First Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2014
Today we’re going to explore a passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This extended sermon begins in Matthew’s gospel with Jesus encountering crowds of people. Looking upon them, he leads the disciples up on a mountain and begins to teach. Now, there is a question as to whether Jesus was teaching only the disciples (and trying to get away from the crowds) or if he was teaching everyone. If you look at the opening verse of Matthew 5, it favors the idea that Jesus was teaching just the disciples, but at the end of the sermon, in Matthew 7:28, we read that the crowds were amazed by his teaching. So perhaps we can think of Jesus as a professor who teaches a class (the disciples), but there are also those who are auditing the class and sitting in the back and perhaps the lecture is being filmed and simulcast for even more to watch.
Jesus begins his sermon with the Beatitudes, focusing on the needs of the downtrodden, the poor in spirit. But from there, he goes on to focus on being perfectly mature in faith, something we will never obtain, which is why Dale Bruner, in his commentary on this text, suggests that Jesus’ sermon always drives us back to the Beatitudes. Today, I am going to read Bruner’s translation of the text, which I like because he attempts to emphasis the communal nature of Jesus’ command. I invite you to follow along with your own Bibles or the Pew Bibles.
“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and you shall hate your enemy.’ But I say to you folks, You people love your enemies and you people pray on the behalf of the people who are persecuted you so that you may really be the children of your Father in the heavens, because he is shining his sun right down on evil people and on good people, and he is sending his rain down on righteous people and on unrighteous people. For you see, if you folks just love the people who are loving you, what kind of reward do you think you should get for that? Aren’t even the extortionist—tax collectors doing the same? And if you folks just give warm greetings to your spiritual brothers and sisters, what is so special about that? Aren’t even the pagans doing the same things? So then, you folks are going to be perfectly mature people, just as your heavenly Father is perfectly mature.”
Show video of “radical road rage” in a parking lot that ends with bumper sticker on car reading “war is not the answer.”
War isn’t the answer, right? Hopefully you found the video humorous, but let me now ask you a question. Have you ever done something that, if it were pointed out that you are Christian when doing it, would be embarrassing? (You don’t have to raise your hands; we’ve already done confession.) Of course, you have. I have; we all have… If we have high values, at times it is hard to live up to our standards. Thankfully, we live by grace and not the law.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus tells us, but do we? Do we truly love those who are different from us, who have different ideas about the world, different beliefs? Does this passage have anything to say to Democrats and Republicans, Tea Partyers and those in the Occupy movements? Sometimes it seems that those on the edges of the political spectrum hate those who disagree with them. You bet this passage applies to them! It says essentially, “if you want to please your Savior, tone down your hateful rhetoric… Actually, it says, do away with such behavior.” Now, to push this further, what does our passage say about how we relate to the Taliban, Al Qaeda or New York Yankee fans? None of us are going to leave today unscathed!
Jesus begins this section of his sermon with a rhetorical statement: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Interestingly, only the first half of this statement (“love your neighbor”) is found in the Old Testament. Perhaps Jesus is summarizing a teaching that comes from the idea advanced in the Psalms that seem to encourage us to love God so much that we hate the godless. Eugene Peterson in The Message, translates this verse in this manner: “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’” Somehow these two ideas have been married together, but Jesus divorces them by insisting his followers love not just their friends, but also their enemies.
Furthermore, this is not just a command to individuals. Jesus is addressing the community here, which is why I read Dale Bruner’s translation, “But I say to you folks, You love your enemies.” Not only is this something that I am to do, we’re all to be doing this together. The early church, under Jewish and later Roman persecution, would have heard these words in a different context from us. Their enemies were real and a threat! They could have them stoned or fed to the lions or worse. Yet, they were called to love those who persecuted them, to pray for them! And just to clear up things, in case any of you are thinking—“Sure, I’ll pray for my enemies, I’ll pray for their demise,”—this isn’t what Jesus means here. We’re to pray for the wellbeing of those who hate and persecute us. Remember, as he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus prayed for his executioners.
Now why would we want to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors? Wouldn’t it be easier to insist on an “eye for an eye”? Jesus has already dealt with this bad idea back in verse 38, but here he informs his followers that if we love our enemies, we may be children of God. Our God is good to all creation—those who are gentle and kind and those who are mean and bullies. Everyone benefits from what the Lord provides—the rain falls upon the righteous and the unrighteous. So why would we want to love our enemies? Because we want to be more like God; because we want to be godly. After all, God loved us before we loved or even knew God!
If we only love those who are like us, Jesus points out, we’re no different than anyone else. But the church is to be different. We’re to be an alternative to the world! We’re to practice, as we’ll talk about during Lent, “Radical hospitality.” We’re to love those who, for many, aren’t considered loveable. “Love sought is good,” Lady Olivia says in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “but giv’n unsought is better.” As Christians, we’re to give love unsought!
In the second century, there was a report made to the Roman Emperor Hadria about Christians. Remember, Christians back then were persecuted, but this is what the report said:
They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.
It was this kind of loves that drew the attention of others and helped the church to grow even though it was under persecution. At a time when the church was being stamped out, it was known for love… but what about today?
One of the common reasons given by people who no longer attend church is that they feel judged. One study cited in a book that the Elders of our congregation have been reading said that 87 percent of Americans say that Christians are judgmental. 87%! I suppose the good news is that if 87 percent said we’re judgmental means even most of us Christians realize there is a problem here. Of course, Christians know there is a judgmental issue because we do it to one another. We’ve all been judged unfairly! We don’t take Jesus’ admonishment “Judge not” to heart. Do we really want to be known as judgmental and by what we’re against instead of by what we’re for? 87% doesn’t sound as if that old song, “They’ll Know We are Christians by our Love” is true. At best, it is an ideal to which we strive! As believers, we acknowledge our own brokenness and our complete dependence upon God, which should make us even more open to those who are different.
Jesus ends this passage with a command to be perfect as is our heavenly Father. Although perfection is expected of us, we know that on our own, we are not going to achieve it. Instead, as I said earlier, we’re driven back to the Beatitudes, back to the realization that we, too, are poor in spirit.
Okay, it’s time to assign some homework. Go home this afternoon and spend time thinking about your enemies. Make a list! Think about those who have done you wrong. Write down their names. Think about those people you don’t like. Write down their names—whether it’s an individual or perhaps a group. The New York Yankees, the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys may make my list… I’m pretty sure some of you may jot down a particular college team that either’s green or blue. Of course, I am kidding about sports, but not about the exercise. Write down the names of people you don’t like or who don’t like you and then I want you to take time each day this week—either first thing in the morning or at night before bed—praying for those on your list. To keep up with the list, you could put it in your Bible and use it as a bookmark. Maybe even bookmark Matthew 5 and review these verses before you pray. Let’s pray for our enemies… and let’s see what happens. Amen.
©2014 Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI
 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 266-7.
 Ibid, 266.
 Leviticus 19:18
 Bruner, 267. See Psalm 58, 109, 137:7-9 and 139:21-22.
 Luke 23:34
 William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 3.1.167. Of course, Olivia was trying to make a play for someone and not speaking of universal love.
 “Aristides to Emperor Hadria” as quoted in God’s Virtues: An Inspirational Collection of Stories, Quotes, Hymns, Scriptures and Poems (Tulsa, OK: Honor Books, 1995), 43.
 Thom & Joani Schultz, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore (Loveland CO: Group Publishing, 2013), 23.
 Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37