Loving our enemies
by Jack Wald | February 14th, 2010

Romans 12:14, 17-21

One day in the early months of my time in Rabat, I was waiting by the Shell station on Mohammed VI for a woman who was going to show me some houses for Annie and I to look at. As I was waiting this guy came up to me acting crazy. He was waving his hands around and bumping me. I put one hand on my wallet in the back pocket and pushed him off with the second. He went away a few steps and then turned around with a grin holding my keys in his hand. I was wearing jeans but he had pulled my keys with a leather attachment that held nine dirham coins out of my front pocket without me feeling it. He gave me back the keys, not knowing perhaps that dirham coins were in the attachment, and went off.

From that day on I have not carried a wallet in Morocco. I keep bills in a money clip in my front pocket along with a coin purse and I walk down the street with my hand in my pocket.

As I thought about this incident in the days that followed, I was filled with rage. I had not lost anything but I still felt violated. I had visions of me knocking him down on the ground with his face smashing into the pavement. I thought about this over and over again.

I had similar feelings a couple years ago when two young men came at Annie and me and a friend with the long knives they use to butcher sheep. We escaped without injury and without loss, but for days afterwards I thought about how I might have been able to get one of the knives and attack them. Or I thought how wonderful it would have been if I had had a gun with me or pepper spray.

For the past two weeks we have focused on what Paul says love should look like in a Christian community. Today, in the last of the sermons on Romans for this year, we will focus on loving our enemies.

Who is my enemy? My enemy is anyone who has taken or is threatening to take what I have. If someone comes to rob me, he is my enemy. If someone attacks me he is my enemy. If someone takes away my right to meet in the church, he is my enemy. If someone spreads false rumors about me, trying to destroy my reputation, he is my enemy. If someone attacks or robs or harms someone I love and care about, he is my enemy.

If you sit in church or Sunday School or at a Bible study and read that we should love our enemies and think you can do that, I would challenge you and say you are fooling yourself.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”

Anyone who says it is easy to love your enemy is thinking theoretically.

It is important that we recognize our human emotions, as ugly as they may be. In 1988 Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, was in a Presidential debate with Ronald Reagan and was asked, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis replied, “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life”, and explained his stance.

Many, including Dukakis himself, think his non-emotional response cost him the election as his polls dropped that night from 49% to 42%.

A more honest and much better response would have been to say, “I’d prefer to slowly kill the SOB myself, but sometimes our heads need to rule our emotions.

If we are going to deal honestly with Paul’s admonition to love our enemies, we need to be honest in how we feel and not put a Christian facade over our real emotions. If we are going to love our enemies, then we need to have a love that is powerful enough to overcome the ugliness of what has been done to us and those we love.

Paul wrote in verses 14 and then 17-21 about loving our enemies. Did Paul have any enemies? Or was he in these four verses just spouting off some superficial Christian good will?

In 2 Corinthians 11:23–25 Paul wrote of the suffering he had received as he traveled from city to city, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus.
I have … been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked

Now I know you have heard this before, but let’s visualize this.

Paul is in a city and preaching Jesus which inevitably stirs up trouble. The religious and economic power structures are threatened by this new message and use their influence to have Paul punished.

Most of you have seen The Passion of Christ, the Mel Gibson film. Mel Gibson seems to have a preoccupation with blood and so in that film there is a very visual picture of the flogging Jesus received. The whips used for flogging had bits of bone or iron inserted into the leather ends so as the leather wrapped around the body and then pulled back, the bone or iron ripped out pieces of flesh. Jesus experienced this once; Paul received this punishment five times. Paul’s back was a mass of scars, scar tissue on top of scar tissue.

Imagine yourself tied to a post and then flogged in this way. How do you think you would feel about the ones who had reported you to the authorities, to the authorities who sentenced you to this punishment and to the ones who were inflicting the punishment? All of these people were Paul’s enemies.

Three times Paul was beaten with rods. He was tied to a post and then beaten. Flogging and beating with rods was done in public to add humiliation to the beating.

Paul preached Jesus in a city. People opposed him and then had the satisfaction of watching as he was flogged or beaten. As Paul looked up into the eyes of his accusers, he saw the look of satisfaction that they had won and he had lost.

With all the abuse Paul received, his body was so broken that Luke, the physician who traveled with Paul, and others had to manipulate his body each day so he could walk with a minimum of pain. His skin had to be oiled each morning so it would not crack and bleed.

In Acts 14:19 Paul was preaching in Lystra, present day Turkey, when opposition arose.
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.

They dragged Paul to a place where they could hurl stones from above him. They lifted up heavy stones and threw them down on Paul. His head, his face, his chest, his arms and legs, all were smashed with stones. Paul was bleeding from everywhere and when they were finished, they dragged him outside the city and left him for dead. He did not seem to be breathing. He was a bloody mess.

In one of the more amazing verses of the Bible, verse 20 says:
But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.

He got up and went back into the city! The next day he left for Derbe! Amazing! Either he was a quick healer or God did something amazing in him to allow him to live and move.

But the point is that these people filled with anger and hate were Paul’s enemies who tried to kill him. In city after city Paul met enemies who humiliated him, beat him, flogged him, stoned him.

So when you read Paul’s writing about loving your enemy, don’t think for a moment that he is giving a superficial, Sunday School answer. He is preaching from deep within him when he writes about loving our enemies.

Let’s take a look at what Paul wrote and then come back to figure out how Paul was able to actually practice what he preached.

In verse 14 and then 17-21 Paul has four admonitions, “do not” and then four positives to counter the negative.

Verse 14
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

I remember being punished by my father. I had said something nasty to my mother and he took me upstairs into his bedroom and whipped me with a belt. I don’t remember trying to bless him as he did this. But I did have some sense of shame for what I had said. So I knew my punishment was not undeserved. But what had Paul done that was wrong?

So imagine yourself tied to a post and being beaten with rods or being whipped for an offense you do not deserve. It is the anger and the evil of others that is responsible for your suffering. How is it possible that you could bless those who were beating you? How could you not cry out in anger and curse them?

Verse 17
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

The Message translations says:
Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.

As you are being beaten, just think about the beauty in the person beating you. Really? I think Eugene Peterson missed the mark in this part of his translation.

Let’s say someone lies so they can make you look bad and make themselves look good. You are both in competition for a job promotion and this person is lying to get ahead. Do you then say the gloves are off and begin spreading rumors about your competitor? You have been honest and fair but now you discover your enemy has been unfair and dishonest. Is it time to join in the game and give your enemy a dose of his own medicine? Why should you continue to play fair when your opponent is not restricted by being fair.

Verse 19
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

The Count of Monte Cristo was written in 1844 by Alexander Dumas. It has been a popular book ever since. In the last decade, 150 years after it was written, it has been made into a movie in 2002, musicals in 2008 and 2009, a soap opera in 2007. There is a long list of books, movies, plays that have adapted this story.

Why is it so popular?

It is a great story of revenge. A young sea captain returns to France with a letter to deliver. The man who receives the letter realizes the letter would get him into trouble with the government so he falsely accuses the young man who is sent off to a prison, leaving his fiancee and all his prospects behind. After fourteen years in a harsh prison he escapes. The man in the cell next to him had confided the location of a buried treasure and he makes his way to this island. He returns to France as a mysterious, wealthy man and begins to plot sweet, delicious, revenge against all those who had betrayed him.

It is a richly satisfying story. The Count of Monte Cristo and a host of other books, movies, and TV shows make good use of our desire for revenge.

A singer I like, John McCutcheon, wrote a song titled “The Red Corvette”

This morning as I read my paper
In search of a new set of wheels
My newspaper had a most curious ad
In its listing of automobiles

I smiled with suspicious amusement
At what looked like a great stroke of luck
Corvette – it said – low mileage, bright red
Ninety-four model, sixty-five bucks

I’m used to my newspaper’s errors
But I called up the number straightway
About the Corvette – have you sold the car yet?
She said, No, you’re my first call today

I said, There’s been a mistake in the paper
They printed the price wrong somehow
No, they haven’t, said she, They got that from me
I said, Don’t sell – I’m leaving right now

Her home was in part of the city
Where I’d ventured just one time or two
Where doctors, bank presidents, lawyers were residents
And the houses were massive and huge

As I pulled up the half mile of driveway
There, in the heat of the day
In the sunshine it gleamed, the car of my dreams
Only sixty-five dollars away

The interior was done in red leather
The engine a massive V8
A white cabrio top like new from the shop
And the hi-fi sounded just great

There was chrome on the chrome on the chromium
There was an aerodynamic design
It had a bar, a TV, and – amazing to me
For sixty-five bucks it was mine

I thought that woman was crazy
Selling the car at that price
As we walked down the lane she seemed perfectly sane
She was charming and really quite nice

And she smiled with great satisfaction
As she handed me papers and keys
I said, I’ve just got to know why you let this thing go
What’s wrong with the car, tell me please

She said, I’ll be sixty on Tuesday
I’ve lived here with my husband Earl
After thirty years wed without a word said
He’s run off with some silly young girl

But he left his credit cards behind him
So I knew that he wouldn’t get far
Last night, from Capri, he faxed this to me
I need money, dear, sell the car

That is great revenge. If you look on the internet you can find sites devoted to stories of how people were wronged and how they got revenge.

We love the idea of getting revenge so much; the desire for revenge is so deep in us, how can we follow the admonition of Paul to not take revenge?

Finally, in verse 21 Paul wrote:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is a theme picked up in the Star Wars movies when Luke Skywalker is battling Darth Vader. Darth Vader encourages Luke to give in to his feelings of anger and revenge because in so doing he will be pulled over to the dark side. Our human nature pulls us into the dark side. Our human nature returns evil for evil. It takes something beyond ourselves to return good for evil.

When someone tries to take from us what is ours, our natural reaction is to be angry. When someone does take something from us that is ours, our natural reaction is to want to seek revenge.

It is beyond ourselves to love our enemies. We can sit around a table in a Bible study and say we will love our enemies. When someone steals our purse or breaks into our car we can forgive them. After all, they really did not take that much from us. But when your young daughter, as in The Shack that I talked about last week, is raped and murdered, how it is humanly possible to forgive.

When murderers are executed in the United States, very often the families and friends of the victims wait outside until they hear the murderer is dead. Then they erupt in celebration.

When your neighbors pick up machetes and go to the church where you and your family and friends have gathered for safety and proceed to systematically chop to death the people in the church compound, one by one, how can you possibly forgive them?

When a drunk driver smashes into your ten year old son who is walking on the sidewalk and kills him, how can you forgive him?

So let’s return to Paul. How could he write about loving our enemies? Paul, who had so many enemies who humiliated him, who beat him, who tried to kill him; how could Paul say we are to love our enemies?

Let’s go to another story. Do you remember Stephen, the bright young leader in the Greek-speaking community of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem? Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin and sentenced to death by stoning. They dragged him out to be stoned and as the stones rained down on his body, his lifeblood flowing out of him, who stood watching and approving of this action? Saul, later called Paul.

Who was Stephen’s enemy? Saul was. What did Saul observe as Stephen was killed? Acts 7:59–60 (NIV)
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

When Paul was being stoned in Lystra, as the stones rained down on his body, do you think he remembered when he had been part of the stoning of Stephen?

The reason Paul could talk so forcefully about forgiving our enemies is because he once had been an enemy and he knew what enemies can become. He knew that enemies can be forgiven and brought into the Kingdom of God.

What do you think Stephen said when Paul died and came into heaven? Was it a sarcastic, “You got a taste of what I got. How did that feel?” I don’t think so. How about, “Paul, I am so sorry you had to suffer so much.” I imagine a reunion of tears, mutual admiration, deep love and affection.

Paul knew that our enemies can be forgiven and become our closest brothers and sisters because he had been an enemy and he had been forgiven and become a brother to the man he had killed.

This is why we love our enemies. Not because we can minimize the pain and suffering they caused. Not because we don’t continue to feel the loss of what they have taken from us.

We love our enemies because we know that Jesus died for their sin, even the sin that is causing them to inflict pain and suffering on us. As we are being beaten, literally or figuratively, we can look the ones harming us in the eye and realize Jesus died for them and they can receive free and full forgiveness for what they are doing.

In the great hymn of the church, To God Be the Glory, there is this verse:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
to every believer the promise of God;
the vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

The vilest offender. The most vile offender. The one who has done the worst thing imaginable.

What will you sing next?
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
But it’s not fair! But it’s not fair!

The serial rapist and murderer, the pedophile and all the way down to the petty thief can be forgiven with the abundant love of Jesus. Jesus died for the people you like the least. Jesus died for the people who have hurt you the most. And that is why you can forgive your enemy.

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, wrote in The Magnificent Defeat
The love for equals is a human thing – of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing – the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing – to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the [minority] for the [majority]. The world is always bewildered by its saints.
And then there is the love for the enemy – love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.

Who is your enemy? Who is threatening to take from you or has taken from you what is yours? Jesus died for that person.

John wrote in a letter to the church (1 John 2:17 ESV)
And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

How you are treated in this world does not matter as much as where you will one day go. How long you live, how comfortably you live, how you will die do not matter as much as where you will go after you die. We do not need to fear what men and women can do to us. If we fear what they can do to us, they will become our enemy. If we see beyond this life to the reality of our heavenly existence, we will be better able to love those who are persecuting us.

When you identify someone as an enemy or potential enemy, you need to pray for that person and ask God to help you see that person with his eyes. God has forgiven you. God can also forgive that person. Don’t think you will be able to do this on your own strength. It is only Christ in you that will allow you to have such a powerful love.?