I have been a Christian now for 13 years. As I’ve said to you before, I came into the Church after a series of pretty tough events: a friend’s suicide, the death of two other friends and a car accident, all within the space of 6 months. I was looking for meaning and purpose after this, because the meaning and purpose I saw around me – of long hours on a job to accumulate possessions, of mortgages, home ownership, marriage, children, old age and death, of repeating the same routine day after day, of constantly being in fear of being downsized or moved on if I didn’t have enough billable hours, of dealing with people who frankly, were jerks, of struggling with friendships that were transient and contingent on people’s jobs, not their relationships – all of these things simply made me feel crushed under the weight of a broken world’s expectations.
I came into the Church with tremendous expectation: the expectation that I would learn the meaning of life, its purpose, its reason, all so I could figure out how to live a meaningful life. I expected Christians to be filled with hope that was grounded in a transcended purpose; a purpose, a God, that would provide to me a reason for enduring life at all amidst all the crap I saw ahead of me. And as you know, I was really excited to go almost immediately into formal theological study. And my first year and a half was really brilliant. I felt like I was on a cloud, soaking heaven in, highly motivated, highly productive, given a specific purpose – to study theology and in particular – the polity or governance of the Church. I was all over message boards, all over theology, philosophy, and political science books, I was responding left, right and center to Anglicans and people of other denominations about issues of law, governance and morality in the Church.
Somewhere along the way, my transcendence bubble burst. And I was left with a really stark reality: Christians really don’t behave any differently from non-Christians. In fact, what I soon discovered is that Christians can often treat each other far worse than would ever be allowed in any secular organization without being disciplined, fired, or even sued.
This discovery didn’t just burst my bubble, it actually made me sink in figurative quicksand of faith and of hope. I actually entered into the desert of spiritual life, sinking into a sort of quicksand of anger, doubt, regret, and, yes, hatred. At first, the hatred flowed from seeing one group of Anglicans as enemies. Could they not see, I thought, that they were wrong, Scripturally, theologically, politically; could they not see that they were the ones tearing things apart. And while trying to engage with a modicum of charity, I really saw this group as ‘the other,’ ‘the enemy,’ ‘those to defeat.’ It was so easy to make them my enemy too because I’m really good at turning people into abstractions, generalities, ideologies. I’m not very good, however, at recognizing people as complex and multifaceted individuals. People who study human behavior would say this is actually a really common trait for everyone. Why? Because when we can group people and label them with traits or ways, we can much more easily dismiss them; we can much more easily retain our ‘in group status,’ and protect ourselves from being challenged, and the painful feelings, the anger, the loss of equilibrium, that can go along with having to potentially change.
So I continued seeing this group of Anglicans as outsiders and this gave me a purpose; it also gave me a ‘team’ of like minded people to work with and for, it made me feel like I belonged. And finally, and critically, it hid the root pain, anxiety, fear, and self hatred that had been at my core for most of my life. If I could have a place on this team, and if I had an enemy to fight, I would be secure; I would matter; I would be valuable. How, by taking apart my enemy; by turning my pain and anger on my enemy, by lashing out with all the bitterness and rage I housed inside, and using my knowledge of human behavior, and my intellect, to strip them down and take them apart.
This worked. Indeed, I felt fantastic, purposeful, strong, no longer wandering, no longer lost. Until I didn’t. I’d read this passage before, heard it read in Morning Prayer, but to me, the people I was fighting weren’t enemies, they were sinners; they were wrong; they deserved my judgment, my condemnation, my dismissal and my refusal to engage them, my writing them off or gossiping, my plotting against them. But one day in Morning Prayer I heard these words differently: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But 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. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you … for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
It finally clicked for me that I had actually made these people, these Anglicans, these children of God, my enemy. Why? Because I had presumed and pronounced judgment AS IF I WERE GOD; because I had condemned, as if it were my place to condemn, I had written them off not even as enemies, but basically as non-Christians, which removed them from the mercy God speaks of in this passage. There was nothing to forgive for they weren’t repentant, and I rigidly held that their obstinacy had already placed them outside of God’s mercy.
In that moment of hearing that verse read – for whatever reason – it suddenly struck me that Jesus was judging me. My own judgment and condemnation of others, Jesus was condemning. Why? Because in trying to draw me to himself, Jesus was forcing me to let go of what stood in the way of receiving his forgiveness and mercy. My condemnation was a shield to protect me from my own anguish, fear, frustration and pain. My making people into an abstract group with an ideology rather than people with complex hearts, minds and motivations, and my condemnation of that abstract group, was actually an unconscious response to my own fear of rejection of not being loved, of taking out those feelings by acting them out on others.
This was standing in the way of me letting go of my own ‘stuff’ and going up to God and saying, God, I am a broken sinner who lashes out because I am sad, I am scared, I am angry and lost, I am hurt, please help me. Instead, I built an idol out of my hatred and condemnation of my enemies: look, look at me, look at me climb my babel tower made up of intellectual thrashing of others, of gossiping about others, of speaking ill of others. I built an idol of false faith, an idol build on sand, the sand of my insecurity that was bound – if I was to remain following Jesus – to be blown away by grace.
This is when the cracks in my pseudo armor of faith began to appear. My faith was not based in love; for love doesn’t have to fear; my faith wasn’t based in love, because to truly trust that God was healing and would continue to heal me, I would not need to condemn, to lash out, to use vitriolic words, to gossip or hurt others, or to base my entire self worth on being accepted by a group who’s basic arguments I never even really examined or challenged. I was utterly blind in my devotion. This isn’t to say this group was necessarily wrong, but only that I would never have known that because they gave me a forum for my own personal idolatry. And every group, everywhere does this of course. And oh are we tempted to claim membership in those groups that grant us our own personal desires, as inhibiting of grace for us as those might be.
You see, loving your enemies, as Jesus calls us to here, isn’t about simply accepting the actions or words of those with whom you disagree. Rather, loving your enemies is about HOW you treat those with whom you vehemently disagree. Why? Because HOW you treat your enemies, as Jesus puts it, ‘the measure of what you give to others, will signify whether you truly have received the grace of God. If God says, “love your enemy,” and you condemn them instead, can you really say that you are motivated by grace; can you say you are truly following God in Jesus Christ? In a sense then, Jesus’s message is very simple: you can know yourself before God by your works, by how you treat those, by how you respond to those who you consider enemies. Your response to your enemy – whether long term enemy, or someone whom you are exasperated with in the moment – reflects where you believe yourself to stand with God. For perfect love that is God come to us in Christ casts out fear and allows us to live with other people, even when suffering, with hope that presses us to respond to them with humility, patience, kindness and charity. These are the fruits of the Spirit for a reason my friends, they indicate a life that is bound to and willing to carry one’s own cross while following in the pathway and life of Christ as he walks through this world of ours encountering friend and enemy alike. AMEN.