Midweek sermon: Luke 6:27-36
This reading is part of what’s sometimes called ‘the Sermon on the Level Place’, and it has both similarities and differences to Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Luke’s version of the sermon is only ¼ the length of Matthew’s, and just prior to this sermon, in Luke 6:12-16, Jesus is on a mountain where the twelve disciples have been called from a larger group of disciples and given a new title by Jesus: they are now Apostles. They then go down to a level place where Jesus delivers his sermon to the crowd.
We see from verses 17-19, the crowd that makes up Jesus’ audience consists of three groups of people: a very large crowd of disciples, his twelve newly ordained Apostles, and a great number of people from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. So the people listening to Jesus are a diverse group of Jews and Gentiles, many who were troubled with diseases and evil spirits, who came to hear him and be healed.
The section of the sermon that we’ve heard this morning begins with Jesus saying, “Love your enemies”, and the same phrase is repeated at its close in verse 35. This part of the sermon is made up of principles that Jesus requests his followers to live by: do not reciprocate, retaliate, or sink down to the level of your enemy; do not re-act, but act according to the principles of love, forgiveness and generosity, for these are the principles of the Kingdom.
The Golden Rule is in here, too, verse 31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. The world seems to want to re-interpret that as “Do to others as you have been done by”. Retaliation is the expected norm. It’s as if we can’t fight against Newton’s laws of motion which apply to mechanics – Newton’s third law states “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction...”
So how can we fight against our worldly inclination to sink down to the level of our enemy? At this point I have to say that I can’t think of anyone who I would call my personal enemy. But I have known people who haven’t liked me, and there have been people who I haven’t liked, but I don’t think I would go so far as to call any of them my enemy.
I have heard and read stories of people who have had serious enemies, though. We have probably all heard stories of people who’ve been mistreated, abused or even killed. The actions of enemies of this kind can be categorised as racism, genocide, child abuse, paedophilia, domestic violence, bullying, discrimination –I’m sure we could all think of other categories of wickedness and evil. And we might say there are enemies of our country or of our religion, too.
To love our enemies does NOT mean that justice need not be served. In the case of a criminal offence, loving our enemy can mean ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice, for the sake of the victim(s) and for the sake of the offender. But our spiritual calling remains to love our enemy.
This has to be one of the greatest challenges for the Christian. When I was training at ‘vicar school’ we took a field trip to Thorn Cross Young Offender’s Institute where the Revd Shawn Verhey is chaplain. They run the Sycamore Tree Restorative Justice programme there, where offenders explore the effects of their crimes on the victims, on themselves and on the community, and there’s an emphasis on taking responsibility for their personal actions. While we were at Thorn Cross, we heard from a woman whose son was killed by one of the young men held there. This young offender had taken part in the restorative justice programme and so this lady was invited to meet with her son’s murderer. Eventually through the programme and a lot of soul work this Christian woman told us that she was able to forgive her son’s murderer, and not only to forgive him but she also was beginning to help this young man to change his life as he was preparing for his release from prison.
Martin Luther King Jr said this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” One of my favourite theologians, Miroslav Volf, says: “The refusal of victims to let violence committed against them contaminate their souls must be one of the most difficult and most heroic acts of which a human being is capable”.
Love your enemies. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived like this? But in our worldliness, we want there to be another way – a way in which we can ‘get our own back’ – a way in which our enemies are made to ‘pay their debt of pain’, as one sister-in-Christ puts it. Then she remembers that she never had to pay her debt – we have been bought with the blood of Christ.
Volf, again, says, “God’s love is broad enough to include evildoers, the worst of them. We know this because Christ died for their salvation no less than for the salvation of the rest of us who are one and all by nature God’s enemies”. God has shown mercy to all of us who are rebellious, wayward children. To be able to love our enemies we must first be very clear about what God has done for us, who are also unworthy. One commentator (Craddock) says, “Rather than a person hating in response to hatred and loving in response to love, Christian behaviour and relationships are prompted by the God we worship who does not react but acts in love and grace toward all... God behaves with favour toward persons whose life-style does not merit such favour; we are to relate to others with this same graciousness”.
The kind of love Jesus is talking about in this passage is ‘agape’ love – which is akin to benevolence, compassion and goodwill. I have trouble even loving those who aren’t my enemies with agape love. But I do know that loving difficult people is much easier when you pray for them. Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”. If you can begin to pray for your enemy (or enemies), you will begin to see them in a different light. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible – and Jesus says ‘your reward will be great’, because it is liberating.
A woman who has suffered much at the hands of enemies, Ann Voskamp, has written a beautiful prayer, on which I have based this prayer: Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have. Enemies have loosed me from earth more than friends have... Enemies have made me a hunted animal, finding safer shelter than an unhunted animal does. I found safest sanctuary in You... may too my enemies. I found greatest grace in You... may my enemies find Your generous grace alive and radical in me. I found fullest forgiveness in You... may my enemies find faith and freedom in You and Your forgiveness working surprising ways in me. The longer I walk with you, Lord, I find I have no enemies: only the gift that you are moulding and shaping me deeply. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.