says that it’s through these sorts of enemy-loving actions that the wisdom of God is displayed through the church. When we love our enemy and can worship alongside them, God points to us and says, “Those are my people! I’m so proud of them! That’s my wisdom! They’re living into what I accomplished for them in Jesus Christ. They’re loving their enemy and they’ve found their enemy has become their neighbour!” God says this with such joy, pointing out this victory to all the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. God shows off his wisdom to Satan and his legion of dark angels by pointing at us, His church — showing that His plan to reconcile all humanity through Jesus Christ is working. Of course, we are still working our way together, closer to God’s truth and right action — but we love each other the whole way.

As we do, we are living into our telos, we are reflecting God’s character to the world. This is the character of God who sent His Son to die for us while we were still His enemies. Sure, I’d like it if this congregation were a people who were ‘right’ about matters of faith and life — and by that I mean that everyone thinks the way I think. It would be far easier, but far more boring. But worse than that, it would fall far short of the Gospel. So this project we’re on together is not easy, but let’s not give up. As you feel tension with your brother or sister here, as you find those enemy lines creeping up between you and the person sitting on the other side of the sanctuary, cross those lines in the name of love. Have your enemy over for dinner, make them a cake, pray for them, listen to them, understand them — work tirelessly at turning yourself into their neighbour — that is your telos. Your telos is being a neighbour to your enemy. As you do so, you will be living into the glory of God in a world that’s crisscrossed with enemy lines. You’ll learn to walk through them all, loving your neighbour as yourself. We’ll practice in the church, and move out into the world. As we do, we will live into our true telos and reflect God’s glory out to the world.

Amen.

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