Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 24 February 2019
Readings were Psalm 37: 1-11, 20-22 and Luke 6.27-38
‘Love your enemies’ Jesus says.
To take that literally is surely one of the strangest, most counter-intuitive pieces of advice possible. It’s certainly honest about the fragmented nature of the human condition, and the discord we feel between us.
Which is why this instruction is also extraordinarily aspirational.
Love your enemies. Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
What happens when we do that? Isn’t there a risk people latch onto that? And take advantage of us?
Most churches I know are pretty careful about handing out money. When someone comes by the Church Office asking for $20 for petrol to get back up north to see a sick mother, I admit I am often suspicious that they are going from one church to the next with the same story. In fact, here in the city, we will sometimes email each other to warn there could be a ‘frequent flier’ attempting to exploit the goodwill of the churches.
What’s happened…? This isn’t following Jesus’ instruction, is it? Perhaps you have responded in ways similar at times.
Jesus’ words are unambiguous. Over the centuries we’ve diluted Jesus’ words, because we resist being exploited by those who prey on generosity. We avoid the risk of being ‘chumps’.
In the story of Les Misérables there is a Bishop who showed grace toward someone who was ripping him off. The Bishop is a memorable character because of his amazing act of grace. A recently-released prisoner Jean Valjean is invited to stay the night in the Bishop’s house as his guest. During the night, Jean Valjean steals some silver candlesticks from the Bishop, and flees. And when Jean Valjean is apprehended and returned to the Bishop’s residence, the Bishop behaves counter-intuitively. He tells the arresting officers that he had given Jean Valjean the candlesticks, and proceeds to give Jean Valjean more silverware to put in his swag bag. As the Bishop sends Jean Valjean on his way, he blesses him telling him the silver is to redeem him:
I have bought your soul for God.
The Bishop takes the risk being a ‘chump’. And if you know the arc of the story, you’ll know that, by loving his enemy this way, the result is transformation and multiplied blessings.
What you may not know about the Bishop – because this part of his story is only in the book and not the film – is that before he welcomed Jean Valjean into his house, he’d had a transformative experience of his own. There was an old man dying in his parish – an atheist and hater of the church institution – whom the Bishop had avoided visiting out of prejudice. Eventually, and reluctantly, the Bishop visited the dying man to grant him a blessing.
In that encounter they talk honestly about God and about truth, and the Bishop comes away recognising he is the one who has been blessed. He got something he wasn’t expecting; he can see it’s not always simple to decide what is right and wrong; who are ‘goodies’ and who are ‘baddies’.
Through this encounter the Bishop’s faith has grown in complexity and depth. The Bishop has been a recipient of grace. And so when Jean Valjean comes along, the Bishop is able to give grace.
Anyone can love those who love them – how about loving those who are against you? Jesus teaches us to love our enemies because to do this is to live out our God-created identity, the way God lives toward us – generously and graciously.
Jesus teaches us to love our enemies because he wants us to pass on what we have received. Jesus says:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (v36)
Jesus knows God the Father is merciful and loving toward humanity. This is why Jesus in born into the world! Jesus comes to bring the transforming grace of God. He comes to do something radically new with ‘enemies’.
In today’s Psalm the talk about enemies is quite typical for how the Psalmists cry out to God to deliver God’s people from their enemies (or even destroy their enemies).
Jesus comes to destroy enemies – but in a completely new sense. By dying on the cross, Jesus has destroyed his enemies in a way that is more wonderful, redemptive and eternal. By grace his enemies are destroyed – they are forgiven and redeemed to the extent they are no longer enemies.
Presbyterian Minister, Timothy Keller, says:
We are saved by a man who died loving his enemies
On the cross Jesus destroyed all in us that was an enemy toward God. This means, on the cross, Jesus has destroyed our enemies too.
In the Kingdom of God (that Jesus proclaimed) there are no enemies – but rather peace with God and one another. And this is the wholeness and fulfilment God intends for humanity. We know that God’s Kingdom is with us (Jesus told us this “The Kingdom of God is at hand”); and we also know the full reign of God’s Kingdom is yet to fully arrive.
Where does this leave us then? Well, most of us, if we’re honest, probably can think of people we might regard as enemies – be they far away oppressive dictators – or ordinary people much closer to home. Jesus’ teaching that we hear today, then, is for US – NOW.
We can join in what Jesus is doing, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We can be builders of the Kingdom with Jesus. We can be part of dismantling the scaffolding of making and keeping enemies. You do this, Jesus says, whenever you:
love your enemy
do good to those who hate you
bless those who curse you
pray for those who abuse you.
Whenever you turn the other cheek
and give more to those who take from you.
We may risk being ‘chumps’. But if we take the risk, we’re in good company. We’re in-step with God.
By loving our enemies, we plunge right into the grace given to us by Jesus on the cross.
And we can rightly expect to see the world transformed by such extraordinary, aspirational grace.
Let us pray…