Scripture Luke 6:27-38
Luke 6:27-38, New Revised Standard Version
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
About a month ago, somebody sent me a NYT opinion piece written by David Brooks - America is Falling Apart at the Seams - and it was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the scripture text for this morning. I tried to go back and reread the article to refresh my memory on the subject - maybe I need to get a digital subscription! But the article was very much an exploration of what we’re seeing unravel before our very eyes - trust in overarching institutions is eroding - and we see it play out in the social sphere with how we treat each other. There’s a reason you never read the comments section on an article posted on Facebook.
We’re so quick to label people as enemies in our world. The one who was rude to me on Facebook. The one who disagrees with me about vaccinations. The one who cut me off in traffic. The one who has a wrong stance about x, y, z issue. The organization who supports whatever organization I take offense to. The one who - you name it. And this is all on top of the interpersonal conflicts that crop up in all relationships - in our families and friendships and work-relationships - when people hurt and wound us, knowingly or not.
Liz Goodman, a UCC pastor in Massachusetts, had this to say in the Christian Century a couple weeks ago, reflecting on how the pandemic has exacerbated so much of this:
“Life used to be about ordinary, daily interactions that, in many ways, were mildly abrasive. You’re pulling out of a parking space, and someone mindlessly walks behind your car—so you stop and wave the person on, though you’re pressed for time. You’re waiting in line at the library, and someone comes up to ask a “quick question” of the librarian that makes your wait a little longer. All those mild abrasions made us, if not tough, then tolerant. Yielding to one another used to be woven into our days and lives to such a degree that we might barely have noticed doing it: ordinary grace.
But the pandemic and its social isolation have put us out of practice of bumping up against one another in regular ways. We’ve become so tender as to be almost intolerant, easily triggered by the slightest sleight. Kids in school are fighting, even with other kids they’ve known for years. Adults in public are unable to keep their composure even over issues with the lowest stakes. The trauma of the pandemic, where it hasn’t wrought death, crisis, or ever more pronounced precarity, has been sneaky for its slowness.”
Our natural impulse is to step away, disengage from the relationship. If it was a personal offense, we’re tempted to hold a grudge. Or retaliate in some way. Boycott -- or, nowadays, cancel. We get into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode.
This ugliness in our society transcends political party. It transcends ideology. It even transcends religious affiliation.
And into that mess come Jesus’ words:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged;
do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
38give, and it will be given to you.
All these commands hinge upon how we understand one word: love. Love your enemies.
The word in Greek used here is “agape” which gets translated as love - but it’s not romantic love, or platonic love, or warm-fuzzy love. It’s not about liking someone else or your emotional state towards them. It oftentimes is described as “unconditional love” or “love without strings attached” but even that doesn't wholly get at the meaning.
Agape love means more like “whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other.” (https://www.holytextures.com/2013/01/luke-6-27-38-year-c-epiphany-7-february-18-february-24-sermon.html)
The beautiful thing about this is that there’s no calculation of costs or benefit, no expectation of receiving anything from them, no end goal for our benefit, no transaction - only desiring well-being for the other for their own good.
You don’t have to like the other person. You don’t have to agree with them or approve of their behaviors - you may find what they stand for grates your bones - but agape for your enemies isn’t about what they can give you, it’s about desiring wholeness for them. And if you agape your enemies, the ways you express and respond to them will also be an outflowing of your desire for their wholeness and well-being.
It also means you can be hurt…you can be angry…you can be wounded and decide that you can’t be in relationship with someone anymore…and still practice agape with them - you can still desire and act out of a place where you want the best and wholeness for them.
Now, forgiving someone who cut you off on the highway is different than forgiving the friend who betrayed your trust - and neither one might fully fit the definition of “enemy” in the same way that Jesus used it - those who try to actively harm and oppress you, like masters and soldiers in his day. Even so, what Jesus offers is a path forward involving wholeness for all people - enemies included - in exposing and naming harm.
But forgiveness doesn’t mean all is suddenly rosy and well. It’s not about pretending the offense didn’t happen, that you aren’t angry or sad or hurt about the harm done. It’s not about allowing yourself to be abused or mistreated - which is often how these verses are used, especially when it comes to domestic abuse. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean the relationship is restored and back to “normal”.
Forgiveness also isn’t a band-aid to instantly fix whatever is wrong. Forgiveness isn’t a guaranteed ticket to make everything better - forgiveness comes after confession and repentance - it’s not something to give if someone hasn’t actually done the work to change patterns of behavior or to acknowledge the harm they have caused.
Forgiveness also doesn’t come overnight. It’s messy and non-linear and, to be honest, it’s driven by the one who has been harmed. The journey to get to a place of forgiveness is hard and takes work.
But taken in the context of agape love - forgiveness doesn’t have to been we continue in relationship with someone. It doesn’t mean we have to be buddies or like them - it means we get to a place where we desire their well-being, and we release our hold on that spot of woundedness. It may come when we are able to see their actions as a result of the other person’s woundedness or when we are able to have compassion on what led to their actions. It doesn’t excuse the harm or whatever they’ve done, but it transforms how we see them and places them in perspective.
Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes this: “To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of bitterness. To give up my frenzied longing to be understood and vindicated by anyone other than God. To refuse the seductive lie that revenge will make me feel better. To cast my hunger for justice deep into God’s heart, because justice belongs to God, and only God can secure it.
I wonder if we're often squeamish about forgiveness because we misunderstand the nature of unconditional love. Foregrounding God's all-embracing love doesn't for one second require us to relativize evil. If it did, God's love would be cruel and weak, not compassionate and strong. But where we humans make love and judgment mutually exclusive — where we cry out for revenge, retribution, and punishment — God holds out for restorative justice. A kind of justice we can barely imagine. A kind of justice that has the power to heal both the oppressed and the oppressor.”
Forgiveness - as well as the other actions Jesus lists here - isn’t about a doormat faith or about retaliation through kindness…but about exposing reality in a way that calls others into account - and about inviting others to become better versions of themselves. It’s about seeing people as God sees them - and releasing their hold on you into that space, and offering that agape love - love that isn’t linked to your own personal opinion of them.
It happens in small ways in small spaces so that we can be ready for the more challenging acts of forgiveness we will be called upon to wrestle through in the course of our lifetimes.
And maybe, as we learn more and more to see the divine in the other, the “better-self” that resides within those who harm us, perhaps others will learn to see themselves that way too - and learn to also extend well-being to those around them as well.
May we find ways this week to offer that agape love to those around us - especially to our enemies. Amen.
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Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.