Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany - Sunday, February 20, 2022

Text: Luke 6:27-38

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One evening, two parents took their young son to see the opera. It was intended to be an evening of family relaxation and culture, but the evening didn’t go as planned. As the opera progressed, there were some darker, foreboding scenes and the young boy started to panic with flashbacks to some traumatic events he’d recently experienced. His parents realized what was happening, and the family decided to leave the show early. On their way to the car, they were attacked and mugged and in the ensuing scuffle, both parents were shot and killed, leaving the boy to fend for himself. Fortunately, the family had been very wealthy, and the boy was well provided for, but remained understandably scarred from this horrible experience. Years later, he used his family’s fortune to fund his own campaign of justice, hunting down those responsible and fighting his own personal war against crime and his enemies. I’m guessing some of you might recognize the back story behind the popular comic book character Batman.

It's not a back story that’s unique to the Batman movie series. The Internet Movies Data Base (IMDB) lists more than 100 movies made in just the last 20 years that have a similar theme. Some grave act of injustice has been perpetuated, and innocent people have been hurt or killed. Those in authority are either unable or unwilling to do anything about it, so some individual takes matters into their own hands to right the wrongs and see to it that justice is carried out. If you watch such a movie, chances are you find yourself pulled into the plot, cheering for the hero who is administering justice, perhaps even cheering for revenge, violence, and death. It’s kind of an interesting thing. The point today isn’t to evaluate movies, but rather to ask this question: why does this plotline resonate with us? I think the answer is simple – we have an innate sense of fairness and justice. Debts must be paid. Justice must be satisfied. Even though you and I probably wouldn’t go so far as to pursue vigilante-style action in real life, we do feel a certain sense of satisfaction when we see justice carried out!

That’s what makes today’s scripture readings so challenging to think about. God basically encourages the opposite of this natural tendency. In the first reading, Joseph didn’t give his brothers what they deserved for the wicked things they’d done to him. Instead, he forgave them and recognized how, despite their sins of the past, God had made the whole situation into a blessing for everyone involved! In today’s second reading, you heard Paul’s reminder that vengeance and retribution belong to God and he will carry it out in his own time and in his own way – we are called to show love. And then we get to the gospel – an excerpt of a sermon Jesus preached. This section opens with the shocking encouragement to Love Your Enemies, even though they don’t deserve it! Such Undeserved Love is Unnatural Love – totally foreign to us – so let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is saying.

Unnatural Love

“But to you who are listening, I say:” Note right away who this is addressed to. This isn’t a reform message for Jesus’ enemies, but encouragement for his followers, those who listen to him. “Love your enemies.” The phrase is nothing new for any of us. I think even people who have had only passing contact with Christianity know that Jesus encouraged showing love to enemies. But think about who these enemies are. Maybe the first ones that come to mind are the anti-Christian forces of the world: those who persecute Christians in other countries, or those in our own country who speak forcefully against Christianity in public ways. Those are the enemies. OK, maybe, but that’s not really what Jesus is talking about here. Look more closely at what he says. “Love YOUR enemies.” People who are difficult for you personally! For Jesus’ first century listeners, the obvious connection was their Roman overlords who made their life difficult in many ways, but it was also more personal than that. It may have also meant some of the judgmental religious leaders. Or the ethnic groups that didn’t get along – Jews and Samaritans hated each other! Or even the family members and co-workers doing the kind of hurtful stuff that sinful people sadly do. Love your enemies. So, who are YOUR enemies? The list might include the friend who slandered you on social media. The brother-in-law who cheated on your sister. The girl who destroyed your best friend’s reputation. The coworker who stabbed you in the back for a promotion. Or even something milder – that irritating person you can’t stand being around but have to see on a regular basis. Love YOUR enemies. It’s hard when it’s personal. It’s hard when it’s painful. It’s completely unnatural. And it gets even worse.

I’d suspect that most of us here today would call ourselves “loving” people. We’d readily admit that we aren’t perfect, but as a general rule I think most of us would say that we do try to be nice to other people, and when we come into contact with people who are our enemies, we can probably find a way to exist alongside them in peace. But Jesus says love. Do you realize what that means? When God defines love in the Bible, he’s not talking about the warm fuzzy sentiments we saw on Valentine’s Day. Love as God defines it isn't feeling. It’s more than words, more than existing in peace, more than tolerating someone difficult. According to God, love means promoting someone else’s welfare – even when that means suffering some kind of loss yourself! Jesus described it like this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:27b-30 – NIV11). No matter who it is, Jesus summarizes: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31 – NIV11).

In other words, be the one to bear the pain. When sinful conflict occurs, pain is distributed somewhere. It’s natural to push it onto the person who caused it – your enemy. But the loving thing to do is to absorb it yourself. That’s a way of describing forgiveness, and it’s way harder than tolerating someone you don’t like or learning to exist alongside unpleasant people. Jesus described the distinction like this: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And 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.” God expects way more than that. “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back!” (Luke 6:32-35a – NIV11). If you can make your enemy’s life better, Jesus says, do it! Even if there’s no benefit to you. Even if it costs you dearly. It’s Undeserved Love, and that is Unnatural Love – it couldn’t be more contrary to our desire for justice and fairness, and when you think about what that might mean for you and me, we might as well call it Impossible Love. No one can please God if that’s what it takes!

Undeserved Love

And that’s true…with one exception. Jesus himself. Just compare what he did during his life to what God expects. Jesus left his throne in heaven and came to live on earth so he could live and die to save people who by nature had no interest in being saved, and no interest is putting it mildly. By nature, we were actively opposed to Jesus, enemies in every way. But Jesus loved us anyway. People didn’t want to listen to Jesus…but he continued to reach out to them again and again and again! The conflict with his enemies grew until they sent a detachment of soldiers to arrest him in the garden, and Jesus let it happen! He told his followers not to fight back! He healed a man who had been wounded in the scuffle! He went to trial, and curses and false accusation rained down on him. He was slapped in the face again and again. As the soldiers stretched out his arms and nailed him to the cross, he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” The soldiers took his clothing and divided it among themselves, and he didn’t protest. In the end it cost him his life.

Now note carefully: through all of this, Jesus was never in a position of weakness. He could have put a stop to this at any time, but he didn’t! Why not? This is what loving your enemies looks like in the fullest way. This was Jesus living a life pleasing to God in place of you and me. This was Jesus taking the pain onto himself and laying down his life to pay for sins he didn’t commit. This was Jesus loving his enemies so much that he made it possible for us to be with him in heaven forever! It’s Undeserved Love, and this Undeserved Love explains the most beautiful line in this sermon – a beautiful promise for people like you and me despite our sin and mistakes. Jesus promises: “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High,” Why? Not because of anything we do, but simply “because [God] is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35b – NIV11). That’s why Jesus came. You and I get a reward we don’t deserve because Jesus showed us Undeserved Love. Such love, such generosity has an effect – it changes our lives. It frees us from guilt and shame over our sins, and it gives us confidence about our future in heaven. But it also changes our priorities here on earth…and that’s really what Jesus’ whole sermon was all about!

Life-Changing Love

Jesus describes the change this undeserved love makes to life in these words: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36 – NIV11). And then Jesus gives some examples of what that looks like: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” (Luke 6:37-38a – NIV11). In other words, Jesus’ Undeserved Love changes your life so that you are motivated to treat others as God has treated you! We aren’t under God’s judgment. God has not condemned us. We try to treat others in the same way. God has forgiven us, and God does give us blessings continually! We try to treat others in the same way.

And these changes to life have an important purpose. Martin Luther described this in a rather memorable way. When in describing a Christian’s life, he wrote: “Christ lives; and we are Christs – with and without the apostrophe.” What does that mean? We are Christ’s – apostrophe S – meaning we belong to Christ. We are his. He has called us out of the darkness of sin and made us his children – that’s Undeserved Love. And that love is Life-Changing Love. In Jesus, we are Christs – without the apostrophe. We are little Christs to the world, little representatives of Jesus, showing the world what Jesus is like and what his love for people looks like by the way we treat other people, even our enemies! When children of God show such Undeserved Love, it makes an impact. Some secular writings from the first century record different Roman officials discussing Christians, puzzled at their generosity and their willingness to help people – even when it would seem that they could be taken advantage of time and again. You and I are not surprised though – that’s just one example of what it looks like when God’s people live as Jesus encouraged here! And it makes an impact! May God give us both strength and opportunity to do the same in the way that we treat our family members, the way that we treat our friends, and yes, even in the way that we treat our enemies. And may God use our living testimony to change other lives and bring glory to his name. Amen.