Sermon for 7/24/2010
Texts: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19
To say that Abraham was bold would be an understatement. How did he have the guts to nickel and dime God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah? But what’s even more remarkable is the fact that Abraham is not pleading God’s mercy for himself, his family, or even his political allies. This was Sodom and Gomorrah. For those of you who don’t know the story, two angels visited Abraham’s nephew Lot in Sodom, and a mob surrounded the house demanding that the strangers be given to them so they could “get to know” them. The Sodomites weren’t just a rival desert tribe; they were thoroughly despicable people. And Abraham is asking God to have mercy on them. Abraham raises the bar on what it means to love your enemy. How in the world can we have the kind of heart Abraham had?
Loving our enemies. Doesn’t every Christian do that? It’s one of those aspects of Christian teaching that we point to when we want to argue that Jesus is better than Buddha and Mohammed and all the rest. But what does it really mean to love our enemies? How do you love your enemy when he’s shooting at you? Are we supposed to send weekly care packages to the other side of the war on terror? How do you live out Jesus’ command when your job is to protect people your enemy is trying to kill?
I think it’s naïve and arrogant to pretend that these questions have simple answers. Some of you have had to face these questions very concretely in difficult circumstances that most of us will never encounter. Christian thinking on this subject has evolved throughout the centuries. In the beginning, Christians were a persecuted minority. When they were being tortured and thrown to the lions, people started asking whether they should raise arms in resistance to Roman imperial authority. Christian leaders consistently said no. Paul argues in Romans 13 that we should submit to sinful governments like the Roman Empire, since they are part of God’s plan. Peter writes in 1 Peter 4 that if you’re martyred, let it be for no reason other than your Christian faith, so that God can use your unjust death to conquer the heart of your enemy.
The remarkable thing is that this radical stance in which early Christians loved their enemies to the point of accepting martyrdom was ultimately the means by which Christianity conquered the most powerful empire in the history of the world. What Paul says about Christ’s victory in this week’s reading really happened; it wasn’t just a theological claim. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” We would not be sitting in this church today were it not for the victory that Christianity won over the Roman Empire through the martyrdom of not only Christ but also the thousands of his faithful followers who took up their crosses to follow him. Though they would have been decimated had they ever taken up arms against the empire, their innocent blood was too much for Rome to handle. They basically won a wrestling match with an enormous, infinitely more powerful opponent by allowing themselves to get pinned over and over.
First, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Then, the Roman Empire fell altogether and was replaced by a new political order called Christendom in which the church gained authority over all the nation-states in Europe, an arrangement that lasted about a thousand years. Yet Christendom’s success was paradoxically its demise, since its power created the corruption that rotted its core, sparking Martin Luther’s Reformation and ultimately the separation of church and state.
The question of how to love your enemies becomes a different one when your people are in power. It’s easier to let your enemies martyr you when you’re in an outsider religious sect than when a nation of people have entrusted you with their protection. Martin Luther wrote that we have to live in two kingdoms simultaneously. Among Christians, we inhabit the kingdom of love in which we turn the other cheek and resolve our disagreements with love. But when we’re in the outside world, we have to live in the kingdom of the sword where there are rules and consequences to maintain the civil order.
Luther’s two-kingdom concept mirrors the way that many Christians parse out our overlapping identity as citizens of both our earthly nation and the kingdom of God. In the private sphere of our friendships and church families, we follow the commands of God’s kingdom, while, in the public sphere, we deal with the world according to the world’s terms. It has become so natural to compartmentalize our lives in this way that it’s easy to forget we’re still members of the body of Christ when we’re on the job with our human bosses.
Not all Christians accept the idea that we’re supposed to live in two kingdoms at the same time. The Amish reject it so radically that they remove themselves from society so that no social role will compromise their fidelity to Jesus’ commands. Some might say that it’s irresponsible to remove ourselves from the world as the Amish have. But what a witness it was how the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania responded four years ago when a disturbed man named Charles Roberts opened fire in a schoolhouse and killed five Amish girls. That same night, several girls’ families walked to the house of Charles’ family to say that they forgave Charles and to offer his family their love and support. Throughout their grieving process, the Amish community placed the utmost importance on reaching out to Charles’ family to love and comfort them through such a terrible time. That’s what loving your enemy looks like.
So what about the rest of us who feel called to live immersed in a world whose way of doing things is hostile to the gospel? It is precisely to our challenge that Paul responds when he writes to “see to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” derived in worldly thinking rather than in Christ’s teachings. In today’s world, people play to win. When we’re kids, we compete for the best grades, the best positions on sports teams, and the best extracurricular activities, so that we can get into the best colleges and then get hired at the best jobs to raise the best families and start over again.
Our politics have taken the form of a sports competition as well. There’s no such thing as a win-win solution anymore, in which people with very different philosophies learn from each other and come up with solutions they couldn’t have thought of on their own. Our politicians play to win, and the only victory they recognize is for the other party to lose. So politics turns into a game of trying to weaken your enemy by tape-recording all the embarrassing things that they say. And the parties rise and fall according to who digs up the better scandal with the only real losers being the American people.
Paul is warning the Colossians about being taken captive by these poisonous worldly attitudes. It’s easy to fall into this trap. I have. Partly because I grew up in a moderate Southern Baptist family, I spent much of my life in a self-perceived battle with fundamentalist Christianity. And it always seemed like they were winning. They had the bigger churches; they dominated the media. I wasted a lot of energy trying to prove that I was better than the fundamentalists. Whenever I had conversations with other believers, I used all sorts of litmus tests to help me decide whether they were fundamentalists or real Christians.
Well what God did to conquer me was to put people in my life who I might have called fundamentalists before, but now I know they just love the Lord and want what I say that I want – for God’s kingdom to win – despite the fact that we differ on some details. Now I can love people that I wasted so much time trying to one-up before; and I realize that they’re not my enemies but my brothers and sisters.
See, the problem with the play-to-win attitude is this: when we’re trying to conquer others, we can’t be conquered by God’s love. That’s actually why Christendom fell in the 16th century. To use Paul’s words, they “lost their connection with the head” of Christ’s body. They were so focused on conquering the Muslims and the Americas and Africa and Asia that they forgot they needed to be conquered by Jesus. And the way that Jesus conquers is not the way the world conquers.
Jesus doesn’t conquer by making other people bleed; He conquers us, and our enemies, through His own blood. See, it’s not the case that we’re supposed to conquer our enemies so that we can stand over them and say, by the way, let me tell you about Jesus. Jesus is at the center pulling us and our enemies both towards Him; and the closer that we and our enemies get to Jesus, the more we realize that we’re not enemies but brothers and sisters.
Now it would be dishonest to act as if we don’t live in a more complicated world than when Christianity was a persecuted minority. When you’re deciding between denying your faith or getting thrown to the lions, at least the choice is clear-cut. Just because we’re people who want God to conquer us with love doesn’t mean that there aren’t hurt, angry people out there who can cause a lot of harm if there’s nobody to stop them. Some people face the ultimate challenge of loving their enemies while doing the work that somebody has to do to protect society.
But even when our life gives us choices that neither Jesus nor we are happy with, we can choose not to fall captive to worldly ways of thinking. We can avoid getting fixated on ideas we believe in so strongly that they turn into idols that “disqualify us for the prize.” We can remind ourselves that God’s prize for us is not a reward for sacrifices we made or feats we achieved, but a gift we only gain when we stop trying to earn it and prove that our enemies don’t deserve it.
And when we receive that gift of knowing that we don’t have to be right all the time and we don’t need to prove that we always had the right motives because Christ has nailed all the world’s judgments to the cross; when we receive that gift, we do “overflow with thankfulness” just like Paul says and we want others to receive that gift too, whether or not they deserve it, because we know we don’t deserve it, and all of our worldly arrogance and cynicism get washed away in that thankfulness. And we stop worrying about whether other people have the right theology or whether they used the right prayer to pray Jesus into their hearts.
All we want is for God’s mercy to reign over all the earth so that all people will have the same gift that we’ve got. And the best part is this: the more we love our enemies the way that Abraham loved those Sodomites, the more that we fall in love with God. God uses our love for our enemies to conquer us with His love. To be truly free, we don’t need for God to conquer our enemies; we need Him to conquer us. Do you have the courage to be conquered by His love?