February 4, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus stands up in worship before his neighbors and friends in his hometown of Nazareth and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. Initially, the people are pleased with him, proud of his scholarship and the eloquence of this man they’ve watched grow up. Moreover, he has declared that God’s favor is about to poured out on the world which sounds pretty good to them. Who among us wouldn’t love to hear that God is finally going to come and set all things right? Our suffering will end, the oppressed will finally see justice, and God’s peace will roll over the war torn nations and we can live no longer afraid of our neighbor. And at first, the people listening to Jesus’ “I have a dream” sermon are excited but then Jesus spoils the picture for them by telling them that they will not be the only beneficiaries of this new world.
“Do you remember how God sent Elijah to the Phoenician widow and how Elisha healed the Syrian general?” he reminds them. “Well, God is going to do that again, spreading grace far beyond this town and the boundaries of this land to touch the hearts of people everywhere.” And upon hearing these words, his listeners stand up in a murderous rage and drive Jesus out of town.
This isn’t the reaction we would expect from someone hearing Jesus that day. Jesus has promised peace in the world, justice for all people, healing, and freedom so why wouldn’t Jesus’ listeners be overjoyed about that? Sure, maybe Jesus suggests that even Phoenicia and Syria, two nations who happen to be ancient enemies of Israel, antagonists for a thousand years, will be included in that promise, but wouldn’t that be a good thing? Wouldn’t you want your enemies included in God’s peace so that our strife will end? Wouldn’t we be happy to hear, for example, that God will bring renewal to Mexico and make it into a prosperous and strong nation so we could stop arguing about immigration? And wouldn’t we be happy to hear that God will go to North Korea and settle peace upon their land so that we won’t have a nuclear threat hanging over us? And wouldn’t we rejoice to hear that God intends to heal the sick in Russia, open the prison doors of Afghanistan, ease the suffering of the families of Isis, bring peace and well-being to all of those nations and those people who have tormented us for so long, fought against us, made our lives miserable, hated us, and been hated right back by us, all of those scoundrels and curs!? OK, maybe we wouldn’t be so happy. Maybe we too would be inclined to drive Jesus out of the pulpit, and condemn his preaching as offensive to our faith.
This is in fact, what happened to Rob Bell a few years ago. Bell was once the pastor of Mars Hill, an evangelical church of nearly 10,000 members and he was a bright star in the conservative Christian universe. Some called him the new Billy Graham. But then in 2011, he published a book called Love Wins in which Bell said that after extensive biblical and theological research, he had to reject the idea of an eternal hell.
“God will ultimately redeem and save all people, no matter their religion or beliefs,” he essentially argued, “because God’s love is the most powerful force in the world and it cannot be defeated. God’s love always wins.” Bell’s insistence on universal salvation started a firestorm in the evangelical world and within the year, Bell left the Mars Hill church and eventually left the pastorate altogether. His name is still a source of controversy among conservative Christians and wherever he speaks, his detractors hand out tracts to the attendees denouncing Bell as a heretic doomed to the very Hell Bell refuses to believe in.
For the record, I’m on Bell’s side in this because I also believe in God’s triumphant power of love and reconciliation. I don’t believe that God ever gives up on anyone, even after death and so to me the doctrine of hell and eternal damnation is contrary to the gospel of grace. I don’t believe in a literal hell. This is, however, still not a popular position among Christians. Even Christians who preach the triumphant power of God’s love and reconciliation are in reality reluctant to reconcile with their enemies. A newspaper conducted a poll of its readers and found that only 4% of the people polled believe that they deserve to go to hell. 20% however, said that they knew other people whom they thought deserved to go. And if the pollsters had thought to ask, they would have probably discovered that those 20% would have been very annoyed if they thought that God reprieved the hell-deserving and sent them to heaven instead. We are exceedingly grateful for God’s forgiveness and grace when it is bestowed upon us but we find ourselves extremely uneasy to think that God might choose to bestow forgiveness and grace on our enemies.
Why are we so reluctant to reconcile with our enemies, so reluctant to accept the possibility of a good future for them as well as for us?
Maybe we are reluctant to reconcile because God’s ability to open God’s heart to people we hate reflects badly on us. It reveals that we are not capable of being as forgiving as God. When we say, “Don’t ever forgive them, God. There is no salvation for those who are so terrible,” what we are really saying is, “Don’t offer them the possibility of forgiveness, God, because I’m not strong enough to forgive them and never will be.”
Or maybe we are afraid that God’s acceptance of someone we have rejected means that what we have been believing all of these years about them is wrong, or at least, not entirely right. If God shows grace to someone we thought irredeemable, it forces us to admit that our characterization of them as pure evil might not have been fair. Often, the only way we can feel right about our beliefs or ourselves is by pointing at other people and calling them wrong, but if God tells us that all people are deserving of God’s love, then suddenly, we are confused. And frankly, uncertainty is so uncomfortable for we human beings that we would rather condemn people and reject them even eternally rather than have to live with our own doubts.
But the most likely reason that Jesus’ listeners erupted in anger is because the anger was already there fostered by the centuries of enmity. As human beings, our suffering isn’t limited to physical hurts and wounds but burrows its way down into our souls where it is hard to remove. Our grief simmers and festers, our resentment churns, and all of that cauldron of emotion turns into a consuming anger that is not easily removed from our hearts. Even if we could get our heads on board with God’s promise of salvation for our enemies, we’d still have to deal with the anger gripping our hearts.
There is a story of a little girl who got mad at her younger brother. She pushed him down, called him names, and then spit on him. Her father saw this and in dismay exclaimed, “Honey, the devil must’ve made you do that!”
The little girl answered, “The devil may have made me push him down and call him names but I thought of spitting on him all by myself.” The little girl confessed the power of her emotions and I’m sure that if the listeners in the synagogue could have spit on the Phoenician widow and the Syrian general, they could have. I’m sure that if Jonah could have spit on the Ninevites that God sent him to redeem, he would have. I’m sure that if the elder brother could have spit on the returning prodigal son, he would have. And I am equally sure that there are people whose behavior so appalls us, whose immorality so shocks us, whose indifference to others, ignorance and selfishness, so disturbs us that we too could be moved to spitting if God told us that God intended to be reconciled to these people as well as to us.
But that is the Gospel message: our God is a God who saves. Our God is a God of boundless grace and God will do everything in God’s power to relent, to reconcile, to repair, and show favor upon all of the people, and God expects us to be not only accepting of that reconciliation but the messengers of that reconciliation. When Jesus stands in the synagogue, he says to his listeners, “I am here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor so be prepared – reconciliation is in the works.”
God is a God of reconciliation who will offer grace to all people and we need to be aware that God’s grace is coming. How can we prepare ourselves so that we will not drive out that message of grace but welcome it, and even be its ambassadors?
I think that it is not actually as hard to do as we think it is. When we hear the command to love our enemies, we feel that God is asking impossible things of us because we think of love as an emotion. We think God is telling us that we have to ignore that cauldron of hurt and grief that churns in our hearts at the injustices of the world. We think God is telling us that we have to feel friendly to those people who have hurt us, that we have to ignore their bad behavior, and remain emotionally detached from the results of their cruelty but God wouldn’t ask us to be less than human. Who among us would want to remain emotionally detached from the suffering from others, from the blood of men and women injured by bombs, from the swollen bellies of starving children, from the struggle of a family who can’t find work, from a young teenage black man shot because someone was afraid of the color of his skin? I would worry that there was something wrong with you if you weren’t saddened by such things and even at least a little angry at the injustice of it all. And what kind of monster would we be if we tried to turn off our feelings for the pain of the victims of cruelty and injustice and instead direct our warm feelings toward the one who hurt them? If we think that this is what God means by loving our enemies, we will find it an impossible command and frankly, in trying to follow it, we will become less than human.
Agape love, however, the love of kindness and compassion to which we are called as disciples of Christ, isn’t a feeling; it is a way of behaving toward another person. To love your enemy with agape love is to see them as human too and refuse to give up on them. You may feel like spitting on them but because of your agape love, you don’t. You treat them with respect. You may feel like throwing up in their presence, but you choke back your disgust and stick it out, listening to them and trying to see the child of God under all of that hate. You may want to hurt them like they have hurt you but in agape love, you unclench your fist and offer your hand. God doesn’t want you to feel warm and fuzzy toward your enemies but God calls you to treat them with agape love — compassionate kindness who insists on inviting them to the table no matter what the past has been because as a disciple of Christ, you will treat your enemy as an equal child of God.
Jesus stands in the synagogue, and he says to his listeners — to us, “I am here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor so be prepared – reconciliation is in the works.”
Prepare yourself. Learn what it means to love your enemy. Practice forgiveness. Work on reconciliation. Lay the table for company because you never know who God will insist on inviting to the banquet.