Friday, February 6, 2009


Back in 1971, the late John Lennon of Beatles fame penned a poem that is widely regarded to be perhaps the most famous lyric ever written. The poem, titled “Imagine” was recorded as the title song in Lennon’s best-selling album of the same name. Many today still regard “Imagine” as the greatest song of all time. Indeed, former president Jimmy Carter once observed, “In many countries around the world you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.” Lennon’s “Imagine” is the musical manifesto of his secular utopian ideal. If the world were what it was supposed to be, Lennon believed, it would be like the world he envisioned in “Imagine.” Listen to the lyrics:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

That’s about as close as Lennon ever gets to what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God”: live for today…live for peace…share the world. But Lennon never “imagines” a place where people “love their enemies!” And yet, Jesus insists that this is the definitive evidence of the presence of the Kingdom of God.

Our text is part of Luke’s version of what Matthew calls “The Sermon on the Mount,” and while there are some significant differences between the two versions, the essential point is the same: Jesus’ disciples do not reciprocate, do not retaliate, do not respond tit-for-tat to those who would do violence to them, whether physical or emotional or psychological or financial. Matter of fact, disciples are not to draw their behavior in response to how other’s treat them at all; rather, they are to, and Lennon never “imagined” this, love their enemies. He goes on: “Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who maltreat you.”

Now, you do understand, don’t you, that there’s nothing particularly “Christian” in and of itself about the injunction to non-retaliation. Ghandi too counseled his followers not to engage in retaliatory behavior. Why?” Because it doesn’t work. “An eye for an eye,” as Martin Luther King once observed, is a game that, if everyone plays, has all the participants winding up blind and toothless!

But love your enemies…? That’s something neither Lennon nor Ghandi ever imagined.

I’m intrigued as much by what Jesus didn’t say as what He did. Notice: Jesus didn’t say that you’re to go out and try to summon up from somewhere deep within you an emotional bond with your enemy. The kind of love Jesus is talking about is not a “feeling.” Loving our enemy doesn’t mean that we have to “like” them. “Liking” someone means feeling a certain way about them, and I can no more manufacture that feeling than I can manufacture my response to beets. I hate beets! I don’t have anything personal against beets, you understand. They’ve never done anything to me. I just don’t like them! There’s nothing either particularly sinister or virtuous about the way I feel about beets. It’s just the “is-ness of things.” That’s not what Jesus is talking about when He says that we have to “love our enemies.” He doesn’t mean that we have to try to like them. We don’t always “like” ourselves, but we always “love” ourselves in the sense that we wish our own good.

And that’s the sense in which Jesus insists that God’s children “love their enemies;” that they wish their good, not their ill. Indeed, there is nothing more dangerous than wishing our enemies ill.

As C. S. Lewis points out: “When you hear a bit of gossip about someone and it turns out not to be true, what is your first thought? Is it, ‘Thank God even they are not as bad as that!’ Or is it a feeling of disappointment, even a determination to hold onto the gossip for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the latter, then I fear you have taken the first step down a road which will turn you into a devil. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give in to that, later on we shall wish grey were black, then white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything – God, our friends, even ourselves – as bad, and not being able to stop doing it, we shall be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.”

But what if instead of passing on destructive gossip and enlarging upon it, we were to do what our children did last Sunday in the Children’s Sermon. Remember? They were playing the “Pass It On” or “What Did You Hear?” game, and when they couldn’t get it right, they did as they were instructed and simply retreated to a uniquely Christian posture. They whispered in each other’s ear: “Jesus Loves You.” Kind of hard to think of someone as an “enemy” when you’re telling them “Jesus Loves You!” isn’t it?

“Loving your enemies,” as Jesus instructed us, is not trying to “muster up” a warm, fuzzy feeling about them. You can’t “manufacture” a feeling. Ever tried to “fall in love?” It is reminding yourself that your enemy is God’s child too and relating to them accordingly.

And that’s not easy to do! In fact, we need God’s help to do it. That’s why Jesus called “loving your enemies” a grace. He says it clearly three times in our text.

Don’t be fooled by the translations; they obscure what Jesus really said. They translate vv. 32-34, “If you love those who love you, or do good to those who do good to you, or lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?” But that’s not what the Greek says. The word translated "credit" in Greek is charis - "grace." The Greek says: “If you love those who love you, where’s the grace in that?” And then, in what may be the most radical statement in the entire New Testament, Jesus cinches the matter: “Because you are children of your Father in heaven Who,” says Jesus, “is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.”

What He means by that is that God’s grace is His DNA; it’s just what He is, and if you’re His child, God’s “DNA,” His grace, will be in you too! You see, God doesn’t love you because He finds in you something “lovable” that lets Him love you.

It’s not a matter of the “cute baby syndrome.” You know, researchers have isolated the “cute baby” characteristics, and they seem to be universal and cross-species: large, over-sized eyes, close-set, dominating the rotund little face. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a human baby or a puppy, they all share the same characteristics that adults call “cute.” Why? So that the parents won’t eat their offspring, the researchers say!

But God’s love is not like that. It has nothing to do with you at all. God doesn’t love you because you’re cute or good or valuable; you’re valuable because He loves you! He loves you because of Who He is, not because of who you are. Merit has nothing to do with the grace of God, because the grace of God is God’s grace.

Grace - it’s God’s “DNA” and, therefore, the definitive evidence that you are His child. I guess you could say, “Like Father, like son.” Or to say it another way, if you don’t love your enemies, you’ll never win a “paternity suit” in the Kingdom of God.

And that’s not a matter of trying harder or doing better; it’s a grace. It is God’s gift to you, His “DNA” in you, and it’s the definitive evidence that you are a “child of God.”

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, put it this way: “The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and doable. It is a prior commandment to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the grace to believe that everyone is loved, and until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine grace, men and women are imprisoned in hate.”

Picture a face? Your worst enemy. Got it? Now change the face to Jesus’. Can you? If you can, do you still feel hate?

And it’s the best evidence I know that salvation is journey and not just event. Anybody want to claim that they have this “loving your enemies” thing down? I didn’t think so.

I know…I know. “Like Father, like son.” He became what we are so that we might become what He is, and Jesus loved His enemies. There’s DNA and then there’s “DNA;” there’s grace and then there’s Grace.

Will Willimon tells a story about walking across the Duke campus one day with the late Stuart Henry, professor emeritus. It was Friday afternoon, the first day of “Oktoberfest,” the annual Bacchanalia on West Campus, which is justified as a means of enabling everyone to blow off the steam that has allegedly built up because of overexertion in the library which, many professors would argue, their students haven't yet learned the location of!

Willimon says, “We stood there, Professor Henry and I, in front of Duke Chapel, on the steps, and surveyed the breakdown of Western civilization, the drunken brawl taking place before us, the carousing and carnality on the lawn, and Stuart said to me, ‘Will, do you know what is for me the ultimate proof of our Lord’s divinity?’”

Startled by the seeming disconnect between Henry’s question and the scene being played out before them, Willimon played along, “Okay, I give up, Stuart. What is the ultimate proof of our Lord’s divinity?”

“It’s that verse,” said Henry, “you know, the one that says, ‘And looking out at the multitudes, He loved them.”

Can you imagine that?

* asked for more sermons on my blog, so here it is. This is the sermon I preached last Sunday for the good folk where I serve as Interim Pastor, who call me "Pastor-for-a-While," as opposed to "Pastor Forever" which, of course, no one is. But that's another blog....

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