Love Your Enemies

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February 22, 2022

This sermon was written, but not preached. The preacher tested positive for COVID. 

Once again thank you Dominic, and thank all of you for so kindly asking me to preach again.  I have now had the honour of preaching here in your wonderful cathedral 4 times and it is always a great joy for me.  It is a joy to see old friends – and I like to think that some of you have now become friends – it is a joy to hear such wonderful music in a wonderful building – and as a preacher, may I say that it is a joy to have a thoughtful, intelligent, questioning and I hope demanding congregation who want a real sermon with content and not just gentle thoughts .. so thank you.

Let me tell you a little about my own theological position.  It has changed many times over my life, as I guess yours has also.  Age brings a different kind of outlook, and as I now enjoy being a grandfather for the first time I am enjoying watching my 14 month old grandson both growing and changing.

I started off life as an old  fashioned a conservative evangelical, - I have come a long way.  I broke loose in my teens to became what was called a demythologizing liberal- my hero in those days was the liberal scholar Bishop John Robinson who wrote a groundbreaking book in 1963 ‘Honest to God’.  Nothing in the Bible was literally true -  the Virgin birth was a myth, the miracles were psychological,  walking on water never happened,  feeding the 5000 was a first century pot-luck, the resurrection was a belief not a fact.  You get the drift.  

 I didn’t get as far as ‘God is dead’ God was certainly asleep.  

University broadens the mind, and at university I was challenged by a friend on the same course who was not only a rather traditional Anglo-Catholic but he was also much more intelligent than I am,  - a dangerous combination.

My dictum ‘if I can’t understand it, then I won’t believe it’  was shown up pretty quickly as a pretty arrogant position.

If my professors understood more than I did about 16th Century French literature, then the same is true about theolgoy.   It didn’t take long for him – and St Catherine of Sienna, as it happened - to turn me into an all-believing genuflecting anglo-catholic. 

But all that was long ago.  As the years have passed I have nuanced my position many times over.  I am still a genuflecting catholic but perhaps less anglo- and perhaps a little more episcopalian – modern, forward looking, questioning, progressive, but still traditional in many ways too.  I wish the old Church of England were just a bit more like you! 

But my studies in language turned me into a textual pedant, - as a learned curate of mine once said in a sermon – everyone should know enough Greek to smell a rat!   So it didn’t take me long to realise that Jesus never said a single word of anything that is recorded in my Bible.   Obviously – my cherished Bible was written in English, the Gospels were written in Greek .... but wait ....  Jesus most likely didn’t use Greek either – he most likely taught in Aramaic, which was the lingua-franca the people had used for over 500 years.  It is a semitic language similar to Classical Hebrew, but different.  Although the rabbis read their Scripture in Classical Hebrew, they used Aramaic for their teaching, Targums and Talmuds. There is no reason to think that Jesus was different.

But does it matter?  You might ask.   The King James Bible is beautiful.  The Greek Text is the text we have before us.   We can still work out what it means ..  Perhaps.   One of my most enjoyable essays at university was comparing Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’  with ‘En attendant Godot’ – not a translation, but the bilingual author’s own French version of his own play.

One of my friends, the husband of the cathedral curate back in Montreal, has dedicated his whole life as a bilingual lawyer making sure that goverment laws and enactments mean exactly the same in their French versions as they do in their English versions.  There can be no wiggle room for some clever find a linguistic loophole which will get their client off the hook.  It is a very precise profession – surely the Bible is just as important?

So Jesus probably never have said any of the great  ‘I am’ phrases in John’s Gospel  - I am the true vine, I am the Bread of life -  because Aramaic, like Hebrew, doesn’t really use the verb ‘to be’ like that.  ‘Before Abraham was, I am’   –might simply have been, ‘before Abraham - ‘I’.   It is St John, not Jesus who gave us ‘ego eimi’ – I Am.    

So when we come to Luke  6 – perhaps the most challenging few verses we have from Jesus,  we need to know what  Jesus actually said, if we are going to work out what he actually meant.

Way back in the 1980s there was a group of scholars, headed by Robert W. Funk,  called the Jesus Seminar.   They embarked on a speculative task of  categorising all of Jesus’s sayings into Red, pink, grey and black ...  red sayings were the prize – the sayings they all believed were almost certainly said by Jesus –there are only a handful of them.  Then it goes downhill:   Pink sayings – which Jesus possibly might have said.  Grey sayings – which Jesus most probably did not say.  and the black ones – which they were pretty sure he never said.  To honest, his work is questioned these days  as having used the wrong or at least poor criteria.   But even for these strict rules of the Jesus seminar, today’s Gospel passage from Luke 6 is filled with ‘red’ sayings -  the ones even they believed he almost certainly said.

Love your enemies, .........  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;

and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Give to everyone who begs from you;   .......  "Do not judge, and you will not be judged;

Forgive, and you will be forgiven;

Which is both good to know and also very hard to know, because these few simple verses are some of the hardest of all Jesus’s sayings.   As I get older, I know that it is much easier to believe in  the Virgin birth, the miracles, the Bodily resurrection and life after death than to love my enemies, to give to everyone who begs from me.

It is much harder to follow Jesus, than merely to believe in him.

There have been, and there are some true followers of Jesus ... shining lights in our Christian tradition -  I think Desmond Tutu, God rest his soul, went a very long way towards actually following Jesus -  loving his enemies, offering the other cheek, not judging but forgiving  ...  but few of us are as great as that great and humble archbishop.  People like him are as rare as hen’s teeth. 

As Archbishop Tutu said:

“Forgiveness is nothing less than the way we heal the world. We heal the world by healing each and every one of our hearts. The process is simple, but it is not easy.”

So Just a couple of weeks before Lent it is a good time for each one of us to be challenged by the real words of Jesus. 

Love your enemies, .........  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;

and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Give to everyone who begs from you;   .......  "Do not judge, and you will not be judged;

Forgive, and you will be forgiven;

But, sadly, This way -  Jesus’s way  -   is the very opposite of the way our world works in reality.

I know you have had your own issues with politics here in the US, and it’s certainly not my place to make any comments about that, but let me tell you, we in the UK are having our issuess right now – we have a prime minister who massages the truth, - put it gently – he is being questioned by the police, he has handed out government contracts to his friends – and as the Queen and the nation sat in isolated mourning for the Duke of Edinburgh, he was hosting champagne parties in Downing Street.

However the thing that sent chills down my spine was when he was talking about the Russian Ukraine crisis and he  hawkishly said  ‘Russian mothers’ sons will not come home’.   I felt for mothers, and sons, and fathers and grandparents whose sons would not come home because of men’s political ambitions – and I had no answer.  This is the way our world works – this is the world we have to live in  ....   ‘hating our enemies, doing violence to those who hate us, cursing them, abusing them, and striking them before they strike us’ 

President Putin’s world view, and the West’s response has no room for Desmond Tutu’s plea, or for Jesus’s simple, but difficult sayings.  Love your enemies, .........  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;

What can we do?   I am not a pacifist. I do not want Russia, or any other military power for that matter, to be able to invade other sovereign countries with impunity,   but ... ‘mothers’ sons will not come home’  causes me to lament for this broken and sinful world, and causes me to lament for myself because I know that I cannot obey Christ’s hard command.    

Now, my dear friends, this is a very hard place to be.   So where is the Good News.  The Gospel is always Good News.  As I say over and over again: ‘if it ain’t Good News, it ain’t the Gospel’   Where is the Good News for us this morning in Jesus’s  terrifyingly simple, and yet terrifyingly hard commands.  

Well ... here goes.  I believe the Good News is one very small word which appears just three times in this passage,  in verses 32, 33 and 34  and which is translated in our somewhat prosaic translations ‘credit’  – ‘what credit is that to you’. 

Now of course Jesus did not use the English word ‘credit’ -  so what did he say, I wondered. 

The Greek text has the beautiful word ‘charis’ ... from which we get our words ‘charismatic’ and ‘charity’ and of course ‘eucharist’. 

Good words ... where is your charity if you only do the same as everyone else?

Where is your charisma if you only do the same as everyone else?

What is your Eucharist if you only do the same as everyone else?   I like it.

The usual translation for Charis is ‘grace’ –

Where is the work of God’s grace in your life if you only do the same as everyone else?

But I still wondered, what did Jesus actually say?

Of course we don’t know – but the old Aramaic translation of the New Testament, the Peshitta, -  a translation from the Greek written about 400 years after Jesus , uses the word ‘taybutha’ which means ‘good’ 

‘What good is that to you?

or ‘what good is that in you?’ 

or ‘where’s the goodness in that, if you only do the same as everyone else?

Of course Jesus might have just popped in an old Biblical Hebrew Word at that point.

My Hebrew translation of the Greek New Testament uses the word  ‘hesed’  -  which we usually translate ‘loving kindness ‘  or ‘mercy’.    where’s your loving kindness, or where’s your mercy, if you just do the same as everyone else?

But personally – and I have to admit with absolutely no scholarship whatsoever, just a bit of fun speculation for a February sermon  -  I like to think that Jesus might have used the word ‘mitzvah’  

Where’s the mitzvah, if you just do the same as everyone else?

Now as any of you who have Jewish friends will know, mitzvah is a wonderful Hebrew word.  Teenagers become Sons and Daughters of the Mitzvah.   It means commandment, but it also means so much more.  It is a duty in the name of God, but it is also so much more. It is a kindness in the name of God, but it is also so much more. 

The 13th Century Spanish Jewish work, The Book of Education, claims that a mitzvah can soften a wicked heart.

The 16th-century Jewish mystic the Ari, said that a mitzvah reaches under the hood of the cosmos to repair it.

One might say that the “deed” is more important than the “creed.”  That is, how we behave in this world, towards our fellow human beings and the world we live in, is ultimately of more importance than what we may believe. In the final analysis, the mitzvot are a uniquely Jewish approach to living a holy life in this world.

The 3rd Century Jewish teaching – The Mishnah says :  a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, but a transgression brings another transgression. The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, the reward of transgression is transgression.

...  If you do good to those who do good to you, where’s the mitzvah in that? Even gentiles do that.

Jesus might have said.


And here, I believe, is the Good News.

What you and I both know – sadly, and with a heavy heart, - is that we are simply not able to live up fully to Jesus’s high commands of loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, forgiving .. not in this fallen and broken world, 

....  but what we can do, is a small act of grace – a ‘mitzvah’.  

Each one of us can love just one more enemy. We can turn the other cheek just one more time.  We can forgive just one more person. 

No it will not solve the problems of the international world stage, or allow Russian mothers to sleep in peace, but each single act of grace will have it’s reward.

Let me now close with 1 Corinthians 15  - which is a bold thing to do on page 10 of my sermon!

 St Paul’s mighty passage says many things.  It is the classic Anglican reading for funerals ...  but if it means anything at all, then it means that we are not yet already in that perfect state which we all long to be in one day.  

What we are living through here and now, day by day in this world, is perishable, dishonorable, weak and physical, and yet what we all long for in our hearts is imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual. 

We sow seeds, yet we hope for a mighty wheat harvest.  We dream to become what we have not yet attained.

And so it is with each small mitzvah.   No they are not the entire redemption of the world – that is God’s work, and the victory has been won in Christ - but nevertheless each good and kind act of grace, is one seed of the Kingdom of Heaven  - one step nearer on our own personal journey to the Kingdom of Heaven.

And so do not be downhearted this Lent that you cannot be the perfect Christian disciple of Jesus you would like to be,  instead,  my friends,  rejoice, exult and be glad, that you can by God’s grace love one more person than you did before,  give to one more person than you did before, forgive one more person than you did before  – and that through you, Heaven can become just a little closer for us all.   That – my friends – is Good News.