Sunday, February 24, 2019
Scripture: Luke 6:27-26 & Jonah 4:1-11
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

 

I have been fascinated by the challenge of the Bible for a long time, and I suspect that will be the case for my entire life. It’s a challenging book, to be sure, but wrestling with it leads down so many fascinating paths. For decades now, Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies has presented a huge challenge to me and to anyone willing to take that teaching seriously. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Love. Do good. Bless. Pray for.

If I were doing speechwriting for Jesus, I would feel safe to write, “Love your friends and family. Do good to others as long as it feels safe. Bless those who are kind to you. Pray for your loved ones.” Those would be some safe messages, wouldn’t they? But that’s not at all what Jesus teaches his followers. Love your enemies, he says. If someone hits you, give them another shot. If someone steals from you, let them take even more. This is an exceptionally hard teaching, and we should take it to heart as people who are seeking to follow Jesus.

So, let’s make this a bit personal. Who makes your blood boil? Is it a family member you’re feuding with? Is it a neighbor who does petty things to bother you? Is it a public figure? Have you tried applying what Jesus teaches here to that situation?

I’m going to share a story with you that has stuck with me for over two decades. It’s one of a small handful that come to mind of the exceptional nature of some Christians when it comes to handling the hardest things in life.

“In 1987 an IRA bomb went off in a small town west of Belfast, amid a group of Protestants who had gathered to honor the war dead on Veteran’s Day. Eleven people died and sixty-three others were wounded. What made this act of terrorism stand out from so many others was the response of one of the wounded, Gordon Wilson, a devout Methodist who had emigrated north from the Irish Republic to work as a draper. The bomb buried Wilson and his twenty-year-old daughter under five feet of concrete and brick. ‘Daddy, I love you very much,’ were the last words Marie spoke, grasping her father’s hand as they waited for the rescuers. She suffered severe spinal and brain injuries, and died a few hours later in the hospital.

“A newspaper later proclaimed, ‘No one remembers what the politicians had to say at the time. No one who heard Gordon Wilson will ever forget what he confessed….His grace towered over the miserable justifications of the bombers.’ Speaking from his hospital bed, Wilson said, ‘I have lost my daughter, but I bear no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back to life. I shall pray, tonight and every night, that God will forgive them.’”

You see, Gordon Wilson had discovered the truth of Jesus’ words. He knew that revenge only led to more pain. He knew that hatred for those who had so grievously harmed him would give them real estate in his heart. He would never be whole as long as he harbored anger, resentment, and bitterness toward his enemies, even though they surely deserved it.

“His daughter’s last words were words of love, and Gordon Wilson determined to live out his life on that plane of love. ‘The world wept,’ said one report, as; Wilson gave a similar interview over the BBC radio later that week.

“After his release from the hospital, Gordon Wilson led a crusade for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation. Protestant extremists who had planned to avenge the bombing decided, because of publicity surrounding Wilson, that such behavior would be politically foolish. Wilson wrote a book about his daughter, spoke out against violence, and constantly repeated the refrain, ‘Love is the bottom line.’ He met with the IRA, personally forgave them for what they had done, and asked them to lay down their arms. ‘I know that you’ve lost loved ones, just like me,’ he told them. Surely, enough is enough. Enough blood has been spilled.’

“The Irish Republic ultimately made Wilson a member of its Senate. When he died in 1995, the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, and all of Great Britain honored this ordinary Christian citizen who had gained fame for his uncommon spirit of grace and forgiveness. His spirit exposed by contrast the violent deeds of retaliation, and his life of peacemaking came to symbolize the craving for peace within many others who would never make the headlines.”[1]

Love is the bottom line. Gordon Wilson lived the message of Jesus.

But of course a good question to ask is this: Could I do this? Isn’t this just asking to lose or to be hurt? Who in their right mind would live this way?

The answer comes in understanding our identity, and we find our identity in the God who created us and who showed us what full humanity looks like in the person and work of Jesus. God is the source of all life. God ordered creation and made it good. We only find rest for our souls when we find ourselves in rhythm with the way God created us to be. God created us in the image of God, which means that when we reflect God’s great love for the world, we see the clearest picture of God’s plan and intentions for the way things should be.

But, of course, things are far from that. There is so much brokenness out there. There is violence and hatred. There is bigotry. There is abuse and so much more. What are we supposed to do about those evils? An ancient solution to this question is the lex talonis, the law of retaliation. It shows up in the Old Testament. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This wasn’t a bad solution because it defined what a just punishment was for harm inflicted. Let’s say I had a nice cow that provided milk for my family, and my neighbor stole my cow, slaughtered it, and gave a feast to his family. What should I do? Without this law of retaliation, I might just turn around and take multiple animals from him for my own good. And then he might steal some back and burn down my house, and so on. With a law of retaliation, there is justice without upping the ante. If he takes my cow, then he owes me a cow. A cow for a cow. Or an eye for an eye.

Not a bad solution, but Jesus says this isn’t ultimately the way God works. If someone slaps your cheek, you don’t get to slap him back. No, see if they’d like to hit you a second time. If someone takes your jacket, invite him to your coat closet to see if they’d like to take more. This is not lex talonis. Jesus is putting forward what we call “The Golden Rule” – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (6:31). Interestingly, Jesus did not originate this saying. It’s found in Homer, Seneca, Tobit, II Enoch, Philo, and in other writings. Jesus is saying that others had begun to figure out the way God designed us and the way the world works best. Treat others the way you wish to be treated, not the way you think they deserve to be treated or you deserve to be treated. That’s a tall challenge, but that’s the way God ordered the world. We are to love our enemies and bless those who insult us. We are to pray for those who do us wrong and do good to those who hate us. This is a tall order, so how can we wrap our minds around this?

We see this in how God turned us from enemies to children through God’s work in Jesus Christ. If we zoom back from Jesus’ teaching, we begin to see the heart of God for the world. Paul writes in Romans 5, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us….For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” You see, we had made ourselves enemies of God through our rebellion against God, yet God turned the other cheek, if you will. God blessed those who cursed him. God loved us so much that God in Christ died for us so that we might have life. So, as we seek now to live in that manner of gratitude, we must imagine how we are to live now in the way God created us to live. That is the huge challenge of Christ – to find our identity in God and to live that way in a world that is still in the process of turning toward its Creator.

But it’s also too easy to believe that we’re on the right side of this, isn’t it?

That’s what Jonah assumed, although deep down I think he knew that God was going to challenge his assumptions. If you haven’t read this short book of the Bible recently, I encourage you to read it today. It’ll take you under fifteen minutes. The story is pretty simple. The Lord calls Jonah to go to a foreign city, Ninevah, and to speak God’s judgment against them because of their wickedness. Jonah does the opposite of what God wants. Instead of walking east to Ninevah, he gets on a ship going west. The Lord sends a storm that threatens the ship, until Jonah decides the best solution is that he be cast overboard. He’s hoping he can just die in the water, instead of doing what God asked of him. Of course, not to be outwitted by Jonah, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah, keeping him alive for three days until he gets vomited back up on dry ground.

So, Jonah gets the picture and does what he should have done in the first place. He goes throughout Ninevah to proclaim God’s judgment. But these Ninevites, including their king – Jonah’s opponents – hear Jonah and go full bore into repentance. Even the animals wear sackcloth as a sign of repentance. (Which is kind of a funny picture, since sackcloth is an animal pelt turned inside out. So the animals have reversed animal pelts on. Just strange.)

Our text today comes at the end of Jonah’s story. He’s mad at God. He prays to God, “This is why I didn’t want to come here, God! I knew you were gracious and merciful and that you would relent from punishing them! I’d rather die than see my enemies receive your mercy!”

I wonder how many of us have a lot of Jonah living inside of us. I know I’ve got a decent amount of him in me. I love that God is merciful and gracious and kind when it comes to my own failures. I’m pretty good with God doing the same for others who fit into my expectations. But when this graciousness and love get extended to those outside of where I think it should go? Well, that’s an ongoing challenge for me.

The pastor who originally wrote the benediction I use on most Sundays has this insight for us, “Christian behavior and relationships are prompted by the God we worship who does not react but acts in love and grace toward all….The difficulty many of us have with God’s kindness is therefore twofold. First, God behaves with favor toward persons whose life-style does not merit such favor; and second, we are to relate to others with this same graciousness. God’s people do not so often quarrel with God about how they themselves are treated as they do about how God is too generous toward others.”[2]

Jesus’ difficult teaching in Luke is for all of us. He concludes with these words, “For God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:35-36). As children of the Most High, we live most fully into our identity when we have empathy for those who are most difficult to care for – our enemies. But we also become fully who we are when we realize that we should be grateful for God’s grace in our lives, not closed down and stingy with it.

Loving neighbors is hard enough. Loving enemies is far more difficult. Yet Jesus tells us this is what God’s children do. Jesus tells us that the healing of the world happens in our making choices to be kind to those who hurt us, to be loving to those who are unloving, and to stop the cycles of violence of an “eye for an eye” and for revenge. It takes a holy imagination to see that we are called to live with such an expansive love and humility in the world, but imagine if that’s what the church became known for. It’s a beautiful and true message, and I pray for the strength for all of us that we can live it.

[1] Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?, 117-118.

[2] Craddock, Fred B., Luke, 90-91.