Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church, December 10, 2017

“Loving Your Enemy Under the Cross”

 Four of five sermons on ‘The Meaning of Christ’s Cross’

Scripture: Proverbs 25:21-22 and Matthew 5:43-48

Mosab Hassan Yousef grew up a Muslim. From an early age he studied the Quran, prayed five times daily, and followed Islam as faithfully as he could. In that respect, he was typical of many young men growing up in a Palestinian town on the West Bank.  His father was one of the founders of Hamas, the radical terrorist organization.

You would consider him an unlikely candidate for conversion to Christianity, but God’s ways are sometimes beyond explanation. In his book, Son of Hamas, Youself tells how a man gave him a New Testament. Naturally, he started with the Gospel of Matthew. Soon he encountered the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where he received his first unfiltered exposure to Jesus’ teachings. It blew him away! He could not reject the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ teaching. One particular statement of Jesus’ pierced his mind and heart,

“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.” (Mt. 5:43-45)

That was a message he’d never heard before. Three words of Jesus so captured his heart he could not get away from them: “Love your enemies” – don’t hate them, despise them, or kill them!

After Jesus’ instruction to take up your cross and follow Him, this may be His most difficult command. From a practical viewpoint, it is extremely difficult to believe Jesus truly meant what He said. If you have so-called friends who attack you; if you have people who have tried to ruin you; loving your enemies is near the bottom of your to-do list. Most of us have encountered some enemies along life’s journey. There are many things we dream about doing to our enemies, like getting even or making them suffer.  Yet, Jesus comes along and sticks His finger in our chest and declares, “Love your enemies!” Really! How can I possibly do that?

Christ’s injunction leads to a very practical question: Who are my enemies? In the broadest sense, your enemy is anyone who turns against you. But Jesus description of enemies in Matthew 5:46-47 does not refer to enemies on the distant side of the world. Rather, He talks about those enemies who tend to be close to home. He mentions three close relationships that can go sour: a father and his son; a mother and her daughter; a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law (Mt. 10:36).

Besides our close relationships, we confront enemies in other spheres of life. We may go to church and work, or have neighbors who infuriate us. If this teaching of Jesus about loving enemies is going to work, it must work first in our closest relationships. You must learn to deal with the people close to you before you can impact the rest of the world.

Nothing seems more normal than hating those who have mistreated you. But Christians have an alternative, better way. The world says, “Get even.” Jesus says, “Seek the good of those who have harmed you” (Mt. 5:38-42). The world says, “Get angry.” Jesus says, “Pray for them”(Mt. 5:44). The world says, “Don’t waste time loving bad people.” Jesus says, “Love them anyway” (Mt. 5:44). We need to pray for our enemies because they need our prayers.

Every time we are faced with people who mistreat us, we have three choices:

  1. We can respond with hate. That accomplishes nothing.
  2. We can struggle to hold back our anger. That emotionally exhausts us.
  3. Or, we can pray for God to bless them ( 5:44). Praying for enemies requires seeing them as people made in the image of God, not simply as Satan’s finest the agents. If we don’t pray for our enemies, how will they ever change? If we don’t pray for our enemies, how will they be set free from bitterness?

By praying for our enemies we (1) become imitators of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2); and (2) the peacemakers He called us to be (Mt.5:9; Romans 12:18). So, it’s our duty to make the first move – just as Christ made the first move to redeem us by coming into the world and offering Himself on the Cross. We pick up the phone. We send the email. We bridge the gap. The followers of Jesus have no right to refuse to offer forgiveness, let alone take revenge (Mt.6:12). Forgiving your enemy means seeing them as a person made in the image of God, but there is something twisted inside that causes them to do what they’ve done. Often forgiveness begins with sustained, painstaking listening to both sides. It includes acknowledgment of mutual bitterness and recriminations. Genuine forgiveness demands an effort to understanding the problems which have caused the relational breakdown. On top of all that, if we discover that we share the blame, there is the humiliation of apologizing. Who ever said “forgiving was easy?”

But an important question arises: What if your enemy doesn’t respond well after you have forgiven them? That doesn’t matter! You are not in charge of how people respond. Make the first move and let the Lord take care of the results. That is what Jesus meant when He said, “Bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28). I am increasingly reminded of this spiritual principle: Forgiveness in many cases is impossible until we stop talking and start praying! As long as we continually talk about how others have hurt us, we will never find the strength to forgive.

The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller was arrested by the Nazis before World War II (July 1037) and spent seven years in prison. While in prison, he daily prayed for his captors. Other prisoners asked why he prayed for his enemies, “Do you know anyone who needs your prayers more than your enemies?” he replied.

Still, resistance to love one’s enemy persists. What if I still ‘hate’ the person I am praying for? Tell that to the Lord. He won’t be surprised. Then say something like this, “Lord, I hate this person, but you already know that. I ask you to love this person through me because I cannot do it in my own power.” Only God can give you the power of the Cross to forgive your enemy. For on the Cross, we were reconciled to God at the cost of His Son. As followers of Christ, we have no right to expect that conciliation comes at no cost to ourselves. Our enemies humble us; they force us to our knees; they reveal our weaknesses; and expose our desperate need for God. Nevertheless, we thank God who knows best, and we love our enemies the best we can. Sometimes God raises up an enemy to see if we really want to be like Jesus. Jesus’ enemies persecuted Him; scourged Him; and killed Him. He loved them anyway. Do you really want to be like Jesus? The way of the Cross is costly – but it is the only way to true reconciliation.

Permit me to offer one final thought about loving your enemy: Your enemy is a gift from God to you! To say that is not to excuse evil or condone mistreatment. Nor does it cancel the need for punishment when a crime has been committed. Recognizing your enemy as a gift from God is to understand what Joseph meant when he said to his brothers who had sold him into slavery, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

On the Cross, Jesus Christ bore the penalty of sin and simultaneously overcame evil. On the Cross, sin was punished, defeated, and God’s holy love demonstrated at the same time. The holy love of the Cross should characterize our response to evil-doers today. Jesus instructed His followers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45). Jesus did not mean that by loving our enemies we earn the right to be a child of God.  You can’t work your way into God’s family. Jesus meant that loving our enemy shows that God has already become our Father. And the only reason we can love our enemies is because He loves us and has met our needs. Loving your enemies doesn’t earn you the reward of Heaven. Treasuring the reward of Heaven empowers you to love your enemy.

Let me conclude with a Christmas story about forgiveness. On a World War I battlefield in Belgium in late December 1914, British and German soldiers decided to put down their weapons and celebrate Christmas together. Their unheard of cessation of war became known as the “Christmas Truce.” It happened late on Christmas Eve as opposing soldiers started singing Christmas carols and hanging lanterns on small fir trees. The following day, British and German soldiers met on no man’s land and exchanged gifts, took photographs and played soccer. They also buried their casualties and repaired trenches. Knowing full well that those soldiers would find it difficult to fire on the very “enemy” they had just befriended, the generals replaced the troops.

Loving your enemy through the eyes of the Cross changes your life and the world.