Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sister, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Annual Conference is that one time of the year that all the diehard Methodists get together for a weekend of facts, faith, and fellowship. Representatives from each church gather in an effort to discuss contemporary issues facing the church, learn from various speakers, and celebrate the ordination and retirement of particular clergy.
A few summers ago, while serving a church outside of Detroit, Michigan, I was invited to attend the Detroit Annual Conference session. I listened to members of the conference debate whether or not to give more money to fight against malaria in Africa, how to address concerns over our pension system, and arguments about what it means to pray for physical healing in the church. Toward the end of the session, we came to my favorite part of every Annual Conference, The Service of Ordination. People, young and old alike, who felt the call of God on the lives to pursue a life of ministry, folk who have worked and sacrificed for years to be standing in front of all the people, were preparing to be commissioned and ordained for work in the church.
As the small group of adults stood shoulder to shoulder on the stage I wondered about their backgrounds, where they might be appointed, and what kind of ministerial careers they would have. Dressed in their robes, the candidates prepared to answer the traditional Wesleyan questions that thousands of Methodist clergy have had to answer over the last two centuries.
“Have you faith in Christ?”
The candidates definitively responded with a resounding “Yes!”
“Do you believe in the ordinances of the United Methodist Church?”
“Are you going on to perfection?”
Most of the responses we completely in sync, except for one woman toward the end. Instead of answering like her fellow peers, she shook her head as if to say no, while her voice said yes.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.
For that one clergy candidate, achieving perfection was something that she was clearly unsure about. I imagine that she understood her own fallibility, her sinfulness, as preventing her from ever being perfect. Moreover she probably thought that only Christ could be perfect and that it would never be possible for her.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.
Here we are again, caught up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It was hard enough that he told his disciples to not lose their tempter, to not lust, and to renounce the right to retaliate; but now Jesus is instructing us to love those who hate and harm us. Really? Jesus is like that boss or parent that knowingly give us a list of things to do that we can never accomplish. Why does Jesus expect the impossible from those who follow him?
Using the same formula that we talked about last week, Jesus establishes the current expectations of the law and then he enhances them: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Two important questions arise from Jesus’ declaration: Who is my enemy?; Why am I supposed to love them?
Enemy number 1: Those who are evil. Anyone who takes advantage of the weak, anyone who promotes violence in power struggles, and anyone who exhibits evil in the world is my enemy. They are the ones who actively seek to work against God’s love and kingdom in the world. They are the people who participate in destructive tendencies toward others and are fans of violence, subjugation, and selfishness.
Enemy number 2: My friends and family. In many ways, some of our greatest enemies are those who are closest to us. Our friends and family are the ones who set expectations for what our lives are supposed to look like. They are the ones who know whether or not we are living up to our potential. They see our truest sides, they know about our weaknesses, they remember our history. When we create walls between ourselves and those who are close to us, we often do so because we are afraid of being too vulnerable with them, we fear what they can do to us.
Enemy number 3: Ourselves. I am my own worst enemy. I am the commander of my life. I am responsible for the choices and decisions I make. I know my own weaknesses better than anyone else, I hold myself to a standard that, when not met, leaves me feeling down and blue. I have more power than I should regarding the hearts, minds, and souls of so many people in my life, and if I abuse that power, I become an even greater enemy than anyone else in my life.
When we hear that Jesus calls us to love and pray for our enemies we do well to not relegate our enemies to far away and distant peoples. Our worst enemies might be sitting here with us in church this morning. We all have enemies in ways, that sometimes, we cannot even imagine. That neighbor who always trims your bushes, or that acquaintance who always takes advantage of your hospitality, or that stranger who belittles people at the supermarket are just as much our enemies as those who bring and promote terror across the world. For the Christian, the words neighbor and enemy are synonymous and are remarkably far reaching.
And Jesus tells us to love them, and to pray for them.
So, why? Why are we supposed to love those who hate and persecute us? Why does Jesus call us to love the people who often make our lives miserable?
We are not called to love them in order to change them. Thats not the point. Certainly the conversion of an enemy to a trusted friend can be the result of our discipleship and call to love, but it is not necessary, nor should it be our motivation for loving our enemies. Love is not a weapon or a tool. Genuine love has not ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one being loved, regardless of the response. We are called to love unconditionally.
If you love someone, enemy or not, in order to change them, they will never change. Our love for others should not come with baggage but must be the same as the free and unconditional love and grace that comes to us from God.
We love others because God first loved us. Elsewhere in the world, it is normal to return love for love and hate for hate. Christians who do no more than this fade into the background of life. They cannot be the light of the world and salt of the earth.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. This kind of love is less about feelings and more about actions. For the early Christians to love the Roman oppressor or the face slapping persecutor was not about having “warm and fuzzy feelings” but to react in a positive way. I know that we have been trained to think of love as a feeling, particularly in the wake of Valentine’s day, but love is something you DO. That why Jesus calls his disciples to go the extra mile and turn the other cheek; physical embodiments of love for our enemies. Whatever else you can do to love your enemy, Jesus leaves it up to our imaginations as to how we can do so. Our love for others is called to be abnormal, above and beyond what the world would be satisfied with.
In addition to the embodiment, the DOING, of love, we are also called to pray for our enemies. You have heard it said that if you do this its enough, well to Jesus we can always do more, we can always be better. Loving our enemies is one thing, it is difficult and taxing, but praying for our enemies is another thing altogether.
Praying for our enemies requires us to seriously attempt to see them from God’s point of view. The sun rises on the evil and the good, and God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. We cannot truly pray for our enemies without acknowledge our common humanity; our enemies have been created in the image of God, just as we were. And no matter how bad they are, no matter how nefarious, no matter how sinful, nothing can ever erase God’s image from their lives, nor from ours.
The call to pray for our enemies is like being a parent who can earnestly say to their child, “I love you, but I don’t like what you’re doing.” Praying for our enemies will always fall short unless we remember that God love us just as much as our enemies. Seeing them in the light of God’s love is the first step toward loving them, and praying for them.
So, is this even possible? Are we capable of loving and praying for our enemies? Can we be perfect? If we try to do it on our own, it is impossible. Only by the grace of God, only with God’s help, can we heed Jesus’ call to love and pray for our enemies. Truly I tell you, this is one of the most difficult aspects of being a Christian. We are called to an impossible life, if we try to do it on our own. Christ is not asking us to simply “like” everybody, but rather to act and pray in love toward those we like and those we do not like.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
At our Lectionary Bible Study this week, we sat in one of the Sunday school rooms and read this text out loud. As usual, many of the comments and questions were quite profound leading toward a greater understanding of the text for all of us. As we were coming to the end of our time together, Betty Hairfield offered a story regarding this idea of perfection.
Years ago, while Betty was in college, she began worshipping at a United Methodist Church because it was closer to campus than the denomination she grew up with. One day Betty was told about the question of perfection that all ministerial candidates were asked about. Like the woman who shook her head while saying “yes,” Betty kept the words close to her heart and she began to understand the depth of the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” For Betty, this was a transformative moment. If perfection is not our goal, then whats the point? Why should we continue to worship a God who loves unless we try to live better lives. That realization, that question of perfection, is what led Betty to join the United Methodist Church.
We are not called to be content with the mediocrity of discipleship but instead we are called to live radical and abnormal lives. Like the psalmist we need to pray for God’s wisdom and grace to be the kind of people who can change the world. We need to strive to be better than good, to live into the new reality that Jesus established with his life, death, and resurrection. Love and pray for those who are evil, for your friends and family, and for yourselves!
Are we going on to perfection? Yes, but only with God’s help.