St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 2nd Sept 2012
Reading – Luke 6:27-42
Everyone agrees we need more love in the world. You don’t have to be a preacher to say we’d all be a lot happier if people were kinder, more gentle and more respectful towards each other. In fact you don’t even have to be a Christian to talk about love. One of the defining songs of the 1960s was the Beatles classic – All you need is love. As I began preparing the sermon I looked up some of the lyrics from that song:
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing that you sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It’s easy – all you need is love…
Well, it’s certainly a great little ditty, and that’s one reason why it’s still so popular today. But simple words don’t necessarily make for great philosophy. Because when you start to think about how to love people, the one thing you realise is – it ain’t easy. What about people you dislike? Or people you disagree with? Or people who are completely different from yourself? How do you love them? I for one find it striking how quickly the hazy ideals of the 1960s were replaced by the strikes and riots and tensions of the 1970s and 1980s. Just singing songs about love won’t change the world – and maybe that’s something we as Christians also need to take on board.
Then of course there’s the whole question of what we mean by love. After all, the word love has many different meanings. I love playing chess and I love blues rock. But I love these things in a very different way from the way I love my family or friends. And then again many different people have many different experience of what love actually is. Some people have had positive experiences of love; some have had negative ones.
That’s why I started this morning’s service by reminding ourselves of how God loves us. Without looking at your notice sheet – was the memory verse for this morning? That’s right – While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Because whenever we come across Jesus’ teaching on love we have to remember how Jesus showed God’s love for us on the cross – completely, sacrificially, generously. You see, the cross is rather more than a theological idea or even a sort of example we should vaguely follow. If we know and love Jesus, the cross should be the pattern for our own lives.
That’s what Jesus meant when in the Upper Room He taught His disciples a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34). And as Jesus teaches us here in this passage our love shouldn’t just be confined to our fellow believers. Our love needs to reach out and extend into the wider world, even to those who hate us or hurt us.
So what does loving our enemies actually involve? Well, as I hope you can begin to see, it involves more than simply being nice to people. It also involves more than simply tolerating wrong behaviour and attitudes as if they somehow don’t matter. It involves a commitment, a decision to seek the best for the other person no matter how much that person views you. Because that is what Jesus did for us when He died for us on the cross. Despite the fact we so often ignore God, break His commands, reject His love, God still sought to do the very best for us by sending His Son Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins.
What, then, might this mean for us in practice? I recently was reading in my quiet times of a couple working in a country closed for the gospel. Shortly before they were due to return to the UK, they heard one of their fellow aid-workers had been killed. While they were in the UK, they spent a long time praying with others as to whether they should return. In the end they decided they would and they testified to the joy and peace they had experienced after making that decision.
But I wonder, if you were in the same position as this unnamed couple, what would you have done? They sought the will of God in prayer, and when it became clear the Lord wanted them to return, they went. Now I expect few of us will ever face quite the same decision. But have we ever sat down and wrestled with the Lord in prayer about those people who oppose us, who make fun of our faith, who meet our enthusiasm for Christ with blank indifference?
There is no doubt Jesus’ teaching here is extremely challenging. Verses 27-28: But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If you wanted to start a world faith which would instantly attract lots of followers you wouldn’t begin with this kind of teaching, would you? Yet if the world is to truly understand God’s love, if people are to realise that God’s love is more than a fuzzy feeling or warm glow when we worship, then this is the challenge we need to take up. And as I shall make clear at the end, Jesus doesn’t give us this challenge and leave us to get on with it on our own. I firmly believe that if we are serious about putting Jesus’ words into actions, we will find more blessing and more joy than we can ever possibly realise.
But before I rush on and talk about the type of comfort Jesus gives to those follow Him, I think it is worth spelling out fully the extent of the challenge He issues in this passage.
First of all, He issues a challenge to our life as a church.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners’, expecting to be repaid in full.
Now of course it’s right that we have strong bonds of fellowship as a church. It’s right that we are there supporting one another, helping one another in the good times and the bad, being generous to those who are in need. We are the body of Christ and we need to show the love of Jesus to each other. But when than love draws in on itself, when it is reserved only for those who are already members, then we are no longer the church Jesus wants us to be.
I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of visiting this kind of church. You are a newcomer and a stranger. When you are turn up, everyone is very friendly and welcoming to you. You enjoy the service and you decide to hang around for coffee. You take up your cup and look around for someone to talk to. Only you discover all the church members have formed into little huddles, discussing some business that’s strictly between themselves. You end up on your own, reading and re-reading the church noticeboard, memorising the details of the fire regulations and flower rota.
If that has ever been your experience of church here at St Barnabas and St Michael’s, then I can only say I am sorry. Thank you, at least, for coming back. Our love for each other needs to be constantly spilling out into the wider world. It starts with welcoming with newcomer and the stranger in our midst. But it does not end there. Our love needs to go out more widely into the situations our church members face each day, into those difficult parts of the parish people never choose to visit, into the lives of people others label as a problem and as a nuisance.
Yes, there is no sure or easy way for growth as a church. But an attitude of outward-looking, Christlike, costly love has to be the start. That’s why our Mission Action Plan – do you still have your copy? – takes the form of the tree. As we draw on the love of Jesus, as our love grows and deepens as a church, so it spreads outwards to wherever Jesus calls us as His body, His hands, His hands in a broken and bruised world, whatever the consequences.
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
So Jesus challenges our life as a church. Secondly, He challenges our attitude to others.
Now what do you think Jesus meant when He said Do not judge, and you will not be judged? Some understand Him as saying we as Christians should never judge others, that we should never form a firm opinion about others. But even a little thought shows this can’t be quite right. We all need to make judgements about people day by day. When Jesus called His disciples to Himself – as we saw last week – He made decisions as to which twelve people would become His apostles and which would not. He didn’t choose them at random. He thought about their gifts and their potential, He thought about their strengths and their weaknesses. He even included Judas Iscariot, knowing that one day this man would betray Him.
So what did Jesus mean? Maybe the way to answer this question is to think about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. One of their grave sins was to write off whole categories of people – prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners. They weren’t prepared to look past the label and deal with individuals as people. It’s a bit like today when we talk loosely about greedy bankers. Now there’s no doubt that some bankers are greedy and some have wrecked the lives of millions. But I don’t think this means we should automatically write off all bankers as being the same. After all, I don’t know any top bankers personally and so I am not in a position to judge.
And when it comes to this whole business of loving our enemies, Jesus is teaching us that we need equally to be generous. Because when we commit ourselves to sharing the love of Christ with the unlovely, the unloved and sometimes the apparently the unlovable it can be all too easy to write people off as drug addicts or alcoholics or benefit cheats without ever bothering to get to know them. The whole thrust of Jesus’ teaching here is on generosity and on costly engagement:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Now in the parallel passage in Matthew Jesus says: Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. There may be times when our love will be rejected, when our best efforts to reach out and understand will be trampled underfoot, and then it may be best to withdraw engagement. But so often we do not try to love because we have already pre-judged the person we are dealing with. Isn’t it fortunate that God chose not to love us in that way?
Jesus challenges our life as a church. Secondly, He challenges our attitude to others. And thirdly, He challenges our attitude to ourselves.
I would have loved to have been there when Jesus first told the story of the speck and the plank, or was older versions put it, the mote and the beam. If silent films had been around in those days His teaching could well have been made into something like a Laurel and Hardy film. There is a patient lying helpless on the operating table waiting for the surgeon. The doors of the theatre swing open. The surgeon comes in, with his hands all sterile and gloved. But he’s tied the face mask over his eyes, not over his mouth and his nose! The patient turns to the camera with a look of helpless terror as the surgeon comes near and begins to prod and poke.
I’ll leave you to work out what the ending might be. The point is, Jesus was telling a joke to make a serious point. When we seek to reach out with the love of Christ, yes, we want to reach people as they are. But we do also want to tell them of the real change that is both possible and necessary through the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Yet before we do that we ourselves need to be willing to allow Jesus to change us, to unmask our eyes so that we are aware of our own faults and failings.
You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. And of course, if you are wandering around with a plank in your own eye you can’t see clearly do it yourself. You need someone to help you. And that someone is Jesus as we come before Him openly, honestly and penitently.
There is just so much in our passage today, and I feel that in many ways I have only touched the surface. But to finish, let’s go back to the comfort I mentioned earlier on. There is no doubt Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies is a challenge. He challenges our attitudes as a church, towards each other, towards ourselves. But He doesn’t just give us this teaching and leave us to get on with it. Nor does He simply point us to the example of love He set on the cross two thousand years ago. No, if we are serious about putting Jesus’ words into practice, He promises to be right there with us, to give us the strength and wisdom and power to love that on our own we can never possess. In short, He promises to give us His Holy Spirit.
So let’s not discouraged by the teaching Jesus gives us. Let’s not leave them as some kind of ideal we could never hope to live up to. Let’s instead ask for that same Holy Spirit to equip us to make a real difference, by showing the world a love it does not know but so urgently needs, the love of Jesus who while we were still sinners died for us.
Edited version to remove copyrighted material