Cross Training - Week Two "My Own Worst Enemy"

This week I am continuing the sermon series, "Cross Training," a series that is focused on the teachings of Jesus.  Our Scripture passage this Sunday comes from Luke 6:27-36 which reads thusly:

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
This, my friends, is what I like to call "The Impossible Command."  Seriously.  Did you read that passage---really read it?  What Jesus is telling his disciples they have to do is something that truly seems impossible to carry out.

Okay, first things first...

What does Jesus mean by love your enemies?

The word that is used here is agapao which is one of Greek words for the word "love"---because they needed several just to confuse us.  Actually, what they were expressing is that there is no way you can use just one word to describe the many ways that people think and talk about love.

Agapao is neither a negative or neutral---it is positive, it is a love that acts.  It essentially states that no matter what a person does all that you desire is their highest good.

I have to be honest here...  This may be one of the hardest things that Jesus ever said.  Is this what it takes to be a follower of Jesus?  How many of us really want to embrace what appears to be a completely radical and virtually impossible way of treating other people--particularly the people who mistreat us and abuse us.

Does Jesus mean here that we are to have so little care for our well-being that we place ourselves in danger---turning the other cheek when it appears that the person who just hit us is now bent on beating us to death, so to speak?

I struggle with this.

People love to give you neat little phrases, Christianese aphorisms that you can write on 3x5 cards and put on your desk.  Here's something that sounds good.

"The best way to destroy an enemy is to turn them into a friend."

But what if the enemy has no desire whatsoever to be a friend?

When I look at the text we just read, I see some pretty incredible truths embedded in the midst of it.  Truths that are universal regardless of how you feel about being a follower of Jesus.  Anyone---Christian or not---can see the truth in the kinds of "enemies" that you encounter in your life.

To begin with, we see the "Other Cheek" Enemy---the person who is abusive, punishing and hate-filled.  The one who is not above shaming you publicly.  In fact, this is exactly what Jesus is talking about here.  To have someone strike you on the face was the most grievous insult that they could give you in ancient Jewish culture.  What Jesus is referring to here is probably a back hand slap, which was often connected to exclusion or expulsion from the synagogue.

Jesus tells his followers that they need to "turn the other cheek" to the person that has struck them.  The implied meaning here is that the person backhanded you with their right hand on your right cheek.  When you turn your head to have them hit you there, they have to hit you with their left hand if they want to backhand you in a shaming way.

In the ancient world your left hand was considered "dirty" because it was often the hand that you used to clean yourself, so to speak after certain bodily functions.  To be struck on the face with the left hand was a GREATER insult than to be struck with the right.

The second enemy we see here in the text is the "Tunic Taking" Enemy--the person who is backstabbing and underhanded.  What Jesus was referring to here was someone who would take your outer garment or himation to shame you if you owed them a debt of any kind.

Jesus declares that not only should you give this person your outer garment, but you should also give them your chiton, which was the garment you would wear next to your skin.  Your underwear.

So this would make you... naked.  Yup.

The third enemy that we encounter here is the "Take The Money & Run" Enemy---the person that is conniving and deceitful.  Jesus tells his followers that lending money to people that are for sure able to pay you back is nothing to pat yourself on the back about---"even sinners do that," he tells them.  It's kind of tongue in cheek when he asks "what 'credit' do you get," for lending to a sure thing?

Jesus asserts that you need to lend to an enemy without expecting to be repaid in full.  This is the sort of thing that only an idiot would do--someone who wasn't a good steward, a person who might become a laughingstock in their community.

So what is the common thread here with all of these things?

Jesus is commanding his followers to live without fear of shame, without fear of losing face, and with no expectations in return for any of the things they do out of agape love toward someone who has mistreated them.

Like I said, this is impossible.  But this is exactly what Jesus commands us to do---the impossible.

At this point, some people might pipe up and say, "Hey now!  Wait a cotton-picking minute.  You aren't saying that Jesus wanted us to be involved in relationships with people who abuse us, treat us horribly and otherwise destroy our lives?"

Nope.

Here's what this isn't.  It isn't approval of someone who is acting as an enemy toward you.  It isn't admiration of this sort of person.  And it most definitely is not willing endangerment of your life, state of mind, welfare or your family.

What this really is all about is something big and beautiful.

Jesus is presenting an impossible ideal that belongs in the unimaginable kingdom of God.  When I say "unimaginable" I don't mean that we can't glimpse what it could be like, or have dreams of what it might be.  But these glimpses, these dreams, the very ability to be filled with the kind of love that it takes to live into the hope of this kind of kingdom cannot be conjured up on our own steam. It can only be implanted by the Holy Spirit of God.

And this is something else---Jesus wanted his disciples to accept this as a normative way of life, this big, beautiful and unimaginable way of being.

Some people might pooh-pooh my waxing all eloquent about this.  "It's just the Golden Rule," they might say.  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  Everybody---they are intimating---knows this.

This is more than just the "Golden Rule," though.  This is love that is golden even everything around us is not.

N.T. Wright said this very thing---only much more eloquently:  "The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity."

The kind of generosity that can literally change the world as we know it---into an unimaginable kingdom where what is impossible is simply what we do every single day.

And so the big question that you might have---and rightly so---at this point is...

What happens when I decide to forgive my enemies?  To shower them with grace?  To show them kindness when they abuse us, misuse us and basically treat us like garbage?  

There are three possible outcomes:

You may experience restoration.  In other words, your enemy might just become your friend.

You might also experience nothing---for now.  Sometimes restoration is a long time coming, and your active, agape love just sets it in motion.

And you might actually experience sheer antagonism.  Your enemy may refuse to give up being your enemy, and could very well escalate whatever it is they are doing to act like your enemy.

Here's the thing... your vulnerability isn't for their benefit.  Your grace and forgiveness isn't entirely for their benefit either.  It's for yours.  And for the world around you.

Because when you are set free from the burdens of being an enemy, you find yourself free to feel other things, and free to see yourself and the world as it could be.

Which makes this impossible command not only possible, but absolutely necessary.
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