I’ve been doing a seven part sermon series for the past few weeks entitled, “Loving God Means…”. I started with Jesus’ dual love command (see Matthew 22:37 & Luke 10:27), and have been moving outward to various relationships and aspects of human life that require love, care and attention if we are to be consistent in our claim to love God. At the heart of the series is the basic definition of what we mean by love. When Jesus talks about it, he uses the Greek term agape. Agape isn’t “liking” something, or being especially passionate about it. Instead, agape is self-giving, serving, sacrificial love. When we look to the person of Jesus, we see God’s agape put on display. In Christ, God gave of God’s self, served, and sacrificed so that we might live.
The sermon this past Sunday was on the need to love our enemies, using Matthew 5:43-48 and 2 Kings 6:15-23. The sermon was challenging on several levels. For the hearer, the challenge to love enemies and show mercy to those who have wounded us is always difficult. For my part, the challenge was to fit everything I wanted to say into a short period. The topic of reconciliation is one that I’ve studied and written on for most of my career from seminary onward, and my own understanding has changed over the years. On a personal level, learning to forgive has been an area of constant challenge in my personal walk with Christ.
Needless to say, a single sermon does not suffice to say everything I want to say. Thankfully, God has given us writers and thinkers who have done it better and more succinctly. To that end, consider my favorite quote from my favorite theologian from his most famous work:
“But let this city [“the pilgrim city of King Christ”] bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hidden those who are destined to be fellow citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theaters with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends”St. Augustine, The City of God, Book I, Ch. 35
What is Augustine saying in this quote? I think he is making the same point Paul makes in Romans 11 when he considers the question of what Jesus means for his Jewish brothers and sisters who, for the moment, reject him as the messiah:
30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.Romans 11:30-32 NRSV
Paul is writing at a very painful juncture in Christian history. A rift is beginning to form in the Jewish/Jewish-Christian community over the question of Jesus and the place of Gentiles in the Christian community. Paul argues that what seems to be the Jewish disobedience towards God’s self-disclosure in Jesus achieves God’s purposes of reconciling the Gentiles and offering them a place in God’s promises. Quite literally, God is making room for those who were once enemies (Gentiles) to be included in the family, a point Paul makes elsewhere in Ephesians 2.
Simply put, God’s reconciling work is so great and beyond the measure of our imagination, God has purposed in Jesus to make enemies into friends.
St. Augustine runs with this point, reminding his readers that we ought not be quick to draw hard divisions between the friends and the enemies of God, much less those we would personally call friends or enemies. In his classic definition of the church visible v. invisible, we ought not be hasty to define the redeemed from the irredeemable. God’s love is so vast and overwhelming that it has the ability to reconcile even the worst among us. For that reason, we ought “not think it a fruitless labor” to return good to those who do evil towards us. Instead, we ought to see both the good and the bad we experience at the hands of others as an opportunity to show mercy and forgiveness. As I said in the sermon, when we love one who has withheld from us respect and dignity by showing them love and compassionate care we rightfully deserve as God’s children, we become a mirror in which they might recognize the person they were created to become in Christ.
In the end, we are to love our enemies in the hope that Christ will be visible in our love and that our estranged neighbor might become our friend, even family, within the body of Christ, the church. This is a big idea, and it is not easily digestible. It runs counter to our instincts and inherited tribalism. It cuts us to the quick and calls us to question where we have been placing our ultimate allegiance. In the “pilgrim city of King Christ,” there is only one allegiance, and that is to this purpose God has revealed in the Son.
My prayer is that the church living through very trying times at the level of culture and society will embrace this allegiance with all that we have, so that we might be a place where our enemies might come to know that they were “destined to become our friends.”