Love your what?

Genesis 45.3-11, 15
Luke 6.27-38

After I finished my lecture Professor Jürgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’ It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called ‘četnik’ had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. ‘No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.’ — Miroslav Volf, Preface to Exclusion and Embrace


Perhaps you’ve heard this before: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Or so they say.

Joseph’s brothers were lucky he didn’t subscribe to that little piece of wisdom. They had thrown him into a hole, sold him to slave traders, and never expected to see him again. Years later, they were begging for food while he had risen to the top in Egypt. Now, they were at his mercy. Would there be any mercy, or would they get what they deserved? Would they get the reward for their dreadful actions toward Joseph, or could something else be born out of their situation?

Well, the story goes, Joseph treated them with grace. Unmerited favour. And Jesus today speaks about treating people with grace, even our enemies.

One of our kids came out from preschool after his first day there. His face was beaming, and I wondered what he would say to me about his day. Excitedly he said to me, ‘Dad, I made two […pause…] enemies today!’ I never did get to the bottom of that; but most of us like to think we don’t have any enemies. 

But suppose you do. Just suppose there’s someone in your past or present who’s tried to do you harm. To damage your reputation, or undermine you at work, or just dead-head your favourite flowers in the garden. It could be anything. Enemies don’t all come in one size or shape. They’re not necessarily obvious at first. 

(Maybe you really don’t have any enemies; but there may be people who annoy you, irritate you or rub you up the wrong way…)

Whatever the case, how as a follower of Jesus do you actually follow him when he says 

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Can we love our enemies? Apparently, Freud said that loving enemies was psychologically impossible. And in any case, the attempt would take too much energy. We’d be better off directing that energy towards our neighbours, those who deserve our love. And loving your neighbour is often hard enough, right?

Can we love our enemies? Freud says no, Jesus says we can. More than that: Jesus says we should love our enemies. Let’s explore that a bit further. 

We heard the story of Two Monsters earlier. When were the two monsters transformed from being enemies into friends? When they saw things from the viewpoint of the other. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Oh, now I get it! From your point of view it looks quite different!

I mean, this is part of life, surely. What do you see right now? All of you see me, but I don’t. I see the back window, but few of you do. Most of you see the organ pipes, but I can’t. We need to see things from the other’s viewpoint. 

Stops a lot of arguments.

But, you may say, if it were all that easy there’d be no need for a sermon. Maybe. 

Seriously, we could look at two dozen things about loving enemies; but let’s look at just two.

To love an enemy, we need to forgive them. And Jesus says we should pray for them too.

I’ve known people who were enemies of a kind. No one who’d try to do me real harm, but folk who’d actively undermine me. I found it hard to forgive them until I started praying for them.

What does Jesus say?

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Whatever else prayer does, it changes the pray-er. Praying changes the one who prays. When you pray for someone who has wronged you, you can’t stay in the same state of mind as you have been.

For a start, you begin to recognise more fully that this is a person who God loves. You may not be able to love them yet, but you can ask God to bless them. You may never really feel that you love them, but you can cooperate with the God who does.

After all, Jesus is more interested in what we do than how we feel: he says

Love your enemies—

but how do we show that love? We 

do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us.

Prayer changes the pray-er. 

One way I’ve found it changing me is to nudge me towards forgiving others who have hurt me. At least, toward realising I need to forgive them whenever I pray

Forgive us our sins
   as we forgive those who sin against us.

‘Forgive us our sins’, yes, that’s great Lord, thank you so much, but ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’? That’s taking this discipleship thing a bit far, isn’t it?

Years ago, when I was at theological college, I lent a family member several hundred dollars on the understanding that it would be paid back. Several hundred dollars we couldn’t afford at that time of our lives.

You probably guessed it: we didn’t get the money back. I was very angry until a friend counselled me to let the money go. So I forgave the debt, and in so doing my anger subsided.

That’s what forgiveness is in the New Testament: letting go of a debt. Not requiring a debt to be paid. Not seeking any payment or revenge or satisfaction.

Now, I have forgiven that person—I have cancelled the debt. But you know, there is a difference between letting go of a debt and trusting someone. I mean, I am never going to lend money to that person again. 

I’m not saying this person is an enemy. But I can forgive them without forgetting what has happened. 

Sometimes you can forgive an enemy, but you wouldn’t get involved with them again.

Sometimes, we can be reconciled to our enemies. That’s the ideal situation, and it’s what God has done for us in Christ:

in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Corinthians 5.19)

Reconciliation is the goal, which we may never achieve in this life. 

Forgiveness is the step before that. And just like a toddler’s first steps, it can be the hardest to make. 

I almost said forgiveness was the first step, but it’s not. The first step is to desire to be a child of God, who does what God does: God ‘is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked’ Jesus says. So:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

That’s the first step. Seek to desire to do what God does. And if you can’t do that, ask God to do it for you. Later, God may do it in you and through you. Ask the Spirit to make you a vessel she can use. 

The second step is to pray, to pray in a way that leaves your heart open to the ways of the Spirit of Jesus. Only then can we truly be changed. 

The third is to seek to forgive the person who has wronged you. To let go of the need to pay them back or get even.

The fourth is a gift: to find trust in your heart once more for that person. To be reconciled. You may or may not be given that gift in this life.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Spirit, open our hearts.

1 Comment

Filed under Epiphany Season, Prayer, RCL, sermon

One response to “Love your what?

  1. David C Brown

    All very testing; we can be thankful for Christ’s perfect example!

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