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.

God’s will for your life

Today’s commentary from slacktivist on the Left Behind series features a great section on God’s will–especially in its critique of the perspective which is prevalent in the American evangelicalism that subscribes to the theology found in the books. (Wow, that was a convoluted sentence!) Many of you, I think, will know the kinds of things we’re talking about–I certainly do, having grown up in certain church traditions that subscribed to this–what I’ll call “misguided”–theology.

Anyway, I’ll let slacktivist speak for himself (with a couple of added annotations and emphases):

This idea of God’s Will For Your Life is not an easy thing to describe to those not wholly immersed as natives of the American evangelical subculture. I doubt I can fully convey the meaning or pervasive influence of this notion for those inside that world, but let me try.

God’s Will For Your Life is far narrower and more specific than the notion of a divine “plan” that you might glean from Campus Crusade’s Four Spiritual Laws tract — “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” (Or, as those of us more critical of Campus Crusade’s genitalized Gospel sometimes put it, “God loves you and has a horrible plan for your wife.”) [Ed. Hahaha … Nicely put.]

What it means, rather, is that your life and happiness have been mapped out ahead of time with a suffocating specificity. There is one job — one particular, singular job — which is God’s Will For Your Life. And there is one potential spouse — one particular, singular spouse — who is GWFYL. And thus every decision which might in any way lead toward or away from either of those must be pondered with an agonizing consideration of just what is GWFYL. Every date (or “courtship”), your choice of college (or Bible College) and choice of major is a fork in the road leading closer to or farther from this narrowly appointed happiness.

This notion of GWFYL transforms the process of living into something like the fairy-tale path through the haunted forest — the Mirkwood trail or the Yellow Brick Road. Except that those paths in those stories are always clearly marked, whereas the trail of GWFYL is invisible and inscrutable and can only be intuited by some visceral sense of spiritual leading.

The idea is a kind of spiritualized version of the romantic pipe-dream of The One — and it tends to produce the same fearfully tentative, second-guessing approach to living. There’s a bit of good advice in Conor Oberst’s “First Day,” in which he sings, “I’d rather be working for a paycheck / than waiting to win the lottery.” But the notion of GWFYL or of waiting for The One turns that advice upside-down, viewing such practical work as a dangerous distraction from one’s lottery-playing duties.

One reason I don’t much care for this idea of GWFYL is that I’ve seen its effect on young evangelicals forced to shoulder its crushing burden. No one can live like that, governed by an ultimate-stakes gamble based on unwritten rules, offering no assurance other than that the potential for inadvertent-but-damning disobedience lurks in every decision.

Just as importantly, I don’t care for the way this notion takes something explicitly clear and invariable — the will of God — and twists it into something mysterious, ever-changing and idiosyncratic.

What is God’s Will For Your Life? the prophet asks, and then answers his own question, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That’s from the Bible — a book that’s rather repetitive and unambiguous on the question of GWFYL. On God’s will for everyone’s life, actually. See for example here or here or here or here or here or here or here.

But somehow none of that ever enters into evangelical conversations of career and romantic prospects and GWFYL. Whatever it is supposed to mean, GWFYL doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with acting justly or loving mercy or breaking the chains of oppression or setting the captives free or feeding the hungry or comforting the sick or giving freely to those in need or planting gardens or ensuring that the city prospers or loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

P.S. His commentary on the Left Behind series is hilarious, insightful and theologically sound. Go check it out!

P.P.S. One book that really helped me on this subject was Kyle Lake’s Understanding God’s Will: How to Hack the Equation Without Formulas.