Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinityadmin | 15 July 2012
“Love your enemies”
I have had occasion to ponder the mystery of this Gospel. It is, to be sure, a melancholy object to contemplate the meanness and the mindlessness of our institutional culture and our individual dealings with one another at times. Hatred and death, love and life, are often on full display and not always in equal proportion and not just in the world of war and politics. This Gospel is really about ourselves in the division of our hearts.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. It seems impossible and it is and yet, it goes to the heart of the Christian understanding. Life and death, love and hate are totally intertwined in human experience. What we are being commanded here belongs to our Christian identity. “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful,” Jesus says, and beyond mere words, the whole life of Jesus is about mercy. “While we were yet sinners,” that is to say, while we were the enemies of God, “Christ died for us.” Such is his love. His love is love in the face of our enmity.
But we do not want to hear this. It seems so negative. Yet, it is the amazing grace of the Gospel. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” – loved us. The Cross shows us the real meaning of mercy and love. We see on the Cross what Jesus is saying about God: “for he is kind unto the unthankful, and to the evil.” It is an old biblical view. The sun shines upon the just and the unjust. To be sure. And while it seems grotesquely unfair, the wicked do sometimes seem to “flourish like green bay tree,” as the Psalmist puts it, and not just on Bay Street or Wall Street or the City (London). And there is the deeper philosophical question of Plato in The Republic, hinted at in myriad of ways in the Scriptures, the question about whether it is better to appear just while being unjust or to be just regardless of how you appear in the eyes of others.
This is where this Gospel passage comes into its own and shows us its real power. You see, it captures us all in the divided opinions of our hearts and minds about ourselves and one another; in short, our unrighteousness. It convicts us really about the enmities that lurk and coil around our hearts like snakes and serpents, deadly and venomous. We can be so easily consumed by envy and anger, all of it more than wee bit tinged with a sense of our own importance and our own superiority! We are ultimately the enemies of ourselves.
Sin is the name which we give to our disordered state of division and enmity. While we are enemies of our selves, more profoundly we are the enemies of God. That seems to be a real truckload of guilt. Enemies of God?! Yes. Not that it affects God. It affects us and contributes mightily to our misery. Which is why this Gospel is so powerful and speaks so profoundly about a great insight that belongs to Christianity. It is this: the awareness that we can and do hate God and seek to annihilate him from the horizon of our lives. But God loves us in the face of our enmity against him.
It is the disturbing yet moving message of Holy Week. It is here before us this Sunday in an altogether different register. The Collect and Scripture readings remind us of the greater power of divine love. Divine love, not human love.
Our human loves are the realms of our disorder. The divine love made manifest in Jesus Christ is the cure for our maladies of hateful antagonism and scornful dismissal of one another all because we have dismissed God from the horizon of our minds. The Epistle reading from Romans recalls us to our baptism and its meaning in terms of death and resurrection and the newness of life that it bestows, a life that is about the possibility of living unto God, “dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Powerful stuff. The Collect suggests, too, the special wonder of the divine love. “Such good things as pass man’s understanding,” meaning that it is not a human invention or construct but something that comes from God to us, have been “prepared for them that love Thee,” “such good things” which literally “exceed all that we can desire,” let alone deserve. God seeks something greater for us that goes beyond our enmities and our desires. Amazing.
The Gospel exhorts us to the counter-culture behaviours of doing good to all regardless of whether they have done good or evil to us. Socrates said that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, but Christianity ups the ante considerably in bidding us to love our enemies. Something which is a property of God becomes part and parcel of our lives. This is truly astounding.
In human terms it is simply impossible and almost unthinkable. It can only be possible and thinkable in Christ Jesus. Human loves on their own are simply incomplete and limited; they easily slide from altruism into self-righteousness and end up being the opposite of what was intended. The divine love which seeks our greater good and perfection is what is seen in Jesus in his sacrifice on the Cross, for there we see love in the face of enmity in its fullness. Love your enemies, indeed!
It is not by accident that the art and architecture of the Church down throughout the centuries should emphasize the Cross. We preach Christ crucified for just this reason: it shows us love in the face of our enmity against God. That is the real story and the real meaning, too, of our incorporation into Christ so that “he may live in us and we in him,” to use the beautiful words of our liturgy. That is the point even in the face of our manifold and many shortcomings: our temper and impatience, our judgmental nastiness which calls what is good, evil, and what is evil, good, our lusts and our greed, our gluttony and our sloth, and, of course, our envy, the green-eyed monster of insidious intent. A sorry packet of disorder and disarray. Find anything about yourself in that line-up? Yes? Good. No? Then you really have a problem!
A wonderful sonnet by the 17th century poet-preacher John Donne captures this most movingly, I think. He asks the question, “What if this present were the world’s last night?” suggesting the theme of ultimate judgment. He answers by way of a double question which follows from the image of Christ in us. “Mark,” he says, meaning take note, “in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell/ the picture of Christ crucified.” Look into your heart, here indicated as the dwelling place of the soul, and see there the picture of Christ crucified. He is reminding us of the images of the crucified Christ in the Churches and the memory of them in our souls.
There is a certain irony about this since Donne is writing knowing only too well about the iconoclastic destruction of images in Churches many decades earlier in England, a destruction of images both of the saints but also of rood screens that depict the crucified Christ. The image that he has in mind is, I think, a particular kind of depiction of Christ on the Cross. Not Christ the King reigning in glory, robed in priestly and kingly garb, the earliest kind of depiction of the crucifixion historically which emphasizes victory, but a later medieval depiction of the crucifixion that reflects the suffering humanity of Jesus often in very gruesome ways, particularly after the black death, the bubonic plague, that decimated over a third of the population of western Europe in the mid 14th century. An identity is made between the victims of the plague and Christ’s sufferings on the Cross. The theological point is that Christ’s sufferings on the Cross embrace all of the sufferings of the world.
Donne bids us contemplate the picture of Christ crucified and to question that image within us “and tell whether that countenance can thee affright;” that is to say, whether the face of Christ in the agony of the Cross scares you – that is the first question – and then the second question – “or can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell which prayed forgiveness for his foes’ fierce strife?” “His foes?” You and me. We are his enemies for whom he prays forgiveness! Amazing questions. Can the face of Christ suffering on the Cross be something which frightens you? Can the words of Christ on the Cross, here summarized in the first word, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” condemn you to hell? Donne’s answer is a double negative: “no, no” meaning an emphatic ‘no’ to both questions. Somehow the image in us, and this is the point with respect to today’s readings, provides us with a way to think about our divided selves, about our enmity towards God and one another. Here we see the power of the divine love which confronts us with ourselves and with the love that overcomes ourselves in our fears and judgments. It is love not fear that we are meant to see in the Crucified.
Donne concludes the sonnet with the phrase “this beauteous form assures a piteous mind.” Somehow what was grotesque and ugly – the picture of Christ crucified – has been transformed into something intellectually beautiful which in turn speaks to the pathos of our souls, our souls awakened to the need for pity, the mercy of God. That mercy is made visible in Christ but which in turn is to be made visible in our lives. But only if we want and will what Christ here wills and wants for us, even in spite of ourselves.
“Love your enemies”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity VI, 2012
Christ Church & St. Michael and All Angels