John Perkin’s brother was unjustly killed by a white police officer in Mississippi in 1947… sadly things don’t seem to have changed much, do they?… Perkin’s grew up in a closed society that economically oppressed and worked at dehumanising black people. Having left for California to find a better life he became a Christian and felt God’s call to go back to the south with a message of salvation, reconciliation and God’s Kingdom… His Christian faith lead to him be involved in the civil rights movement and in 1970 he was ambushed and himself beaten and tortured by Mississippi State Police troopers. In the forward to his biography “Let Justice Roll Down” he says ‘our story is not one of bitterness-it is a story of love and the triumphs of God’s Love… He continued to work for reconciliation between white and black as equals in the south… But he is very honest and real about the difficult challenge of Jesus call to love your enemies.
“for repentance and forgiveness to work in my life,” He said “God had to see me through months of agony and pain after being beaten almost to death. The Lord had to lead me through great times of soul-searching. And it wasn’t until I could look at a Mississipi Highway Patrolman; fully uniformed and ready for service, and look at him without feeling a sense of bitterness, that I could really begin to relate my faith in a creative way to the task of reconciliation and evangelism.- I have overcome that sense of bitterness, in my own heart-even through it was caused by my enemy, God had to replace it with His love.”
In the sermon on the plain Jesus calls his disciples to show exceptional love in light of God’s gracious blessing. In some plain talking from Jesus, in his most well know and radical ethical teaching, he says and there are no exceptions… “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you…”. A call that echoes down through history, in the face of suffering, persecution, injustice and sounds in our world today, be it in the Middle East, where despite concerns of a genocide of Syrian and Iraq Christians other middle eastern Christians sacrificially care for Muslim refugees displaced by the same war and terror. We need to hear and see that example as western countries and open borders, doors and homes to these same people… And It sounds in our own lives as we face people and situations that while maybe not as harsh still batter at us and challenge our resolve to live as followers of Jesus.
Jesus had started his sermon with a list of blessings and woes that we looked at last week that outlined the gracious offer of God’s Blessing to the poor, the hungry, the sorrow filled and the persecuted. An offer that summed up his ministry and mission of liberation and restoration, that spoke hope to those wrestling with poverty pain grief and injustice and gave his disciples the assurance that they could love extravagantly and exceptionally and generously because God can be trusted to care for and bless them. Now with the words ‘but to you who are listening’ he starts a new section, in the context his focus is on that group of disciples that had come from many different regions. This is how they were to act. They are to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse pray for those who persecute you.
It shows us that Christian love is not about feelings or emotions as much as an active expression of grace and kindness to others. It is not that feeling you feel when you feel the felling you’ve never felt before, but rather concrete expressions of kindness and grace. Do good, bless, pray… and Jesus gives a series of other practical examples from everyday Jewish life
If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek. This has been very prominent in the non-violet protest movement, not striking back. We may not meet with physical violence, but the slap in Jewish culture was an insult more than a physical assault. In our own culture the slap of words on our hearts can sting as much as a slap on the cheek. ‘shot’s fired is a term for such words that’s gaining some traction at the moment and you know it’s hard not to return fire, to want to lob devastating retorts back… But Jesus says turn the other cheek. No it’s not that we accept being a punching bag never that, but are committed to a relationship with that person which leaves us vulnerable to further insults. In light of the history of the early church it could also be seen as referring to being thrown out of the synagogue, ostracised by Jewish society and the Christians were prepared to still reach out to love these people.
If some takes your coat, is about the Jewish legal system where a coat could be taken as collateral on a loan or debt, but it had to be returned to the person at night, when it got cold… and you couldn’t take the undershirt. In the book of Amos in the Old Testament the prophet talks of the rich celebrating religious festival while sitting on the cloaks of the poor that they have taken and not returned. It’s hard to translate into today but it has the idea of not simply doing what we are legally demanded or expected to do, but rather be willing to go beyond that even if it is a matter of sacrifice for us. Matthew gives the illustration of Jesus response to the Roman law requiring a person to carry a roman soldier’s load for a kilometre and Jesus saying…go the extra mile.
Give to anyone who asks, speaks of being willing to be generous it’s not about what we can get back in return. Ancient near eastern society was built on a system of reciprocity… That you would give with the expectation that you receive something in return. Not just in terms of a loan, but in terms of patronage. Jesus calls us to show love that goes beyond that system. In fact he pays close attention to that with a series of questions about lending and showing hospitality and goodness only to those who will pay you back? What credit does that do us? Even the sinners and pagans do that… It’s not exceptional love rather its expect-ional love. I expect something in return. You could call it cupboard love… We should not expect things back. After that series of questions he reiterates his call to love your enemies and ties it into the list of beatitudes that has gone before, our reward is not in the good life but the God life. It is God who blesses us and give us our reward.
Jesus sums up this kind of love with two ethical motivations
The first has become known as the golden rule… that we should do to others as you would have them do to you. And to follow that rule says John Blanchard will be to guarantee warm-hearted, generous, thoughtful, sacrificial kindness and that is love at its best”. Exceptional love no exceptions. In Matthews gospel Jesus saying to love your enemies is presented in a way that it is to correct the religious thinking of the day. People were quite happy to obey the command to love your neighbour as yourself. But they had added the expression ‘but hate your enemy’. In fact some were wanting to limit who they should be good to by qualifying and quantifying it, remember the parable of the good Samaritan was given in response to the question “but who is my neighbour?”, in that case Jesus explained it as anyone with a need. Here Jesus correct the understanding of the command to love you neighbour as yourself by defining the neighbour as simply the other, the other is to be loved as we would love ourselves.
The second ethical motivation is the very nature of God. God is merciful and kind to those who are wicked and ungrateful and therefore we should be merciful as our father is merciful. The family resemblance is not shown in facial similarities after all no one has seen God but in a similarity of character. This again leads us to the cross… to the great mercy of God shown in sending his son into the world to bring about reconciliation between humanity and himself, to pay the debt we could not pay. To seek and save the lost, while we were yet sinners.
Anglican bishop Festo Kevingere was forced to flee from his homeland of Uganda because of the very real danger of death at the hands of the tyrannical dictator Idi Amin. He wasn’t even able to attend the funeral of his good friend arch bishop Janani Luwumu who killed at a meeting at Amin’s palace… a meeting called because the bishops had spoken out about Amin’s crimes… Festo known as the Billy Graham of Africa later wrote in a book called ‘I Love Idid Amin’, "On the cross, Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, because they know not what they do.' As evil as Idi Amin is, how can I do less toward him?" “ be merciful” said Jesus “just as your father is merciful”.
How does this apply to us today?A few thoughts.
Firstly, can I say that it does not mean that we become punching bags, door mats, seen as glorified sanctified bottomless ATM machines for the unscrupulous? This is not passive acceptance of evil or injustice, rather it is strong love. It is the power of God to bring change and transformation in this world. Paul sums it up in Romans by saying “do not return evil for evil, but rather overcome evil with Good”. In the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says blessed are the meek for they will inherit the world. We have often mistaken meek to mean weak. But as I’ve said before Meekness is about the whole of our strength being harnessed for the common good, the best good of others, God’s vision of the kingdom of God and justice and not being distracted or turned aside by insult or injury or thought of personal prosperity or protection. The image that often goes with that is the Clydesdale horse perfectly trained to pull a great weight where its master directs, all its strength harnessed to the task, and its blinkered so it is focused on that task and not distracted.
Secondly, As the church we can often have that expect-ional love mentality… We do mission with the expectation that people will come to church. But we are called to love exceptionally… sacrificially… like with Jesus that the power would go out from us to bring healing and wholeness because of the passion of God, and in the compassion of God. The flip side of that is that is that we need to remember that sharing that exceptional love is also sharing the story of the exceptional lover and we can forget that that is the most loving thing that we can do for people.
Lastly, when we look at this passage of Jesus to love your enemies its easy and inspirational to look at the great examples in extreme circumstances but that isn’t always helpful in everyday life is it? So I thought I’d just finish with some very practical advice from Leonard Sweet’s book soulsalsa. Four daily practices of humility that Sweet says help us to show God’s mercy and grace to the people around us. Just as we have been shown that mercy and grace… (click for each one to come up on PowerPoint)
I have no right to critique someone if I can’t celebrate them first. Celebration comes before critique.
I should not argue with anybody until I can state their position back to them in a way that they approve. Understanding and empathy are the starting point of love and comes first.
Listen to friends for confidence and courage but listen to enemies for wisdom and information. Our enemies are human being as well that we can learn from them.
I recognize it’s my choice…Will I spread compliments or complaints?