We live in difficult and challenging times. Everyday we are bombarded with images and news stories that remind us that the world that we live in has become unfamiliar to so many of us. We live in a time that is filled with disagreement, frustrations, violence, and pain. Much of these things we have experienced, not only on a personal level, but also on a societal and cultural level.
Part of the reason for this is that what we so often focus on are our differences. We live in a time of political polarization that, for more than 25 years, has created deep divisions within our culture based upon the ideas we hold dear. We live in a time in which racial, cultural, economic, and geographical differences continue to be boundaries that prevent true relationships. Even within our churches, our theological perspectives, worship traditions, and other practices sometimes prevent us from working together as one body in Christ’s love. We live in challenging times that are unlike any that we have known in our lifetimes.
The fact we live in challenging times is not new us. We recognize that the world and our communities are different than what we once knew. All of us have responded to these changing times in some way. The most common response is that we are more willing to build relationships and spend time with those who we share something in common with. In our divided culture, it is increasingly unlikely that we will spend time with someone who is different than us. We can understand this desire. It is perhaps natural to spend more time with those with find something in common with than those we do not.
I believe something is missing in our common response to this era. What is missing is love. This is not just a love that expresses warm feelings, but a love that connects us to one another out of our shared humanity. What we are missing, today, is a love that welcomes and embraces all people. A love that is about connecting with all walks of life. A love that is about learning from all people. A love that sees the value, worth, and importance of everyone. What is missing in our world, and perhaps even in our lives, is a love that is like the love Christ shows to all people.
As we take a look at our final passage in our “Fan or Follower” series, we do so with the most challenging act of discipleship that Jesus calls us his followers to. With these words of Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus looks out upon the assembled crowd, and to us, and says that if you want to follow him then we must be willing to see all people as worthy of being loved, especially those we believe are unloveable. Followers of Jesus are called to move past the things that divide us and welcome and embrace all people with a love that is rooted in Christ’s love.
Jesus calls us to this through these final words of Matthew 5. Once again, Jesus builds upon a command that would have been known and understood by the people. This is what he has been doing throughout the latter half of Matthew 5. Jesus wants to expand our understanding of a known law in order for us to see what God truly asks of us.
In this passage, Jesus builds upon a command found in Leviticus 19:18. There we are told that God desires for us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” What does this mean? At its most basic level, this means to love others with the same kind of love and concern we would give ourselves. To treat others, as Matthew 7:12 says, as we would desire to be treated. It is love of commonality and connection that shares peace, joy, love, and friendship with our neighbor.
Of course, this requires us to think about who our neighbor truly is. Much of Jesus’ interactions dealt with this question and his desire to help his followers to see who God sees as worthy of love. Jesus challenges those who would seek to be his follower by asking them who they see as their neighbor and who they consider as worthy of being loved and valued.
So, how might we define our neighbor? For many of us today, I believe we consider our neighbor to be those who are in our love bubble. We all have a love bubble. A love bubble is made up of the people who we find acceptable. The people we place in our love bubble are those we want to love and spend time with. They are the people we often consider as our neighbor. They are the people who, so often, think the same as we do. They have similar values as us. They are likely those who worship in the same ways as we do or prefer. The people who are in our love bubble, our neighbors, are the people we find comfortable.
However, the love Jesus calls us to share is not to be shared with just those we are comfortable with. Jesus calls us to a love that is uncomfortable. He wants us to welcome people in our lives who we would not naturally welcome or feel comfortable doing. Jesus wants us to expand our understanding of neighbor and consider every person as someone worthy of love.
In fact, in Matthew 5:44 Jesus says he wants us to love the most difficult person we could ever imagine loving. He wants us to love our enemy and pray for them. By inviting us to love our enemies, Jesus invites us to share the love of Christ with every person, no matter who they are or what they have done, either to us or others. The reason Jesus calls us to this kind of love is that he desires for us to live with the recognition that all people have worth in God’s eyes. No matter who they are, no matter what they have done, that worth is still there, because we are all created in God’s image. This does not go away based upon our actions. God loves all people unconditionally, because we were all made in his likeness.
This is a challenging call of discipleship for us and for Jesus’ initial followers. For those who lived in Jesus’ time, there were multiple groups that would have been difficult for his early followers to love. Tax collectors created huge financial difficulties for people. The Roman Empire exerted tremendous political force and pressure upon the region. At the same time, Jesus’ early disciples were persecuted by religious and political groups for their faith. What Jesus says to his followers is to show those who would seek to do us harm grace upon grace, to treat them as we would want to be treated, and to love them.
The challenge for us, today, is not just to live this command out, but to really discern who is our enemy. We can look at this from a black and white perspective and say that our enemies are simply those who would seek to harm us. There is truth to that. We are called to find ways to love those who have harmed us by seeing them in the same way as God does, as people who are in need of love, joy, and peace.
However, I think defining our enemy is much more difficult. There is more aspects of gray to figuring out who are our enemies today. I think our enemies, today, are more subtle. Our enemy today may be the person we disagree with. Our enemy today may be the person whose lifestyle we do not understand or can support. Our enemy today may be a person whose past we cannot connect with. In a culture defined by what separates us, our enemies are often those who we refuse to see value and worth in their lives.
As Christ’s followers, we are called to share with those we disagree with the same love Christ shares with all people and us. To see every person, no matter who they are, what they’ve done, or what they believe, as someone of worth, value, and lovable. We must look at all people, including those we disagree with, as those who were made in God’s image.
How do we do this? How do we, then, love all people? We love all people by imitating the love of Christ in our relationships. Jesus shares with us a love that is willing to get dirty. Think through the stories of the Gospels. Jesus was willing to go to the people society found unloveable and sit next to them. He built relationships with religious zealots and those who had no faith at all. He ate dinner with tax collectors, showed compassion to a prostitute, and forgave criminals. The love Jesus showed was not a love based upon condemnation, but a love centered on welcoming, embracing, and connecting with others. This is the same love Jesus shows us. He calls us to share this love with every person, both the comfortable and uncomfortable.
We must love like Jesus. As followers of Christ, we must be people who are known by our love and our common belief that every person has value and worth. To be known as people who share the truth that every person, no matter who they are, is worthy of experiencing the love of Christ.
In a world defined by what separates us, can you imagine what our communities would be like if we loved like Jesus loves? What would happen if we tear down the things that separate us, tear down the boundary lines that prevent us from seeing worth in others, and see all people as people of value and worth, because they were made in the image of God? What would happen if we, as a church, went out of our sanctuary and into our community and was willing to have a love like Jesus? What would happen if we shared a love that is willing to get dirty, that embraces the unloveable, and shares hope, peace, joy, and love with all?
There are no better people than those who seek to be Christ’s followers to be the people who seek to tear down the boundaries that divide. Let it be us who shares love with the comfortable and uncomfortable. Let it be us who go out into our communities and love like Christ.
May we be people of love. May we be this today. May we be known by our love always.