Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Romans 12:16-21; Matthew 5:38-47
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
That’s a strange question, Jesus. Who wants a reward for loving? If I love someone who loves me, that’s reward enough. We don’t love people to get a prize.
Exactly, Jesus says, that’s what I’m saying. The loving is the prize, the goal, the treasure beyond price. To love and to be loved is its own reward.
But, Jesus says, everybody knows that. Everybody does that, loves those who love them. But the world is still full of violence, pain, and inflicted suffering. And everybody greets their friends, their sisters and brothers, welcomes them. Everybody knows how to do that, Jesus says. But the world is still divided by hostility and hatred, murder and bloodshed. Something is wrong.
Jesus has the answer, but we don’t want to hear it. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” That’s what no one thinks of, Jesus says.
And that’s the only way this world will find healing and peace and abundant life.
We really don’t like this command of Jesus.
Theologians, pastors, and teachers of the Church have dodged this command for 1,700 years, building theologies and principles that explain Jesus didn’t really mean this the way it obviously looks like it means. Christians have justified war, torture, genocide, oppression, slavery, revenge, by explaining away Jesus’ plain and clear words.
What Jesus said was, the way of Christ is to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Period. No exceptions.
So, when you look through history and see what groups are responsible for the most killing of other human beings over the centuries, why are Christians near the top of the list? Why does the Church today across this planet still endorse war, still nurture hatred, still declare enemies, still kill people? It’s quite a witness of love we give.
This is the most radical, world-changing command Jesus ever gave. We know this by how hard we’ve worked for nearly 2,000 years to pretend he never said it.
At the cross, the Son of God offered his life freely as a witness to the Triune God’s love for the whole world.
As his enemies pounded nails into his body, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The story of Christ taking on our flesh is the story of God living vulnerable love among us to teach us what such divine love looks like. God set aside all power and strength and let us kill the One who is God-with-us. The Son of God declared forgiveness and love for those who hated him most, at the most terrible, painful point of his life. The Triune God says simply at the cross: this is the love that will heal the world. A love for all that risks all, without exception.
The only way to break the cycle of hate and violence, revenge and death, is to put down our weapons, our anger, our justifications, and offer love to those who hate us.
It’s a huge risk. Do you think God doesn’t understand that, after the cross? There is nothing more important to the Triune God who made all things than that we on this earth love each other, care for each other, give life to each other. God showed that in the most personal way possible, and in an unmistakably definitive way, in dying on the cross.
Yet we usually miss the point.
We’ve carefully built a theology of the cross that never asks us to see God’s radical love.
While the Church spent time and energy justifying hating enemies, it also distracted the faithful from the love God showed on the cross. Many of us grew up thinking Jesus went to the cross personally for each of us, because we’re all sinners. There’s no way God could love us unless Jesus died for us, many of us were taught. We were told we were wretched beings, and God sacrificed Jesus so we wouldn’t go to hell.
Of course we sin. We’re flawed, broken people. But the Scriptures witness that we are beloved of God, and Jesus didn’t have to die to make us beloved. God’s forgiveness flows through the Scriptures with and without the cross. The Scriptures witness that God went to the cross in person to reveal the depth of God’s love for the world. To show us the path of Christly love, the only love that can heal this world.
If we walk away from the cross happy that we’re personally forgiven and miss the greater point, that this is the love we’re called to live ourselves, we’ve missed everything. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” When we walk away from the cross, knowing that in this cross we see how much God loves us, the next realization is, that’s our path, too.
A path of vulnerable, self-giving love. With no promises that we won’t be hurt. Only the greater promise that the God who made all things is confident this path will heal the world.
So how are we doing on this one?
How are we doing loving our political enemies, who support and endorse things that cut us to the heart? How is our love for them growing? How is our prayer for those folks? Are we seeking God’s love for them?
How are we doing loving those who share the name of Christ with us but say and do things we’re convinced are not of Christ? Things that break our hearts and enfuriate us? How is our love for them growing? How is our prayer for those folks? Are we asking God to bless them, make them whole?
How are we doing loving those in our lives who have offended us, betrayed us, abandoned us? Those in our families from whom we’re estranged? Those whom we’ve written off because we can’t stand them? How’s our love for them growing? How is our prayer for those folks?
Oh, these are hard words Jesus gives us today. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” How much we’d rather not hear these words, how often we avoid them!
But in our hearts, hearts shaped by the endless love of God in Christ we’ve experienced, we know our Lord is right. This is the only way to heal this world. When one at a time, people do something different than what everyone else does, and love their enemies. Pray for those who persecute them.
This healing is so important, but we fear being the only ones loving as Christ.
The risk in vulnerable love like Christ’s is that we’ll be hurt. Others might not return the same love. We hesitate to give ground, sacrifice ourselves even for the ones we love, because we’re afraid others might take advantage of that. What if we’re the only ones doing this?
If it helps, Jesus says we might very well be. This whole command is surrounded by his expectation that we do things differently than the rest of the world. God’s hope is this love will spread to the rest of the world, but at the beginning, it might be a lonely path.
But Paul gives this gift today: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” So far as it depends on you. That’s all we have. We can’t control what others will do to us, in return for our love and prayers. That’s why Paul says, “if it is possible.” Others might not treat us peaceably. But that’s out of our control. So far as it depends on us, we live in peace and love.
There’s great freedom in knowing we’re not responsible for the whole world’s healing. Just our own part in it. That we can do.
“Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate.”
In this hymn, Archbishop Tutu deepens the grace of Paul’s words today: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is the great promise of the cross. God’s love faced death, torture, hatred. But the power of the Triune God’s love destroyed the power of pain and hate and death forever. “Life is stronger than death,” the hymn also sings.
And so goodness is stronger than evil, too. Love is stronger than hate. And this frightening path we’ve tried to avoid, a path we’ve hoped Jesus didn’t really mean to call us down, is the path to life and healing and love and hope for this world.
That’s the reward. That’s the prize. A healed, whole, abundant, life-filled world for all. That’s what Christ’s love in us will bring.
In the name of Jesus. Amen