Cable Television or Table Fellowship

Lk. 6:27-38

If you have ever worked for someone who is abusive, a bully or immoral, if you have had violence done against you, if you have had someone try to destroy your livelihood and career, if you have had someone harm your children, if you have fought for your life, then you may find the words of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson at their worst scandalous, and at their best insulting and irrelevant. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” These are not the counsels of society and of the world. Not in our time and not in the time of Jesus.

Those who came to hear Jesus teach were defeated, occupied, captive and impoverished. How were they to live? How were they to deal with people? What were the principles of their community? Since the time of Moses the gift of the Jews to civilization was the Law, the Ten Commandments. That defined their way of life and defined them as a people. Did they perfectly keep the law? No. Did it define who they were? Yes. The prophets and the writers of Wisdom Literature made significant contributions as to how one lived with one’s neighbors and one’s enemies. Following the destruction of the Temple rabbinical Judaism arose. Through the synagogue and teaching of the rabbis there was knitted together a garment of law which was both ritually and practically helpful. This was the work of the Pharisees and the Sadduccees.

Over against this rich tradition of law, and to which He is deeply indebted, Jesus articulated a new perspective, a new way. That is the way of love, agape love. Agape love, as opposed to eros and philos (sex and brotherhood) is a love which is self-giving, gracious and full of mercy. This agape love is translated caritas (or charity) in Latin. But it is more than what charity means for us. It is compassionate, self-giving, merciful, redeeming love. Those who follow Jesus, who call him Lord, are to reflect the mercy and love which is seen in God. They are to reflect God’s image in their lives. Mercy and grace, agape, are to shape their lives and their community. Those who follow Jesus are to do this without trepidation or fear, because Jesus models love in His own life. He loves His enemies, does good to those who hate Him, blesses those who curse Him and prays for those who abuse Him.

It is clear that in today’s lesson Jesus, the prophet and healer, is engaged in teaching. He is giving precepts for living. How is His teaching to be interpreted? Do we literally take the shirt off our back and give it to someone who is trying to destroy us? Historically this teaching of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us has been interpreted as allegorical, eschatological (to be lived at the end of time) or fundamentalistically literal. There have been sociological and theological interpretations. In medieval times these teachings were considered to be counsels for perfection. During the reformation they were interpreted by the doctrine of the two kingdoms. For Luther they were an impossible ideal. In contemporary times there have been the theories of pacifisim, interim ethics and situational ethics. My own preference is that these are precepts and counsels for perfection.

The question that I ask is not how do I keep these commands in my lifetime, but what do these commands do? What is it that this teaching about love does? I would argue that this teaching shapes the community. Jesus’ teaching is meant to shape and to define His followers. In order for teaching to shape and to define a community it must be radical. It must set up boundaries. Jesus’ teaching is radical and it is meant to shape those who will gather around the table with Him during His earthly ministry and afterwards around the eucharistic table which was instituted at the time of the Last Supper (displayed over our altar). The teaching of love of enemies and of one another is modeled by Christ in His life and is continued by His followers as they live out His life in their lives. Radical obedience, radical love, sacrificial agape love cannot be separated from eucharistic fellowship. Hence we must maintain it, no matter how hard that is or how poorly we do so.

Now I want to tell you a story. Last week I was at a clergy conference. There were forty of us sitting in a room discussing “mutual ministry.” “Mutual ministry” is what my father used to call “being a good Christian.” It has to do with helping each other out. The leader was listing on newsprint those things that build community. We were brainstorming and everyone called out his/her idea. Love, neighborliness, necessity, etc. were offered. Now here at St. John’s we build fellowship through eating together on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, in addition to our eucharistic meal on Sunday. So I called out “table fellowship.” The leader misheard me and wrote down “cable television.” Everyone cracked up laughing at this “Freudian” slip. Obviously Christian community is not defined by cable television, but rather by table fellowship.

Driving back on Route 8, I realized that table fellowship and cable television were two good images which defined the communities in which we live, the Church and the world, the holy and the profane, the sacred and the secular.

Every month I make my tithe of $90 to Cablevision. It brings me a clear picture of Channel 2 plus the other networks, the History Channel, ESPN, Discovery Channel, The Movie Channel and a link for our computers. Like Ba’al the cable box sits on the Magnavox altar and blinks at us in the dark. The down side is that Cable Television is one dimensional and builds community through passivity. It reflects and defines the norms of our secular community. Yes it presents the virtues of loyalty, compassion, forgiveness and brotherly love. But it also glamorizes violence, deceit, and betrayal. Vengeance, retribution and “rough justice” are meted out. Slasher and horror films are presented as “entertainment,” fornication and adultery, lust and gratuitous sexual conduct are common. The community of Cable TV is homeocentric, not theocentric. The gods are Mars and Aphrodite. Justice is “Don’t get mad, get even.” The law of the jungle and of society is that of retaliation. The spell which Cable TV casts over its viewers reflects that which is at best amoral and at worse immoral. No wonder that in India following a recent earthquake the inhabitants of a village threw all their TV’s out of their windows because they thought that the TV’s brought an evil spirit to their community, prompting God to punish them by an earthquake!

Your and my primary community, the community of the baptized, is defined by Christ’s life and by His radical teachings. We share a fellowship that is defined and shaped by self-giving love, agape. We love one another because He loved us. We love our enemies because we are taught so to do, because that is what Christ did Himself, because by so doing we participate in His life, and because through love we reflect the image of God - an image of mercy and grace. We are not called to be spectators, consumers or exploiters. We are not called to be followers of self-help but rather of God’s help. We are not called to be homecentric but rather Christocentric.

You and I know that we are defined by the rules we live by. If we live by the rules of the world, by that which is negative and destructive, then we are already captive. If you and I live by our own laws, with Jesus as Lord, we have unplugged from that which is devaluing, destructive and negative. As Christians our lives and our community is built around the new commandments and new teaching which are embodied in Jesus Christ. Our focus is around a common meal which has been with us since the beginning. The teachings of Jesus to love one another radically enable table fellowship. They build community. They are outgoing and give forgiveness and grace to others. They define our lives and our community over against the secular world. You and I are in the world but not of it. You and I are asked to be fools for Christ sake. To witness to that which is redemptive, compassionate, and creative. You and I are not called to be simply fools or to be just plain stupid. We are called to live by a separate community in which our life is oriented around One who personifies this love and to whose table we are called. We find fellowship with Christ not through the fellowship of anger, or of feeling abused and discounted and victimized. We are called to unplug, turn off, walk away from that which is destructive and evil. We are enjoined not to live by the law of our persecutors, for when we do, we have already lost.

Jesus’ counsels to love one another and our enemies define our lives as we gather around the eucharistic table. You and I live out these counsels earnestly and as best we can, knowing that we are supported in love now in the fellowship of the baptized and eternally in the fellowship of the saints. Amen.