During the recent inauguration, just last month, Franklin Graham stepped up to pray for the new president. He introduced his prayer by noting that rain had begun to fall just as the president had begun his speech to the nation. “Rain,” declared Graham, “is a sign of God’s blessing.” It appears that the new president was not too keen on that particular biblical interpretation of the signs of the sky, because he has since declared that as he began to speak, although it looked as though it might rain, it held off at God’s command, and in fact, the sun came out. That, he gave his opinion, was actually the sign of God’s blessing.
We may never know what the weather was really doing on that day in January. What we do know is that both men, preacher and politician, missed this line in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, where he confirms what we already knew in our hearts, though we so often wish it were otherwise: we know that the rain falls of the righteous and on the unrighteous, and that the sun rises not to single out those of God’s favour, but on the good and the evil alike.
Our blessings, God’s bounty and mercy are not, it seems, to be fenced in or parcelled out according to our ideas of merit.
If it were not so; if God granted individual climatic chambers to each of us based on our justification, then we would be locked into separate worlds. As it is, we are all in this life together, with our neighbours; even with our enemies.
The sun rises on the Roman soldier, and on his Jewish conscript, Simon of Cyrene, compelled to carry the cross of a convict for a mile outside the city. The rain falls on the fields of neighbours locked in a bitter legal dispute, suing the shirts off one another’s backs, while their crops grow side by side, and the birds and insects, free from such enmity, cross-pollinate their produce.
Once again, Jesus is still preaching his great Sermon on the Mount, and this week’s gospel selection continues from last week’s teaching about the law, which Jesus has come to fulfill. It is that law that we read in our first lesson, from Leviticus, which outlaws untruth, which demands an ethic of common justice devoid of economic influence. It is a law which pays the worker her due, and without delay, and which insists on feeding also the alien, the indigent, the unfortunate, for the sun also rises on them, and the same rain may fall on us. It is a law which spells out the prohibition of placing obstacles in the way of those already handicapped by their circumstances in life. It is a law made perfect in the dual commandment to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
And, as is becoming his habit, Jesus, in his exposition of this law to his disciples and to the crowds that surround them, goes one huge step further. Already, we know from Leviticus that our neighbour extends beyond the people we know. We are to care even for the alien, and the anonymous poor. So you have heard it said, says Jesus, and now I tell you, love even your enemies.
Love your enemies.
The love which Jesus describes is not a warm, fuzzy feeling towards those with whom we disagree.
It is a practical, active, defiant love which insists on doing right, right in the face of those doing wrong. It challenges abuses of the law by its stubborn and stoic resistance. I have this movie in my mind, rightly or wrongly, of the Jewish conscript forced to carry the burdens of a Roman soldier for a mile. Reaching the marker, the conscript says, now, this second mile is for me, and as I have heard your command to me, you will now hear the commandments of my God. And for a second mile, for just twenty minutes or so, the conscript becomes the conduit, God’s chosen people the messengers of God’s love to the world, reaching even into the conscience of a Roman imperial regiment.
Or maybe the man says, “Tell me about yourself. Tell me about the land you have left behind,” and perhaps they part, not as friends, but as fellow humans at least, locked in this journey together, under the same sun.
Love leads by example. A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest in a town on the north eastern coast, returned from vacation this week to find that someone had spray painted a swastika onto his car. “Blessed are you [my friend], when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt.5:11-12)
Rejoice, and be glad. Love even your enemies. Because love leads by example; and because he is a good man, and a fine priest, even so warned, this man will show up this morning at his parish and he will persist in proclaiming this gospel, this gospel that insists that no one is excluded from the love of God, and he will celebrate the sacraments of the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus; because this is how evil is overcome.
It is overcome by persistent justice, unflinching mercy, unrelenting righteousness. It is overcome by fierce, determined, deliberate love.
The love that Jesus describes is unflinching, unafraid, and it is relentless. Rebuked and reviled, love nevertheless persists. It refuses to be overcome. It will not give way to injustice. It turns the other cheek.
When Jesus was killed, and when he rose again, and presented his face to the Roman soldiers stationed outside of his tomb, they fainted away (Matt. 28:4). They fainted away at the sight of such love.
This love is not soft, or small. It is as old as creation. It is stronger than death. It reaches into every aspect of our lives, even those we thought were hidden in the tombs of our hearts. It roots out enmity. It rises on the good and on the evil, and love alone can tell them apart.
So go, be holy, for your God has made you holy. Go, be perfect, as Jesus has commanded. Tell the truth. Persist in doing justice in the face of chaos. Insist on mercy instead of instilling enmity. Know that love wins, that the love of God has already shaped this world, and continues to bend it towards God’s kingdom with every small act of love that endures, each day that the sun rises.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us of that love, perfect and holy. (Eph. 5:2)