In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Every saying and every parable of the Gospels is both good news and difficult news.
The good news is that Jesus Christ assures us that God is not the emperor of hell but the lover of mankind — that God is merciful — and that God is eager to forgive.
The difficult news is that God calls on us, we who dare to call ourselves Christians, to be loving and merciful.
Love is not easy. Love challenges us to shift our attention from ourselves and our own needs and appetites to the needs of the other, and not just the other who loves us back and will answer gift with gift, but the other who is threatening and even hostile.
We are called by our Savior not just to love our friends — even that can often be hard — but to love our enemies. “Love your enemies,” Christ commands. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” His words could not be plainer.
But what is love?
One thing we learn from the Gospels is that love is quite different than what is described in popular music. There is a Hebrew word for love in the biblical sense of the word: chesed. It means self-giving love. The primary religious symbol of chesed — of self-giving love — is the cross, the holy and life-giving cross.
An image of self-giving love is a parent holding a crying child in the middle of the night.
The exhausted parent does not appreciate being woken up by an unhappy baby — one is not always glad to be a mother or father at three in the morning — but nonetheless the parent gets out of bed, offers the baby a breast or a bottle, pats and stokes the infant’s back, sings lullabies, walks back and forth, prays for the child. It may take a long time. It’s hard work but it must be done.
Love is like that: you do for the other what you would wish to be done for yourself if the roles were reversed.
Love is not a comfortable feeling or a cheerful sentiment. Love is the good that God does for us and the good we do, in imitation of God, to each other.
Are there people I am not obliged to love? The short answer is no. We are told to love God with our whole heart and soul and our neighbor as our self. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is whomever God has put in front of me, friendly or unfriendly.
When Jesus is asked the question, “Who is my neighbor,” he answers with a story of a badly injured man being helped by a stranger, someone who can even be called his enemy. In today’s terms it would be the story of the Good Moslem.
What is an enemy? Or better to ask: Who is an enemy?
An enemy is anyone we fear, try to avoid, don’t want to help, whose bad fortune doesn’t distress us, whose needs and problems we feel have nothing to do with us.
Praying for enemies opens the door to doing good to them. Let’s do it.
Let me offer a suggestion. Make a list of people you would rather not pray for — call it your Enemies List — and make it a discipline of your life to pray for them at least once every day. Pray that you can relate to them in such a way that Christ and his Gospel become visible to them.
It was Metropolitan Anthony, the spiritual father of this parish, who used to say: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”
Let me finish with a simple story. This happened in Novgorod in 1987.
I was at work on a book about the Russian Orthodox Church that was published in 1988, the year the church in Ukraine and Russia celebrated the 1000-year anniversary of the baptism of the people of Kiev in the Dnieper River.
Mikhail Gorbachev, then in his second year as Soviet head of state, had brought religious persecution to a halt. Ruined churches and monasteries were being given back. I was fortunate enough to be a witness to what was truly a miracle.
That evening I was having supper with a local priest named Father Mikhail. I asked him, “Aren’t you surprised?”
”Not at all,” he replied. “All believers have been praying for this every day of our lives. We knew God would answer our prayer, only we did not know when. I am only surprised that our prayer has been answered while I am still alive.”
I thought of all the countless people who had been shot or were taken to labor camps where they froze to death or died of exhaustion or disease.
“Still,” I said, “surely you must hate those who caused so much suffering and who killed so many people.”
Father Mikhail gave me an answer that I did not expect. “Christ doesn’t hate them,” he said. ‘Why should I? How will they find the way to belief unless we love them? And if I refuse to love them, I too am not a believer.”
If we fail to love our enemies, we are not yet Christians. We are only people who have heard the words of Jesus and ignored them:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
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But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
–Gospel of Luke 6:27-36
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