My sermon title is the question that this text raises. The passage begins with a direct command from Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” What follows from that initial command are several specific examples of how this can play out in the culture of that day and time. Luke first offers some examples along the line of what we might think of as nonviolent protest. Standing back up and offering the other cheek after being slapped in humiliating fashion by someone in power would have been an act of nonviolent protest. The same can be said about taking off ones shirt, after someone in power has taken one’s coat. But then Luke talks about giving to those who beg. Perhaps the reason they are begging is because they have been stripped of necessities by those in power. At any rate, I want to focus today on the initial command: Love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them.
I don’t know of any text that is more ignored by Christians than this one. Of course, no matter how much we ignore it, it won’t go away. Having grown up in church, I can’t ever remember a sermon on this text. The Baptist church I attended didn’t follow the Lectionary so it was easy for the preacher to pick the texts he liked and were easy to preach. However, if we are followers of Jesus we cannot ignore this text, because this text gets at the very heart and core of the gospel of Jesus.
An enemy would be anyone who wishes or actively pursues ways of hurting and harming us personally, or hurting and harming the people we most care about – our family and friends. Jesus tells us to love them, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them. How, in heaven’s name, is it possible to do this? I will have to be honest with you. I don’t have this down. I struggle with this. I would love to just ignore it. I’m tempted to throw my hands up in the air and say, “Jesus really didn’t expect us to do this.” But that would be an illusion. That would be a lie. Jesus does indeed expect for us to do this. This gets to the very core of what Jesus is about and what he reveals about God.
In one sense we have all acted as enemies of God. For anytime we fail to pray, bless, and do good to another human being, we are failing to love God. Anytime we hurt another human being we are hurting God. Because God lives in every person. God’s Spirit resides in every human life whether that person knows it or not. When we hurt another human being, we are hurting God. When we turn our back on someone in need we are turning our back on God.
I struggle with this command to love my enemies, and because of that I struggle to follow Jesus, because this is what Jesus is about. But I have to struggle with it. I have no choice. And it’s not because I’m a preacher. It’s because I profess to be a follower of Jesus. And if you profess to be a follower of Jesus, then you have to struggle with this too. If you don’t struggle with this, then you are not really a disciple of Jesus. You might be a Christian. You might be a church member. You might be good to your family. You might be a respected member of your community. But if we don’t struggle to obey this teaching, then we are not a disciple of Jesus. This gets to the very heart of the life and teaching of Jesus.
And the early followers of Jesus understood this. Paul, in his letter to the Romans says that all of us were reconciled to God through the death of Jesus while we were enemies (Rom. 5:10). Now, I’m not going to try to go into how that works for that would be another sermon. My point, however, is that because we have all hurt other people in some form or fashion we are all enemies of God, and yet God loves us, and has acted to reconcile us to God’s self even while we were in the very state of enmity against God. So this is the gospel. We have no choice but to try as best we can to love our enemies. If we don’t, then let’s be honest, and not claim to be a follower of Jesus. So this is my first point by the way. We have to love our enemies. Or at the minimum, we have to take this seriously and struggle with loving our enemies, even if we are not very good at it.
Now, my second point. As I act to love my enemies, I may discover that through my action, God is able to get through to my heart. If I can get my body, my hands and feet to actually do some good things for my enemy, and my mouth to actually bless my enemy, and my mind to actually pray for my enemy, God’s Spirit may be able to access my soul and my will, my mind and my heart and actually change me on the inside. Richard Rohr likes to say that more often than not, we are not changed, we are not transformed by thinking or feeling our way into new ways of living, new ways of acting and being. Rather, Rohr says, we act our way into new ways of thinking and feeling and being. If you think that you have to somehow feel love in your soul before you love your enemies, you will never love your enemies. However, if you start acting in positive ways to pray for your enemies, to bless your enemies, to do good to your enemies, you might begin to realize that the more you act, the more you do, the more you pray, the more you bless, the more heart changes, the more your soul is being transformed.
And this brings me to my last point. We can’t love our enemies on our own. The only way we can love our enemies is by trusting and allowing God to love in us and through us. The only way we can truly love our enemies is by relinquishing our ego and by letting the Divine Spirit of Love fill us and flow through us.
According to Luke Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, how big is that? Even people who do not respect God’s character and passion do as much. They love those who love them. But if you love your enemies your reward will indeed be great, for your reward will be that you will be like your Creator. You will demonstrate to the world that you are the children of God, because this is what God is like. God loves everyone. God is kind and gracious to the ungrateful and the wicked.” So Jesus says, “Be merciful to your enemies, just the way your Father in heaven is merciful.”
God wants to draw everyone to God’s self, because a part of God lives in every human being. John Philip Newell, in the late 1980’s, with his wife and kids moved to the Western Isles of Scotland where Dr. Newell became the spiritual warden of Iona Abbey, a modern day religious community committed to nonviolence and justice. Since the sixth century, Iona has been a place of pilgrimage to which countless numbers of women and men have come seeking new beginnings in their lives. Early in their time at Iona Dr. Newell overheard a conversation between his son, who was five, and his older sister, who was 7. His son asked his sister, “Where is God?” His sister replied, “God is in our heart.” His son then replied, “So, God goes beat, beat, beat.” Dr. Newell says that whenever he is asked to say one thing about spirituality he quotes his son, “God goes beat, beat, beat.” Dr. Newell points out that God “is the very heart beat of life, the Soul within our soul, the Presence without whom where would be no present.”
Dr. Newell says sadly that today as a young man his son is often unable to hear the beat at the heart of life. In his late teens he suffered a severe mental breakdown that holds him in a type of imprisonment to anxiety and at time paranoia. As Dr. Newell and his family have come to live with his son’s mental illness, he has come to see that the illness is not just his son’s illness or theirs as a family. It certainly is his son’s illness as his son battles fear in almost every moment and every relationship. But it is not limited to his son. And it is not limited to their family. Dr. Newell points out that the fears his son experiences are the fears that drive our nation, our society, and our lifestyles. Dr. Newell says this, “I have come to believe that my son will not be truly well until we are all well, and that we [all the rest of us] will not be truly well until my son and others like him are well. Our healing belongs inextricably together.”
We should intuitively know this. As parents we are not truly well if our children are hurting are we? As a nation, we can never be well as long as other nations are suffering. Even as a human species, we will never be healed and whole as long as the creation is infected and fragmented. You see, wellness and wholeness, healing and liberation is not found in isolation, but in relationship. It can only be found when enemies become friends.
Loving our enemies does not mean we surrender to injustice. We must fight injustice. We must contend for what is right and good and just. But we do not fight hate with hate. We do not meet violence with violence. We love our enemies so God might have a little window to shine God’s light into the darkness of fear and prejudice and hate.
No one will ever say what is needed better than the way Martin Luther King, Jr. said it in a sermon written in a Georgia jail and preached just after the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. King says, “Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.’”
Now, Dr. King points out that we must continue to contend for justice. He says, “We cannot in good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” But Dr. King also points out that working for justice does not diminish the need to love. He says, “Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
And that’s what it looks like and sounds like to be a follower of Jesus. There were a lot of good and decent people – a lot of pastors and Christian leaders – who never spoke against Dr. King, but they never spoke for him either and against the injustice of segregation. They were silent. They may have been good people, but they were not followers of Jesus. There are many Christians who wish I wouldn’t speak up against the injustice this President and his administration are perpetrating by spreading hate for and fear of immigrants. They have separated thousands of children from their parents, and we now know that in all probability many of those children will never be reunited with their parents. They severed these families without any plan or thought, which amounts to an attack on humanity and an attack on God. Now, I can be a good pastor without saying a word against this injustice, but I cannot be a follower of Jesus and be silent. I hope you understand that. But here’s the flip side. I cannot hate the President and the people who are carrying out these unjust policies. I hate what he is doing, but I cannot hate him, and be a follower of Jesus. I have to love him. I have to pray for him. I have to pray for his ultimate good, even as I oppose this injustice. I have no choice if I am a follower of Jesus.
The healing and redemption of our world depends on a spiritual awakening to the truth that we are all one people. And only love can create enough space for that awakening to occur. Only love can defeat evil, not by destroying it, but by transforming it. And you know sisters and brothers, evil is not out there, it is in here. It’s everyone of us. And this demon will not be expelled by the threat of violence or the threat of damnation, but only by the redemptive power of love.
Our good God, we cannot love our enemies on our own. We don’t have the will and the strength and the inner power needed to do good to those who would wish our harm, to bless those who would hurt us, and to pray for those who want to diminish and demean us. We can only do this as we live in your Spirit and as your love fills us and flows through us. Help us to see that we are all one people, one humanity, one family, and that our healing is connected to the healing of everyone else. In the name of the Christ who lives in us all, I pray. Amen.