Loving the Enemy
A sermon for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany
Today’s Gospel reading is a picture of the kingdom but equally a hard lesson to hear. We all know that Jesus asks us to go beyond loving one another and loving those who love us. We are to love even the enemy, the one who means us harm, the one who is not on our side.
Today we will look at a sort of Loving the Enemy 101, a beginner’s guide. Some of this may be helpful, some may be already familiar and some may seem incredibly difficult.
In our Old Testament reading we see the meeting between Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery. They are fearful of him and ashamed of themselves. Joseph tells them not to be dismayed, distressed and angry with themselves. Ultimately the brothers kiss, weep, and talk through all that has happened and all that will happen. They find a common story, a common past and a common future. It does not take away what happened or make it right but it gives them a path forward.
In the psalm we hear that in the midst of the wicked and wrongdoers we are to trust in the Lord and do good. In modern terms, as Michelle Obama said, When they go low, we go high. We model our life on Christ, not on the example of our enemies.
One of the first things we can do is to pray. We can pray about the situation, about that person, about ourselves, about others who may be affected. Prayer is powerful and while we may sometimes see results in and for others, the primary changes when we pray for our enemies are found in . . . us! We become the hands and feet of Christ to accomplish that which we pray for.
Today I want to share some sound clips with you. They are from Louisa Hope, one of the hostages at the Lindt Café siege in Sydney in 2014. Here is how she describes herself: My faith is the bedrock of my life. I'm not "religious" but I am a woman who loves God, who prays and who believes that God loves us and is faithful to his promise, as Romans 8.28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8. 28 NIV)
That is not bad for someone who declares herself to be not religious.
Listen to what she says about her prayers in that hostage situation. Notice that the focus of her prayers is not, Please save me Lord.
- Prayer (audio, length 00:59.81) [All audio clips are from the podcast at https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/conversations-louisa-hope/10779528]
Our second strategy is to transform how we see the enemy. Joseph said, I am your brother whom you sold into slavery. Being their brother came first. What lay between them came second. I am your brother whom you sold into slavery.
I ask you to think of someone with whom you disagree profoundly over an issue of importance to you. It might be political, religious, a family matter, a commercial transaction, anything where you both hold strong opinions that differ. Try to think of a reason they might give for their perspective on the matter. Now search for a reason why they might hold that view - a reason behind the reason. Continue that mining process and attempt to discover something you have in common. It might be a common value but you differ in how you would act on it. It might be a common experience of being shaped by the past or by your hopes for the future. Again, that shaping may have had different results. As no-one is fully good or fully bad, you will likely end up with a composite positive and negative picture of that person. If you do not get to that position now then perhaps you could try again later when you have more time to attempt this.
Here is an example of such a composite picture :
- Seeing the enemy (audio, length 01:39.08)
Our enemies may be strangers or they may be people very close to us.
- Everyday enemies (audio, length 00:26.86)
Problems such as domestic violence have challenged us for a very long time. How do we deal respectfully with the enemy and also protect the vulnerable? In the 16th century Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and compiler of two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, declared that, If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and of deed toward her … and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty [after counselling and opportunity for repentance] … Then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life … In her peril, recourse must be made to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked… it is our will that parties set free in this manner may contract a new marriage, while those convicted of the said crimes be punished either by perpetual exile or imprisonment for life.
The enemy in any situation is as human as yourself, as much a child of God as yourself, even if they are currently murderous, cruel, arrogant, or any other manifestation of being the enemy.
Loving the enemy means according them respect as a human being despite their current actions. It does not mean approving of their actions and it does not mean putting yourself or your loved ones in danger, or remaining in a situation of danger or abuse. You flee danger, report crime to the authorities, and you protect the vulnerable. This is also in line with Jesus’ teaching. Love is a manifestation of justice and righteousness, not a substitute for it.
Do good to them. This is not a tit for tat exchange. We are to treat them as we would wish to be treated, not as they treat us, not as we think they deserve, but as we would want and expect for ourselves. Your actions should reflect your faith, not their threats.
Doing good includes blessing and praying for people. My daughter was once systematically bullied at work. When praying for her, I was astonished to experience a strong sense that my prayers should be for the perpetrator. I did not want to pray for them but I did. The situation was resolved to a more normal relationship. I felt chastened and I learnt something important.
This may not always happen. Jesus said to expect nothing in return, but to do it anyway.
This is a hard process and we will have a mixture of thoughts and feelings as we attempt it. When we follow Jesus, we do get something in return although it may not be a change in our enemy. Here is Louisa Hope’s description of the internal landscape of that experience.
- Head, heart and deep spirit (audio, length 01:41.86)
From Romans 12 “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12. 20-21)
I could say much more but I might become your enemy by wearying you with excessive words.
May we all grow in love for one another and even for our enemies. Amen
All audio clips are from the podcast at https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/conversations-louisa-hope/10779528