This morning we will engage in prayer together – an act of prayer in which God equips us for something very specific. This is something history has proved over and over cannot be accomplished without God’s help.
There are many forms of prayer. Last week, as a church, we knelt at these steps and silently prayed for big issues in the world – wars, economy, justice. We laid the heaviest of burdens at the cross of Christ. Our prayers were intercessions, coming before God on behalf of others.
This morning our prayer is for ourselves. The guidance into prayer will happen right where we are with no coming forward. This prayer is internal. We’re asking God to a mighty work in our hearts so we can be ready through spiritual preparation and relational and Biblical equipping to go out into the world in Jesus’ name.
Last week we came forward and prayed for others. This week, we remain seated and pray for ourselves, that God would fill us and ready us to show his love.
Why would I say history has shown that our specific task is so difficult it can only be realized with God’s help? Those who reject God can love – they love their families, their children. They might have a passion like fighting hunger. What is so contrary to human nature that humans cannot do it on our own? Jesus made a point of saying even evil people feed their children and care for their families. Humans are capable of love.
But what about love of enemy?
Our scripture for today, Romans 12: do not repay anyone evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
Overcome evil with good.
How hard is this? I have talked about this in church before. On more than one occasion, many times, following a worship service in which I repeated the Biblical teaching to love the enemy I had people approach me afterward. The conversation goes like this …
I know the Bible says we are supposed to love our enemies, but I don’t want to. I had friends who were in the Pentagon and died in the terrorist attack.
My nephew had his arm blown off while serving in Iraq. No Pastor, don’t tell me to love my enemies.
I have the consolation of responding, it’s not me; it is the Bible. Paul in Romans says we have to love our enemies and overcome evil with good. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and pray for those who persecute (Matthew 5). If a wounded, angry church member rebels against the New Testament teaching of love of neighbor, the rebellion is not against the preacher. The rebellion is against God.
We cannot reject the portions of Jesus’ teaching we don’t like. We can – God gives us the freedom to do so. But, we reject Jesus at our own peril, and I don’t mean in terms of Heaven and Hell. The best possible life we can have on this earth is the life lived on Jesus’ terms; the life lived as an apprentice of Jesus. To say, well, I don’t like this teaching of his, or that teaching, I’ll pick and choose what I like and don’t like is a way of denying that Jesus is Lord. When we decide to reject the harder teachings, we deny that He knows what’s best for us.
We are all-in with Jesus or we aren’t in with Him at all. To be all-in with Jesus is to accept and believe in His teaching that we are to love our enemies.
Once we accept it and believe it, then we need help and for that help we turn to prayer. We will only accomplish love of enemy when our hearts are changed to the point that no matter how heinous the injury the enemy has inflicted, we see the enemy as Jesus sees the enemy. Jesus re-creates our hearts, and our inner thought life simply is not defined by what the enemy does. The enemy could positively hateful and cruel and petty and prejudiced, but that doesn’t color our view. The love of Jesus – his cross, his forgiveness, his welcome of the lowest of the low, his compassion for the very ones who crucified him; this is what shapes our inner mind. Whatever actions we take and words we say begin in our inner thought life. So it is in the inner thought life that love of enemy begins.
In sighting past examples of worshipers who openly rejected my sermons on love of enemy, I specifically alluded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our country and the seemingly unending conflicts with Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In these cases, the enemy would be the Muslim extremist who fights the United States of America.
Many here don’t feel seething enemy-type animosity toward Muslims. For many, the enemy is someone else. Maybe an abusive father. Maybe an unwanted in-law. Maybe, and to me this seems ridiculous, a member of particular political party. Who in your life is the enemy? It could be a bully at school. It could be a boss who makes life hell. It could be someone who feels differently than you about a major issue – war, death penalty or some other issue.
Impossible as it may seem, I am basically neutral concerning the late Jerry Falwell. I disagreed with some of his theology, some of his politics, and some of his methods. There were also times when I agreed with him. I didn’t see him as hero or villain. Others did. When Falwell, a true believer in Jesus Christ, died, well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens said, “It’s too bad there’s no Hell for him to burn in.” I believe there is a Hell, and I don’t think Falwell is in it. But man, what vitriol from Hitchens. You really have to see someone as a hated enemy to wish they would burn in Hell.
Do you have an enemy who riles you up that much? (Perhaps, really pause here to make people get that person in mind. This sermon is personal, and it should be!) Jesus says if you want to follow him, you must pray for that enemy. Paul says if that enemy is hungry to feed him.
Furthermore, says the Apostle, when we love our enemies and, get this, serve our enemies, we heap burning coals on their heads. Don’t be tempted! Paul is not saying, in some unidentifiable mystical way that if we love and serve the enemy now, in the afterlife, they’ll have heads on fire like the old Athlete’s foot commercials. When Paul says we are to leave vengeance to God, it does not mean, God’s going to get them. We love the enemy, then God smites the enemy.
No. That would not involve the transformation of our hearts, just a delayed revenge on the enemy. Instead of me hurting my enemy, God will do it for me. No. That’s not why Paul says serving the enemy would heap burning coals on his head. That’s not why Paul says to leave vengeance to God.
Paul says those things because God can handle the whole vengeance issue much better than me or you. In fact, God’s handling of it is what equips us to follow the command he’s given that we do not have the ability to follow on our own power.
Here’s what I mean. In verse 19, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35. “’Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Our understanding of God’s vengeance is what God did in Jesus Christ. Instead of sending a flood to drown out his rebellious creation, instead of sending an invading army to take his rebellious sinful people into exile, God became one of us, sending his son, Jesus, God in human flesh.
Wrath is God’s, and he just holds on to it. All who sin are enemies of God, including us. Maybe you have an enemy and no matter what the preacher says or Paul the Apostle says or Jesus says, you are going to hold onto your hate of enemy. The reality is you and I are every bit as sinful as the enemies we hate. Thus we are enemies against God – because of our sins. But, unlike us, God does not react to our sinfulness with hatred. He sends Jesus to suffer the punishment of sins and to show us what love really is. Jesus shows what forgiveness accomplishes.
God says, “Vengeance is mine, but I am not going to use it. I am going to forgive instead. I am going to love. I am going to give my son out of love because I don’t people, sinful though they are, punished. I want them saved for eternity because I love them.” God feels that way about you. God feels that way about the terrorists who flew the planes on 9/11. God feels that way about the 8th grader who is bullied and the other 8th graders who are doing the bullying.
We do not accept evil whether the evil is among school kids or nations, family members or neighbors. Wars are sometimes fought. Sometimes we are in situations where we have to defend ourselves, in conversations, in relationships, sometimes in courtrooms, and sometimes in violent conflict. But, we do not demonize the other. Even when the other wounds us. Even when the wound is deep. Even when the wounding feels like betrayal and hatred bubbles up in us. We conquer it in the same way God conquered sin, by looking to Jesus who loved with a perfect love those who wounded him worst of all.
In the world in which I grew up, the Soviet Union was the enemy. Today it is universally acknowledged that the United States is the most powerful nation on earth. That was not so in the 1980’s. Back then, if there was all-out war between America and Russia, no one knew who would win. I don’t know that I harbored hatred in my heart for Russia, but I certainly thought of Russia as the enemy. In popular movies like Red Dawn, Rock IV, and many of the James Bond movies, Russia was depicted as where “the bad guys” comes from. Cold. Unfeeling. Grey. Unhappy. I never could have imagined then that of all the nations on earth, I would, at 41 years old, have a deep, deep love of all things Russian. But then I went to Russia and adopted a Russian child and Russia, my enemy, has since occupied a place of deep love in my heart.
This morning as a church, we pray for God to move us so that we can love the enemy and feed his hunger and pray for his well-being. God led me to adopt, What will God do in you, what invasive work of the Holy Spirit will occur, to reshape your heart so that the enemy who riles becomes the one you love?
Our communal prayer this morning is that God would equip us to love the enemy. You might not want to. I think of a pastor in Ethiopia who was brutally murdered by Muslims because he dared evangelize – the very work Jesus commanded. I don’t want to love those brutes who hurt this man of God. Love the enemy? God calls us to this. If we trust Jesus, then we trust that the best lives we can live are lives in which we, paradoxically by conventional wisdom, love our enemies. So we plead with God to make us able to love and bless the enemy.
We begin in silent prayer, seeing our enemy in our minds and asking God to shape our hearts so we can love the enemy. Prayer leads into a change of heart.
After our silent prayer, we will take communion together. Our taking of the bread and the cup continues the prayer. As we said, our sins cut us off from God just as our enemies sins cut them off from God. In this, we are the same as our enemies. The only hope against sin is the grace of God that we have in Jesus Christ, and that grace is represented at the communion table, in the cup and in the bread. In Christ, we have salvation. In him, we move from being enemies of God to being sons and daughters of God. In Jesus, our enemies also become sons and daughters of God.
So, think of the enemy you hate so much, you don’t want to love him or her – ever. In our time of silent prayer, see that person’ face. Ask God to fill you with divine love for that person.
After our silent prayer, in your spirit, invite that enemy to sit with you at the communion table. Together, you and your enemy take the bread and drink the cup. In this time of prayer, receive from God the power to love.