This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:38-48.
“Love your enemies.” I remember the first time I ever preached on this, I was in my first year of college, and I commented in my sermon that I didn’t really feel I had any enemies. One of the people in the congregation told me that if I got ordained that would be sure to change!
Cynicism about the church aside, this is a hard saying from Jesus. But if we are going to take seriously the instruction to love our enemies, it would help to know what “love” means here.
The way we usually use the word “love,” it mostly describes our feelings; emotional bonds or longings or likes from the sublime to the ridiculous; affection, fondness, or enthusiasm.
If we hear Christ’s words with that sort of meaning in mind, it can seem quite inhuman. Which of us is going to have those sorts of feelings for our enemies? And if we recognise that we don’t, how could we possibly manufacture them?
But as used in the New Testament, in particular, love has more to do with action and responsibility, and less to do with our emotions or liking for someone. To love is to do what you can to provide for the well-being of another whether you like that person or not. In his famous passage describing love, Paul doesn’t say anything about our emotions, only that love is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness, doesn’t insist on having its own way, doesn’t rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything.
An act of love might be motivated by delight in someone or gratitude for something they have done or any of those sorts of positive human feelings; or an act of love might be done despite exhaustion, depression, fear, aversion or anger; it may be done simply as an act of obedience to God; it may be done as a prayer and an expression of faith and hope that the truth about the people involved is bigger than the lack of positive emotion.
I think, actually, that aspect of faith and hope is really important. It allows us to take our own current emotions – whatever they are – and say that they’re not the end of the story. They’re not the final word and they don’t define either me or the person about whom I have those feelings, but both of us are caught up in a bigger reality, both of us beholden to a creator who animates us, both of us bound together in a common human struggle to fulfil that act of creation.
Thomas Merton put it like this: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself with render both ourselves and our neighbours worthy.”
I have a friend who is a Buddhist monk, who works as a prison chaplain. He told me once that one of the things he does to teach the prisoners is to get them to think about where their food comes from. When he first asks, he says, they say something like, “the kitchen.” But as he presses them to think about it, they realise that they have a meal in front of them only because of a huge complex human organisation of farmers and manufacturers and drivers and retailers and cooks… the simple act of eating connects each prisoner to the rest of humanity in a deep and profound way.
This simple exercise of being aware of where our food comes from, he tells me, is often a first step to helping these deeply alienated men realise that we are all profoundly interconnected and interdependent. None of us could live our lives without the help of countless others near and far, present and past… friend and enemy. Everything we have, not just material things, but our words, our ideas, our skills, our faith, the music and stories which give us courage, wisdom and delight; everything we have has been given to us by others. We are each part of a greater whole.
That understanding, my friend tells me, can be a first step to rehabilitation and the recovery of broken souls in prison.
But it is a wisdom not just for those in prison. We are each – you and me, our families and friends, and, yes, even our enemies – part of a greater whole in which we participate. We can no more remove ourselves from that, than pigs can fly.
For the Christian, it goes deeper than seeing what we each have in common as human beings. We are called to see each human being – no matter how alienating, threatening or confronting – as presenting to us the image of God. St. John Chrysostom – who didn’t coddle his congregation! – told them bluntly that “If you fail to recognise Christ in the beggar outside the church door, you will not find Christ in the chalice.”
We don’t like this, of course. We want those who are in some way a problem for us to go away, get lost; we’ve bought into the idea that we can separate good and evil people, and all we need to do is remove the evil people from our midst, and we can have a (relative) paradise.
It’s an illusion that’s good for the ego, but it’s simply not true. Solzhenitsyn – longtime inhabitant of the Gulag – wrote of his perception of the truth:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
We are saved, Solzhenitsyn saw, and Jesus would agree, not by the killing or removal of our enemies, but by their conversion and ours. This, too, requires a sense from us that whatever we feel about someone right now, it’s not the end of the story. Both they and we will go on from this point, and, we trust, change and grow; and so might our relationship.
There are, I think, two ways to engage with this instruction to love our enemies. We can try to make a mental list of who our enemies are, and then – if not do something concrete for them – at least make sure that we are not actively doing anything to harm them. That is hard enough.
But more than that, we can ask ourselves, whom in our lives are we not loving? And that will show us whom we are treating as enemies, even if we don’t want to admit it to ourselves.
But those are precisely those relationships which we need to bring to God, in faith and hope that our current reality is not the end of the story. And we need to be open to whatever God might ask of us, in being part of the next chapter.