Sermon: Are You A First Mile Believer Or a Second Mile Disciple?
Scripture: Matthew 5: 38-42
Date: November 12, 2017
Now in all these years, I have probably preached on most of the really familiar passages of scripture and certainly I would consider this part of the Sermon on the mount to be a familiar passage but as I studied these verses, I realized that I have never preached on this passage before because I didn’t want to deal with it’s implications for my faith and witness, and my life. So I have essentially skipped over it. Because it is, I think one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus that we have.
Mark Twain once said: I have no problem with those parts of the Bible I don’t understand. It’s those parts of the Bible I do understand that gives me fits. This is one of those scriptures that I understand, but it gives me fits. It’s in the application, not the understanding that I struggle because I have come to know the dirty little secret of this part of Jesus’ teaching and that is that I have spent most of my life in the church and in the world being a first mile Christian, and that has limited my faith and witness. So we’re going to talk about what that means this morning. So strap on your running shoes, or perhaps your steel toed boots and let’s go. But first, we need to begin with prayer.
For several months I have been bombarded with people urging me to get back to the gym and a regular exercise routine. The SLT, and Staff Parish Team have encouraged me often to take better care of myself, as has Karen. And I feel a tinge of guilt when I see posts on Facebook about how far some of you run each day, or how many exercise classes you’ve completed because I know that I need to be doing those things. And every time I climb a staircase and feel a little winded when I get to the top, I know I need to do better. I know that for my health and outlook on life and my ministry among you, that I need to take better care of myself. But I always have excuses. I can’t get away from the church in the afternoon in time to go to the gym. My fitbit says that I should be taking 10,000 steps. Now I’m not sure how it settled on that number, but there are many days that I reach that number just in the course of my every day routine. And so, I think, I don’t need to do anything else because I’ve hit that 10,000 mark, all the while knowing that I’m really just kidding myself, that most of the steps I take in the course of the day would not really be considered exercise. And then I got an email from the YMCA the other day, saying that they were noticing that I hadn’t been there in a really long time and encouraging me to come back, you can’t get away with anything these days without someone looking over your virtual shoulder, and so I decided that it was time to make that a priority. So I went back to the gym this week. But boy am I sorry that I did. I didn’t realize just how out of shape I was. I had gained some weight, I had gotten soft in the muscles, and my stamina was diminished. When I was going regularly to the gym before I could easily walk three miles or more without much difficulty. But this week, I was lucky to make it a mile. The first day back I just thought I would pick up where I had left off, but I wasn’t long into a second mile before I just had to quit and come to the realization that I was going to have to build back up. That this was going to be harder than I thought. So now after the first week, instead of feeling great, I feel terrible. It feels like every muscle in my body is going against the culture and begging me to quit. And my mind is saying there’s no need to go any more than 10,000 steps which most days is about a mile in the gym added on to what I accumulate in the course of a regular day. Why go a second mile or a third. That’s much more than what is required of me. The temptation is always there to stop after the first mile. And so there is this constant tug of war between my heart that says I really need you to go the extra miles, and my mind that says, “Oh one mile is enough. It is after all, what is required of me.” I can do one mile with ease. It’s in going the second mile that things start to get tough. So it is in life and so it is with faith. But, you see, it’s in going the second mile that I really start to feel the difference in my life because it breaks down this attitude of being content, being comfortable with, in doing the bare minimum that is required of me. To get the naysayers off my back. It’s in going the second mile that my life really begins to change. It takes courage and commitment and perseverance and the ability to tolerate pain and discomfort to really change when it comes to exercise, but more than that when it comes to life and faith. Which brings us to this passage of scripture that I really have not wanted to deal with. Because I understand it, but I don’t want to believe it. Jesus is saying that going one mile in our faith is the easy way, but it is not really going to bring about a lot of change. It will not make anyone stand up and take notice. One mile is, what we said a couple of weeks ago Dietrich Boenhoeffer called “cheap grace”, “cheap faith.” It is faith that makes us feel good, as though we are doing what’s required of us, but it is really faith that seeks to conform to the things of this world, rather than faith that seeks to embrace the things of God, which most often run counter to the world. It’s in going the second mile that believers lives are changed into disciples and we are built up to become the agents of change we are called to be in our church and community and world. And this passage, this understandably troublesome passage, holds me accountable for all the times that I am content with doing just enough to get by in my faith walk.
Let’s back up a minute in this 5th chapter of Matthew, to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Because as I was beginning to read it again this week I noticed something that made this teaching a little more understandable for me. Here is how Matthew begins his account of this teaching of Jesus. Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. Now when I have read the Sermon on the Mount before I guess I have overlooked that introductory statement and just assumed that this sermon was delivered to the crowd that had followed him. But I’m not sure that’s what Matthew is saying here. The crowd has followed Jesus from Capernaum to the plains just outside of the town. The implication is that Jesus went there to escape the crowds but instead they followed Him. And so, Matthew says, He took His disciples up on the mountain to teach them. I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that this teaching then was directed towards the Disciples. In fact, Chapter four concludes with Jesus calling his first disciples. And so it would certainly make sense then that he would want to begin right away teaching them what was going to be expected of them as His Disciples. And Matthew seems to be saying that he separated them from the ever intrusive crowd who were not so much interested in what Jesus had to say to them as much as what He could do for them. You see most of those who made up the crowd believed Jesus to be a healer, a miracle worker. Heal me Jesus. Cast out my demons Jesus. Settle our disputes Jesus. We believe you can do it. We’ve seen you heal others. They wanted Jesus to touch their lives and when He did – most did not continue to follow him. They went back to the fields and the sheep and the fishing boats. But those He called to be Disciples were intended to be different. To be set apart. Unlike the believers who, after they got from Jesus what they sought, returned to their everyday lives, the intention was for these disciples to give up their lives. And so He separated them from the crowd and took them up the mountain where they could survey the crowd below and He began to teach them about the difference between being a part of the crowd, simply a believer based on what Jesus could do for them and a Disciple, who was willing to surrender his or her life to follow Him. These believers came seeking the blessing of life on this earth as defined by the priests and the law, but you as my Disciples will come to understand that the true blessings that I offer are not of the law, but they are of the Spirit. As my disciples you will not settle for the things of this world, or even the requirements of the law. Disciples are to be counter cultural, and church reformers and not tied to the law, but rather instruments of grace and changed lives. Believers are content to live under the blessings of the law, but Disciples live their lives beyond the law. Believers seek to live lives of comfort resting in the blessings of life. Disciples however live sacrificial lives that are more defined by discomfort than comfort. Lives that are made strong in their weaknesses. And blessed in their poverty. And joyful in their sorrow. Because disciples live lives of grace. Mere believers are always seeking grace, but disciples are always offering grace. You see, I believe that most of the Sermon on the mount is a teaching about the difference between mere believers and disciples. So, for instance if an enemy slaps you in the face, the law says that you should reply in kind. An eye for an eye. So those living under the law will be justified if they slap the enemy’s cheek in response. But to be my disciple, I expect so much more of you. I expect you to not retaliate against your enemy, and instead of slapping him or her back, offer your other cheek. Because that’s where love for others begins. Or if another sues you and takes you to court. And the court rules against you and requires that you pay restitution but you have no money, then according to the law you must give your clothes to settle or reconcile the debt. But a person’s coat was excluded from that requirement because the coat was the most valuable possession of most 1st century believers. For most the coat was essential for life. Not only did it protect them in their daily activities, but they wrapped up in at night to protect them from the rather harsh elements of the promised land. So the requirement of the law was that you should give your shirt, but never your coat. But Jesus says that Disciples should be ready to give up their coat too, if that’s what it takes to bring about reconciliation. Essentially to lay down your life because that’s where loving your enemy begins. And then the third thing he says, which is, I think kind of a summary statement for the whole sermon. Jesus says, If your enemy (more specifically a Roman soldier in that day) compels you to leave everything you are doing, no matter what it is and carry his pack for a mile, according to the law you must do it, but no more than a mile. But Jesus says, as My disciples, you must be ready and willing to go the second mile to serve even your greatest enemy. You see, I think that’s the essence of Jesus’s teaching here. The difference between believers who are under the law and disciples who move beyond the law to love and grace even towards our enemies, is in the second mile. Disciples are to be second milers. James Merritt writes this: One of the easiest things in the world to do is to become a Christian. It is ridiculously easy. All you have to do is confess you are a sinner, repent of your sin, believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin and was raised from the dead, and that if you surrender your life to Him as your Lord and Savior, you become a Christian immediately and instantaneously. There is not an easier thing in the world than to become a Christian. But at the same time, one of the most difficult things in the world is to be a Christian. Going the first mile is the easy part, but it’s in going the second mile when our faith get’s tough. And I understand that Jesus is calling on those of us who profess to be believers, to go beyond mere belief, to go the second mile. My problem is in the application. The call to discipleship is not a call to just become a Christian, it is a call to be a Christian. Not just to do the minimum of what is required of us, to go the first mile. The call to discipleship is a call to always go the second mile. You know I think part of what Jesus was thinking was that the problem with the church of his day, is that it was made up primarily of first mile people, trying to get by on the very minimum requirements and thereby not making much of a difference in the world and people’s lives. If you think about it, when the Priests and Pharisees attacked Jesus, it was not because He went the first mile. As long as He conformed to the law, they had no problem with Him. It was when He went the second mile and went beyond the law – healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sins, exercising demons – that they started to look for ways to silence Him. And I fear that Jesus would see the same thing about today’s church. We have many more first milers then we do second milers in not just the United Methodist Church, but in the Universal church as well. And so the reason I don’t like this passage is because it exposes me as more of a first miler rather than a second miler. I am too often content to do the minimum that I need to do to live well in today’s world, to look like a disciple, but too often I walk only the first mile and quit, rather than move into the second mile that leads to sacrifice and change. Disciples thrive, change lives and communities and indeed our world in going the second mile. But so many believers settle for the cheap faith that comes in the first mile of the journey and are comfortable with a faith that never moves beyond that first mile because it’s in going the second mile that our faith often gets costly. But it’s in the Second Mile that lives are truly changed.
Author Max Lucado tells about some people in his church that he calls “The Society of the Second Mile.” In one place he describes one of those second‑mile servants. “By profession he is an architect,” says Lucado. “By passion, a servant. He arrives an hour or so prior to each worship service and makes his rounds through the men’s restrooms. He wipes the sinks, cleans the mirrors, checks the toilets, and picks up paper off the floor. No one asked him to do the work; very few people are aware he does the work. He tells no one and requests nothing in return. He belongs to the Society of the Second Mile. “Another second‑miler serves in our children’s ministry,” writes Lucado. “She creates crafts and take‑home gifts for four‑year‑olds. Completing the craft is not enough, however. She has to give it a second‑mile touch. When a class followed the theme ‘Walking in the Steps of Jesus,’ she made cookies in the shape of a foot and invited them to walk the second mile with her.”
When you walk out of this sanctuary this morning you will see footprints on the floor. And those footprints will lead you to the Discipleship Fair where most of the ministries of St. Luke are on display, inviting you to be a second mile disciple. I hope you will take a few moments this morning to check out all of the second mile opportunities.