A sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 20th 2022. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus directs us to love our enemies.
Do you believe that you have been forgiven?
Do you believe that God has forgiven you your faults and your failings and your shortcomings and your sins; that God in the person of Jesus Christ has redeemed you and restored you and brought you to new life, a foretaste of the resurrection to come?
And do you believe that God has forgiven your enemies?
If I say, “I have no enemies” (to paraphrase a psalm), then I am deceiving myself, and the truth is not in me, for I am at times my own worst enemy, and I know that the world is divided amongst itself, and that oppression still stalks the poor in spirit and the meek who have yet to inherit the earth, that sin is the enemy of God’s good grace. We cannot avoid Jesus’ strong words by replacing them with milder alternatives or euphemisms. Christ does not lie. He knew what it was to have enemies, and he knows us.
Jesus recognized the existence of enemies. He did not try to sanitize the extremism of an occupying empire, nor the cruelty of crucifixion, by “agreeing to disagree”. He did not agree that he deserved such a vile death! He refused to engage the injustice system of Pilate and that trumped-up trial by Herod’s flunkies – this is important, because loving our enemies does not demand that we ingratiate ourselves with them, or with the ways of enmity – but neither would he tolerate violence against them, healing the ear of the slave injured while arresting him in the garden. Even from the cross, he forgave them. He loved his enemies, even to the bitter end.
So Wilfred Owen, poet of the Great War, imagined in “Strange Meeting” that the enemy he had killed on the battlefield welcomed him to the underworld with “hands as if to bless.”[i]
After two brutal world wars, the powers that be came together to negotiate the Geneva Conventions; to attempt to re-humanize our relationships with one another, with an enemy. They provide for things like the imperative after a battle, as soon as is humanly possible to search, rescue, treat, and aid all injured and sick, regardless of side, and to protect them from further harm. Enemies are not our enemies forever, and the demands of humanity outweigh any other declarations of allegiance, even in war. “Prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honour,” the articles declare,[ii] in a strange and somewhat perverse foreshadowing of our own baptismal covenant.
The burden of love outweighs all other duties, and not only toward those who love us. Even our secular treaties and rules of engagement declare it to be true. And still, Jesus goes further.
In the examples that Jesus gives to his followers on the plain, he is not talking about abstract love or lip-service to prayers for hypothetical persecutors. The occupying forces could and did conscript the people to bear their burdens, without regard to their interests or civil rights. If the people resisted, the occupying authorities could and did use force to persuade them to comply. As Rowan Williams writes in his haunting reflection and response to the events of 9/11, the soldier’s slap “is the kind of gesture that assumes no response at all; it’s designed to be the end of the story, because it simply affirms who is in charge.”[iii] The order of the soldier to carry his kit works much the same way.
But for Christians, for Christ, someone else is in charge. Someone else has the final say. For Jesus, for his close followers, there is the choice not to accept the premise of the order, of the injury; there is the invitation to tell a different story.
Melissa Florer-Bixler, in the beautifully titled, How to Have an Enemy, writes that “In the teaching to ‘turn the other cheek’ Jesus does not call us to passive reception of violence but instead to dismantle the power of the old order in creative, life-giving ways.”[iv]
We do have to be very careful with this passage, not to promote the acceptance of abuse or oppression, in any form, by anyone. This is not a prescription for submission to personal abuse and harm. Instead, turning the other cheek is possible, perhaps even permissible, only where it acts as the rejection of abuse, the refusal to accept a status quo of violence and force, of “might makes right”. In this way it becomes the emblem of a new reality, one in which Jesus has already led the way.
How do we love our enemies in this reality? We respect the dignity of every human being enough to do them the honour of believing what they are capable of, protecting the vulnerable from excessive and abusive power, confronting them with justice and with peace, without losing our own humanity, and without denying theirs. We strive for a world in which enmity is no longer necessary, because the poor are protected and the meek are respected and the marginalized have been centred and celebrated, and we refuse to take up the old tools of oppression and enmity to bring that world into being. To quote Florer-Bixler once more, “Resisting the desire for retribution is the announcement of a new world. It refuses the tools of death. In the end it will save our enemies too.”[v] And, it will preserve our hearts from sin, and our souls from entropy.
And if we say, that cannot be, that’s not how the world works – perhaps that is because we are afraid to live as though Christ really meant what he said, really went to the cross, even if we hope that resurrection will follow. “Be not conformed to this world,” wrote Paul, that former enemy of the church turned avid convert; “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
The kingdom of God is a whole new world order. Actually, it’s the original world order, the starting point and end of creation, which we’ve managed to mess up pretty brutally along the way. Jesus reminds us of the dream of God, in which justice and mercy flow like wine and water, and righteousness and peace have kissed one another, and he tells us that the dream is close at hand, if only we will wake up to it.
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you may discern what is good. That transformation is not an optional part of the process. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached, “Nonconformity is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life and is constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook. By opening our lives to God in Christ we become new creatures. This experience … is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists and freed from … cold hardheartedness and self-righteousness.”[vi]
That is where the other part of Jesus’ command comes in: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Pray for those who persecute you. Give to God your anger, your frustration, your enmity. Remember that you are forgiven, even for being your own worst enemy. Remember that God has judged, that God has justice, that mercy means that the oppressed will be restored, and the oppressors put in their place. Forgiveness, for God, is a first principle rather than an afterthought. Even so, trust God to deal with your enemies justly, acceptably, perfectly; however you may pray for them, God’s will be done.[vii]
Do you believe that you are forgiven?
Do you believe that God has forgiven you your faults and your failings and your shortcomings and your sins, and mine; that God in the person of Jesus Christ has redeemed us and restored us and brought us to new life, a foretaste of the resurrection to come?
If not, pray anyway. If so, let’s pray to live that way.
[i] Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”, collected in The Rattlebag, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, eds (Faber and Faber, 1982), 407
[ii] Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. Respect for the persons and honour of prisoners. Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Treaty.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=77CB9983BE01D004C12563CD002D6B3E, accessed February 2022.
[iii] Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (Wm B. Eerdmans, 2002), 24-25
[iv] Melissa Florer-Bixler, How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger & the Work of Peace (Herald Press, 2021), 101. This sermon is indebted to Pr Florer-Bixler beyond the quotations cited.
[v] Ibid, 103
[vi] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Transformed Nonconformist,” collected in Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 2010), 17
[vii] See “Praying for Enemies,” in Melissa Florer-Bixler, op cit., 45-62