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Feb 16 2017

Perfect Love

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
–Matthew 5:48

Perfect Love. It’s a great theme for the week of Valentine’s Day, don’t you think? With Jesus, “perfect love’ is less the stuff of Hallmark cards and more the intentional action in our day-to-day living.

In the gospel text for this coming Sunday, Jesus takes our practice of love to a broader and deeper level. Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message communicates the spirit of Jesus’ teaching well:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and the bad, the nice and the nasty. If all that you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” [1]

Jesus’ command that we love our enemies has always seemed one of the most difficult in scripture. But its implications are truly profound. Our pew Bibles render Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44 this way: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. In other words, when it comes to God’s love, no one is left out. God loves everyone without exception, including our “enemies”! And if we want to live truly as the children of God, we need to learn how to do that as well. Our adversary is always someone deeply loved by God.

The last passage in this week’s reading, Matthew 5:48 (see above), sounds like a real zinger, too: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But if I told you that the word translated “perfect” (teleios) means “whole” or “complete”, might that help you to hear the passage differently? “Be whole, complete, as your heavenly Father is whole and complete.” Be complete in your willingness to love. Do not set limits to the capacities of grace.

When Jesus says, “Love them”, I think he means be present with them in the way that God enables you to be. To love those who have been our adversaries is to humanize them. It is to bring the light of Christ that is in you to bear upon them. It doesn’t have to be all that grand.

Buechner expounds upon the love of enemies this way: “You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see when they’re vulnerable. You see when they’re scared.” Seeing even what is hateful in our adversary, we may gain insight into where the hatefulness comes from; though they may be dealing out hurt, we might nevertheless perceive how they are hurting themselves and those close to them. [2] Ultimately, God enables us to do good even when others are not. This is where God’s realm is made real in the world.

At St. Andrew’s, we understand discipleship as a way of being. Following Jesus is about practicing his ways with great intention; it is also about learning to be toward others the way he is toward others. Deciding to love another person, in the manner of Jesus, is a choice. Jesus says that prayer is indispensable when we are choosing to love our adversaries. Pray for them, Jesus says. Put them at the center of your prayerful attention; unclench your fists and receive their humanity. Lift your concern for their well-being before God. As we pray for them – and ourselves – we invite God’s way of being to be more fully present in us. God’s love for us and God’s love for our adversary are brought side-by-side, with the opportunity to be realized as one love. This opens up inspired new options for acting!

The biblical terminology of “enemy” can mean “one who is hateful” but also “one who is hated”. The truth is, many we have previously identified as enemies are no more hateful and dismissive than we are. They have just been separated from us, and we from them, with the potential for all of us to push ourselves very far from the will of God. But God doesn’t accept that! Jesus says, “If you only love those who love you, what credit is that? Even nonbelievers do that!” God made us to live out our God-created identity, and to support others in doing the same. Many years ago, in war zones where civilian children, women, and men who were identified as “enemy” were being killed with impunity, I realized how many victims of conflict and war are precious people who get in the way of the greed and ego of those involved in power struggles; they are not our enemies at all, but brothers and sisters who have been invisible to us.

Ultimately, loving our enemies becomes an act of loving ourselves. Richard Rohr has an important insight:

“Until there is love of enemies, there is no real transformation. Because the enemy always carries the dark side of our own soul. Normally those people who threaten us carry our own faults in a different form. The people who turn you off are very much like you. Jesus offers not just a suggestion: you’ve got to love your enemy to grow up. Jesus puts it rightly in an imperative form: Do it! And what we don’t like about ourselves is our inner enemy. We have to love and forgive that enemy, too.” [3]

This resonates powerfully with The Message: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, rather than the worst.” It is a remarkable commitment that God, who always offers God’s best, is making to us.

Love, and presence, require careful attention in order to be complete. In the community of faith, that means closer attention to Jesus, to the power released through the scriptures, to our neighbors and enemies, and to ourselves. I would be gratified if this E-pistle spurs some new exploration and questions of faith that you would like to engage. The lab work is where it all gets real . . . and redemptive!

This Sunday, our service will begin with the hymn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians (by Our Love)”. Perhaps we can sing it as a declaration and as a prayer, trusting that the Perfect Love of God is resting upon us.

Peace,
Scott

[1] Peterson, Eugene. (2016). The Message: the bible in contemporary language. NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO.
[2] Buechner, Frederick. (1993). Whistling in the Dark. Harper: New York, NY.
[3] Rohr, Richard. (1996). Jesus’ Plan for the New World. St Anthony Messenger: Cincinnati, OH.

Pastor Scott’s Archived E-pistles