Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Love Your Enemies

On June 15, I preached the following sermon based on Luke 6:35-42 at the same little St. Louis church where I preached my "church growth" sermon this past Sunday. Actually my whole sermon is pretty much based on the first four verses of the lesson:
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. And do not judge and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And oh, is that hard! Our flesh tells us that the thing to do with enemies is hate them. Our culture teaches us to stand up for our rights. Our world teaches us that if someone is an enemy to you, you had better be an enemy to them, or they will triumph over you. But Jesus asks something that runs contrary to the wisdom of our flesh, our culture, and our world. He asks us to be a neighbor, like the good Samaritan, even to the point of helping someone who would cross the street to spit on us any day of the week. Jesus asks us to yield our rights, turning the other cheek when someone slaps us–that is, offering them a chance to strike us again–and giving up our shirt when someone demands our jacket. And Jesus asks us not to be a better enemy than our enemies, but to be a friend to them. That is so hard!

Jesus says, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”. This is a lot to ask of proud, penny-pinching Germans. We consider it a virtue to keep careful track of everything we earn and spend, everything we owe and are owed. But Jesus puts a high premium on self-sacrificing love (I wonder why). He expects his disciples to “do good,” which means to give alms to the poor, and to “lend, expecting nothing in return.” And that’s just what he says about money.

“Be merciful,” Jesus says. “Judge not,” He says. “Condemn not,” He says. “Forgive,” He says. “Give.” In other words, let people walk all over you. Let them offend you by their crass behavior. Let them take what belongs to you until they have bled you dry. These are hard commands to accept. And, at first, Jesus’ reasons for obeying these commands seem harsh. Be merciful, so that God may be merciful to you. Do not judge, or you will be judged. Do not condemn, or you will be condemned. Forgive, so that God may forgive you. Give, so that God may give to you. It might seem like Jesus was saying, “Do all this, or it will go worse for you.” And that wouldn’t be completely wrong.

Perhaps you have heard the parable of the unforgiving servant. He owed his master a large amount of money. When his master demanded to be paid, the servant begged for more time. Taking pity on him, the master forgave his debt. While he was walking away from that meeting, the forgiven slave met another slave who owed him a few bucks. Even though the other slave asked him to be patient with him, the one who had been forgiven grabbed him by the throat and started strangling him. “Pay back what you owe!” he screamed.

This behavior was so scandalous that the witnesses reported it to their master. The master called the first slave back and un-forgave him. “You wicked slave,” the master said, “I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” And his master angrily handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that he owed. Jesus ends the story by saying: “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” So make no mistake, we will pay an awful price if we do not obey Jesus’ commands to love our enemies, be good, lend, be merciful, judge not, condemn not, forgive, and give.

How often have we failed to live up to these commands? How many of us, at this very moment, live with a hatred in our heart that will not die? How many of us cherish resentment against our parents, a rival at work or at school, a boss, a teacher, a crummy neighbor? How many of us feel bitterness whenever we reflect on how we have been wronged? When we see someone with their hand out, begging for money, how often do we quicken our pace, or turn our head away, and justify ourselves with thoughts about how that guy was probably looking for money to buy drugs? How often is a good friendship ruined because a loan of money wasn’t repaid?

How often do we pass by someone in need of help, thinking someone after us will surely stop and help? How often have we judged and condemned someone in our hearts, or in our gossip with one another, because of what we only suspect but cannot prove? How often have we stiffed the church collection plate, the local charities, and other worthy causes because we didn’t have enough money to support them–and yet how often haven’t we somehow found enough extra money to enjoy a special treat for ourselves?

Do these questions make you feel like you’re under a bright spotlight? Do they make your insides shrivel with shame? They do for me. I see my sin in many of those examples, and I trust you can see yours as well. Each of us deserves to lose the blessings that Jesus promises to those who keep His commands; each of us deserves to be treated by God the way we have treated our fellow man. And that would be a terrible thing.

But Jesus isn’t done talking yet. Jesus does say that if you do not forgive, God will take His forgiveness away from you. In Matthew 6 He says: “If you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” He also teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The negative side of this is that we lose God’s forgiveness by being unforgiving. The positive side is that God promises His forgiveness to those who forgive.

Do you earn forgiveness by forgiving? No. God’s forgiveness is gracious, unconditional. He remits our debt without expecting to be paid–exactly what Jesus asks of us in Luke 6. But we love God as He has loved and forgiven us. And we forgive our neighbor as He has forgiven us–because He has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is the basis for our forgiveness. Indeed, the debt God forgives us is so much greater than what anyone owes us that it would be absurd for us to hold a grudge when God does not. It would be inconsistent with the life we now have in Christ, a life founded on God’s forgiveness. It would be so scandalously inconsistent that our inability to forgive would offend people, inside the church and outside, in heaven and on earth. And our unwillingness to forgive would betray God’s forgiveness to us.

But how can Jesus say that if we forgive, God will forgive us? And if God forgives us first, so that our forgiveness is based on His forgiveness, why does He have us pray, “Forgive us as we have forgiven them”? This isn’t as contradictory as it might seem. God wants to give you every incentive to live according to His mercy, love, and forgiveness. He wants to do everything possible, and even the seemingly impossible, to strengthen you in your weakness. He does not only stand behind you with a stick, threatening to hit you if you do not move forward and do as you were told. He also stands in front of you with a carrot, leading you, enticing you forward with sweet promises. And because of this promise that your forgiveness will turn into God’s forgiveness–because Jesus promises that if you give, God will give to you in abundant, overflowing measure–then your very act of forgiving, giving, and being merciful to your neighbor becomes a sign of Christ’s promise to you. Suddenly, your forgiveness is a sign that God has yoked to His gracious Word. When you give the forgiveness He asks you to give–the forgiveness you can give on the basis of His forgiving love toward you–that act of forgiveness should remind you of Jesus’ promise. Like a string tied around your finger as a reminder, like a picture that illustrates words, and even more than that, like a sacrament, your forgiving your enemies is not just a sign that represents God’s forgiveness, but a sign that brings His forgiveness to you.

I have focused on forgiveness because this is the most important blessing God has in store for us. Everything else–spiritual growth, strength, eternal life–are bonus that come with the package. But without God’s forgiveness, we cannot hope for the rest. Jesus lived such a life of goodness, mercy, forgiveness, and generosity. He lived it for us, even while suffering and dying at the hands of people who knew nothing of these virtues. He suffered and died for us, because we lack these things too; He suffered and died to pay for our sin and to bring us God’s forgiveness. And now, having forgiven us, God institutes these promises so that, as we live in the forgiveness He has brought to light, as we share with others the overflowing abundance of His love, we can receive more demonstrations of His forgiveness, more reassurance of His mercy, more relief from His judgment and condemnation, until we are completely filled with the certainty of salvation.

All these good things will grow in us as we continue in His Word and Sacrament, as we cling by faith to Christ’s gracious promises and to the words and signs that deliver His blessings. God will give you good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, pouring into your lap. As He has been merciful to you in Christ, you will grow more and more merciful toward your neighbor the longer you live in His grace. And though the idea of heaping burning coals on his head may be a nice incentive for showing kindness to your enemy, it pales next to the reflection that Christ died for you while you were still God’s enemy–not to burn you, but to save you. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10). God grant that His Son may live in us, so that He may work in us all things that please Him.

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