Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 5:43-45
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.

Love your enemies

One summer evening, a weary truck driver pulled his semi into an all-night truck stop. He was tired and hungry.  As he waited to be served, three tough looking, leather jacketed bikies decided to give him a hard time. Not only did they throw all kinds of verbal abuse his way, one grabbed the hamburger off his plate, another took a handful of his fries and the third picked up his coffee and poured it over the rest of his food.

How did the truckie respond?  How would you respond?  Well, this truckie didn’t respond as one might expect. Instead, he calmly rose, picked up his bill, walked to the checkout, paid what he owed, and went out the door.  The waitress watched through the window as he crossed to where his truck was parked.  She had known a lot of truckies and she was surprised that one of those bikies didn't end up with a broken nose.

As she turned around one of the cyclists said loudly, “Well, is that a truckie or a pansy?”

The waitress replied, “I don’t know about that, but he sure isn’t much of a truck driver.  He just ran over three motorcycles.”

Pay back, revenge, getting even, is an automatic reflex action when someone hurts us. 
Children do it.  A mother ran into the bedroom when she heard her seven-year-old son scream. She found his two-year-old sister pulling his hair. She gently released the little girl’s grip and said to the boy, “There, there. She didn’t mean it. She doesn’t know how much that hurts.”
With that he grabbed a handful of his sister’s hair.  As she screamed, he calmly said, “She knows now.” 

Adults do it.  A farmer noticed a car stop at the front gate of his orchard.  The occupants of the cars climbed over the orchard gate and proceeded to pick his apples without asking permission.  As he walked up to them, one of them smiled sheepishly and said, “We hope you don’t mind that we took a few of your apples.”
“No, not at all," said the farmer, “and I hope you don’t mind that I took some of the air out of your tyres without asking your permission.”

Nations do it and they even do it to their own people.  Retaliation leads to an escalation of violence and suffering often of innocent people caught in the middle.

No one likes to be a victim or to “lose face” in front of others and to walk away from a situation that is causing us harm.  There is something inside of us that says, “No-one is going to do that to me and get away with it”.  We have this inbuilt need to inflict hurt if we have been wounded and, if we can, make it hurt even more. 

Our news reports are full of reports about individuals and governments who retaliate, get revenge with terrible consequences.

At some time all of us have been caught up in this getting back thing. 
Someone says something about us that we don’t like and we fly back with instant stinging words. 
Someone does something and we swing around ready to give as good as we get given to us. 

Parents at home and teachers in school yards are always dealing with this kind of thing on a daily basis.  Go back to your school days.  How did those punch ups among the boys in the school yard and verbal cat fights among the girls get started. From an early age we know how to get even and it’s not just about protecting ourselves.  Parents and teachers taught us how to control this desire to get back but that desire to get back doesn’t go away – we just learn how to get back in different and more sophisticated ways.

When Jesus says, “Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you”, he is talking about the vengeance that sits in the sinful heart of every human being.  Even Christians are found with this vengeful spirit.  One can hardly begin to calculate the damage that has been done to the unity of families, between friends, of congregations, the wider church when Christians have let this spirit of anger and hatred take control.  Jesus was fully aware of how powerful this kind of thing can be, so he addresses this issue.  Jesus is addressing those of us who at some time find ourselves getting even with someone. 

But wait a minute.  Doesn’t the Bible say, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is a legitimate practice?  This is repeated in a number of the Old Testament books and so hitting back it okay?  Not at all.  This “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” principle was a guideline for judges in the law courts to be fair, not excessive, when passing sentence.  This has nothing to do with revenge.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus goes one step further and introduces a new concept – one that goes against the grain of human nature.  It’s a principle that has astounded the people of the world when it’s put into practice.  Jesus gives several examples – if someone insults you, if someone takes you to court, or you are forced to do something you don’t want to do (like carrying the pack of one of the detested occupying forces) don’t retaliate in anyway.  Instead, go out of your way to be friends with that person.  Go the “extra mile” to restore and maintain your friendship with that person who doesn’t regard you highly. And then Jesus adds this almost seemingly impossible sentence, “I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.”

Someone who did just this was David.  Before he became king he was hunted by King Saul.  He hated David and was determined to kill him.  On one occasion Saul and his men were exhausted from the chase, so they camped for the night and fell into a deep sleep.  David and one of his commanders crept into Saul’s camp walking amongst the snoring soldiers.  They came to King Saul, and the soldier with David whispered that he would be happy to kill Saul and end all of David’s troubles.  To David’s companion that was the sensible thing to do.  But David wouldn’t hear of it.  Saul had been appointed by God to be king and it wasn’t up to David to end Saul’s reign, no matter how horrible Saul had been to David.  David was not interested in seeking revenge on the king.

Don’t we find Jesus doing just this, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”?  His enemies hit him, whipped him and laughed at him and what does he do – he loved them and prayed for them, “Father, forgive them”?

These words from the Sermon on the Mount give us ample reason to reflect on our Christian journey and how well we are travelling living the new life that we received through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  As we witnessed the baptism of …. this morning, we were reminded that at our own baptism
Christ came to us and made us members of his kingdom and welcomed us into his family. 
He made us new and clean and heirs of eternal life. 
He gave us his own robe of righteousness and with the light of Christ in our hearts and lives.
He challenged us to go out be the light of the world, to make a difference in the lives of the people around us, to let the new life that we have make a change in our in attitudes and values and principles. 

“Let your light shine”, we are told.  And today we hear, “Let your light shine by not taking on the worldly attitude of getting back at those who wrong you but instead repay that person with kindness. 
If a person steals your shirt, don’t get back; offer him your coat as well. 
If you are forced to do something by someone you don’t like, don’t do it grudgingly, but do a bit extra. 
Love your enemies.  Love even those whom everyone else considers to be the most useless and no-hopers of society (in Jesus time it was tax collectors). 
Pray for those who give you a hard time”.

Often the hardest enemy to come to terms with is the person with whom you’ve had some kind of relationship in the past and are now estranged from you for whatever reason.  Think of Joseph in the Old Testament and how easy it would have been for him to take it out on his brothers for all the hurt they had caused him.  He had every reason to be filled with hatred.  As a prince of Egypt he had them in the palm of his hand and could have done his worst to them but instead chose to be reconciled to his brothers and to put the past behind him.  He chose love rather than revenge or harbouring ill-will.

As I said the Sermon on the Mount causes us to reflect on how well we have let the light of the gospel change us and renew us and unfortunately we realise that we need to spend some time on our knees as we confess that too often we have enjoyed the taste of sweet revenge, quietly rejoiced when we believe that someone has received their just deserts and failed to foster love and peace. 

This is the time to decide that it’s time to do something about the vengeful spirit that has taken control and affected a friendship or a relationship with someone in our family, with someone at work, or with a fellow church member.  Decide on forgiveness, mercy, and kindness rather than foster a hateful attitude. 

Loving those who hate you is not an easy thing by any means.  It’s so contrary to the way the world’s way of treating our enemies.  It’s easier to ignore those who hate us, or be unconcerned, but that’s not what Jesus is saying.  He says “love” – love unconditionally the same way Jesus loves us and died because of his powerful love for us. 

When he says, “love your enemies” he’s not saying that this is some kind of nice feeling but something that results in real action like sharing your coat or going the extra mile.  That’s a tough call but a real one nevertheless.  It’s a call that marks Christ’s followers as different to the rest of the world.  We are called to break the cycle of hatred and anger and return love and kindness and forgiveness and seek reconciliation instead.

That’s a tough call.  There is only one way we can do this and that is with Christ and the renewal that the Holy Spirit gives. May we grow to be ever more like Christ.
Even though we were enemies of God he has shown us love and grace and mercy.  By the power of the Spirit in us may we also show this same kind of love and grace and mercy to those around us. In this way we shall be the light of the world.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
23rd February 2014

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