We are wrapping up our worship series this morning on setting resolutions for 2016 by living Upside Down – finding a better way to live. It is with some intentionality that this sermon series has lasted most of the month. By now, the resolutions you may have first named back on January 1 have all come and gone. You’ve already started drinking sodas again; you’ve already cancelled your gym membership; you have already realized you care more about desserts and chocolate than you do the size of your waist; and you’ve already spent money on something you didn’t need. So – now that we have gotten those pseudo-resolutions out of the way, it’s time to focus in on what’s really going to stick and make a difference this year.
Over the past month we have talked about Jesus’ desire for our lives – offering us a different way to live through the instruction offered in the Sermon on the Mount. From redefining happiness, to seeking to be a part of God’s change in the world, to living to a higher standard, we have learned how to live Upside Down – counter culturally – flipping societally accepted norms on their head. For us to live in right relationship in 2015 with Christ, these teachings offer us necessities – not options.
As hard as it may be to live the teachings of the past few Sundays, today’s instruction may be the most difficult. This may be the most counter-cultural. Today’s message from Christ is to love the ones you hate.
Hate is such a strong word, used often to define an intense hostility or aversion. To put it succinctly, Merriam Webster defines hate as, “extreme dislike.” When asked to think of things you hate, you may begin with a short list, and that short list may begin to grow as you begin thinking of all the things that give you angst in your life. As a standard, we hate – that is, we have extreme dislike for – being woken up in the middle of the night by animals or two sweet, but screaming children. We have an intense dislike for rival sports teams – perhaps the Cowboys if you’re a Redskins fan, or the Phillies if you’re a Nats fan. Or, perhaps your extreme dislike is more work related – you hate the traffic on Route 1 and 395 in the mornings, afternoons, evenings. Or you may have a strong dislike for your cell phone provider, who has the worst customer service. When dealing with objects, organizations, or non-human entities, we rarely hide our disgust and hatred. But when it comes to people, we try to hide our hatred behind pleasantries, perhaps saying something like, “I don’t feel hatred toward them, I just strongly dislike them.”
While the non-human entities are surely included in the intent of Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the human relationship I believe Christ is emphasizing most. This text from Matthew becomes difficult because when we read what Christ is saying, it doesn’t matter how we define our feelings toward another – whether as hatred or more tamely as disgust, displeasure, or dislike – it is these relationships Christ is speaking of – any relationship in which there is not a mutual love for the other.
If we could, we would read verse 38 and stop there – it would justify the kind of retaliation we want to offer those with whom we disagree. “You have heard it was said,” Jesus offers, “‘An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” That’s the teaching we want to lift up as law. As we mentioned last week, Jesus uses this opening phrase, “You have heard that it was said …” to provide a foundation for the teaching in the realm of the tradition of the faith. There are a few times in which we are offered in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, the punishment for crimes with the guidance of “an eye for an eye,” but these teachings are never offering instruction for how to deal with a person with whom we have distrust or dislike. In fact, the Old Testament teaching around how to deal with a person with whom you feel hatred proves to be the foundation of Christ’s teaching. Leviticus 19 offers a number of teachings about being holy in relationship with others. Verse 18 reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As we talked last week, Jesus as a teacher and Lord isn’t so much worried about fact-checking the laws and adding to the list – Jesus is more interested in looking at the underlying emotions and feelings that often lead to us breaking the law of God. Christ, in his teaching, focuses on the feelings and motivation of our heart. Christ seeks to offer instruction that will heal our hearts – he provides a living example of what it means to live as the perfect creature of God you were meant and made to be.
God knows we are a broken people – it’s been witnessed time and time again, even by the most faithful of God’s followers throughout the history of creation. God knows that in the brokenness of humanity, we will be wronged by others and we will wrong others. There will be people with whom we naturally have no direct affinity. There will be people with whom we disagree. There will be people we strongly dislike – people we hate.
But the ‘eye for an eye’ response to hatred – the continuation of hatred – is not an appropriate response according to Christ’s teaching. Christ doesn’t say you can’t feel hatred – just in the same way we named last week that Christ doesn’t say you can’t feel anger. These emotions are acceptable to feel – they put a name to the brokenness of humanity – the broken relationships among God’s created. But just like with anger, it is the festering of hatred within the heart that can lead us into sin. It is the inappropriate response to hatred that Christ is preaching against.
Jesus, in his call to the faithful disciple, calls for you to renounce your right to retaliation. He says, “Do not resist an evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. If someone sues you and takes your coat, you shouldn’t fight, you should instead offer your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, don’t retaliate, instead go a second as well.” This isn’t the way our society thinks – this call turns the cultural norms Upside Down. To not retaliate includes not only not physically responding in hatred toward another, it means not slandering them, not complaining about them to others, it means not using the public sphere (like social media) to shame another. To not retaliate means to allow God to take away the hatred you feel in your heart, so that you do not respond in hate in any form.
But Christ isn’t done – he doesn’t stop at a simple call to not retaliate. To not retaliate still may be easy for us – we can try to ignore a wrongdoing – though that’s not an easy call. But we know, the life of one who follows Christ isn’t an easy life.
Now I’m begging you, don’t miss this, don’t fall into the easy mistake – in his call to “love your enemies,” Jesus isn’t giving you the right to simply hold back retaliation and remain idle in relationship with your enemies. The trap here is to think that by not escalating a broken relationship, by not fighting back, by not speaking ill, by not posting your anger on Facebook for the world to read – the trap is to think that by doing nothing, you are sufficiently living Christ’s teaching. But no, this idleness is not sufficient according to Christ.
Loving our enemies means that we work and hope and pray for healing and for what is right. Jesus is calling for an active engagement of love.
Active engagement – active intentionality toward loving another is not a call to a Valentine’s Day relationship with every person whom you dislike. Christ’s call is not gifting others with flowers, puppies, rainbows, and snuggles. But the faithful response of the Christian disciple is abnormal from the cultural model – it’s a call to engage in a positive manner.
Christ’s call includes love and prayer – praying for those who we call enemies – those who persecute us – those we hate – those we strongly dislike – those we distrust. We pray for these others the same way we pray for God to love us despite our failure to live in right relationship with God and with one another. We will be looking later on this year into what it means to pray – and how to pray – using the Lord’s Prayer as our model. Both in this text and in the Lord’s Prayer we are instructed and taught to pray for our own shortcomings, our trespasses, our sin, just as we pray for those who have trespass and sin against us.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus says. We must pray – but what does it mean to love our enemies? How is this active love made manifest in our lives?
As a snarky and rhetorical setup, Jesus asks these few questions, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t the tax collectors (read ‘those who society dislikes most’) do the same?” And he continues, “And if you greet only your bothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” These questions call the faithful to a higher standard than those who are seen as outcasts by the community to whom he is speaking. And they set up a final word of instruction:
“Be perfect, therefore, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.”
In this one line we are given all the instruction we need to know what it means to love our enemy. In this call by Christ, we are told what it means to engage in active love.
If you want to know how to live as a disciple in right relationship with those you dislike most … if you want to be a faithful follower of Christ’s teaching and are struggling with how to live in right relationship with people you call enemy – those who have hurt you, your loved ones, or your stated community, here it is:
Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. Follow in your life the same model God set in seeking reconciliation with those who had broken his will. Be willing to go out of your way to make amends with those who have hurt you most. Make every decision you make with a thought to what would be best for the common good – not just a decision about what is best for you, but what is best for the community at large – a community that includes those whom you love and those you hate. Make every decision you make with an eye toward how it affects the whole of God’s creation – not just your affinity groups, your friends, your family, your neighborhood, or your nation. Think about the entirety of the creation, all of whom God loves, when speaking, writing, acting, or engaging with the world around you. Be willing to live in right relationship with the entirety of the world as God would – offering that love to all, just as God offers love to all through Christ Jesus the Lord. Be willing to step outside the comfort zone of exclusivity and into an all means all inclusivity – ensuring that the love God has offered you (and all the world) is reflected appropriately in your life by sharing it with all – even those you dislike the most.
To share God’s love appropriately – to be perfect as God is perfect – you must be willing to acknowledge that all lives matter. The lives of those you love the most, sure – but so too the lives of those you hate the most. The lives of all of God’s creation are important. Let everything you say and do reflect the truth of God – just as everything God does reflects the truth of God. “Be perfect as your God is perfect.” Live in such a way that there is not doubt by the world around you that you believe as God does that all lives matter – black lives matter, white lives matter, blue lives matter, red lives matter, pink, orange, yellow, and full on rainbow lives – they must matter to you because they matter to God.
If you want to live into the call of Christ for his disciples – for those who earnestly want a right relationship with the Lord – then you must seek perfection as God is perfect – you must be willing to exemplify God’s perfect love as seen in Christ in your own life. This may mean sacrificing personal rights that are considered a given by the culture in which we live – it may mean speaking out against those within your many communities. It may mean risking friendships and jobs, it may mean risking being called a lunatic or un-American, it may mean selling everything you have and giving it to the poor.
And here’s the hardest part – this is the call of Christ on those who claim to be disciples of the Lord. This teaching is not an optional section of scripture – it’s not a pick-and-choose kind of book. If you aren’t willing to even pray – to seek God’s help so that you may love in this way, you are wasting the life God has given you.
In closing, I invite you to hear the good news: “Imitation of God is not an obligation; [however,] it is the goal of discipleship.”[i] We have no hope of being different, of being healed, or of loving others in this way unless the power of Jesus Christ is present in our lives. And Jesus wants to live in you in this way. He wants to see the power of God active in your life in this way. Christ wants to turn your life upside down.
May your 2016 be a year filled with a live lived according to the Word of our Lord.