Matthew 5: 38-48 (Briarwood, February 2014).
Let us pray.
Startle us, O God, with your truth, and open our hearts and minds to your word, that hearing we might believe and trust you with our lives and submit our wills to your will; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Pray for those who persecute.
Love your enemies.
Says Jesus in Matthew 5: 44.
It’s a text that’s strange for us churches that usually follow the lectionary. The set of scripture readings shared by Christians in North America and around the world, each Sunday. The thing is that, because events like Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost are all tied up not strictly in our regular calendar, but are different dates every year, depending on where the moon is, it means the rotation of scripture texts in the lectionary that we often follow here at Briarwood, is such that this verse, Love your enemies, only shows up once every 10 years. Love your enemies.
Once every ten years, as scripture we read in church.
And I wonder, for a command like this one, in a world like ours,
is that enough?
Love your enemies.
This little verse, by far the toughest commandment Jesus gives us, is surrounded in a section in the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been studying together this month, and finish with today; it is surrounded in a section of verses where Jesus, as he typically does in this his longest sermon, undermines the accepted understanding of being faithful to God and the law, and extends, a little, or in this case, a lot, further, into something nothing short of cause for a revolution. In this section, Jesus questions the law of retaliation, a law so deeply ingrained in our society even today, that it’s still hard to imagine that Jesus is actually asking us to drop it, to reverse it. No longer, he says, an eye for an eye. But turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Lend to whoever asks.
Do not retaliate.
You see in Jesus’ time, it was a major insult to slap someone in the face. Usually with the back of your hand. Do remember the journalist throwing his shoe at George, was it in Iraq? Major insult. A slap to the face meant that you could, by Jewish law, take someone to court and have them fined one whole year’s wages. And Jesus says to that law…..turn the other cheek.
In Jesus’ time, the Romans ruled the land of Israel. Their soldiers were always traveling. Cohorts reassigned. On this mission or another. And the Romans had instituted a law that said they could legally ask, it was within their rights, to demand a Jewish person to carry their something for them, 1000 paces. And to that law Jesus says….go also the second mile.
Turn the other check. Go the extra mile. Lend to whoever asks.
Do not retaliate. The law. That way of interacting. Is over.
There is a new way now. An extension. Something more, deeper, that is to guide not only things like violence, oppression, finances, and our responses to people in them. And the new way is called love.
And at the pinnacle of this part of his sermon. At the centre of his teaching on the old law fulfilled. Jesus teaches this:
Love (even) your enemies.
Now I don’t know what we think of when we think of enemies. Maybe we think of war, and people in uniform. Maybe we think of a movie that has pitted the bad guys against the good guys. Maybe we think of a neighbour we once had. Who just kept parking their lawn tracking, a little bit over on our side of the lawn. The Jews had enemies. We’re talking about people who burned down their temple. We’re talking about people who made fun of them in public. We’re talking about people who treated them, in Jesus’ time, as second or third class citizens in their own land. People who would make them carry things, just b/c they could. Like Simon was made to carry the cross of Christ. But they had enemies. Who were mean and unjust and unforgiving and terrible to them.
Think just for a minute, about some one or some group in our lives or in the world, that we dislike. Or, even hate. Think of that person or group for a minute. If they have harmed us in any way, Jesus isn’t saying to roll over and let them do it again. Turning the other cheek meant you didn’t strike back and protected the same cheek from getting hit again. Jesus isn’t saying become a door mat to those who show us hate. Or violence. He doesn’t say ‘forgive’ your enemies. As we think of that person or group in our lives that we might call our enemies; Jesus invites us simply to love them.
It is the only law that matters. It is the only way to seeing God’s kingdom in our midst and our earth. It is the only thing on which we can build a good and holy and life-filled family, home, world or church.
Love your enemies.
And the kind of love that Jesus is talking about, is clearly not a love that depends on what the other – the enemy – is like. It is a love that is independent of everything. It is a love that is unconditional. A kind that will and does swallow up hate. And will and does prevent animosity from eating us up and taking over. It is a love that underlies everything Jesus is talking about and does.
To love not only our neighours but also our enemies.
And friends it is without conditions that Jesus goes to the cross.
Our greatest enemy, the Bible teaches, is sin. Our own personal enemy, and the brokenness that we see in our world, the enemy of justice, peace and truth, is sin. We don’t talk about sin much. I once met a theology professor in Cambridge and I asked him what his next book was going to be about, what research he was doing. He said, Oh, I’m working on sin!
Its presence in our lives and in our world, affects everything. And Jesus doesn’t command us to love sin – our enemy – but he does command us to love the people and groups and countries affected by it to the point that we see them as enemies. You see sin is what pulls apart. What isolates. What leaves human beings alone and empty and broken. Love your enemies is Christ’s injunction that our lives as his followers don’t stop at the easy. But that the injunction to love extends right through every aspect of our lives, even to our enemies, and has the power to transform us and people in Christ’s love.
This is why Jesus, in a sense, takes on sin, in the form of enemies and oppressors, who nail him to a cross. We see Jesus in this state, not lashing out though he could. But we see him on the cross in unconditional love absorbing the pain and sin of our lives and of our world; eventually showing us victory over it.
His command to us: Love your enemies — is something we are able to do in the power of his cross shaped love. And in the assurance that God loves us unconditionally in Jesus.
John Buchanan, on November 4th, 2011, just three months after 9/11, quoted President Dwight Eisenhower in a sermon, in words that sound surprisingly immediate. He said, “Down the long lane of history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, growing ever smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and must, instead, be a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect” (See Joanne Adams, 23 September 2001. Trinity Presbyterian Church, Atlanta).
Buchanan said, We find ourselves living in a difficult time, a time quite unlike any we have lived in before. And we, you and I, and all of us, must decide how we will live–in fear and hate or in trust and respect.
Love, trust and respect of each other with it, is Christ’s injunction to us.
“Let love be genuine,” Paul said, “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor…. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Do not repay anyone evil for evil. And, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We’ve spent this month on the sermon on the Mount and we’ve only scratched the surface.
But here is a modern day summary of that sermon, first touching on the beatitudes, that brings, I think, a lot of it,
“Our happiness is all mixed up with each other’s happiness
and our peace with each other’s peace.
Our own happiness, our own peace
can never be complete until we find some way of sharing it
with people who the way things are now
have no happiness and know no peace.
Jesus calls us to show this truth forth,
live this truth forth.
Be the light of the world,
Where there are dark places, be the light
Be the salt of the earth.
Bring out the true flavour
of what it is to be alive truly.
Be truly alive.
Be life-givers to others.
That is what Jesus tells his disciples to be.
That is what Jesus tells his Church, tells us,
to be and do.
Love each other.
Heal the sick, he says.
Raise the dead.
Cleanse the lepers.
Cast out demons.
That is what loving each other means.
If the Church is doing things like that,
then it is being what Jesus told it to be.
If it is not doing things like that
- no matter how many other good
and useful things it may be doing instead –
then it is not being what Jesus told it be to.
It is as simple as that.” (Frederick Beuchner)
And O yes,
a whole lot of Christ’s sermon
comes to head in this command:
Love your enemies.
Gregory Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity school, shares an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. “Jayber is a barber in Port William, Kentucky, who interacts with a variety of people as they come to his barbershop. He struggles to get along with Troy Chatham, an acquisitive agribusinessman whom Jayber thinks is destroying the land in their county. To make matters worse, Troy has married Mattie, the woman whom Jayber has secretly admired for several years.
It is the late 1960s, and divisions in America over civil rights and the Vietnam war have emerged in Port William. Troy is a fierce supporter of the U.S. government’s policies, including the war. One evening in the barbershop, Troy starts talking about how much he hates the war protesters.
“They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. . . .
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”
I said, “Jesus Christ.”
And Troy said, “Oh.”
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.” “
In the name of Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.