Wednesday, September 10, 2008

You Want Me To Love Who?

Matthew 5:43-48 43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Last week, Pastor [Name] introduced the theme for the year: Think Globally; Live Locally and spoke about God's love not just for people as individuals, but for the world as a whole. This past Monday, she then spoke about the call to be a neighbor—to be actively engaged in deeds of mercy, and deeds of love, and said we are to help set people free, as Moses did when God called him to return to Egypt to set the Israelites free.

It was difficult for Moses. He didn't want to do it. And yet, these were his own people. He had difficulty saving the people that he loved.

Fast forward in time. In the gospel of Matthew, we have Jesus ascending a mountain, reminding people of when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive God's teachings for His people. We have Jesus telling them “you have heard that it was said...”, reminding them of the teachings that had been instilled in them for many years.

Maybe, as the crowd listened to Jesus and heard him say “You shall love your neighbor”, they thought “yeah, yeah, we've heard that before” (It's in Leviticus 19, in case you were wondering). But then he says “But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. What? Maybe a murmur was heard through the crowd, people saying “did he just say what I think he said?” or “I must have heard that wrong; I've probably been sitting in the sun too long.”

They didn't hear him wrong. He was telling them to love their enemies. He's not talking about the kind of love that we can't help feeling, like when we fall in love with someone or the love we have for a child. Jesus is talking about agape love. This kind of love is deliberate. It's the kind of love that we must be determined to show to people—to people who maybe we don't like. And to people who maybe don't like us.

Who might these people be? When Jesus was talking on that mountain, the “enemies” that first came to mind were probably the Romans. The people who controlled them. The people who they didn't mix with. The people they couldn't wait to have God come and vindicate them from.

But Jesus says that they are to love these people.

Who are your enemies? Who are the people who have hurt you? Is it the guy who broke up with you for someone else? Is it the professor that you feel is out to get you? Is it the student who you just know wants to cause trouble for the sake of causing trouble? Is it the coworker or boss you dread seeing every day? Or the football coach who is always yelling at you? Maybe it's the politicians with whom we disagree. There are many people out there who have hurt us or who anger us, but our call as Christians is not to get revenge on them. It is not to make them hurt the way they have hurt us. It is not to belittle them in any way. Our call as Christians is to love them. And not only are we called to deliberately love them, we are called to go even further. We are called to pray for them. Ok, you might say. I can maybe say that I can love that person, or at least try to love that person. But now I have to pray for him or her too? You bet.

A funny thing happens when we pray for people. We start to care more about them. Prayer can have the effect of actually helping us learn to love our enemies. It helps us move from the idea of loving them to the practice of loving them.

Why would Jesus give this command to love our enemies? He tells us, in verse 48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Plucked out of context, this verse might make us think that we have to do everything in our lives perfectly. But reading it in the context of this section, we can see that it is about how God loves perfectly; he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and the rain fall on the righteous and on the unrighteous. He shows no partiality. It is this kind of love that we humans are to practice in order to live up to the manner in which we were created—in God's image.

But what can we do to love people? How do we go about practicing this difficult kind of love? One of the most popular chapters in the Bible tells us how. Because it is mostly heard at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 usually makes us think of the romantic kind of love, but these verses also describe the agape love that Jesus talks about. Here, Paul tells us that:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.

These are all things that we do, not things that we feel. We may not feel patient, but we can practice patience. We may feel like being rude or resentful, but we have to practice the opposite. And, Paul tells us, love never ends. Never. This is the kind of agape love that Jesus is talking about when he tells us to love our enemies. This is the kind of love that God practices, and the kind of love that we must practice. Is it hard? Without a doubt. It takes deliberate thinking about how to put it into practice, and who we need to love in this way. And as we do this, our thoughts will move away from being centered on ourselves and our lives to focusing more on the people around us and their lives.

Maybe one day we learn that the person we deemed as our enemy has something difficult going on in his or her life, and suddenly, the praying we've done starts to make some more sense. Maybe, our prayers have helped to set our enemy free from the Egypt in which he or she is living.

So who are your enemies? Who do you need to start praying for? Pick someone. Now, take 30 seconds—right now—and pray for that person. Maybe 30 seconds is all it takes each day to start practicing this deliberate kind of love.

Earlier, we sang “They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. Let's now sing that same song again, only now really thinking about agape love and how we can really put the words of this song into practice, loving both our neighbors and our enemies, and helping everyone achieve freedom from Egypt.

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