Monday, February 21, 2011

Epiphany 7 of Series A (Matthew 5:38-48)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, have you ever seen those old propaganda posters from the first or second Word War? Many of these posters were triumphant, showing victorious Americans coming together to get the job done. You remember the pointing finger of Uncle Sam or the smiling face of Rosie the Riveter. On the other hand, some of those posters took a much different approach. I am thinking of a World War I poster in particular. It showed the image, familiar from the movies, of King Kong coming ashore to sow destruction and death. In his arms was a fair maiden, limp and obviously in great distress. Above and below we read these words: “Destroy this mad brute! Enlist- US Army.” On top of the gorilla’s head is a German helmet. The message is clear: if you don’t enlist to help stop him, this ‘German brute’ is going to come to our shores and desecrate our land as he already has ravaged Europe. Destroy this senseless animal before it destroys you!

Propaganda like that dehumanizes the enemy; it makes our opponents out to be evil incarnate, senseless animals that only plot our destruction. Propaganda makes it easier to see other men and women as the enemy, it makes a far off war personal, and then it enlists our help in hating and then defeating that enemy. It is easy to see those who war against our country, who burn our flag, as the enemy. They very clearly stand against us, and often they explicitly call for our destruction. Yes, it is easy to hate those who spy on us, who bomb our buildings, who show contempt for us. But think a little closer to home; we don’t have to read the news to find enemies. We all know people that we cannot stand, that we would rather never see again. They annoy us, they frustrate us, they take delight in making us upset. We may not call them our enemies, but they are definitely not our friends. We go out of the way to avoid them, or we try to make their lives as miserable as they have made ours. But when Jesus uses the word ‘enemy’ in our text for today, He is not necessarily referring to either of those groups. In the New Testament, the word ‘enemy’ refers to those who are opposed to God and His people. By that definition, every person who doesn’t believe in Jesus is our enemy. Yes, it’s easy to see those who persecute us for our faith as our enemies, but the Scriptures go even farther than that, declaring that every non-believer is, in a sense, our enemy.

So what do we do with enemies? We love them. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We are to show love to those who hate us, whether it is a terrorist who wants to see you killed, your neighbor you can’t stand, or the atheist who mocks your faith. We are to show love to them even when they don’t show love toward us. In fact, Jesus says that we are to show love to them especially when they don’t show love toward us. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” As Christians we can make a great show of doing good to those who treat us well. Great job, Jesus says; you are just about as pious as the thieves and the scoundrels, as the prostitutes and the criminals, or as the devil himself! Jesus calls us to a higher standard; we are to show love to the ones who hate us, who persecute us, who even seek our deaths.

Why? Why should we show any respect to those who hate our guts? The first reason is that we do not return evil for evil. “But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” We hope that in showing love to our enemies they may see our love and give glory to our Father who is in heaven. The second reason is that in doing so we are only imitating God Himself. “For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God shows love to all of His creation, those who love Him and those who despise Him. He shows love regardless of the thanks He receives, and we are to do the same. Now I hope that none of you think that this is easy, because it isn’t. In fact, you are probably tempted to protest: ‘Come on Jesus, this is ridiculous, this is impossible. Who could possibly do this?’

Jesus doesn’t answer our protest with words, but instead with actions. He is the one who loves His enemies, even to death, He is the one who refuses to resist evil, even though it means the torture of the cross. In our text, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Early in the morning on Good Friday, Jesus did not resist as the servants of the high priest struck Him again and again, He refused to act as Pilate’s soldiers ruined His body with the scourge. Jesus said, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Our Lord did not protest as He was forced to carry His own cross to Golgotha, carrying the very instrument of His own death. “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Jesus watched in silence as the soldiers took His clothing and cast lots for them. They took all He had; they left Him with nothing, but still, like a lamb led to the slaughter, He did not open His mouth. He did not respond to the jeers or to the cruel torture with words of anger or hate, but instead when He did speak, it was words of grace. On the mountain Jesus had said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” At the cross He cried out as the soldiers drove in the nails, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus is the one who refuses to give evil for evil, He is the one who prays for those who persecute Him, He is the one who loves His enemies.

Those enemies were not only the ones crucifying Him that Good Friday, they were not only the ones who condemned Him to the cruelest death imaginable. No, His list of enemies includes you, it includes me. Saint Paul writes in Romans chapter five: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” You and I were conceived and born in sin, we were conceived and born enemies of God, completely opposed to Him. You and I were God’s enemies! But while we were still His enemies, Christ showed love to us. For He did not submit to the tortures of cross as some sort of object lesson, simply to demonstrate that a person could love his enemies and pray for the ones who persecute him. No, He submitted to the tortures of the cross and did not resist the evil of men because He intended to save all of His enemies. His prayer that day, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” was for all of His enemies, it was for you and it was for me. He died on the cross for those who opposed Him, you and me, so that He might pay for our sin and save us. Because of Christ, God deals with us only on the basis of His Son’s sacrifice for us, as our Introit for today puts so well: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Jesus doesn’t resist our evil with evil, but instead with love and forgiveness. He didn’t resist the torture of the cross because He knew that it was only His death in the place of His enemies that could deliver His enemies from sin, death, and the devil. He refused to repay evil with evil because He had come to that moment in order to destroy evil. He went to the cross because it was the only way to make His enemies brothers and sisters.

We were born enemies of God, but because Christ died for His enemies, we are now made children of God, united with Him through our baptism into His death. We are reconciled with the Father, transformed from bitter enemies into beloved children. As His beloved children we go forth into this world with love for our enemies. His love for us, as always, motivates our love for others. We love our enemies because Jesus loved us when we were His enemies. He prayed for our forgiveness, He shed His blood that we may be united to Him. We show love to our enemies that they might become our brothers and sisters in Christ, united with us in the bonds of faith. Sure, some may take advantage of us, some may never show us any love back. Some may even persecute us. But we err on the side of showing generosity to anyone in need, just as Jesus said: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” God showers on all people the fruits of the earth, regardless of whether they thank Him or not; His reckless love casts out the seed of the Word into the world. We too live with such reckless love, giving to those who cannot repay, showing kindness to those who hate us. In that way we follow the example of God Himself.

Jesus calls on us to follow that example with the last words of our text: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, this seems like an impossible command, and it is. We cannot be perfect as our heavenly Father is with our own efforts. We need the perfection given by Christ, given to us through His perfect life, death, and resurrection for us. Joined with Him in the waters of Holy Baptism, we are perfect as well, we bear His perfection. And so we live in the world and love our enemies as those made perfect already in Christ, and looking toward the day when we will be perfect in body and soul for eternity. Glorious now, we look toward the glory yet to be revealed. Thanks be to God that He has loved His enemies in Christ! In the Name of the one who forgives His enemies, who dies for those who persecuted Him, our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

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