[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio earlier today.]
A number of years ago, a friend of mine, a pastor, was visited by his parents for the first time at the first congregation he served as a pastor. His parents attended worship, then took my friend to lunch.
“Did you meet John and Mary Smith?” my friend asked his parents. “They’ve been great to me.” “Oh,” his mother answered. “I met them but I wasn’t nice to them because I thought you didn’t like them.”
My friend was mystified as to where his mom got the idea that he didn't like this couple and then asked her, “Why would you decide to not treat someone well even if I didn’t like them?”
He said that his mother was stunned by his question, looking at him as though he was from another planet. People who seek to follow Jesus Christ often have that effect on others.
Last Sunday, we looked at the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In it, Jesus described the blessed life that those who, because they’ve been saved by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, are citizens of the kingdom of God.
Today, as He continues the sermon, Jesus tells us how we who are in His kingdom, but still in a fallen world, are to live. Jesus does so in a stunning command, unlike any that appears in any other religious or ethical system in the world. Jesus sets us free to live differently toward the Johns and Marys in our lives, whether their ill treatment toward us or the people we care about is real or imagined.
So, let’s take a look at today’s gospel lesson, Luke 6:27-38. Verse 27: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
I love how Jesus begins “to you who are listening.” When I was a boy and a vacant look would cross my face as my mother was telling me something, she’d ask me, “Mark, are you listening?” It’s possible for us to hear someone without listening to them. Jesus is saying, “This is for you who are listening to what I’m saying about the kingdom of God.”
And then, Jesus gives those of us blessed to know Him a single command, expressed in four different ways: Love your enemies. Do good to the people who can’t stand you. Be blessings to those who condemn you. Pray for the people who are cruel to you.
The word in Luke’s original Greek text that we translate as enemies is ἐχθροὺς. It describes someone who is openly hostile to us, someone animated by a deep-seated hatred for us. It’s these kinds of people that Jesus says we are to love.
And, just in case we're inclined to look for an escape hatch, the word for love Jesus uses is Ἀγαπᾶτε, from the word you may be familiar with, agape. It’s a verb that means to take pleasure in, to wish well. Agape love wishes another person well even when that other person hates them.
This is the kind of love that God has for us, a love that caused God the Father to send Jesus into the world for us. Paul says in Romans 5:8: “...God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s with this kind of love that Jesus commands us to love the people who hate us!
And so He tells us, starting at verse 29: “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
This is the point at which I (and maybe you) want to tell Jesus, “But, if you only knew what that person did to me, what this person said about me, how annoying so and so is…”
It seems we all have people we think God will understand us loathing.
But to our rationalizations and excuses, Jesus asks three questions, starting at verse 32:
“[One] If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.
"And [two] if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.
"And [three] if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
"But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
That last line of Jesus gets me every time: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” When other people hurt me or those I love, I find it so easy to write them off as forever damned and irredeemable. But, if God refuses to withhold His mercy from me, then who am I to withhold my mercy, my understanding, my love, or my willingness, in the words of The Small Catechism, “to put the most charitable construction” on what my neighbor does or who my neighbor is, from any human being?
Even when the God I know in Jesus disapproves of what I do, He never stops loving me, never stops offering grace or the possibility of forgiveness.
In gratitude for God’s grace, I owe my neighbor nothing less.
In seminary, I had a New Testament professor who made me crazy. In his lectures, he seemed to drone, then flit from subject to subject. I wrote off him and the textbooks he required us to read. I figured I would skate through the course and never have to mess with this prof again.
The final was a set of essay questions and I always did well with essay questions. I was stunned when I saw my final grade: F!
I confess that at that moment and for a few years after that, I regarded that professor as my enemy. I was sure he was out to get me. I was sure that he didn’t like me, didn’t like my piety. I convinced myself that he probably wasn’t really a Christian and was trying to sabotage me from being ordained.
A year later, I took the class again, this time with a different professor. I got a B. I felt vindicated and was tempted to go to the first professor's office and dance a victory jig.
The next year, Ann, our baby son, and I were in Michigan for my internship. When I returned for my last year of classwork, I realized that I needed one more course on a New Testament epistle to graduate. There was one that worked with my other classes and my schedule: First Peter. Guess who taught it? My enemy, the professor who had it out for me. I gritted my teeth and signed up for the class.
I wondered what I would have to do to pass this class and what kind of grief this professor would give me. To my surprise, the class was fantastic. And the prof couldn’t have been fairer.
Just before the end of the term, I got a note from him, asking me to meet with him. I braced myself. “Mark,” he told me when we connected, “I have a class I’m teaching next term, Theology of the New Testament. It’s done seminar-style. I know that you don't need the class to graduate, but you’re so good at engaging people in helpful discussion, I wonder if you’d do me a favor by enrolling in the class?”
I could hardly believe it. I stammered that I’d be happy to take the course. I thoroughly enjoyed it too. The last two classes I took from that prof brought As, something I wouldn’t have imagined possible three years earlier.
A few weeks before our last class, at the end of my Master of Divinity program, the same professor I thought had hated me told me that I should consider getting a doctorate in New Testament studies. “I think you could make very useful contributions,” he said.
I never felt called to be a New Testament professor and have always believed that the parish is where I belong.
But to this day, I’m moved when I remember that dear man’s vote of confidence. He had never been my enemy at all. I only thought so in my sinful, selfish mind. And even when he must have known how much I disdained him, he still showed me mercy. He still loved me.
Did my prof do that because he was such a great guy or because there was something loveable about me? You know the answer to the second question already. But I will tell you that the answer to both questions is the same: No!
But the professor belonged to Jesus and Jesus works in the lives of those who belong to Him.
The Savior Who loved the human race even when we tried to kill Him and put Him away, empowers believers in Christ to love others even when we would rather do something different.
The first martyr in Christian history was a man named Stephen. The book of Acts tells us that when Stephen’s very real enemies were hurling the stones at him that would bring his death, he looked to heaven and prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And then, “When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:60) Stephen’s final words echo Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) It’s as though Jesus had taken up residence in Stephen.
And so He had! Christ lives in everyone who turns to Him in repentance and faith. Like the apostle Paul, we who daily seek to live in our baptismal covenant can say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
If I were to set out to love my enemies in my own power, first of all, I wouldn’t want to do it. Who but a person who knows that they’re a sinner saved by grace through the crucified and risen Jesus would choose to love an enemy? To the world, any talk of loving an enemy is insane!
And even if I wanted to love my enemy, I couldn’t do it in my own power. As often happens any time I set out to do the right thing, my sinful nature would get in the way.
But when Jesus is living inside of us, when we turn to Him each day and He fills us up again and again with His Holy Spirit, Jesus loves others through us.
And when our enemies receive our love, all sorts of good things happen.
We experience the kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of in the final part of our gospel lesson, a kingdom in which we “do not judge” the worthiness for salvation of any human being, knowing that Christ has saved us in spite of our unworthiness, and a kingdom in which God gives eternal blessings to us “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over...poured into" our lives, now and forever.
Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, fill us up with You, Your love, Your gospel, Your Holy Spirit and love others through us so that they too can live in Your kingdom. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]