Sunday, March 5, 2017

Really Tough Love

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies!  Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.  For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.  If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?  Even corrupt tax collectors do that much.  If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?  Even pagans do that.  But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.  Matthew 5:43-48(NLT)  
Assume for a moment that you and I are living two thousand years ago in a land far away.  Everybody we know is talking about a guy who is on all the news channels with his weird ideas about how to live.  So we Google his website and find out he’s going to be teaching on the hillside that faces Galilee’s Sea near Tabgha.  So we find him on this little mountainside where he is seated, and he begins to say a lot of stuff about how to be really happy in life.  Most of it sounds pretty doable; that is until he gets to that stuff about loving your enemies.  What?
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies!  Pray for those who persecute you!   Matthew 5:43-44(NLT)

Ask the teacher the hard question

Allow me to ask the collective hard question that was probably on everyone’s mind on the hillside that day: 
Uh, Jesus, are you kidding?  I mean…love your enemies? 
Have you seen those Samaritans and those low-life Philistines?
Fast-forward about twenty centuries, and Scripture plows right into today’s hard questions.  A case in point:
Who in the world is our neighbor, and what enemies are we supposed to love?  On the one hand we’ve got bunches of people saying those illegals crashing the borders have got to be kept out.  They may be just on the other side of the wall that’s gonna be built, but they’re not like us at all!  Others are saying everyone is our neighbor; we should throw-open the borders.
And somewhere deep on the inside, for those of us who have committed our lives to following Jesus – not just attending church or checking the evangelical born-again box on surveys, but really following Jesus – there is a stinging uneasiness that refuses to turn our backs on anyone.  But we can’t quite manage to drop our guard and trust either the radical border builders, or the fruitcakes who just sit idly-by singing kumbaya, while enemies pour through the gates to rape, pillage and destroy! 
These uneasy ones are we; we are the ones in the vast middle of all that rhetoric, so cautious because we know this is not simple, and it has a lot of issues, very complex issues we must work-through. 
Radical Right, Radical Left, and in the middle, Radically-Overwhelmed and Indecisive.  Take your pick; like it or not, you’re in one of those three columns.
And if you’re having a truly schizophrenic experience about all this (perhaps like me – at least a little), where you’re in one column – say Radical Right one day, and then the next day confused Radically-Overwhelmed, bordering on Radical Left (oh my!); where in the world do you go for a little compass-resetting?  How do you stay sane in a sea of voices tearing at you from the left and right? 
Or, if you’re firmly planted on the left or right, how do you keep your soul when you consider the claim that the other side is populated by human brothers and sisters?
Well, like a pilot and co-pilot getting ready for takeoff, you return to the pre-flight checklist and decide if you’re going to let the crosswinds blow your plane all around, or if you’re going to position the plane to use those winds to lift your plane into the wild blue yonder.
Now with metaphors fading into the dust back at the airport….for a follower of Jesus Christ, the pre-flight checklist before you take off in any direction begins with what Jesus said and did.  It does not begin with what news channel you prefer to watch, what strong views a co-worker managed to bring up at the water cooler or post on FaceBook; nor does your checklist have to start with what your sociology professor spouted off in Political Science 101 after the election.
Your checklist for living begins with sitting at the feet of the One to whom you have chosen to place your life’s allegiance.  The apostle Paul did that and he called that process of following Jesus being a living sacrifice:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you.  Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable.  This is truly the way to worship him.  Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.  Romans 12:1-2(NLT
Beloved, this is different from a 21st century culture that wants more and more rights, privileges and wealth.  Following Christ is being different from that, and being different from this world is only possible when God transforms who you are from inside-out!   
Doing good to others, no matter if they are perceived as enemy or friend is God’s kind of love.  The special word used to describe that is agape’.   Agape’ love is a determination of the mind that responds with good, no matter the provocation, response, or consequence.
This kind of love is chosen, rather than felt.

Some reminders on choosing to love


For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.  Matthew 5:45b(NLT)
Both you AND your enemy persecuted Jesus.  Scripture declares there is not a single person who has ever lived who never sinned, with the exception of Jesus Christ.  The fact is that He chose to love you by dying for you.  So, if you will follow Him you cannot rely on your emotions or the strong feelings others may have about people, rights and national pride; your only course of action compels you to love because you are loved.


If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?  Even corrupt tax collectors do that much.  If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?  Even pagans do that.   Matthew 5:46-47(NLT)
Jamie Hayes and I had a short conversation last week after worship.  We were discussing this issue of choosing to love, as opposed to only loving those who already love you.  He said to me:  You know, preacher, there’s a lot of times when you know what’s right and you don’t really want to do it; it’s times like that you just got to do it anyway.
The prophet Jonah learned that lesson.  He got a mission-order from God to go preach at Nineveh, a city near modern Mosul, Iraq.  Jonah was a Jew, and when have Israel and Iraq ever had kind feelings towards one another?  Jonah put his harsh feelings on a boat headed to Spain, about 3,000 miles away from the place God told him to go.  In those days it was the opposite end of the world.
When the storm came up and Jonah got tossed out of the boat, God had a submarine ready to take the disobedient, unloving prophet right to the city gates of Nineveh.  Jonah had no loving feelings for Nineveh, but he learned if you’re going to be God’s person you need to choose good for goodness’ sake.


But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.  Matthew 5:48(NLT)
We are called to be different.  It is certainly different to act in a loving way to those that hate you, and describe themselves as your enemies!  But that is the nature of Jesus’ kind of love.  It’s the kind of love that prayed from a cross:  Father, forgive them. 
And so, once again the question comes to us:
Do I really want to follow Jesus?  There is a cost to loving like He loved!
C.S. Lewis wrote:
To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.  The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and [perturbing aggravations] of love is Hell.[ii]
You’ve heard of tough love, where a parent will do the best thing for his or her child, even if it means a harsh wake-up call.  A toddler wants to play in traffic and screams bloody murder when the parent snatches her away from a Buick the size of Cleveland.  The parent would do it a hundred times over to save the child, even though the child objects.
This is what Jesus said on the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee that day:  Be perfect…just like your Heavenly Father
It isn’t a matter of perfection, as in bowling a 300 game, or pitching a no-hitter, or never messing up in any way.  “Perfect” in the language of the New Testament is teleios, and it means mature
It has to do with function rather than feeling.  It means you do that for which you were created; you fulfil your purpose in life.  To restate Jesus’ words – be purposeful, useful; help fulfil the lives of your neighbors, just like your Heavenly Father.
Chuck Swindoll tells of the young man who fell in love with an opera star.  He hardly knew her, since his only view of her was from the third-floor balcony at the opera house.  But he was convinced he could live happily ever after married to anyone who sang like she did.  He scarcely noticed that she was much older; he never noticed her limp.  Her angel-like voice would carry them through anything! 
After a whirlwind romance and a hurry-up ceremony they were off for the honeymoon.  As she began to prepare for their first night together, his chin dropped to the floor when she plucked-out her glass eye, and plopped it into a container on the nightstand.  She pulled off her wig, ripped off her false eyelashes, yanked out her dentures, unstrapped her artificial leg, and smiled at him as she slipped off the glasses that hid her two hearing aids
He was stunned and horrified.  But he managed to blurt out: 
Sing, woman, Sing!  For goodness sake, SING!"
This is not a perfect world, and life as we know it will never approach being fair.  Some folks without a green card will scramble over the border, terrorists will plot their mayhem, and you will never see a perfect, loving society until Jesus comes back to clean up the mess.
But, for now...if you’re bound to follow this teacher who said to love your enemies, when it comes to the brother or sister in your church that you have a hard time with, sing, Christian, sing!  You sing the song of love.
When your unbelieving neighbor upsets you, sing, Christian, sing the song of lovingkindness!
And when the last thing on your mind is reconciling, or denying self, or keeping your vows sacred, or forbearing, or any of those attitudes that are critically necessary to following Jesus...sing, Christian.....Just sing the song of really tough love!


[i] Title image: By Ib Rasmussen, via Wikimedia Commons
[ii] C.S. LewisThe Four Loves [embellishments mine]

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