Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Would you be surprised if I told you that I’m often uncomfortable when someone tells me they love me?  Well, I am . . . but not in the way you think.  You see, I’m not talking about love as an honest affirmation.  I’m talking about someone who dislikes or even despises me and who isn’t afraid to tell me so, but then decides to make themselves feel better by concluded the encounter with a reassurance of his or her godly affection for me.  You know what I mean –” Chip, you are a rotten, no good, phony Christian secular-humanist . . . but I want you to know that because I am a true Christian, I still love you.  And do you want to know what my answer is to that kind of love?  Thanks just the same, but I’d rather be despised.

And then there’s the situation when the tables are turned.  Occasionally I’ll come across someone who I have a really difficult time loving.  You know, the kind of person who, if you’re really honest about it, you’d be just as happy if they would dropped off the face of the earth.  But then, if I’m going to have any sense of integrity, then I also have to refuse to snarl and then describe how my Christian love extends even to him.  Then I’d be no better than those people who I say I detest so much.  That’s why the gospel reading this morning is such a really tough pill to swallow. 

The reading this morning is a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.  It’s pretty straight-forward language about how God wants us to be set apart from the rest of the world and to love our enemies. 

“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  But can we really love our enemies?  Think of the most heinous, evil thing someone could ever do to you or to your family.  Could you forgive that person?  If not, why did Jesus lay such an impossible demand on us?  It’s a central paradox to the Christian faith.

So, do you find this teaching troubling?  If you do, don’t worry, because you’re not the first person to back away from this particular bit of divine inspiration.  Christians have always had a difficult time figuring out, or crawling away from, Jesus’ demand that we love our enemies.  In fact, a hundred years ago the great Christian, Albert Schweitzer, held that Jesus — or the early church which actually recorded Jesus’ teachings — never actually believed that we could live like that — at least not for long.  What Schweitzer held was that the early church believed Jesus was going to return to earth very soon — in a few years at most — and that the command to love one’s enemies was a temporary edict.  Something you could do at least for a while.  But then, Jesus did not immediately return, and the church was stuck with an ethical command that no one could live up to.

Paul, who had probably heard about the saying even though he wrote before the gospels were completed, chose to put an interesting twist on it.  Quoting from the Book of Proverbs, Paul says, “If your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty give him drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”  It turns out that loving your enemy Paul’s way is just another way to do him in.  Still, I doubt if that was what Jesus had in mind.

Because we can kick and squirm and reinterpret the words, but when all is said and done, we must conclude that Jesus meant what he said.  We are to love those who despise us and bless those who curse us.

Now . . .  you may say “That’s so radical!”  Of course it is!  That’s what makes it Christian.  Problem is, we’re not so sure we want religion to be that radical.  We’d rather religion be more socially acceptable, more comfortable and in line with the way we ordinarily do things.  We want a nice, safe, domesticated religion which does not put demands on us like actually love people who actually hate and despise us.  Because that’s just not the real world.  Not by a long shot.  In the real world, when your enemy is down you stomp on him.  If you’re hit on one cheek you make sure you hit back twice as hard.  If your enemy has one gun you get two.  If someone who wants to get you has a big bomb you get a bigger one – or several bigger ones.  That’s realistic. That’s how the world goes.  And if you don’t operate by those rules, you’ll get walked all over . . . or worse.

Christians, of course, did not invent love.  Nor do we have a monopoly on it. 

I don’t know any culture or system that actually denies the rightness of love.  The difference, you see, comes in defining whom you love.  The world says, “Love those who love you.”  So we come here to church and we love one another.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But one doesn’t have to hold the Christian faith, or any faith for that matter, to love those who love them.  As Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners do the same.”  Matthew’s version has Jesus say, “They have their reward”: people who love those who love them back.  The phrase is derived from a Greek term stamped on bills.  “Mark his receipt ‘paid in full.’ ”  Loving those who love you is no more than a mutually satisfactory commercial transaction.

But if we take this text seriously, we are confronted with much more than a commercial transaction; something beyond the way of the world, something beyond the ethic of mutual satisfaction.  We have a whole new, radical, difficult — perhaps impossible — ethic.

Jesus nowhere implies that Christians won’t have enemies.  While I like to think Christians are able to get along with everybody, I remember Jesus said, “Beware when all speak well of you.”  If I never do or say anything that is going to disturb bigots, racists, those who trust in violence, those who live off injustice, the insensitive, the crude and rude, I may never have an enemy.  But neither will I have been faithful to the gospel.  Christians will have enemies all right.  What they need to be certain of is that they have the right enemies.

If Christianity implies being so neutral about everything that you never have an enemy to contend with, Jesus wasn’t much of a Christian.  While there is no virtue in going around making enemies, and while Christians should try and get along with everyone, if we are faithful there will be those who try to silence us.

So, how are we supposed to love our enemies?  Can we take a pill, or quote a verse or say a prayer that changes our hearts?  If I do not love someone, can I twist myself around, convince myself that in fact I do love them?  Can I banish, as if by sleight of hand, my negative attitude?  If that is what it takes, I may get an “A” for effort but an “F” for performance.  I can’t make myself love those I detest, or who detest me.  If you can, please share your secret.

But, if I cannot feel differently, perhaps I can at least act differently, and the difference in how I act is the only way I will be able to change my mind.  “Bless those who curse you,” says Jesus.  “Pray for those who abuse you …  To a person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other … And as you wish that people would do to you, do so to them.”  You see, the secret is in the doing.  I may not be able to control my feelings, nor can I pretend to feel differently than I do.  But I can control my actions.  As I have told people in counseling:  It is often easier to act your way into a new set of feelings, than it is to feel your way into a new set of actions.

If I am on the outs with someone and I wait until my opinion, my mood, or my feelings change, chances are I will wait forever.  The only hope of breaking the log-jam is if one of us, namely me, changes how I act.  I can’t change my attitude unless I first change my behavior.  That may be the only hope I have of turning my enemy into a friend.

Whoever said, “If you want peace, prepare for war,” hadn’t come within a million miles of the Christian ethic.  The Christian ethic says, “If you want peace . . . prepare for peace.”  In the world you deal with enemies by throttling them.  In the kingdom of God you deal with enemies by loving them.  It’s the only chance we have to make them our friends.

Schweitzer held that the early church never claimed folks could live by absolute love, at least not for long.  Nevertheless, that is our goal.  The sayings of Jesus are not a diagram of how things work in the world, but a picture of how things work in God’s kingdom.  That is what Jesus came to bring, and that is what the church is in the world to evidence.

We are the advance party of God’s kingdom.  We, the church, have been assigned the task of etching out a beachhead for the kingdom on the inhospitable shores of a world now ruled by the ethic of revenge and violence.

We are God’s emissaries; we are to live as if the kingdom has already come—even if we don’t feel like it at times.  For in us, by the grace of God, it is in our power to do so.  We live and work by faith, giving ourselves in service to the one whose kingdom is both in our midst and on the way.  For the coming of that kingdom we pray, waiting for that day when it is as real on earth as it is in heaven.

Can we really love our enemies?  By the rules of the world, probably not. But by the grace of God we can — and we must. “