7th Sunday after the Epiphany (A)
February 19, 2017
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel, which was read a few minutes ago.
In case you missed it, this past Tuesday was Valentine’s Day. Of course, if you’re in a relationship and missed it, you have some explaining to do. I’m sure that most of you didn’t miss it. Some of you had a romantic evening complete with exchanging cards and gifts. Some of you might be like Jennifer and me. We said “Happy Valentine’s Day” as we passed each other in the hallway and that night, when we went to buy cold medicine, I took her to McDonald’s. Some of you, and I know there’s a lot of you, couldn’t have cared less that it was Valentine’s Day. Maybe you even hate the whole day. I get it. I used to work at a restaurant, and when I was single, I hated seeing all those happy people in love. I suppose though that having one day a year that emphasizes love, isn’t that big of a deal, but on the other hand, life isn’t about romantic love. That’s an emotion, and at times, a fleeting one. Instead, our lives are about true love; Christ’s love for us and our love for others.
When it comes to love, it’s natural to us to make it conditional. This isn’t the case with the love between parents and children, but the love we have for those outside our families is usually on something in us or them. Generally speaking, we love those who love us, or at least like us. I’m guessing that there weren’t many people who sent Valentine’s Day cards to an ex-spouse or someone they hate. We love others because they have qualities that we like. They’re funny, attractive, smart, have similar interests to ours. Movies like to play with the premise that two people can’t stand each other, they fight and argue, then suddenly, somehow, they fall madly in love. This doesn’t happen in real life. We don’t fall in love with those who only have characteristics we hate, we love those who we like.
In the Gospel, Jesus expands on this when He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The “eye for an eye” law was given to keep people from going overboard when seeking vengeance for a wrong. How often though do we go beyond this? Someone hurts us, so we hurt them worse. Someone offends us, so we publicly slander them. Someone mistreats us, so we do all we can to make them cry. It’s human nature. We want our pound of flesh from those who do us wrong because it’s our right. Is this really what Jesus wants though? When Saint Peter says, “Love covers a multitude of sins”, is this what he’s talking about? Is this how we act toward our enemies?
It’s not clear where the teaching “hate your enemies” originated; it possibly came from the command to the Israelites to have nothing to do with their pagan neighbors. In the end, they’re just voicing what we feel about our enemies. I would say though that we don’t just feel this way towards our enemies, we also refuse to show love to those who aren’t our enemies. Maybe you wouldn’t consider your annoying classmate or frustrating co-worker to be your enemy, but you don’t consider them friends, so you don’t love them the way that you should. Maybe you’re civil, but not concerned for them. Maybe you avoid them or avoid talking to them for something that happened in the past. But if you don’t care for those around you, if you don’t exhibit Christian love, what does that mean? It means you’re treating them as enemies. The second greatest command in the Bible is, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, this means that love isn’t conditional, it isn’t based on what’s in the other person, it’s based on what’s in us.
Think about it for a minute. What if Jesus’ love was conditional? What if Jesus only wanted to die for those people who had characteristics He liked? What if forgiveness was limited? The list of loved people would be pretty small, wouldn’t it? You could put the disciples on the list, we know Jesus loved them because He chose them. But didn’t they all run away? Didn’t they treat Jesus as their enemy by abandoning Him and denying Him? What if Jesus only died for some of us? What if forgiveness was only for those who loved God and their neighbors perfectly or you were holy enough? I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good guy overall, and from what I know about all of you, you’re pretty good too. But are we good enough? Do we deserve Christ’s love? Probably not. No, I’d say definitely not.
Praise God that His love isn’t conditional. Praise God that He shows His love for us every day. God doesn’t have enemies, people have made God their enemy. But what does He do? Jesus says, “For [the Father] makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God has every right to deal with those who hate Him as they deserve. In the Introit, we confessed, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.” We have nothing inside us to love, and God does. Why? Because He is love, and everything He does for us flows from His very nature as love. He blesses us when we don’t deserve it, including the greatest love He could show.
Saint John says, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation (the payment) for our sins.” There is nothing in us that should appeal to God. But God’s love isn’t conditional, and through Jesus’ death we are appealing to Him. We appeal to Him because Jesus loved us enough to die and to suffer Hell in our place. He died for His enemies, He died for us, and now we have the full measure of God’s love. The love that means that we also have a full measure of forgiveness. We have love and forgiveness that have no end.
By loving His enemies, even those who whipped Him and nailed Him to the cross, Jesus turned the teaching “Love your friends and Hate your enemies” on its head. It’s easy to love our friends, even bad people do that. Even criminals and murderers can show friendship to their friends. True Christian love goes beyond the love of the world, beyond typical love, it goes even just friendship. To help us understand Christian love, Jesus gives us three examples. He says that love means we turn the other cheek, we hand over our belongings, and we go the extra mile. Now, I should make clear that Jesus isn’t telling you to be a doormat. Love can mean defending your family, neighbors, or country. It can mean fighting back. Jesus is talking about those things that are usually minor. Don’t return evil for evil. Anger for anger. Petty jealousy for petty jealousy. If you must suffer for being a Christian, so be it. True Christian love is part of us and that means enduring wrongs. John says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy; I’ve refused to love, to turn the other cheek and to forgive. By God’s grace, I try to do better, and I urge you to do the same. Look beyond your own hurts and love because that’s true Christian love. You see, we base our love for our enemies and others, not on how we feel about them emotionally, but how God feels about them. When we do this, they’re no longer our enemies because we’re not conditionally or insincerely loving them, but loving them as God loves them and us. This is true love. It’s Christian love because Christ loved us first and now lives in us. And as His people that’s what we do, we love and we never stop.
The first Valentine’s Day was nothing about romantic love, it was about a man who showed true Christian love. Valentine was a priest living in Rome who was martyred for his Christian faith in 269 AD. Tradition suggests that on the day of he was executed by being beaten and beheaded, he left a note of encouragement for a child of his jailer written on an irregularly-shaped piece of paper. In the face of his death by his enemies, Valentine showed love; not romantic love or the love for a friend, it was the love of Christ. We have this same love in us, for the Savior who lived in Saint Valentine, lives in us. So we love, not just our families and friends, but all people, even our enemies. We do this because Christ first died for us and by doing so showed us what perfect love looks like.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen