A sermon preached at Preston High Street UCA on 16/2/22 for Epiphany 7 Year C on the text Luke 6:27-38
If last week’s gospel, all about how blessed the poor are, was confusing, paradoxical, hard to get your head around, this week’s is the opposite. It is blindingly clear, very much to the point, very much concerned with basic day to day realities. It’s shockingly physical – give people the literal shirt of your back, let people take your belongings away without asking for it back, if someone punches you in the face, offer them the other side of your face to punch as well.
And, at the core of this whole ridiculous thing, love them.
Love your enemies.
Do good to them who hate you.
And the famous golden rule: do to other people what you would have them do to you.
There we have it. Clear as a mountain stream, as overwhelming as a breaker crashing onto the shore and running up the sand.
I said last week I wanted to preach about grace this week – and instead we have this passage which, at first pass, looks like the exact opposite.
But in fact, this is a sermon about grace. Because this is a passage about grace.
Let’s start with something jarring: these “sinners” who Jesus refers to. Who is he talking about? It seems like Luke means people outside the faith. Non-Christians.
Why does he feel the need to start there? Isn’t that a bit judgemental? Isn’t that a bit ironic in a passage all about not judging? After all, we all know that people outside the faith are perfectly capable of living ethical lives. And, given that we live in an increasingly post-Christian society, thank heavens for that.
Luke is pointing to a big ethical development here. Traditionally the people you should do good to is “us.” The good, the holy, our team over here, and definitely not those “sinners” over there. It reminds me of the story of the Good Samaritan. The kicking off point of the story is that a Pharisee, either hoping to trip Jesus up, or perhaps genuinely interested to hear what he had to say, asked Jesus “but who is my neighbour actually?”
What was shocking about the story was that the man, who was by implication Jewish, could have expected to be helped by the Priest and the Levite who passed by – both fellow Jews. And not just Jews, but people who should have exemplified the whole Jewish thing. The people who were best at being Jewish. But they just passed him by.
Who did help him?
The most surprising person in the world. The hated enemy. A Samaritan of all people!
Imagine a health bureaucrat needing to be helped by an anti-vaxxer. Imagine the sort of person you find most annoying in the entire world showing up at exactly the right (or wrong) moment and saving your life.
In Deuteronomy, for instance, the rule is set down that if you loan money to a fellow Israelite, you cannot ask for interest. But you can definitely demand interest on your loan from a non-Israelite. In Roman law, a citizen can demand a hearing from the Emperor, but a non-citizen cannot, which is why Paul, a Roman Citizen, ended up being shipped all the way from Israel to Rome. Different rules for different people. Even in our society different rules apply to foreigners who can be deported if they are convicted of a crime. They can’t do that to Australian citizens.
Jesus takes that whole world of insiders and outsiders and shatters it. Who is my neighbour? Everyone. Who can I demand interest from? No-one.
Love everyone – not just your family, not just those inside the faith, not just those who might be in a position to do you a good turn one day. Everyone.
And what, precisely, does this “love for everyone” look like? It is summed up in two ways.
Firstly: in the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the real, true Way.
But there is a phrase, a very famous phrase, which points to the real, true Way: Do to other people what you would have them do to you.
It isn’t clear if this is completely unique to Jesus – perhaps it was a developing idea in the Judaism of Jesus’ time.
But it is certainly a big leap from the starting point, which is to help those who help you, and to, at the very least, not help those who can’t help you. This is sensible practical advice for people who want to make something of themselves. Don’t be a miser, be generous with people and they will be generous with you. Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. It’s enlightened self-interest. It definitely isn’t what Jesus is on about.
And Jesus’ words transcend the previous high point, which was “do not do to other people what you don’t want them to do for you.” This idea is to be found all over the world – as far away as Confucius, and as close as Rabbi Hillel. It is sound moral teaching, as far as it goes. Sober, sensible, measured advice. You might be tempted to do something to your advantage which will hurt someone else: don’t.
But Jesus’ words go a long way further than that.
It’s the difference between not punching someone in the face and building them a hospital.
So, here it is. To be followers of Jesus, to be Jesus-shaped people, we have to leave far behind rational self-interest, sensible advice for living, sober respectability. Not only do we need not to retaliate, we have to actively help those who have hurt us.
I don’t know about you, but I find that both profoundly inspiring, and at exactly the same moment, profoundly dispiriting.
Inspiring, because I can see: yes. That is a beautiful way to live. It is clearly, obviously, and entirely the best way to live.
Dispiriting because, frankly, I completely fail to do so. I can just about manage not to retaliate to people, sometimes, with great expense of spirit. But to actively do good to them? That is completely beyond me.
Let me just pause here for a moment to qualify what I’m saying. These words have frequently been used to try to persuade people to stay in abusive situations. To say to a woman who is being beaten up by her husband that she just needs to keep on forgiving him, to stay in that abusive situation, is not at all what Jesus meant. And, of course, I acknowledge how very complex these situations can be.
But it isn’t loving yourself to stay in that situation. And it isn’t loving the abuser either – because to be an abuser is about as far away from Jesus as it is possible to be – and to love someone is to want the best for them. To love someone is to want them to be part of God’s kingdom of peace.
And, I think, the same goes for other situations of injustice.
However, back to my main point. These words, these powerful, beautiful words, can all to easily be experienced as words of judgement, because we really, really do not live up to them, and frequently don’t even really try to do so.
Given that, we, like Luther, ask “where shall I find a gracious God”?
Here is the good news. These commandments do not only describe how we should live, they also describe what God is like.
Or, to put it more correctly, these words of Jesus are primarily a description of what God is like, and secondarily a description of what it looks like to live out of that reality.
Last week I said I wanted to preach about grace this week. At one level, this reading is the opposite of that. It can feel like an impossibly heavy burden of responsibility and obligation.
There is a frightening idea of God behind that picture. A God who is relentlessly judging, setting impossible standards, and then delightedly condemning those who fall short – which is everyone.
But here is the Good News my friends. God, it turns out, is nothing like that.
And you can see that from this very passage.
Specifically you can see it from what Jesus says is the result of loving our enemies. He says “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.”
If we, with all our imperfections, are meant to imitate God, to become children of God, then how much more will God be kind, merciful, forgiving, and loving?
We see this borne out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We see this particularly because of the core Christian idea: Jesus is the final revelation of God. Jesus is the last word, the alpha and the omega. He is the very image of the invisible God. The answer to the question of “what would God be like if God were a human being?” The answer is: he would be like Jesus.
And that is grace: God reaching out to us, God doing what we ourselves cannot do. Only God can fully live out this life of loving one’s enemies: but it’s only of the slightest use to us if it is done by a human. It has to actually happen – to come out of the land of myth, of theoretical possibility, of good ideas and into the actual, real, historical world.
There are a lot of ways of talking about how this grace works – that Jesus has conquered the powers of death and hell, that Jesus paid the infinite price we ourselves could not afford. There are a million theories, but one reality to which they point. God, acting through Jesus, makes God available to us.
Jesus demonstrates in his own body the complete failure of the best we can manage ourselves – the best laws, the most pious religious leaders, the most stable political structure colluded to put him to death. And it was God who raised him up and vindicated him, and through him, draws all people to himself.
The transformative work of the Holy Spirit within us is, ultimately, to make us more and more able to live with the unqualified, complete and utter trust in God that Jesus displayed. To be so transformed by the accepting, invigorating, challenging love of God that we begin to allow little shoots of the divine life to come out of us, fruits of the spirit all over the place, flowers springing up in the cracks of our lives.
We do it because the final end and purpose of human life is to reflect that divine life back to God. Not to try to be God, to replace God with something easier to deal with, but to allow God to be God in our lives, and in our influence on the rest of the world.
And that is the Good News – that even in our complete failure to love our enemies and all the rest, God was already reaching out to us. Because God loves sinners, and we sinners are the ones for whom Jesus came.
 Deuteronomy 23:19-20
 “Hesiod, for example, gives the normative Greek standard: “Love those who love you, and help those who help you. / Give to those who give to you, never to those who do not” (Works and Days 353–54). David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) p. 96.
 “Tzu-kung asked, “Is there one word which can serve as the guiding principle for conduct throughout life?” Confucius said, “It is the word altruism (shu). Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” [Analects 15:23]” Chinese Philosophy: Analects 15:23 (ancient-chinese-philo321.blogspot.com)
 Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a, quoted in Jeffrey, David Lyle. Luke p. 97.
 Sometimes known as the Christus Victor theory, which seems to have been the dominant way of thinking about it in the Ancient World.
 Sometimes known as “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” and dating from Anselm of Canterbury’s Satisfaction theory in his book Cur Deus Homo in the 11th Century
Image: Love Your Enemies, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54226 [retrieved February 16, 2022]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boojee/2929823056/.