Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – February 24th, 2019

Text: Luke 6:27-38 New International Version (NIV)

Love for Enemies

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Judging Others

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

How do you feel when you hear these words? What thoughts flash through your mind when you hear Jesus say “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you”?

Most people, myself definitely included, immediately think of all the times when they did not love their enemies and did not do good to them, did not bless those who hate them or curse them, or all the rest.

These are tough words. They go completely against the grain. Yet these are the words of Jesus himself, so we can’t ignore them.

On the other hand, how are we to deal with them?

Most often, people like you and me hear these words, realize that we’re not measuring up, and flog ourselves mentally for however long it seems necessary to do so, and then we grit our teeth and firmly resolve to do better. This might work, but only for a while, because in the end, we can’t escape the thought that what Jesus is saying seems to express an idealism that is totally unrealistic and unattainable.

It just doesn’t work that way in the “real world”, does it? We live today in a world where bad things happen, often, it seems, to the innocent. Are these things not to be avenged? Shouldn’t there be justice?

Justice, yes. Vengeance, no.

This is where Jesus’ words fit in. In the original – not in today’s reading – the passage begins: “I say this to you who are listening.” In order to understand what Jesus is really saying to us, we have to put aside our prejudices and assumptions and really listen to what he is saying. This passage, in particular, is one where we can’t help but react emotionally, so we need to try doubly hard to set those prejudices and assumptions aside.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” How? We may feel that following this teaching means trying to do something which is totally beyond our human capacity, something that would not only require a tremendous amount of willpower, but which would only encourage “those people” to behave even worse. In the Old Testament, after all, hatred of evildoers is presumed to be the right attitude to have.

But here Jesus – incredibly, unbelievably, shockingly – extends love to the enemy and the persecutor.

This is the core of Jesus’ teaching, which he himself practiced. The Golden Rule which is often expressed as “Do not do to others what you would not want them do to you” is expressed here in positive terms.

The first big hurdle is the word “love.” It’s a hurdle, because there is no other word in the English language, or any other language, for that matter, which carries more “baggage.” For us, love is a very emotional word, implying both affection and intimacy. When we think of love, we almost always think in terms of “being in love with someone”, or “being attracted to someone.” But Jesus is not telling us to be “in love” with our enemies. He is not even telling us to like them. The Greek verb which the gospel uses is agapao (‘agapaw) from which the noun agape (‘agaph) comes. Agape [pronounced ‘ah-gah-pay’] is a special kind of love. It is not the love between spouses, nor the love of close friends, nor even the love we give our children. It is, rather, an attitude of positive regard towards other people, an attitude where we wish for others’ well-being, whoever they are, wherever they are.

A radical concept indeed. Yet this is exactly the love that God has for us. It is a one-sided love, because God doesn’t expect us to return it. God reaches out in infinite love to every single person without exception. God wishes every person to experience that love; God wishes the fullest well-being of every single person. That love of his is often not returned; it is, in fact, often rejected or ignored.

But still it continues unabated, unchanged, like the love of the father in the story of the prodigal son, whose heart has been broken, but who yet waits for his boy to come back. The father continued to love that son even in his lowest and most sordid moments of debauchery and degradation. That same love was given even to the people who were nailing Jesus to the cross. Even as those hammer blows struck home, he prayed for them, that they might be forgiven and that they might come to a realization of just what they were doing.

If we look at it this way, loving our enemies seems reasonable, if sometimes hard to achieve – yet it is not only not impossible, but really the only thing, to do.

Who, then, are our enemies? Generally speaking, they are the people who wish us ill, who even might try to harm us in some way. It’s been said that all of us are at one time or another just props in someone else’s personal play; and, just like props in a play, we have no value beyond how we can be used. Our injuries at their hands, whether unintentional or intentional, are just the result of their following their plotline.

There are two general ways we can deal with such people. We can set out to take revenge on them, which is the world’s way. Or we can try and work to turn them around. That is God’s way.

But that is hard. It is hard because we tend to focus too much on ourselves and our own immediate needs and overlook the needs of others. To love as God loves is to focus more on others. This does not mean that we need to live our lives in a constant state of servile self-abasement. Quite the opposite: We can only do this if we have a strong inner sense of security and self-acceptance. Then we are not too worried about what people say about us or do to us.

Then, too, we are freed to turn our attention more directly to the one who is hating or harming. We can begin to ask “why do they feel they have to act in this way?” What is hurting inside them that drives them to such behavior? Already, just by thinking like this, we are beginning to care for our enemy and beginning to love him or her; we are, to paraphrase the Native American words of wisdom, now “walking a mile in the moccasins” of the other person.

And isn’t this a much better solution to the problem? To bring peace back into that person’s life and initiate a healing process in them and between them and me.

Jesus is not at all asking us to do something “unnatural”. We do not naturally want to hate or be hated. We want to love and to be loved. We see many parts of the world where – for years – there has been a process of hatred and retaliation in a never-ending spiral of vengeance and loss of life.

The only way to break this cycle is to follow Jesus’ advice. It is not a lose-lose or lose-win situation; it is a win-win situation where everyone benefits.

Perhaps words of the late Mother Teresa are appropriate here:

“Love, to be true, has to hurt. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no love in me and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.”

To put Jesus’ teaching into effect is not a matter of strengthening our will to do something very difficult, but to change our conventional thinking, to adjust our attitude, at the deepest level, to see things his way. Once we do that, it becomes much easier.

Jesus’ application of this teaching also has been the subject of much mockery. “To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too.” In our “eye-for-an-eye” world, that’s just too much. It just seems to be a sign of weakness.

That is not Jesus’ – which is to say God’s – viewpoint. Turning the other cheek, as it is presented here, is not at all an act of weakness. It requires great courage and great inner strength and an awareness that the one who strikes is the one who is really weak. It is easy to lash out at another person by word or act. It is easy to hit back; it is almost an instinctive reaction; but it is not the truly human response.

To hit back is to reduce oneself to the same level as one’s attacker and it solves nothing in the long run. Deliberately and calmly not to hit back is to refuse to be that prop in the other person’s play. It is to break the cycle and change the level of the playing field and move it to a higher level – the level of mutual respect and human dignity.

Jesus set the example when he was struck on the face during his trial. During the whole degradation of the Passion his dignity shines out in stark contrast to the pathetic posturings of his judges and tormentors. Jesus exemplifies the principle: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” There really is nothing harder, nothing that shows more courage, nothing that showcases inner strength more than not reacting in the same way as those who persecute you. As Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what thanks can you expect?” No, we will not react simply in the way others deal with us.

As followers of Christ, we see things in a completely different way and we want to behave differently. We believe that not only do we personally benefit from following Jesus’ way but that others too will benefit and may even come to our point of view.

Finally, Jesus calls us to follow the model of God himself: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” In Matthew’s gospel it is, “Be perfect as…” The meaning is the same: our perfection consists in our empathetic reaching out in compassionate agape to every single person. And, through us, the compassion of God can then be experienced by people.

We are not to judge or condemn others. We are to forgive. Then we will not be condemned and will in turn receive forgiveness.

The emphasis is on reaching out to others rather than gathering for ourselves, being turned in on our little, insecure selves. “Give, and there will be gifts for you.” The one filled with the spirit of Christ has nothing to lose, nothing to be ashamed of. Life consists in what we are able to give and not what we can get. “The amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.”

And that, above all, applies to agape. Every one of us here can give an endless supply of that!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.