Love your enemy. Really.

February 19, 2017

Bible Text: Matthew 5:38-48 |

So we’re back to the Sermon on the Mount.

As I said last week – Jesus’ teaching in this sermon is tough stuff. His standard is high, high, high. And like last week, I repeat again: I do not believe that this high standard should be read as a measuring stick for your failure. Rather, it’s a beacon. It’s Jesus’ invitation to us: “This is what the Kingdom of God is all about. Set your eyes on this goal and seek it with purpose and integrity.”

This week, I’m sorry to say, Jesus’ instructions are even more bleak than last week:

If someone hits you, turn the other cheek. Give them a clear shot to hit you again.

If someone is suing you, voluntarily give them more than they’re asking for.

If you’re being forced to walk one mile, walk two!

Love your enemies, and desire good for those who desire your destruction.

Why? Why on earth would this be good? Why would this be considered “wisdom” and not outright foolishness?

Well, the answer quickly follows. Why should we do all these things?

So that you may be children of your father in heaven (Matthew 5:45).

Now you might be tempted to interpret this as, “so that you, having passed an agonizing test, may be rewarded by God and granted entrance into heaven.” But I don’t think Jesus is saying that. I think he means, “so that you, as God’s children, would live as your father in heaven lives.”

Do you see the difference? It’s not a pass/fail test. Rather, it’s the sign that we are living out our true identity as children of God, by living as God lives, going to extreme measure to avoid participating in any form of evil – even to the point of suffering.

But that begs another question: Do we really believe that God lives this way? Certainly God doesn’t do evil. But does God suffer? Does God turn the other cheek? get sued? Don’t we tend to picture God as, “Mr. Above It All,” high in the heavens, safe in his godliness? Even if we picture God as being engaged in our lives with compassion, don’t we see him as unaffected by it all – like a doctor wearing scrubs to protect herself from our infection? How can we say that God turns the other cheek or gives up his clothes or walks an extra mile?

Well, let’s start with Jesus. It’s no coincidence, that later in this same gospel, Matthew uses such careful language to describe the passion of Christ:

When he was arrested and brought before the high priest, it says Jesus was both “struck” and “slapped” – as if to emphasize that Jesus was turning the other cheek (Mt. 26:68).

We’re told that he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and forced to walk to the high priest’s residence in Jerusalem (which is, coincidentally, about one mile). And from there he walked again, first to Pilate’s palace and then on to Golgotha.

As for his clothes, Jesus was stripped multiple times: first, when they wanted to mock him by replacing his clothes with a scarlet robe (Mt. 27:28). When they were done with their little joke, they took their robe back and returned his clothes to him (Mt. 27:31), only to strip him again a short while later, at the actual crucifixion, when they cast lots to see who would get to keep his garments for himself (Mt. 27:35). The point being: without resistance he gave up all his clothing – all his dignity – and died naked for the world to see and mock.

Surely Matthew intends us to see that Jesus lived out his own teaching with absolute literalness. And if we believe that Jesus is God incarnate – fully human, fully divine – then we must believe that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is not simply “naïve ideals,” but  – in fact – a depiction of how God does live.

But again, you might think, “Okay, so at one point in time, two thousand years ago, God – through Jesus – suffered. But that was only once. Isn’t God now removed from all suffering?”

Perhaps. After all, who am I to say what it’s like for God to be God? Surely it’s beyond human comprehension.

But more and more I am coming to believe that part of God’s experience of being God is an actual participation in our suffering. Jesus taught us that God is in us and that we are in God. And I suspect that this union with God has far deeper consequences than we often consider. Elsewhere he taught that whenever we alleviate the suffering of the poor, we are doing it to Jesus himself. So all this adds to my growing belief that when we suffer, when we stagger under the weight of depression, when cancer wracks our bodies in pain, when our marriages fail, then God, who is one with us, is suffering along with us – not just with a detached pity – but with actual pain.

Which is all to say, that God does turn the other cheek wherever and whenever someone suffers abuse. That God does give up the cloak wherever and whenever someone is robbed of their possessions and their dignity. That God does walk the extra mile in every dangerous step that a refugee takes when fleeing a war zone.

So, yes, I believe God does suffer, quite literally.

But before I can exhort you to fling yourself into suffering, the question still presses: “Why? Why, God, would you live this way? Why, with all your power and with all your resources, would you choose this path?”

Why?

It is rooted in love. God is no masochist. God takes no pleasure in suffering of any sort. Where there is any form of evil, God will not become participant in it. Rather, God’s eyes are set on the path of love – a love completely void of any discrimination.

And so Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” And here’s Jesus point I want you to see, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

God blesses without distinction – sending rain to godless farmers and sunshine to warm the backs of criminals. Our behavior, our sinfulness, our atheism….none of it is a barrier to God’s love. You and I distinguish. We decided who’s worthy or not, and then we try to ascribe that same spirit to God. But it’s not true. God’s sunshine and rain take no notice of boundaries and fences. It comes at too vast a scale for such narrow partitions.

And Jesus teaches us that we are the children of God. If we’re going to take that identity at all seriously, then we have got to figure out a way to change. So pay attention to the direction Jesus gives us here. He doesn’t just say, “Poof! Love everyone! Wasn’t that simple?” No. He begins with this step: “Pray for those who persecute you.”

He knows that loving our enemies is about the most difficult thing he could possibly ask of us. So start with prayer.

There are two things I believe about prayer. The first is that, through God, there is an interconnectedness between us and the rest of creation that is far more real than we believe. So that, when we pray through God, there is real consequence to these relationships in which we are made. My second belief is that prayer changes us. And it is often through prayer that we take our first steps in forming a Christ-like heart.

You might not be able to bear being in the presence of your ex-husband, after all he did, little lone do something nice for him. But you can pray for his good. In the silence and safety of your room, you can say, “God, he also is your child, whom you love as much as you love me. You know what is best for him. And I choose to pray, bless him. Bless him, God.” In praying such a prayer you are setting your heart towards a greater belief that in God’s redeeming, no one is left out. You are not asking God to choose him over you, but with you, in re-creating a world where truth has mingled with mercy – where our true selves can emerge from the wreckage, finally revealed as the children of God.

Likewise, in this era of political animosity, where hatred is masquerading as righteousness, you can disagree mightily with someone’s politics, but you cannot hate them. We must do whatever we can to avoid vilifying and mocking those on the other side of the aisle. In fact, we must take steps to love them. And the first step is prayer. Pray for them. Pray for their good, and trust that the God who loves them, who knows them through and through, will interpret your prayer to their edification.

What we’re describing is the deliberate first step we must take if we are to join God in loving without distinction. And God knows this isn’t easy. It’s so much tastier to keep feeding our mockery and disdain, with dish upon dish, until we are bloated with self-righteousness and indignation.

Stop it. Lent is coming. It’s time to fast from such gorging, and find our seats instead at the banquet table of God where, it turns out, our enemies have also been given a seat.

It starts with prayer, which is why one of our Lenten programs this year will be a series of guided meditations that walk us through layer after layer of love. It starts with ourselves, then moves on to our families and loved ones, then on towards those whom we generally don’t think of at all, and then to those we dislike, perhaps whom we would even classify as our enemy, and then on to the entire world. Every Sunday during Lent, at 9am in the chapel downstairs, we’ll pray through this meditation together, with the deep soul hope that it will help form us into the nature of Christ.

What else are we doing in church if not to become changed?

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:46-48).

Let’s do this together. Let’s take our first step towards loving without boundary. Nothing is more worthy for the people of God.

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