Sermon - Epiphany 7 (Ordinary 7) Year C | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
How can you love your enemies?
How can you love your enemies? Really, how can you do it?
Jesus said: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you -- Luke 6:27
Surely Jesus would not have told us this merely as a high ideal, impossible to attain, as if it were something which he might manage himself, but which we poor sinners could not hope to achieve. It must be possible. We do admit that it is extremely difficult to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us. It seems like some of his other sayings, to be a dramatic exaggeration, yet he went on expand the idea in some detail:
Jesus is not a hard task master. He does not demand the impossible. If it seems difficult, there must be a way, and we can expect that he will show us the way.
The way of grace
Somehow we need to grasp the hopeful aspect of a challenge that seems like a demand for us to reach a standard of holiness that is beyond us. If we pay careful attention we will see that Jesus is offering us a gift. It is gift that makes the seemingly impossible into what is possible for ordinary people. Jesus is talking about grace: that is, about a free undeserved gift. The hopeful aspect is that it comes to people who do not deserve it. That is the very nature of grace. It might well be impossible for people following their natural ways to love their enemies, but by the grace of God it is possible. The love he is talking about is a gift [charis] - the greatest gift. So when Paul listed a number of gifts - note these are spiritual gifts - he described many ways in which people can be inspired for the common good [See the recent sermon on Spiritual gifts for the common good .]
But then he concluded, say that love was the best way of all. It was the kind of love that is for the sake of the other person.
Such love is inspired [in-spired = breathed-in = brought by the spirit] by God. It is a gift. That is the unselfish kind of love that was once called charity, gracious love, or caring for the good of another - agapé. He is not asking us to exercise great moral discipline, good though that is, Paul is encouraging people to strive for and to accept a spiritual gift. It is something we can allow to happen to ourselves, if we do not put other things in the way of it. So when Jesus said If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? (Luke 6:32), he is saying, "What gift is that to you?" [Credit here is "charis" meaning benefit, favour, gift or grace. What benefit, favour, gift or grace is that to you?] You are only receiving or giving back what has been given already. We no are better off afterwards than you were before started this transaction. But if you receive or give an undeserved gift something new is added to the value of human exchange. It can multiply and bless many. Like the quality of mercy in Shakespeare's famous lines where mercy speaks of love and charity:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Less well known is Shakespeare's attribution of this quality to God a few lines later:
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice.
Unselfish love, mercy, loving kindness, it is a gift of God, exercised in the likeness of God, and not beyond human capacity. It requires sufficient humility to accept a gift and to be blest more than we might deserve. But if it is a gift of God, what can we do about it? It must be possible for us to do something to make a difference or Jesus would not have told to us act. We have first to realize that we already possess such a gift. Then we can venture a little to use it, by our own deliberate action. Then it becomes stronger. It is the nature of this gift that the more it is used, the more it is given away, and the more it is given away to more you have it. It is not only a gift of God, it is a gift of people to one another - a gift of God that multiplies in the hands of people who give it too each other. The gift of love towards one another, unmerited, undeserved and unconditional, begets the same. It is the greatest gift of all.
The golden rule
So the golden rule is not a curse, but a blessing: Do to others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31
[ Rough literal translation: Be disposed (or desire) to bring about for a human being as you would they bring about for yourself likewise]
That is the kind of love Jesus invoked and Paul described: fundamentally, it is to desire the good of the other. It is much more than the negative form of the rule about not doing harm to others that people often remember: merely not doing to others what you would not like to be done to yourself. It is a very primitive moral teaching that might go along the lines of a mother saying to a child, "How would you like someone to do that to do?" It is also the moralistic defence which people not familiar with the Christian teaching will give when they hear talk of sin, "I'm not a sinner, I never do anyone any harm if I can help it!" The negative form is not the golden rule, which is about a positive desire for the good of the other person. That might seem more difficult but in fact it is a more hopeful challenge than merely to avoid doing harm that you would not like done to yourself. To put it in the positive way as Jesus did, Do to others as you would have them do to you, immediately invites the idea that good can multiply rather than evil. Not that we do it thinking of the good that will come back to us, it is not motivated by reciprocity, quite the opposite, but once it gets going it does bless both the giver and the receiver.
But a basic problem remains. There is still the problem of how to make the first move. Even knowing that we have the power to exercise the gift, how do we get started, especially in the face of hatred? That desire for the good of the other is only possible if the basic selfish desire to advance one's own interest is overcome; and that must come from some means beyond ourselves. We first have to believe that we have received a gift. The love others have for us helps a great deal, and God's love for us makes all the difference. Our faith is that God has first offered us that unconditional love:
Love that has the power to overcome selfishness is unconditional, like God's love for us. In ordinary human relationships, what is it that gives people the faith or trust to take the risk of giving without a guarantee of results? Surely, it is knowing that we are already loved. That is the healing power which overcomes selfish fear and suspicion and liberates generosity. Conversely, nothing damages people, especially children, more than manipulation by withdrawing love. Offering and withholding or threatening the loss of love, is a power game that is truly demonic. Love is the opposite. It is enabling. Loving without conditions is healing, helping and saving. So effective is the love of God that by his grace the golden rule is a practical possibility.
Jesus even said: He [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. (Luke 6:35b ). That is grace. That is what make the impossible possible. That is why he made it possible for us also to love and forgive those treat us badly. He made it possible by taking the initiative and giving us unconditional love first But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. That faith makes a difference as life is lived in trust day by day.
You might still say that makes sense to Christian believers, that those of us who believe that Christ died for us can see it was "while we were still sinners", and so it was a sign of unconditional love on God's part that he would allow the sacrifice of Christ. But what if you don't believe that you need or benefit from anything done for you by Christ? You could perhaps still draw some encouragement from the goodness of God in all the blessings you have received from creation, that you have received life itself and that you have been surrounded by loved ones and many food things which you did nothing to deserve. Perhaps. There is something there to encourage generosity, perhaps even love, but most of us find sooner or later that there is something else within us that resists the idea of doing good for others without hope of reward, especially of the other person actually does not like us and tries to do us harm. We find a basic self interest gets in the way. It is that something which separates us from God and from our fellow human beings which we believe God sought to overcome in what he did for us in Christ. In him we see that self interest, fear and hatred do have the last word. We see it in part in the way he went to his death. We see it most clearly in the fact that his death was not the end, that he was raised to life again; so the powers of evil could do their worst and still not triumph. The reality and the power of God's love is revealed to us in the way Jesus overcame sin, and was raised to life again. It matters when we realize that there is something within us that stands in the way of fulfilling the commands of love. So it is not just human trust, but faith in God which makes the golden rule possible.
The effectiveness of the work of Christ for us is precisely, through his death and resurrection, to make possible what we could not do for ourselves. That is the grace of God from which the gifts of the Spirit come to us, and the greatest of these is love.
Belief in the resurrection
So we go forward in hope believing in that power of God to save when we cannot do it for ourselves, to enable us to love when we could not love.
It is the power of God evident in the human life of the man Jesus to overcome sin and death which gives us hope that by his grace we too can be liberated from the power of both sin and death. So in 1 Corinthians 15 which we were considering last week Paul goes on after describing the new life in a risen body that is given to those raised with Christ, to sing a great song of triumph:-
Being joined with Christ in faith and incorporated into his body the church through baptism (Romans 6:1-4) we die to the old world and put away the old human nature, rising to a new life of grace in which it is possible even here on earth, before we inherit the gift of life beyond the grave, to begin to know the life of the children of God. So after the examples of doing good without hope of reward Jesus summed up what made it possible:
It is because God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; and we know that through Christ, that we are able in faith to love our enemies. Through the work of Christ, God is working out his purpose for us, fulfilling our potential to become children of God. So the golden rule is made possible through the power of Christ's victory over sin and through it we also inherit the kingdom.
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