Today, we pick up right where we left off last week in the gospel according to Luke. Jesus is standing on a level place, surrounded by crowds who had come to him from all over Judea, hoping to learn and be healed and see the man who does miracles. Just before this, Jesus had chosen his Twelve disciples, his inner circle– and when they came down the mountain to the level plain, he started teaching them, beginning with a series of blessings and warnings. We’re entering the story in the middle of that sermon.
Scripture: Luke 6:27-36
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’
Everyone loves this passage when it’s applied to someone else.
We would LOVE for our enemies to love us. But loving our own enemies—the people who hate us, hurt us, and/or annoy the living daylights out of us—that’s hard.
And honestly, this passage challenges us in more ways than one.
It demands that we figure out exactly what we believe about the Bible, and its role in our lives. Is it a rule book, to always be taken at face value and applied directly to our lives? Is it a book full of stories, from which we pull our own meanings and act accordingly? Is it something we read on Sundays because we’re supposed to, then go home and forget about for the rest of the week?
Even the people who claim to read the entire Bible literally will have some conditions to put on this passage–some way to bracket out the discomfort. But if we claim to follow Jesus, then we have to find a way to act on what he tells us, even and especially when it’s hard.
That brings us to our second challenge: if we do take these words of Jesus seriously, then we are forced once again to confront the radical equality of all people in God’s eyes. There is no person who is deemed better or worse, higher or lower, more deserving or less deserving of God’s mercy, love, and care—no matter what they’ve done—and that includes the people who don’t like us, who have harmed us, who annoy us. And that’s really frustrating, because we so like to imagine that our enemies are also God’s enemies.
But that’s not how God works.
And so, we arrive at the third challenge in this passage: Jesus asks us here to live as examples of the kingdom of God in a world that doesn’t play by kingdom rules. He’s asking us to be the change we want to see in the world – telling us that change starts here. Deep, lasting, true change in our society will not come from legislation or executive orders. It will only come if I change, and you change – if we’re willing to risk making ourselves vulnerable and being different.
We could talk all day about hypothetical scenarios in which we could love our hypothetical enemies, or choose to respond differently when that one person starts talking.
But today, I want to tell you another story – this time, of a community learning to love their enemies in a big, bold, hard way.
Pastor Leanne Friesen serves at a Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada – and two years ago, during the height of the Syrian civil war and the resulting refugee crisis, she took a trip to Lebanon to learn how Christian communities there were responding to the sudden appearance of over a million refugees.
She learned a lot.
I want to read for you what she wrote when she came home:
“I admit, before I went to Lebanon, I thought I knew a little about loving my enemies. I have really tried to give it a good shot. Then I went on this trip and realized that while I’d been giving myself a gold star for praying for my under-the-table enemies, I didn’t have much to boast about because, quite frankly, I’ve never had any real enemies.
…many in Lebanon feel they have an enemy, and that enemy is Syria. This tension grew during the Lebanese civil war, which was just 20-30 years ago.
I am ashamed to say that I didn’t really know anything about this before my trip. I did not know the hurt and suffering felt by those who lived through this war, and the long term relational pain caused between Syrians and the Lebanese as a result.
I heard story after story after story.
A pastor in a sermon told this story: “My father was killed by Syrians.”
A woman told us this: “I stood at gunpoint before Syrian soldiers as I held my baby and prayed for God to take me first.”
A church leader recalled this: “This entire town was under siege by Syrians for 100 days, with no food or medical supplies allowed past.”
Story after story of pain, loss, and grief.
With an aching heart I realized I didn’t get it. I never had an enemy like this. I realized yet another [advantage] that I’ve had as a white Westerner:…not having real enemies.
I know we try really hard to create them, over Facebook debates and in pseudo-internet rage, but, Father forgive me, I don’t get it at all. I have never had to love when hate runs so very deep.
Christians from Lebanon have had to do this. For the last five years, their enemy has come to live in their backyard. I can’t even fathom how difficult this must be! It sounds like it should be a nightmare, and for many, it is.
But that is not the story I heard in Lebanon. The story I heard was the story of Jesus-following, heart-changing, life-altering love.
Jesus followers in Lebanon had to make a very real choice in the last five years – the choice between loving or hating their enemies. They had to face a tough reality. Their enemies were now all around them and these enemies were hungry, lonely, and homeless.
As much as they might have wished He had, Jesus hadn’t given them an out. He didn’t say: “You don’t have to care because they’re your enemy.” He said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – so they did and do.
That pastor whose father was killed has a church that reaches out to thousands of Syrian families. A few weeks ago he invited a Syrian refugee to the front so he could wash his feet in front of the whole congregation, to remind them what it means to love and forgive. His church has grown from 60 to 900 people and two thirds of them are refugees.
The woman who prayed at gunpoint is part of a church that cares for 500 displaced Syrian families. She has her “own” families that she visits. Every week, she has tea with her enemies – except now, of course, they are friends. She told me recently that learning to love her enemy was one of the greatest challenges she ever faced, but it has brought her great blessing.
In that town that was under siege there is a church working tirelessly to care for 2000 Syrian families. The church started by hoping to help 100 families, but the need grew and grew – so they kept giving. Now, they give out 1400 food hampers every month. They provide diapers, job training, social support.
When they asked families what their greatest needs were, the answer for many was education for their children. In response, the church started a school in their basement, and when they ran out of room they set up a tent to help more children. The people doing this are the same people who sat under siege a mere generation ago, and now they’re loving their enemies one food hamper at a time.
This same church also runs day camps every week. Yes, every week. They have a bus and bring children in for a morning shift, and then do a second shift in the afternoon. We got to see one of these day camps in action, and meet one of the men who works non-stop to help make them happen.
I was already near the brink of my emotional cup after watching these beautiful children get to experience such joy at these camps, when I met another leader who told me: “You know that man you met? His brother was killed by Syrians. And now he loves these children with all his heart.”
That put me over the edge. I know about losing a sibling. My sister, who I loved very much, also died. Cancer killed her. And I thought: “I don’t think I could ever love cancer. I can’t imagine ever doing that. I don’t know if I could love what killed my sister.”
[This man] loves his enemy every day in a practical, tangible way. He sings songs to his enemy. He hugs them. He drives their bus.”
In many ways, to love our enemies, to give without expecting repayment, to refuse to retaliate when wrong is done to us – all of it is completely nonsensical until we can envision the kingdom of God, where all are truly welcomed. Some days, it seems impossible–and I’ll argue that without Jesus, it is impossible. Because at the end of our passage, Jesus reminds us that the grace and love and forgiveness we give grows out of the grace and love and forgiveness we receive.
At the end of the day, we love not because the people we love deserve it, but because Christ first loved us.
can do even impossible things through Christ Jesus, who gives us strength.