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  • Adam Schell

Practice What You Preach

Lent: More Like Jesus

It was a Monday, just a few minutes past noon, and I was waiting to be seated at an Italian restaurant with a few of my friends from seminary. Within a few moments, the hostess had called our party and we began to make our way back to a table, while the aromas of garlic bread and pasta sauce only made us all a little hungrier. As we all settled into our seats and started looking over the menu, we were ready to enjoy a relaxing hour away from campus. And all our worries and concerns about research papers and upcoming tests could be set aside for at least a few minutes.

But before I had even figured out what I wanted to eat that afternoon, I glanced up at one of the TVs that were hanging in the restaurant and I lost my appetite altogether. And that’s because, as I glanced up at that TV, I saw that CNN was covering a breaking news story that was taking place in a small community, called Nickel Mines, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. 

As I tried to tune out all the noise happening in a busy restaurant at the peak of the lunch rush, I started reading the captions down at the bottom of the screen. And as they often do in these types of situations, the reporter began by saying that the morning had started like any other day. It had been a typical fall day in Lancaster County, if you had been passing by you would’ve heard birds chirping, or horses trotting across the fields, or the sounds of 26 children passing by on their way to school.

But that peaceful morning was completely shattered around 10:30 when a man named Charles Carl Roberts IV entered the one-room Amish schoolhouse that those children had been headed to. Within a few minutes, Roberts would release 16 of the 26 students along with their teacher, leaving him alone with ten female students. By the time 11:15 rolled around, Roberts had shot all ten girls, killing five of them along with himself.

Now, we have seen scenes like this one play out more times over the last 18 years than we really want to think about. Over the last 18 years, there have been school shootings that have taken place in Blacksburg, Virginia, Newtown, Connecticut, Uvalde, Texas, Parkland, Florida, and that list can go on. So you may not even remember this one that took place in Pennsylvania.

And I’d probably be right there with you if it wasn’t for something incredible that happened in the aftermath of this tragedy. And I mean that quite literally. The word incredible means that something is so extraordinary it doesn’t seem possible. And what happened in the aftermath of the Amish school shooting is so extraordinary it doesn’t seem possible.

So what happened? Well, only hours after this tragic event unfolded, while television networks were still piecing together the segments they were going to run about this story for the evening news, a grandfather of one of the girls killed in the shooting spoke out. But he didn't speak out at a press conference surrounded by members of the media. He didn’t speak out in an angry tirade that he blasted out over social media. He didn’t speak out to the local leaders or political figures offering up their thoughts and prayers.

No, he spoke out to several of his younger relatives telling them not to hate the killer. He told them, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another member of the Amish community noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God.”

And the story doesn’t end there. The story continued to unfold that same afternoon when members of the Amish community went to the home of the Roberts family. But they weren’t carrying torches or pitchforks in their hands, rather they were carrying forgiveness and compassion in their hearts. That afternoon members of the Amish community sat with Roberts' widow and children extending forgiveness and comfort in their time of mourning. These acts of forgiveness carried on for days.

Community members continued to visit and comfort Roberts' widow, children, parents, and in-laws. One man held Roberts' father, sobbing in his arms for over an hour, just to help comfort a grief-stricken dad. Thirty members of the Amish community even attended Roberts' funeral, not to picket and protest, but once again to show their forgiveness and to console his family.

The family of one of his victims even invited Roberts' widow to attend their daughter's funeral. And in perhaps the most surprising element of this entire story, the Amish used a portion of the financial gifts they received in the aftermath of this tragedy to start a charitable fund for the family of their attacker.

It’s been almost 18 years since the day that tragedy struck. But I still remember this story almost 18 years later because on that day that Amish community in rural Pennsylvania showed us all how to live more like Jesus. And that’s what we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks here at Melbourne Heights.

Right now, we’re in a season that we in the church call Lent. And Lent is a season where we reflect on who we are and who God wants us to be. And in Romans 8:29, we’re reminded that ultimately God wants us “to be like his Son” Jesus. But, when we look at our lives, we realize there are areas where we aren’t like Jesus. So Lent is a time when we commit to be more like Jesus.

Lent is a time when we commit to be more like Jesus.

And that is unquestionably what the Amish Community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania did in the aftermath of an unspeakable act of evil that claimed the lives of five little girls in their community…they became more like Jesus. When they decided to forgive Charles Carl Roberts, they became more like Jesus. When they went to the Roberts family home and comforted his wife and kids, they became more like Jesus. When one of their members held Roberts’ weeping father in his arms, they became more like Jesus. When they attended his funeral and invited his family to attend the funeral of the children he killed, they became more like Jesus. When they used some of the funds their community received in the aftermath of that tragedy to help Roberts’ family in the future, they became more like Jesus.

But I’ve got to be honest with you, if I were in their shoes I don’t think I could’ve done what they did. I mean, I’m the kind of person who gets mad when someone cuts me off in traffic or cuts me in line at Kroger. So I don’t think there is any way that I could forgive someone who hurt me or the people I love. And you probably feel the exact same way.

But just because we think that something is too hard for us to do that doesn’t change what God expects from us. God still expects us to become more like Jesus.

God still expects us to become more like Jesus.

But how do we do that? How can we learn to overcome violence with mercy? How can we learn to forgive instead of retaliate? How can we learn to choose love instead of hate?

Well, the Amish community that experienced this unimaginable tragedy found the secret to all of this. And fortunately for us, this secret isn’t exactly hard to find. But unfortunately for us, this secret is extremely hard to do.

So what’s the secret to becoming more like Jesus? If we want to become more like Jesus, we have to practice what Jesus preached.

If we want to become more like Jesus, we have to practice what Jesus preached.

And in the passage of scripture I want us to take a closer look at today, Jesus tells us everything that we need to do to overcome violence with mercy. Jesus tells us everything we need to do to be able to forgive instead of retaliate. Jesus tells us everything we need to do to choose love over hate.

So, if you’ve got a Bible close by or a Bible app on your phone, God ahead and open it to Matthew 5. And Matthew 5, is part of the longest recorded sermon that Jesus ever preached – a sermon we usually call the Sermon on the Mount. And in the portion I want us to look at, Jesus is going to preach a message to us that we all have to put into practice if we’re going to become more like him.

So let’s take a look at Matthew 5 together. We’ll start reading in verse 38, which says:

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

Matthew 5:38-48 (Common English Bible)

How do you overcome violence with mercy? How do you love instead of hate? How do you forgive instead of retaliating? Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to love our enemies. That’s the secret...but, as I’ve thought about what Jesus said and read and re-read these words dozens of times – there is one question that has constantly pervaded my mind: Is it possible? 

I mean, let's be honest here, these words sound great but could they really work in our world? 

I mean if we turned the other cheek, we'd just get hit again. If we handed over our shirt and our coat, then they'd just take our pants. If we went that extra mile, we'd be drug along for two or three more. If we tried to really love our enemies, we'd just be victimized by them over and over again.

So it may sound good to say we should turn the other cheek...but would that change anything? And it may be a good idea to love our enemies...but will that change anything, I mean they are our enemies for a reason.

But then it hit me, while I was coming up with complaints about why everything that Jesus said in this passage wouldn’t make a difference in our world, I was reminded that it already had. Someone had already put into practice every word that Jesus preached in Matthew 5, and I’m not talking about an Amish community in Pennsylvania, I’m talking about Jesus himself.

Do you remember a few weeks ago, when we were wrapping up our last sermon series, I asked you if you knew that you only had 24 hours left to live what would you do? Now, for most of us, we’d want to spend time with the people we love the most, we’d want to have the chance to do some of our favorite things one last time, and we’d probably want to spend some time getting right with God.

But do you know what Jesus did when he only had 24 hours left to live? When the person who was going to betray Jesus sat down to share Jesus’ Last Supper, Jesus didn’t run him off…Jesus ate with him. When Jesus was turned over to his captors, he willingly took horrific physical abuse. When his life was demanded of him, he willingly gave it. When the soldiers marched him to the Golgotha, he carried his own cross. But he didn't have to.

When Jesus was first struck by the whip, he could’ve seized it and struck back. When he was sentenced to die on the cross, he could’ve simply stepped down from it. When he was forced to carry his cross, he could’ve forced his captors to take up their own crosses as well. But he didn't.

Jesus turned the other cheek. Jesus went the extra mile. Jesus gave all that he had to give and more. Jesus greeted hatred with love. Jesus countered retaliation with forgiveness. Jesus overcame death with life. And we're expected to do the same.

And, believe me, I know how hard this all sounds. I know that all of this seems better in theory than it does in practice. I know that none of us want to be hit, or taken advantage of in any way. I know this all sounds impossible. 

But Jesus already showed us the difference it makes. Jesus showed us that if we love rather than hate, if we forgive rather than retaliate, if we give rather than take that this world can be changed.

But just because Jesus showed us it’s possible that doesn’t mean it’s easy...following Jesus never is. Following Jesus always challenges us to go farther than we want to go, and that’s exactly what Jesus challenges us to do in this passage.

Our initial reaction when someone hits us is to strike back...but if we want the world to change we have to change. So instead of striking back when someone lashes out, we have to be different. We have to turn the other cheek. 

When someone needs our help we may want to do the bare minimum...but if we want the world to change we have to change. So when someone is in need we need to give more than is required.

When someone is our enemy we may want to hate them...but if we want the world to change we have to change. So when someone hates us we should love them.

And if you and I start to change the way we behave, if we want to become who God wants us to be, then we have to stop being like the world around us and become more like the Jesus within us.

We have to stop being like the world around us and become more like the Jesus within us.

And as we become more like Jesus, we might just see the violent actions of an individual be overwhelmed by the love and forgiveness of a community. We might see our own hatred and anger be conquered by love. We might just learn to sit down at the table with our enemy and embrace each other with love.

When we start practicing what Jesus preached, we might just see our lives changed forever. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. But becoming more like Jesus will always be worth it.

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