How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
(1 John 3:1)
What would you do for someone you love? It’s OK…don’t worry, you can answer. Valentine’s Day has passed for another year, so maybe your significant other won’t hold you to it for another 11 months. What would you do for someone you love? I think the answer changes as you go through different stages of life and different relationships with different people. What would you do for someone you love? The answer is different for the 13 year old with their best friend compared to the bride and groom on their wedding day compared to the new parent holding their tiny infant in their arms for the first time. What would you do for someone you love? People have had some pretty unbelievable answers and done some pretty unbelievable things for those they love. Recently, I read about the man who invented the pink flamingo lawn ornament, his name was Donald Featherstone. Donald loved his wife Nancy so much, that the two of them wore matching outfits for 35 years. (Maybe a bit odd, but…) Unbelievable! I heard about a Chinese teenager named Lui Shi Ching whose friend had a debilitating disease that prevented him from walking well. So, Lui carried his friend to school on his back every day for 8 years. Unbelievable! I bet you might not be familiar with the 17th century ruler of the Mughal Empire in India. His name was Shan Jahan, and he was completely in love with his wife. Even though theirs was an arranged marriage and he didn’t even get to see her until the wedding, the two of them fell head-over-heels in love and built a large family together. When she died giving birth to their 14th child, Shan Jahan was devastated. He ordered the whole empire to mourn for his wife for two whole years. Shan Jahan refused to be seen in public for an entire year. When he came back into the public eye, he decided to build a tomb worthy of the woman he loved so much. You’ve probably never heard of Shan Jahan, but you’ve definitely heard of the tomb he built for his wife – the Taj Mahal. What would you do for someone you love? Unbelievable love does unbelievable things.
You’d do a lot, maybe even anything for someone you love. So how about for someone who’s your enemy? What would you do for someone who hates you? That’s one of the many provocative sounding things Jesus says in our gospel lesson. But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies. But he doesn’t stop there. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
When Jesus says this, maybe the biggest question that comes into our mind isn’t so much “What?!” but “How?!” Love my enemies? That’s completely counter-intuitive! Everyone knows what you’re supposed to do with your enemies…and it isn’t love them! When we hear the word “enemies,” our minds might run to those mask-wearing, Christian-killing, church-bombing ISIS terrorists, or some genocidal despot from recent world history – we immediately think those people are our enemies. And, I suppose that’s true enough, they are opposed to the gospel and everything we are as Christians, but chances are you’ll never meet them, much less be able to actively love them. Certainly, pray for their conversion and that God would grant them repentance and a stop to their sinful actions. But when you think of loving your enemies, think a little closer to home. Do you have any? Maybe you wouldn’t call them your enemy…at least not out loud. But you know the person – he’s the guy you avoid because you don’t feel like getting in a fight today; she’s your biggest critic and, coincidentally, the one who’s least helpful when it comes to resolving her criticisms; he’s the guy who will always find a way to blame you, even when he screwed up; she’s the one who’s got opinions and is never bashful about sharing them with you, never once taking your feelings into account. Those are the people Jesus is telling me are the beneficiaries of my love, my prayers, and my kindness? “How?!”
Jesus doesn’t leave us without an answer to that vital question, but as is often the case, the solution seems worse than the problem. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 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. But Jesus, this sounds like an instruction manual for how to be a total pushover! LOVE my enemies? Maybe if I want to get walked all over. Turn the other cheek? Then I’ll be a target forever. Give freely to the one who asks, no matter who it is? Then I’ll be a mark for people to take advantage of me. Do you see how quickly even the mind inside a Christian person can work to find some wiggle room for the sinful nature? It’s almost as if we hear what Jesus says and immediately think, Well, Jesus CAN’T mean that!!! But he does! It’s vital to understand one thing about these words of Jesus: Jesus isn’t giving us worldly advice on self-defense, legal procedure, or financial management. He’s teaching us a lesson of love. When I see those opportunities to forgive, to give, to be generous, ultimately to show love – my question shouldn’t be, How can I avoid being taken advantage of, scammed, or walked on? When I see those opportunities – even with my “enemies,” my thought process is always, “I have been shown unbelievable love in Christ. How can I reflect that to this person next to me?” In other words, “How can I be Christ to this person?”
Here’s a helpful exercise we can try this morning, but it’ll require a little work with grammar. Take every imperative (command) Jesus speaks and then change it to a statement of fact with your name as the subject of the sentence. So, Jesus says, Love your enemies. Now try, “Matt Scharf loves his enemies.” Jesus says, Do good to those who hate you. Now try, “Matt Scharf does good to those who hate him.” And we can keep going – “Matt Scharf turns the other cheek; Matt Scharf gives to everyone who asks no matter who it is or what they want; Matt Scharf never demands back what belongs to him; Matt Scharf will let someone take the clothes off his back if they need them.” Did you play along with that little exercise? Did you put your name into each of those sentences? How’d you do? Feeling pretty honest, or feeling pretty defeated? I can’t even make it past the first one. Let’s try that exercise again, but this time instead of your name, put Jesus’ name into the blank. “Jesus loves his enemies; Jesus does good to those who hatedhim; Jesus gives to everyone who asks, and never demands back what belongs to him; Jesus blessed those who cursed him and prayed for those who mistreated him.” Do you see the point?
For every time you have failed to be Christ to the world and reflect his unbelievable love to me, remember Christ first came for you. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and he knew a thing or two about it. Father, forgive them! was his prayer for those who drove nails into his hands and feet. Jesus didn’t avoid those who were different from him or even those who, at the time, were at odds with God. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Jesus loved everyone. In fact, Jesus loved the worst enemy of all – Jesus loved this worst enemy, the one who was born into this world completely hostile to him. Jesus loved this enemy – the one who was blind and in the dark with no desire or ability to come to the light. Jesus loved this enemy – the one whose every sin and rebellion was shaking the fist of defiance against God. Jesus loved this enemy – the blind, dead, hostile sinner – it was you and me. God demonstrates his own love for us in this – while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That’s unbelievable love that does unbelievable things… we’d never believe it, but God has promised it!
The backwards sounding things Jesus says today follow on the heels of last week’s gospel lesson. Do you remember that one? Jesus just came out and said it – You’re blessed, blessed, blessed. Even if you’re poor, hungry, weeping, hated, or rejected. You’re blessed. Why? Not because of your circumstance, but because of your Savior. Do you see the connection? Last week, Jesus tells us, “Here’s who you are, you have been brought from death into the very life of Christ,” and now this week, “Here’s what that looks like.” You’ve freely received the unbelievable love of God in Christ. And now, grace upon grace, God puts you into this world as a recipient of his unbelievable love and has turned you loose to express unbelievable love by doing unbelievable things. He puts you into a crowded world with people around you as a husband or a wife; a mother or a father; a son or a daughter, a worker or boss, a church member, a friend – and calls on you to show that same unbelievable love to everyone who crosses your path – whether friend or foe. “How?!” Jesus has released you from the slavery of trying to climb the ladder to God based on your own goodness, he has given you his own perfect righteousness, and has set you free to show a love that reflects who you are and whose you are – a love that seeks, saves, and serves others just like it seeks, saves, and serves you.
As people who are not condemned and, in Christ never will be, we rejoice to take what Jesus says here and translate it into real life. Unbelievable love and the unbelievable things it does are always directed outside myself, to my neighbor. I’m not in a bubble of isolation. Instead, in every one of my encounters in life – no matter who it is – there’s my opportunity for Christ’s unbelievable love to me to do unbelievable things through me. Christ’s unbelievable love is what motivates the man to be willing not just to lay down his physical life for his bride, but to spend his years putting her first, looking out for her best interests, and loving her as Christ loved the church. Christ’s unbelievable love is what motivates the wife to have her only thought be, “How can I help my husband be Christ to me today?” Christ’s unbelievable love is what motivates you to repay good even when you receive evil, because that’s exactly what Jesus has done for you. Christ’s unbelievable love is what motivates the Christian to do some unbelievable things – like pray for the people who make them angry; forgive someone even though they haven’t (and never will!) meet your standard of reparation; give so generously that people will be left thinking – “That’s unbelievable!” Yeah, that’s kind of the point. Christ’s unbelievable love is what motivates each of us to die to my own ideas and desires and look to the needs of others. Only the love of Jesus is what moves me to be patient with those who grind my gears and forgiving the sins of those who don’t deserve it – just like Jesus did for me. We don’t live and love to earn God’s favor. We live and love because we already have God’s favor in Christ. That’s unbelievable…but that’s his promise!
This portion of Luke’s gospel really isn’t all about you and me – it’s about Jesus and his unfailing love for people. From his unfailing love, he allows the rain to fall on the righteous and the wicked alike. From his unfailing love, he calls and equips sinners like you and me to be what he has declared us to be – holy and blameless in his sight. Jesus’ unfailing, unfathomable, unbelievable love to you and me equips, enables, and empowers us to love. What would you do for someone you love? How about for your enemy? How about for anyone? Something unbelievable in Christ!
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.