How do you react when you hear of someone being deliberately singled out or ridiculed or excluded because he or she is a Christian? Perhaps it's a UK story like that of the Christian registrar Lillian Ladele who eventually lost her job after writing to her employer, asking whether her religious beliefs could be accommodated so that she would not be forced to take part in civil partnership registrations. Last week we briefly mentioned Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who is facing the death penalty on charges of rape and extortion, which are widely accepted to have been fabricated to provide excuse to execute him for turning to Jesus and turning away from Islam.
There are many more scenarios like this unfolding in all parts of the world today. People are singled out because they are followers of Jesus. Perhaps you have even experienced something of that personally. How are we to react to these kinds of persecution? That's what Jesus is teaching in this morning's passage. He's teaching that those who follow him must love their enemies.
We're in Luke 6, page 728 of the blue bibles, so please look that up and follow along. As that passage was read earlier I hope you realised that you were reading speech – this whole passage is part of a famous sermon delivered by Jesus, recorded for us by Luke.
Jesus is preaching to two groups: his followers including the Twelve disciples and the rest of the crowd. He's teaching his followers how they should live, and he's doing it in the presence of everyone else, making the implicit challenge to them that they should commit to following him too. And that's not unlike this gathering today: there are people who love and follow Jesus and others who don't.
Jesus is addressing his followers first and foremost, so even today this famous sermon is for Christians first and foremost. Jesus doesn't make up a new moral code for people to adopt regardless of their standing with God. The life of sacrifice and godliness that Jesus commands of his disciples is motivated by their relationship with God and is enabled by his power working in them.
If you are following Jesus, as many of us here now are doing, then I want to ask that you don't mishear Jesus this morning. He isn't asking us to be more loving, or suggesting that we try to become more gracious. He is commanding us to love, and not only to love, but to love our enemies. And if you can't think of any enemies, scale this back. How much more should you love those who are simply awkward to get along with? This is a command to love.
If you're not a follower of Jesus please notice that Jesus' sermon describes how those who are following Jesus should live. So let me start by sincerely apologising for the times and ways we have failed to demonstrate this life. We are still works in progress. But don't miss the challenge of this passage for you. This isn't a new idealistic morality. The challenge to you is not to love your enemies; it's to follow Jesus and then love your enemies.
I guess the question that comes before this is why followers of Jesus would have enemies at all. Look back at v22. Jesus is describing these reversals of values between what the world desires and how the world acts, and what his followers desire and how they act.
He says, Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. V23: That is how their fathers treated the prophets. In a world that rejects God, God's children will also be rejected. In a world that opposed and hated Jesus, followers of Jesus will also be opposed and hated.
So what are we going to do about this? How are we going to respond to the opposition we encounter?
I'm going to split the passage two ways:
Christian, love your enemies…
… because God loves his enemies
Christian, love your enemies…
Men will hate, exclude, insult and reject you because of me, Jesus says, but, v27, But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies.
27But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you.
Jesus gives three definitions of what it means for his followers to love their enemies. Do people hate you? Do good to them. Do people curse you? Bless them. Do people ill-treat you? Pray for them.
That doctor colleague at the hospital who hates you for being a Christian… be the first to cover his shifts when he wants time off.
That mum at the school gate who has been bad-mouthing you for being a follower of Jesus… be the first to say good things about her to others.
Those family members who bully you or exclude you again and again because of your faith… pray for them without giving up.
We could spend all day on examples of enemies because of the gospel, and even more easily on people that are difficult for us to get on with. And it would be a day well spent because this is a command. But Jesus goes on. Verse 29:
29If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.
Now, we're not talking about an insulting slap here. It is more literally translated as a blow to the jaw. This is a serious physical assault. Now this verse doesn't mean that we should always literally offer to take a beating. We don't measure obedience to this command by counting gaps in each other's teeth. Jesus himself questioned a Jewish official who struck him at his trial rather than waiting to take a second blow.
The principle is this: if someone assaults you, you should be so opposed to the idea of retaliation that you would rather take another blow than strike back. Do not prioritise your own health or comfort over loving your enemies – love them even when it hurts.
Jesus goes on:
If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
If someone takes your jacket, you should be so opposed to the idea of retaliation that you would rather offer your shirt as well. Do not prioritise your wealth or possessions over loving your enemies – love them even when it costs.
Then we come to the so-called golden rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Jesus' sentiment here isn't entirely new; there had been others who had expressed similar mottos, but in the negative form: do not do to others anything you wouldn't want them to do to you. There have been other varieties since, such as Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, if that's what gets you up in the morning. He said, 'Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.' … catchy! Somehow that's not going to make it onto the Sunday School poster board… So there are plenty of negative and not-particularly positive versions, but Jesus flips the whole concept over and the scope for doing good simply explodes: Do to others as you would have them do to you.
I'm fairly confident that every person in this room has, at some point in life, said these words: He started it. You were being scolded for bickering with someone, maybe at home or at school, or maybe even at work (!), and your best defence for whatever bad stuff was happening was… he started it. She started it. They started it. When Jesus flipped this motto on its head, he said, whatever is going on now, whatever the state of relations between you and others, if you're following me I want you to think of good you can do and then be the one who starts that. Even if no-one joins you in doing good, you do it. I'd love it if that doctor left me alone or if that mum said nice things about me, or if that part of my family included me. Maybe they will never do those things, but you start it. You do it.
Let's keep going, v32:
32If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. 34And 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. 35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.
Who are these sinners? It seems like Jesus is referring to the sorts of people that the religious teachers of the day called 'sinners': prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, those collecting taxes for the Romans and skimming off a cut for themselves, traitors. But even those people love those who love them. So don't just love those who love you – that's not enough to mark you out as Jesus' followers. Instead, love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting repayment.
It's almost cause for despair, thinking about this. If you're anything like me you have enough trouble loving people who love you and putting up with people who make life difficult. Does Jesus seriously expect us not only to do that but to love true enemies? Does Jesus really expect Lillian Ladele to love her former employers? Does Jesus really expect Youcef Nadarkhani to love and pray for those who are lying about him, making up charges that could see him executed? Yes. Yes he does. In fact he commands it. Christian, love your enemies…
… because God loves his enemies
35But 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. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Why should we love our enemies even when it hurts? Why should we love our enemies even when it costs? Because God our Father loves like that.
You see, it's so easy to come to this passage and get caught up trying to think of circumstances in which we should turn the other cheek: the office, the school, the home – and that's right and good. This is not an option for us to consider, it's a command for us to obey. But the reality for each and every Christian is that at one time, we were the ones with our fists clenched to strike out. We were the ones snatching good things from God. We were the ungrateful and the wicked. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
In a short while we're going to remember how God loved us while we were still his enemies, as we share communion together. We'll share the bread that reminds us that Jesus' body was battered. We'll share the wine that reminds us of the blood that ran down his face from a crown of thorns, the blood that seaped from the holes in his hands and feet and trickled from the gashes across his back. And that's just the physical representation of the spiritual reality, that God poured out onto Jesus all of his right anger for our sin. He rejected his only son so that he could accept us.
How could we look on his suffering in our place and do anything else but love our enemies? And how much more should we love everyone else – those we fret over who are merely hard to get along with. How could we not love them, knowing God's love for his enemies.
We often suggest that those who aren't trusting in Jesus remain seated and use the time for reflection. If that's you, why not spend that time thinking about how Jesus demonstrated love for his enemies perfectly. Jesus who refused to retaliate against those who beat him, mocked him and crucified him, Jesus who prayed for them as he hung on the cross, Jesus who died for them, who died for you.
So why should we love even when it hurts? Why should we love even when it costs? Because God loves like that.
And one last reason from 35-36: because we are God's children. Loving your enemies is a family trait. It's part of the family likeness. God's children are to look like God, and loving enemies is what God looks like. Do that and your reward in heaven will be the greater for it, and you will show that you are sons of the Most High.
So that's the latest part of Jesus' famous sermon as recorded for us by Luke. Christians will be hated, excluded, insulted and rejected for following Jesus. How are we to react? Love your enemies. Love them even though it hurts. Love them even though it costs. Love them, because God loves them and God because God loved you.