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Love Your Enemy

Easter 5A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Death by stoning is a horrible way to die. Yet despite the hostile violence wrought against him, Stephen prayed for his enemies. “He knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:60)

Hatred is a powerful thing. Cain hated Abel for being more admired by God than himself, so he killed him. King Saul hated David for becoming more popular with the people and tried to kill him every chance he got. Saul of Tarsus hated the followers of Jesus because he thought they were blasphemers and heretics and made a career of rounding them up so they could be stoned to death like Stephen. Horrible self-deception about our own righteousness can be deadly, not to mention the effects it has on families and relationships.

Today’s scriptures offer us a lesson in resiliency and reconciliation. Learning to repair relationships damaged by hate and violence is not a luxury. Learning forgiveness is the way we return to what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost.

Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so.  Jesus lived this kind of life. Even now, Jesus lives this kind of life in us so the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is not impossible for us.

Many people know Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa for the leadership he provided with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the process of racial justice following the end of apartheid. Less well known is his own personal struggle to overcome the damage wrought by violence. He writes:

“There were so many nights when I, as a young boy, had to watch helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. …If I dwell in those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same way he hurt my mother, and in the ways of which I was incapable as a small boy.” (Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, p. 15)

The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them. It is perfectly normal to want to hurt someone back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. It does not lesson the pain but makes it deeper, less conscious, and spreads it around to infect others. “Without forgiveness, we are tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.” (Tutu, p. 16) Even when we realize our interconnectedness, the common humanity of victims and perpetrators, our need for healing and for grace, forgiveness can still be a difficult path for us. There is a Gaelic proverb which states “Nothing is easy for the unwilling.”   Willingness is the first work of the Holy Spirit. “Without willingness, this journey will be impossible. Before compassion comes the willingness to feel compassion. Before transformation there must be the belief that transformation is possible, and the willingness to be transformed. Before forgiveness there must be a willingness to consider forgiving.” (Tutu, P. 8-9)

Like Jesus on the cross, Stephen proved willing to forgive his murderers even as they were killing him. Somehow he could see his shared humanity with them even as he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus. Somehow, I wonder whether these two things are connected. And what could be more revealing of Jesus’ power to forgive and to heal our bitter, hard-won divisions than the story of Saul who would become Paul?

Scripture says, “The witnesses [to the stoning of Stephen] laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” This is the first mention of the great missionary apostle whom Jesus will knock from his horse and claim for himself. In 8:1 we are told that this Saul “approved of their killing of [Stephen],” with the implication that Saul himself may have had a hand in instigating the entire event. Yet this same man would become the apostle to the gentiles, spreading the gospel message to many “even to the ends of the earth.” The good news of Jesus Christ is that the risen victim of unspeakable violence declared an end to the cycle of violence, enmity, bitterness, and contempt.   Christ Jesus returns again and again to us who rejected and betrayed him with the gift of shalom—peace—that is the seed of willingness planted in us that can lead to forgiveness, compassion, transformation, and reconciliation so that trust is restored and kindliness may abound.

Like Stephen and like Paul, we begin this journey from wherever we are. The heavens stand open before us and our common humanity is revealed when we come to dwell in the mystical and living sanctuary of the body of Christ. The gospel of John tells us this over and over again. The little verb “meno” appears 69 times in the gospel of John.   It means to “stay,” “remain,” “abide,” or “dwell.” Jesus is on a mission to reveal the source of his glory is to abide in the Father and the Father in him, and to invite us to do the same. As we come to dwell in God, God’s love and light comes to dwell in us. Desmond Tutu has said the willingness to forgive grows into the capacity to tell the truth, name the hurt, and in either renewing or releasing relationship. We can do this with grace and mercy while we abide together in Christ the true vine, the one body, the temple not made with hands, the living sanctuary of hope and grace in which heaven and earth are one.

We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but with God’s grace we can create a world of forgiveness. We can create a world of forgiveness that can allow us to love our enemies, to heal our losses and repair our lives and relationships. But ultimately, no one can tell you to forgive. We, and the Holy Spirit, can only ask. You and I are invited on this journey. All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power forgiveness has to change your life and change the world.

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