A Call and A Promise
Today’s text is a continuation of last Sunday’s gospel reading. Last week Jesus opened up his sermon on the plain with blessings and woes for all his followers that brought comfort to the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. If some of us felt uncomfortable last week with Jesus words about reversing the status quo of injustice in the world, we probably ALL are feeling uncomfortable with today’s reading.
I thought a church member last week summed up this text well. We were reflecting together on last week’s text of blessings and woes, and I told them just wait till next week because in next week’s sermon Jesus tell us to love our enemies.” Without missing a beat, the church member replied, “now you have just gone to meddling.”
Before Jesus’ sermon in the verses just ahead of today’s text Jesus was on a mountain top choosing his disciples. In his sermon on the plain Jesus is leveling the expectations of what it means to be his follower. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
Can you imagine those disciples who are fresh from a literal mountaintop experience with Jesus when he chose them to be his followers right before this sermon on the plain. They had to be so excited for the beginning of their ministry being a follower of Christ. They had to be thinking we are going to heal people, care for people, do amazing things for people in need and a world in need. Little did they now that the amazing things they would be called to do would be to love their enemies, but not just love them, they were called to forgive them, bless them, and pray for them.
Jesus’ proclamation to his followers to love their enemies with a generous love is extremely radical idea in his age and in our age. He cuts to the point in his sermon as to why we should love our enemies. We love them because we are to “be merciful, just as God is merciful.” He even sums up how we live a life of generous love towards others. He proclaims that Golden Rule we learned as children, “Do to others as you you would have them do to you.”
On the surface Jesus words paint a clear picture to the why we love our enemies and the how we love our enemies. Yet for some of us, tougher questions might remain beyond why we do it or how we do it.
Some of us might have more situational questions about the difficultly of this calling. What if the person or persons you find yourself considering an enemy or a threat are still actively doing things to you or to others persons that are causing pain? What if I am at a place in my life that makes it difficult to love and forgive my enemy?
These are meaningful questions to ask God and ask our community of faith. We need to discern these questions because we never want someone’s oppressor to think their actions are justified or affirmed just because we choose to love them or turn our cheek from their violent words or actions. In some situations choosing generous love towards an oppressor may actually perpetuate abuse. If last week’s portion of Jesus’ sermon taught us anything, Jesus wants justice, care, and love for those who find themselves oppressed and in the midst of pain. Yet Jesus is also proclaiming the truth of the gospel that God through Christ will be merciful to every person, even the ungrateful and the wicked, even our enemies.
When Jesus proclaims to his followers to “be merciful, just as God is merciful,” he is reminding his followers that God’s promise is to love us always. May we find comfort in the fact that God’s promise to love all of us will always be abundantly greater than our struggle to love, especially when someone is actively hurting others with their actions and their words. God’s promise of love and grace through Christ is able to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.
Throughout the gospel of Luke Jesus proclaims and shows God’s love, grace, and mercy to “sinners” who have taken advantage of others, people like the tax collector or even the church leader. They all experience the abundance of God’s mercy and grace through Christ and it is God’s mercy and grace that transforms and reorients their life towards restoration with their community.
Their stories are powerful testimonies that God’s merciful grace revealed to us through Christ is always illuminating our path and is constantly transforming and guiding us to faithful living as we strive to live out our calling to generously love others.
God’s promise of love and grace through Christ is what defines us as a church, and yet the church, full of followers of Christ, at times have let their calling to love be overshadowed by its own corruption, abuse, and exclusion.
When we look at church history we see moments when the Christ’s church lived out their calling to love others, and we sadly see moments when even Christ’s church decided to foster an idea that people not like them were the enemy.
Almost two months ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away at the age of 90 years old. Archbishop Tutu’s ministry was defined by guiding the church in South Africa and around the world through our challenging calling to love others, even our enemies. For most of his life he was hated by others because of his skin color, and because the system of institutional racism known as apartheid existed in South Africa he was told he will always remain an enemy of the white culture in power. Apartheid defined South Africans with darker skin as the enemy and used hate, fear, imprisonment, and senseless and vicious violence as a means to maintain the status quo of injustice.
This system of institutional racism would thrive for decades in the nation’s politics and even in the life of the nation’s churches. Over the years as he reflected on the horrific ways of apartheid was causing pain in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu was open about how he did not allow himself to hate his enemies who were causing so much pain to his life. In a visit to New York in 1990, the same year Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of being a political prisoner of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu proclaimed, “Justice, goodness, love, compassion must prevail…freedom is breaking out. Freedom is coming.” Finally change began to happen and justice, freedom, and equality would prevail as Nelson Mandela was not only released from prison, but would be elected President of the nation.
As the nation sought healing from such a vicious and violent system of injustice the new government created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Archbishop Tutu was asked to chair this commission. Knowing that the nation was overwhelmed by the extent of evil done for decades, he gathered testimony documenting the viciousness of apartheid. He believed it was necessary to open the wound to cleanse it. In return for an honest accounting of past crimes, the committee offered amnesty, establishing what Archbishop Tutu called the principle of restorative — rather than retributive — justice.
The Belhar Confession, a confession in our denomination’s book of confessions, has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in southern Africa. Members and leaders of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa faced this question under apartheid’s long reign from 1948-1994…how should the church respond when sin disrupts the church’s unity, creates division among the children of God, and constructs unjust systems that steal life from God’s creation?
As a confessing church they drafted and adopted the Belhar confession in the 1980’s. Belhar’s theological confrontation of the sin of racism has made possible reconciliation among Reformed churches in southern Africa and has aided the process of reconciliation within the nation of South Africa.
The confession proclaims this…we believe: “that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells. (We believe) that God’s life giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world.”
In our calling to love others, may we find comfort and courage knowing God’s life giving Word and Spirit will enable us through grace and love to live in a new obedience that opens new possibility of life.
I almost used the Belhar confession as our affirmation of faith today, but I chose the words from the Confession of 1967 instead because of what it also proclaims about God’s abundant grace as we strive in our struggle to love others. This confession was written to guide our own nation and church as it seeks reconciliation in the midst of our nation’s own seeds of racial hatred.
The opening few lines of today’s affirmation proclaims the promise of God’s love and grace so eloquently:
“…New life takes shape in a community in which people know that God loves and accepts them in spite of what they are. They therefore accept themselves and love others, knowing that no one has any ground on which to stand, except God’s grace.”
The good news is we are able to always stand on the leveling ground of God’s mercy and God’s grace. God’s grace empowers us and transforms us as we strive to live out our calling to not only generously love our enemy, but to forgive, bless, and pray for them. May the good news of God’s promise of mercy and grace bring us comfort and courage as we go out into the world and love others. Alleluia Amen!