I recently saw a figure that was quite shocking. It is estimated that since 2000, 1.3 million Christians have been killed worldwide because of their faith. The majority of these have been killed by those who belong to Islam – by Muslims.
In northern Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram is carrying out ethnic cleansing against Christians as they attack villages and slaughter the inhabitants. In Somalia and eastern Africa, Al Shabab executes Christians in the public square. In Egypt Christians are murdered and churches are burned. In Syria, groups associated with Al Qaeda demand that Christians convert to Islam or be killed on the spot. In Pakistan mobs attack churches and the homes of Christians. In Iraq, churches are bombed.
The reports about acts of violence by Muslims against Christians incites indignation at those who carry out such barbaric acts in the name of a religion. At the same time, the unrelenting flow of these kinds of stories does have a numbing effect. It is important that we are informed about what is happening to Christians around the world. But, we can almost get used to this kind of news – disturbing as it may be.
And then along comes a story like that of Sadia Ali Omar. Sadia and her cousin were executed by Al Shabab in Somalia because they were Christians. The residents of the village, including Sadia’s own fifteen and eight year old daughters, were forced to watch as the Muslims beheaded the two women. Sadia’s husband had previously died, and so the brutal act has left the two girls as orphans.
When we hear about something like this – and it by no means an isolated incident – our natural reaction is anger. The urge that rises up within us is hate for those who could do something so vicious and horrible. But as we listen to our text tonight from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that this is not how it is to be for those who have received the saving reign of God. Instead those who have received the unmerited and undeserved love of God in Christ Jesus, share that love and forgiveness with others.
Our text this evening is the sixth and final time that Jesus set up the contrast, “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” Like the previous five times, Jesus once again takes up an interpretation of the Torah that was present in the Judaism of his day. He takes it up and rejects it as instead he provides the true and full interpretation.
In our text, Jesus begins by saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Now the book of Leviticus says, “You shall love your neighbor.” However, there is no text in the Old Testament that says, “You shall hate your enemy.” We have here the clearest proof that Jesus is taking up and correcting an interpretation of the Torah that was present in Judaism at that time. There is evidence that the Jews at Qumran who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls had a teaching of hatred about those outside their group.
There were Jews in the time of Christ who were saying, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” However, Jesus responded, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. We do this in order to be what God has made us to be. We do this to live as sons and daughters of the our Father who is in heaven.
Now this is not how the world works. In the world, if someone does something to you, you get angry; you seek to get payback. You pay attention and look for an opportunity to get revenge. The hope is not only that you can hurt the other person, but instead to hurt them worse than that person hurt you. Of course, this action often prompts and an even greater reaction by the other person, and so an ascending spiral of anger and hate emerges. This is the way of the world. It is a way that still comes naturally for the old man within you. And it is often a way that you find difficult to relinquish.
In our text, Jesus reminds us that we are not the world. Instead, we are people who have received the saving and transforming reign of God through the work of the Spirit. We have received the Gospel, and the Gospel turns everything upside down. It negates all our expectations about how things are “supposed” to work.
On Sunday we will remember that Jesus Christ entered into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. There, he encountered opposition and hatred. And yet, did Jesus react in anger and revenge? No, he continued his way to the cross of Good Friday where he willingly died for the sins being committed against him. He died to provide forgiveness before God – forgiveness even for those who tortured and killed him. He came to share God’s love with those who don’t want to love God. And then on the third day he rose from the dead. He showed that the reign of God present in him overcomes all things – even death itself.
You have received this saving reign. Next week on Saturday, at the Vigil of Easter we will together return to the foundational reality by which this happened. We will return to our baptism. St. Paul wrote about baptism, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Through baptism you received the reign of God. You shared in Jesus’ saving death and so now through the work of Spirit you live in Christ. You live in the newness of life that Christ provides and so the Spirit gives you new ways of living. The sacrificial love of Christ for you becomes the both the source for your life and also its guide.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” After all, you don’t need the Gospel to be able to love the people you like. Jesus says in our text, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Yet to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you, this is something that only God can work in you through his Spirit. This is something that only Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for you can make possible.
Now contrary to our world’s sappy sentimentality, love is not merely a feeling. It’s not just a warm fuzzy inside of you that dissipates when harmed or wronged. Instead, love is action. Love seeks to help and not to harm, just as Jesus Christ loved us. Love prays for the welfare of others – even those who persecute us.
We know that this is a struggle. It is often not something that we want to do. It is an action that often does not match the feelings we have inside of us. And because of this fact, the words at the end our text reveal our shortcomings. They reveal the fact that we are living in the now and the not yet. Jesus says, “You therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In ourselves we are not yet perfect. But in Christ, we are. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are forgiven and righteous. As those who are in Christ through the work of the Spirit, when God looks at us he sees a saint. And it is by returning daily to Christ as he is present for us through the Means of Grace that we receive the grace and strength to live this way in the world. The more we cling to Christ and his love for us, the more his love will prompt us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.