Rev Dr John McCulloch
St. Andrews Jerusalem and Tiberias
Sunday 24th February 2019, 7th Sunday of Epiphany (year C)
Genesis 45: 3-11, 15 & St Luke 6: 27-38.
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Love Beyond Bounds
A few months ago, back in December, I was invited to speak at a conference near London which focussed on the contribution and role of Christianity across the Middle East. As is well known, Christians have been fleeing the Middle East in large numbers because of wars, persecution, islamist extremism, and in the West Bank because of Occupation.
At the conference, I met with Christian leaders from Egypt, Iran, Syria, Israel & Palestine, Iraq and many other places which have had their fair share of challenges; and what struck me as I heard their stories of struggle and witness, was that they all said that Christianity has a crucial role in this region, in terms of embodying forgiveness and reconciliation. They said that the role and witness of the Christian church across the Middle East would have repercussions far beyond the Christian communities themselves, if they were able to truly embrace and embody Christ’s gospel.
As Christians, we are commanded to forgive, to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to seek to good of others above our own welfare.
I don’t know about you, but when I read these words, I know that in the lies the answer to our world’s problems. I know that if these words were to be embodied and lived, it would change everything. But then I look within my own heart; and I realise, if I am honest with myself, how I fail to do this in my everyday life….
May God open our hearts again this morning, that we would be transformed by his grace; for we cannot do this in our own strength and through our own initiative.
May each of our hearts be consumed afresh with his love; without which we cannot follow in his footsteps.
The words of Christ on the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Luke chapter 6 are truly revolutionary:
‘Love your enemies’, ‘do good to those who hate you’, ‘pray for those who abuse you’, ‘lend, expecting nothing in return’, ‘be merciful’, ‘do not judge’, ‘do not condemn and you won’t be condemned’, ‘forgive, and you will be forgiven’. ‘Be merciful, just as your father is merciful’.
Imagine for a moment, what history would have looked like if the Church down through the centuries had truly followed Christ’s commands…
Imagine, what the church today would look like if it embraced Christ’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount… Imagine your own life, my own life, if we were truly to embody what Christ calls us to do?
In his book Strength to Love Martin Luther King comments on the verses we have just read:
Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to love our enemies (…) It is easy to love those who love you., but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? (…) The command to love our enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world (…) Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Of course, we cannot live this way in our own strength, for we all fall short and fail on a regular basis. Being able to love our enemies and forgive those who have wronged us is so difficult; and yet it lies at the heart of the gospel message, and as Christians we are commanded to do so.
Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison in South Africa; knew something about what it meant to forgive. He said:
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
Forgiveness, loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us; lie at the heart of the gospel. Remember the words of Christ as he was crucified? ‘Father forgive’.
Remember what Christ does when Peter picks up the sword and cuts off the soldier’s ear? Jesus commands Peter to ‘put down his sword’, to not use violence to defeat violence, to not respond to hatred with hatred; but instead he heals the soldier’s ear. And from the very place of death and shame, Christ stretches out his arms to embrace all who have rejected him, calling down blessing and forgiveness on the very crowd who crucified him…
In responding in love and forgiveness to those who mock and crucify him, Christ teaches us a better way. He incarnates what God is like. He shows that love can triumph, even in the darkest of places. He gives us and our world hope, that God is amongst those who we cast out and condemn, that God is with those who are suffering, and that God is on the side of all who have been wronged by the injustice, violence and suffering of this world.
In our OT reading from Genesis 45 we are reminded of the story of forgiveness and reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers; after they had sold him into slavery and he had endured prison because of their hatred of him. In verse 15 we read of how ‘He (Joseph) kissed all his brothers and wept upon them’. Joseph does not use his power and authority to punish his brothers, but refuses to act in revenge. Instead he reaches out to them with healing forgiveness.
O how our world needs to hear this message again.
How the church needs to embody this message in all that is does.
How we, by God’s grace, need to live our lives in a spirit of forgiveness and love towards those who are set against us.
Many were expecting a Messiah who would come in military power and might, and who would establish himself on the throne by force. But God comes as a king who will not establish his kingdom through violence, for that is how the kingdoms of this world are established, not the Kingdom of God; but he is a King wholly devoted to living a life that brings healing to all around him, through his undying love.
May we, by God’s grace, be able to live in this world as those whose lives are transformed by this revolutionary love, and that we too, would be able to reach out to our enemies with forgiveness, love and grace.
May it be in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning was now, and evermore shall be. Amen.