Kingdom Resistance

Hey, it’s been a while. Not for lack of desire to get writing done, but for lack of capacity. Maybe some day, when I have more time, I’ll tell you about it. But here I am.

I’ll start with this: Happy New Year — both, belatedly, to 2017 and, as of tomorrow, to the Year of the Rooster!

Anyway, it so happens that I’ve providentially preached both of the Sundays after Election Day in November and Inauguration Day last week. As such, those occasions have forced allowed me to pray and think and reflect on my own response to those events and the non-alternative reality they reflect. In particular, I’ve been asking God what my calling is in the midst of this — as a man, as a husband, as an American, as a Christian, and as a pastor — and what our calling as a church is.

[Some of what follows is taken from one or both of the sermons I preached — “A Church for the City” on November 13, and “inSPIREd: Relational” on January 22.]

The last few months have felt like a setback for many of us as it relates to fighting poverty, prejudice, and discrimination; for those who care for the people in our society who are vulnerable or feeling uncertain or fearful about their safety or their future. Whoever you voted for, if you’re a Christian, I’m guessing you voted as faithfully as you could based on your understanding of the gospel and your judgment of the candidates and your view of politics. The gospel impacts every area of life — or at least it should — because Jesus has something to say about every area of life, because the kingdom of God means something for every area of life — that includes how we vote and what we do in the time between our votes.

Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s, when his country was led by an authoritarian government; he said this:

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that?

We are called to pray for those in leadership over us and to call them to account. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, as the church, we are not to be “the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.”

That’s why, in our church, we’ve sought to address issues like racial justice and racial reconciliation and the real sin of systemic racism; that’s why, in the aftermath of some of the violence last summer, we changed up our worship services to create space to grieve and lament and pray together; that’s why we’ve tried to push into some of those difficult conversations — as faithfully as we can, with as much grace and courage and humility as we can — all the while reminding each other of Jesus and the kingdom of God that challenges every earthly system and structure, reminding each other of the reality of sin in our own lives and in our world, and reminding each other of the power of God’s Spirit to bring good out of any and every situation.

I do want to say this, especially in light of the uptick in harassment and hate crimes (I just met with a rabbi today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and he was telling me about recent bomb threats) and the strange alternative-fact-filled world we find ourselves in: if you have a disability or are a woman, a person of color, an immigrant or a refugee, part of a religious minority, a member of the LGBTQ community, or otherwise care at all about the vulnerable — if you are uncertain or fearful because of things said or things reported or things experienced in recent months — especially by those who claim to follow Jesus — let me say I’m with you and I pledge to do whatever is in my power to continue to oppose injustice and discrimination against you, because I believe that is what Christ calls me to. And if you’re reading this today, and you’re not fearful or hurting right now, and you’re saying, “But what about me? Aren’t you going to oppose injustice and discrimination against me? Doesn’t Christ call you to that, too?” Absolutely, I’d do the same for you too.

So … what’s the calling?

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s another way of putting it:

Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

How about this, from singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn?

Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Or this, from Oscar Romero:

I am not with the right or with the left. I am trying to be faithful to the word that the Lord bids me preach, to the message that cannot change, which tells both sides the good they do and the injustices they commit.

To be of the kingdom of God means that Christians are exiles in this world, because we’re following and loving and serving and learning to live like Jesus, the king of the kingdom. Jesus, who chose to step into a hostile world, chose to be an exile, for the sake of those he loved — that’s what Philippians 2 tells us. Jesus, who was eternal but entered time, who was all-powerful but made himself vulnerable, who was in heaven but became flesh and made his dwelling among us — that’s what John 1 tells us. That’s who we follow; that’s who we’re called to be like.

This is the Jesus who said, “Love your enemy,” because he knew that only love can every chain, every destructive cycle, that, as Martin Luther King Jr. would discover centuries later, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is the Jesus who backed his words up with his actions, giving up his life so that we his enemies might have life, choosing to die so that we his enemies might not have to, offering grace so that we his enemies might be rescued and redeemed and restored, and taking onto and into himself the violence we wish upon each other, the violence of our sinful intentions, the violence of Psalm 137, and emptying it of its power. That’s what love does.

And this Jesus, after three days in the tomb, was raised to life, proving that sin cannot stop him, that death cannot hold him down, and that however bleak things may look, Jesus is risen, his Spirit is in us, and there is still work to do. As he said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

My calling is still the same; our calling as a church is still the same:

to speak out and to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ;

to be salt and light in a world desperate for resilient hope and amazing grace and persevering love and the justice of God;

to live as citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom of God;

to defend the image of God in every person, to speak up for the voiceless, to welcome the stranger, to offer healing to the broken and wounded, to give rest to the weary and downhearted, to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized, to preach good news to the poor;

to break every chain, to challenge every injustice and every -ism as an affront to a just God;

to point forward to a day when people of every nation and every tribe will gather at the throne of God to worship.

That’s my calling; that has been my calling during the previous administration—as imperfectly as I lived into that—and it will remain my calling during the current administration—as imperfectly as I will live into that. And that’s your calling too—but you may live it out in the context of a non-profit or a business, or through activism or advocacy, or working in government or running for office, or in a family or a school or a hospital.

So Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6 is particularly germane for us today:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Our boat is going in the same direction. The winds may have changed—and that may make things easier for some of us and that may mean a lot more rowing for others of us—but neither our calling nor our commission have changed. I know it takes hard work; it may involve putting our lives on the line to protect each other; it will involve having difficult conversations with people we know where we’re sometimes not even sure if we’re making any progress. But I firmly believe that God has placed many of you in the families and the friendships and the workplaces you’re in for a reason — to live in and to live out more of God’s kingdom reality in those very places and relationships.

At the Inauguration on Friday, part of Matthew 5 was read — the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here’s what struck me:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are the shalom-seekers. Blessed are those who will work to see relationships restored. Blessed are those who will put their lives on the line so that others might be made whole. Blessed are those who do not grow weary in doing good. For they will be called the children of God.

So let’s come together, let’s stand together, let’s hold together, let’s love our enemies together, let’s protest injustice together, let’s be gracious together, let’s listen and speak out together, let’s lock arms and recommit ourselves to following Jesus and being ambassadors of his kingdom together.

Grace and peace to you all, friends.

Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which
He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which
He is to bless us now.

– St. Teresa of Ávila

[Photo: From a cabin trip to Lake Anna earlier this month. It pretty well encapsulates what I’m feeling.]

How to Trust God

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church (Columbia Heights parish): “How to Trust God (or, How to Live in the Kingdom)”, based on Luke 11:37-12:34.]

Here’s what I think: in any given situation, you have a choice; and that choice is a matter of trust. The choice is whether you will trust God or whether you will trust something else. Every time you choose to trust God, you are demonstrating your citizenship, your residence in the kingdom of God. Every time you choose not to trust God, you are pledging your allegiance to some other kingdom and some other ruler. Most of the time, the choice doesn’t seem as clear as that and it’s hard to know what it looks like to trust God, but I’m convinced that most of the decisions we make can be traced back to this root choice.

Here are some ways we can trust God (more):

1. We trust God by trusting what he sees. 1 Samuel 16:7 says:

The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.

If the Lord looks at the heart, we may want to be working, first, on our hearts and not just on the outward appearance that people look at, and second, on the ways we look at the outward appearance rather than the heart. We live in a culture that glorifies the superficial, that celebrates the artificial, that idolizes physical attractiveness, even while things like character and maturity are undervalued and neglected. We look at the outside; God looks at the heart.

Jesus says, in Luke 12:2-3:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

This word is a challenge to me, a challenge to the way I live my life. Many people in our church just get to see me on Sundays, and hopefully whether I’m preaching or leading worship or just greeting you at the door, they’re left with a good impression. But my prayer is that my whole life is pleasing to God, not just the parts that people see. My prayer is that the way I speak to Carolyn when nobody else is around is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I treat the homeless guy on the corner who’s asking for help is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I browse the internet, when no one else is home, is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I spend every dollar I earn and every moment of every day is pleasing to God, whether anybody is there to see me or not, whether I post it to social media or not, whether I’m praised for it by another person or not.

If we trust God, we’ll trust what he sees—that the inside is far more important than external appearances.

2. We trust God by trusting what he says. Because what we say reflects where we place our trust, and where we place our trust impacts what we say. In Luke 12:6-7, Jesus says:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

You are valuable to God. One of the struggles I know many of you deal with is how to be a Christian in non-Christian, and even anti-Christian, environments—whether that’s at school or at work or even in your own family. This is the challenge that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing, persecuted, their very lives threatened—do we fear God or do we fear people? Do you care more about what your boss thinks or about what God thinks? Do you care more about your significant other’s approval or God’s approval? Are you more afraid of your friends turning their back on you or of you turning your back on God?

Now, please don’t hear me saying that this means you should go all gung-ho and start adding John 3:16 to your work email signature or spouting off religious screeds on social media or running roughshod over your loved ones and what they think.

But what would it look like if you were to accept the truth that God says to you, “I love you, you’re mine,” every morning, every night, every moment?

How would that truth—that the God of the universe loves you, that your heavenly Father has got your back, even when you have no idea what’s going on in your life!—change the way you live your life? How would trusting what God says change what you say and do—at work, at home, in your friendships, in your relationships, on social media?

We trust God by trusting what he says, no matter what anyone else says.

3. We trust God by trusting that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

In one of his greatest challenges, Jesus says, in Luke 12:22-23:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Jesus goes on to say, “God provides for the birds and for the flowers. How much more will he care for you? Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink; your Father knows that you need these things.”

A couple weeks ago, we looked at what Jesus said about prayer, about how prayer begins with our understanding of God as Father, as the one who loves us and cares for us and seeks our good and will give us what we need. I love what Jesus says in 12:32:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Your Father knows what you really need, and he is happy to provide it. “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

The antidote to fear and anxiety, to greed and worry, is to trust God, to trust that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

  • It may be healing … or it may be strength for the journey.
  • It may be that relationship … or it may be restoration when your heart is broken.
  • It may be the new job … or it may be a context in which to mature.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said:

God will either give you what you ask, or something far better.

Because that’s the kind of God we serve. Because that’s what God is like.

At the heart of life in the kingdom of God, at the core of the eternal kind of life, at the center of the life Jesus desires for us to live is trust of God. Jesus lived this out in his own life. He loved others unconditionally because he trusted in God’s love for each and every person as created in the image of God. He was never defensive, never judgmental, and yet also never afraid to call out injustice and hypocrisy because he knew what God had said—about himself and about the way the world was meant to be. And he lived with few possessions, traveling among the poor, bouncing from house to house, trusting that God would provide, that his Father would give him whatever he needed to survive. He lived his life surrendered to the kingdom of God, submitted to the will of God, and gave his life on that cross, trusting that by his death he might win us life and trusting that God would vindicate him by raising him up from the dead. And God came through. God always comes through.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, a couple of pastors in California, wrote:

the gospel of the kingdom invites us to trust God in everything. Trust is demonstrated by our willingness to act as though what we claim to believe is true. Some will begin their journey with Christ by getting on their knees, praying a sinner’s prayer, and writing down the date, time and location in a journal. They will remember the experience for the rest of their lives. … Others will, by the grace of God, begin living as though they really do trust Jesus and their “decision” will be woven into their new actions and choices. They will simply begin to orient their lives around Jesus.

So where will you place your trust?

Prayer, the Kingdom of God, and Desperation

[Adapted from my sermon at The District Church: “How to Pray.”]

Georgia, in the 1940s. A young woman sits down at her kitchen table, opens up a notebook, and begins to write. Her hand moves slowly, hesitantly, across the page; you can tell she’s thinking as she’s writing, that her thoughts are running far faster than her hand can keep up, that she’s correcting herself in her head even before the words make it to the page. Eventually, she lets out a soft sigh and puts down her pen; she stares at the last words she’s written:

Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?

That young woman was the author Flannery O’Connor, and her question is one that, in some form or fashion, has been asked by millions of people in our time and for hundreds of years before us. It’s a question Jesus’ disciples directed to him as well—as we heard in our passage—and my hope and prayer is that this morning we’ll take a step toward answering that question.

Jesus prayed. He prayed after he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him; when crowds came looking for him, they often found him in deserted places, praying; he spent nights on mountains praying; he prayed on his own and he prayed in the presence of his disciples. Prayer was important—indispensable, in fact—to Jesus. It was at the core of his being; it was the source of his connection with God and his power.

But what is prayer?

There are two parts to the way I want us to think about prayer: Dallas Willard puts it this way—“Prayer is simply [1] talking to God about [2] what we’re doing together.” Tim Keller breaks it down into “[1] conversation and [2] encounter with God.”

Prayer is (1) asking things of God for our lives and (2) aligning our lives in the ways God asks of us.

See, the goal of prayer—this is John Ortberg, and this is key—“is not to get good at prayer, not to see who can spend the longest time in prayer. … The goal is not to pray with greater feelings of certainty, or greater eloquence, or even greater frequency. The goal of prayer is to live all my life and to do all my ministry [or work] in the joyful awareness that God is present, right here, right now.” The goal is to see more of God’s kingdom come on earth, to see more of what God wants to happen happening, to see more of up there come down here.

Kingdom Come Series

The way I like to define “the kingdom of God” is God’s rule and reign in every life and every sphere of life. God’s rule refers to the new way of living that God brings about and makes possible in every person’s life, and God’s reign refers to the realm where God is in charge, where what God wants to happen actually happens, where God’s will is done. It’s personal, it’s social, and it’s systemic; God’s kingdom is about all-encompassing transformation—God-filled, Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered transformation.

God’s been laying on my heart recently the necessity of desperation in the spiritual life. You may be pretty competent, pretty capable; you may have gotten where you are because you’ve worked hard or applied yourself or leveraged your abilities. And you should be thankful for the things God has given us. But let’s never allow those things to fool us into thinking we don’t need God. Jesus said, in John 15:5:

Apart from me, you can do nothing.

I heard a story recently about a boy who was watching a holy man praying by a river. When the man finished praying, the boy wandered over to him and said, “Will you teach me how to pray?” The holy man looked him deep in the eyes, then took his head, plunged it under water and held it there. When he let him back up, the boy was indignant. “What did you do that for?” he sputtered. The holy man shook the water from his hands and said, “I’ve just taught you the first lesson of prayer. When you want to pray as badly as you wanted to breathe when your head was under water, only then will I be able to teach you.

How desperate are you for the kingdom of God to come on earth as in heaven—the kingdom that Jesus said was so good and so desirable and so awesome that a person would sell everything he or she owned to have it?

Because here’s the thing: our ability to make space for God to move in the world and in our lives is directly proportional to our desperation for God. When I look back on the times in my life when I was most aware of God or felt most close to God or saw God’s power most tangibly, it was usually when I was broken, hurting, and helpless—after a break-up or when I had heart problems for no apparent reason or when my best friend from college was dying of cancer or when I realized I had absolutely no control over a particular person or situation in my life.

Desperation leads to honest prayer; desperation softens our hearts so that we can actually hear from God and be moved by God and be changed by God and be used by God.

And here’s the other thing: our desperation for God is directly proportional to our understanding of the reality of the condition of our lives and of our world—and to the complete inability we have to improve any of it apart from the power of God.

See, I think part of the challenge of praying for God’s kingdom to come is that we don’t know what that actually looks like—or maybe we haven’t taken the time to reflect on what that could look like. Because if we did, we’d be so captivated by what God wants to do and we’d be so cognizant of our absolute inability to make that happen, that our desperation quotient would be off the charts.

So let me start with this, from Revelation 21:1-4:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

There will be no more school shootings; there will be no more gun violence in our neighborhoods or bombs dropped on our brothers and sisters around the world; there will be no more kids losing their lives before they had a chance to grow up; there will be no more death.

There will be no more refugees without homes; there will be no more xenophobia or racism or fear-based politics; there will be no more kids waiting for families; there will be no more mourning.

There will be no more bodies ravaged by cancer; there will be no more marriages falling apart; there will be no more broken homes; there will be no more crying.

There will be no more addiction; there will be no more poverty; there will be no more hunger; there will be no more pain.

For the old order of things has passed away. I want that reality here on earth as it is in heaven.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for justice to be found in our halls of government, for the poor and sick to be cared for, for the homeless to be housed, for our schools to be places where kids can grow and learn in safety, for marriages and families to be restored, and for every single person to have a place to call home.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re also asking for our own souls to be transformed, so that the sin and selfishness in our own lives, the ways we lash out at others or hurt other people, our own addictions, our own destructive habits, our own distracted half-lives—might pass away and that we might increasingly take on the likeness and the shape and the character of Christ.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for our daily bread, trusting that God will provide not what we want but what we need.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for our sins to be forgiven just as we forgive those who sin against us, we’re asking for the things we owe to be forgiven just as we forgive what was owed to us, we’re asking for grudges to be dropped and for scores to no longer need to be settled.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re praying that when we face times of trial or temptation—whether that’s losing a loved one or losing a job or not knowing how you’re going to break an addiction or not knowing where your next rent check is going to come from or whether you’re ever going to get married or whether your marriage is ever going to get better or whether you’ll ever be reconciled to your kids—we’re praying that we wouldn’t fall away, that we would remain faithful.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for God’s grace and love and beauty and goodness to be found in every life and every sphere of life.

That’s what I want to see more of, and I don’t know about you but I can’t do any of that on my own; I need God to do that in me and through me and around me.

And thanks be to God, that’s exactly what God wants to do in me by the power of his Spirit living in me. That’s exactly what God wants to do in us by the power of his Spirit living in us.

I want to pray so that I can see the reality of things as they really are.

I want to pray so that I can catch a glimpse of God’s vision and God’s heart.

I want to pray because I have caught a glimpse of God’s vision and God’s heart.

And I want to pray because I acknowledge in absolute desperation my absolute inability to make any of that come to pass without God.

If you’re interested, you can also check out my “Prayer” blog series from 2012:

  1. Whom we’re asking
  2. What to ask
  3. How to ask
  4. What to expect

Love your enemies (MLK Weekend 2015)

Luke 6:27-36:

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. 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.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And 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.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.

[Adapted from Sunday’s message: “Love Your Enemies.” Listen to the full sermon here.]

TDC Love Your EnemiesThis weekend we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have turned 86 years old.

Dr. King’s dream was more than just legislation, more than just political action, though it included that. He dreamed of the Beloved Community, where we lived together in love and in reconciliation, and that came out of a desire to see more of heaven here on earth, a yearning to see God’s kingdom come and God’s will done here on earth. King’s vision was rooted in God’s vision. And God’s vision is rooted in love, including love for enemies.

Here in Luke 6, we find Jesus’ manifesto; this is Jesus laying out what the kingdom of God is all about; this is Jesus laying out a vision for life as God designed it. And, in some ways, it doesn’t make sense. Jesus singled out those who were poor, hungry, weeping, and hated because of him and said that they were blessed; and then he called out those who were rich, well fed, laughing, and well spoken-of, and he prophesied trouble for them.

That isn’t the way the world works, is it? We don’t have reality shows celebrating the poor; we don’t watch soap operas set in the slums; we don’t tend to post pictures on social media of ourselves crying; and when someone gets on our case for following Jesus, we don’t tend to use #blessed.

No, we have TV shows like, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; our tabloids reflect our fixation with those who have more than we do; being rich, well fed, laughing, and well spoken-of kind of sounds like the good life, doesn’t it? Sounds like the life many in our world strive for.

But Jesus proclaims a different kingdom, a kingdom that appears to be upside down—that’s what we’ve called this miniseries. But, if we think about it carefully, here’s the twist: the kingdom of God is actually right side up. If we really think about who Jesus is and what he says and what he does, if we really think about what the world would look like if more of the kingdom of God was here on earth—if we all did what Jesus told us to do—we’ll realize it’s actually the world that’s upside down; it’s actually the world that’s gotten it wrong; it’s actually the world whose dreams lead only to disappointment and despair and death.

Dr. King said, “Love your enemies,” because Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”

When I was in boarding school—I was about 16, I think—I knew a guy. We were in the same house—think Gryffindor and Slytherin-type houses—and so we saw each other a decent amount, but we weren’t that close because he was in the year above me; occasionally we’d play soccer together. One day I was in a friend’s room, and this guy came looking for my friend, who’d stepped out. He asked where my friend was; I said I didn’t know.

And apparently I said it in a way that didn’t go over well, because the next thing I know, he’s got me in a chokehold, shouting at me not to disrespect him. To this day, I have no idea what I did that set him off, but I knew that this guy, who was bigger and stronger than me, could do some damage if he didn’t let up. Fortunately, he does let up and he storms out of the room.

And I’m left there feeling angry, frustrated, humiliated, and a whole bunch of other emotions. I’m thinking about ways I can get back at him; I’m thinking about ways I can report him; I’m thinking about what I can do to make him feel the way he made me feel. In that moment, he was my enemy.

Who is your enemy?

  • A friend who hurt you
  • a boss who’s out to get you
  • an ex
  • a parent who left you
  • anyone in the other party, or on the other side of the aisle
  • anyone in a different socioeconomic or ethnic group—you might not be comfortable saying it out loud, but that’s where you are
  • anyone who thinks or acts or looks different from you.

Whoever it is, when you hear Jesus’ words, “Love your enemy,” your gut response is, “You can’t mean that person!”

Pastor John Ortberg describes love as:

a God-powered condition of being in which I will the good for everybody I come into contact with.

Love as Jesus understood it is a God-enabled act of the will, a choice to put the other person before yourself; it’s about seeking the good of the other in tangible action—like being generous to your enemies, praying for them, blessing them (not like “Bless your heart,” but actually blessing them), doing to them what you would want done to you if you were in their shoes (that requires empathy, a conscious decision of the will to identify and associate with the other). It’s not that feeling has no part to play with this kind of love, but it’s not the main part. So even if I don’t feel loving toward someone, I can still be loving toward them by willing and acting for their good.

Bill Pannell, a longtime professor at Fuller Seminary, said:

The real Jesus is really not nice. Packed full of love, and all of that, but whoever said love is neat and nice? … God’s fundamental interest in us is relationship. It’s for intimacy, a love affair. That’s the good news. God says, “I love you, and let’s get that settled.” But then God says: “Now I’m going to mess with you because there are things that need to get straightened out.”

That’s love. That’s the kind of love that Jesus was about. That’s the kind of love we try to be about here at The District Church. That’s the kind of love I’m trying to learn, the kind of love I want to show everyone. This kind of love envelopes every single person in an embrace of acceptance and welcome, and because of the depth of this affection, this love seeks and steers them toward their highest, God-defined good.

So, if this is what love is, why would we do this for our enemies? Why should we do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us? Well, it’s pretty easy to find people who only love those who love them back; almost everyone does that. But that’s the world’s definition of love, that does the bare minimum.

That’s not good enough for Jesus. Instead, he invites us to a higher standard, a higher way of living, a love that goes far beyond the letter of the law. This is a kingdom kind of love; at first glance, this kind of love seems naïve and self-defeating. But if we juxtapose the world’s way of loving with God’s, it’s not God’s way that ends up looking upside down; it’s the world’s.

mlkDr. King gave three reasons why we should love our enemies (in his great sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” from 1957). First, he said,

hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.

Think about it: if you hurt me and then I hurt you, you hurt me, I hurt you—the cycle just carries on, inflicting wound after wound.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Love is the only thing that can heal and restore and reconcile. Love is the only thing that can break a cycle of sin and destruction.

Second,

hate distorts the personality of the hater. … Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

When you hold a grudge, when you cling to bitterness or rage or hatred, when your being is bent on revenge or animosity or contempt, your soul shrivels because, as Aaron reminded us a couple weeks ago, your soul is made for God, made for eternity, made for relationship, made to love. These things enlarge us, make us more true, make us more real. And so when we do the opposite, our souls become smaller, less solid, thinner and stretched, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” as Tolkien might say.

Dr. King’s third reason why we should love our enemies was this:

love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.

It is only the power of the love of God working in us and through us that will bring about the Beloved Community that Dr. King dreamed of, that will heal a broken city and a hurting world, and bring reconciliation and new life.

Jesus also gives us a reason why we should love our enemies: to be like God, our Father, who is merciful and kind to all, including the ungrateful and the wicked. Since you are made in the image of this God, be like him in love and mercy; that’s what you were made for.

And, Jesus says, God will treat you in the same manner that you treat others. So “don’t judge, and you will not be judged.” This doesn’t mean don’t use your judgment—there are a lot of reminders in the Bible about being wise and making wise decisions. There are a lot of places where Jesus calls out evil and injustice; he doesn’t just say it’s okay. He calls it out, because there is a place for using your judgment. There’s a place, as Dr. King did, for standing up to injustice and oppression. What Jesus is saying here is don’t make a judgment about somebody else that they are beyond the reach of God; don’t put them down or hold them down with your bad attitude about them or your limited mindset and ignorance about what God is doing in their lives. “Don’t condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” In the same measure, in the same manner.

Let me be clear in all of this: Jesus is not setting out an exhaustive list of new rules; it’s not another checklist. Sometimes that can trip us up—our desire to have a to-do list. Legalism loves having things to do.

But if you do these things with a wrong spirit—for instance, “I’ll turn the other cheek now but I’ll get you back later!”—you’re missing the point. If you limit your love to the activities Jesus explicitly mentions here, you’re missing the point. If you show love to your enemy but don’t love your friends and family, you’re missing the point.

Jesus is not just giving us new activities to do; these are intended to be illustrations of what a certain kind of person does. These are the kinds of “upside down” things kingdom people do. We’ve been trying to press this home: who you are and who you are becoming is far more important than what you do, because what you do will come out of who you are. Jesus says this:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. … A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (6:43-45)

You can change the external behavior and not touch the heart, and miss the point. You can act in certain ways to present a certain front but not allow God to change who you are, and miss the point. Dallas Willard writes,

In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 180)

So are you becoming the kind of person who loves outrageously, as Jesus did, as we were made to? Are you becoming the kind of person who loves their enemies, as Jesus did, as we were made to?

Where the rubber hits the road is when you’re done listening to me and you leave here, and you encounter people. People are messy: at work, in play, in families, in friendships. That’s where the challenge is to love your enemies, to show other people what the love of God can do.

Jesus ends his sermon by saying:

Why do you call me,”Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete. (6:46-49)

There are only two camps: those who listen to Jesus and hear what he says and put his words into practice, and those who don’t. Those who survive the storms of life, and those who get swept away. The flood hits both houses. It’s not like, if you’re a Christian, life will be easy. God never promises that. Life will throw everything it’s got at you, whether you follow Jesus or not. Storms come for us all. The question is whether you’ll stand firm or not, whether you’ll listen to Jesus or not, whether you’ll do what Jesus says or not.

Let me tell you up front: following Jesus is something you have to commit to, something you have to work at, something you have to make sacrifices for—and this is true whether you’ve just started following Jesus or whether you’ve been following Jesus most of your life. Building a house on a foundation of stone in first century Palestine meant digging down seven, eight, ten feet, into soil and clay that, in summer, became as hard as bronze. It would be very tempting for a person to say, “You know what, this is too much work right now. You know what, the sun’s out; I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

And this builder, toil-averse and short-sighted, would not put in the work of building on a foundation of stone, would be caught out when the winter rains came, and would see his house swept away. Following Jesus will require intentionality and discipline and some forward-planning; it will demand that you make decisions you don’t want to make but you know are good for you; it will take you being in a community of love where others can encourage you and hold you accountable.

But above all, it will take you knowing this: God loves you. God says to you, as he said to Jesus in Luke 3, “You are mine; I love you.” That’s what formed the foundation of Jesus’ identity; that’s what allowed him to do everything that he did; that’s what allowed him to endure everything he did; that’s what allowed him to withstand all the storms of life that came his way—because he knew he was loved by God. If you know you are loved by God, you can withstand the storms of life. If you are a follower of Jesus, the storms of life can hit your house and you will not be shaken.

That’s why Paul writes, in Ephesians 3:17:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

See, I could say, “Go, love your enemies because Jesus says so,” and that would not be wrong. But it would be more right to say, “Go, love your enemies because God loves you. And God loves them too.”

“While we were still sinners,” Paul writes, “Christ died for us, and that’s how God demonstrated his love for us” (Rom. 5:8). Even though we didn’t deserve it, even before we knew we needed it, even when we were still enemies of God, God loved us and sent his Son to demonstrate this love, to reconcile and restore right relationship, and to make us new and to give us new life. And every day we receive new mercies, new opportunities. This is what the Father is like, pouring down blessing on blessing, even on the wicked and ungrateful. That’s what makes the gospel and the Christian faith so amazing and so unique, and yet so challenging and so controversial: it tells the story of an enemy-loving God who showed his love by sending his enemy-loving Son to give his life for his enemies so that his enemies might become his friends.

You know, when I was looking back over my life to think of someone I would’ve called my enemy, I recalled that moment in boarding school in an instant—it’s hard to forget! But it took me a long time to remember the guy’s name. Because I had long since worked through my own anger, given it up to God, forgiven the guy, and moved on. That incident is part of my experience; it colors who I am. But it does not have control of me because I trust that God’s love is stronger than anyone’s misdirected hatred, that God’s forgiveness is powerful enough to make me new and to overflow from me to others, and that God’s kingdom is the ultimate reality. We played soccer later that afternoon; and he came up to me. I didn’t know what he was going to do or say; I still wasn’t sure how to respond. But Jesus had already been working in my heart so that even before he apologized, he had already been forgiven. See, I follow a man named Jesus, who can take my pain and my hurt and my hate and my anger and my bitterness and my prejudice and my sin, and replace it with love, even for my enemy.

MLK arm in armMartin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, and countless others who fought nonviolently for civil rights, were able to love their enemies—and so can we—because we follow a man named Jesus who also stood up in the face of violent injustice and oppression, in the face of cursing and beating, in the face of hatred and taunting.

They were able to love their enemies—and so can we—because our Master is a man named Jesus who also knew that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” that in God’s kingdom the poor and the hungry and the weeping and the hated are blessed, that God has the final word, that God’s love overcomes.

That’s what Jesus came to show. That’s what he did show on the cross, the greatest symbol of selfless love, where he died for our sins, and even there, even then, he said, “Forgive them.” Even there, even then, to an undeserving bandit, he said, “You are welcome in my kingdom.” And three days later, he rose again, triumphant over sin and death. This is true; this is the reality we live in. And even on those days when it doesn’t look like it, and even on those days when it doesn’t feel like it, and even on those days when you’re not sure about it, remember:

Jesus has won.

Love has conquered.

The world has it upside down, not God.

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own – Oscar Romero

Reposting this beautiful piece–“Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”–in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated March 24, 1980. A champion for the poor, the oppressed, and the gospel.

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing  that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects  far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense  of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

[Yeah, I know I posted this exact same thing and same photo a year ago. But you wouldn’t have known that without the helpful “Related Posts” link below, would you?]