Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is an important day in the Christian calendar. We studied it, this week, in our Bible Study, but for everyone we’ll give you a brief introduction into what this day is about.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe what took place on either Mount Tabor (near the Jezreel Valley) or Mount Hermon (in the Golan Heights). The event is where Jesus’ appearance was magnified before Peter, James, and John and they were able to see the fullness of his divinity. It comes after Peter confessed Jesus as the long-expected Christ, Savior, near Caesarea Philippi and serves as a pivot point in the gospels. From this point forward, Jesus is solely focused on the cross and resurrection that will take place in Jerusalem.
Before they leave the mountaintop, though, there is a voice that comes from a cloud. It is the voice of the Father. In a scene like what took place at Jesus’ baptism, but this time for all to hear, the Father identifies Jesus as God’s son. The voice also says, “listen to him.”
To listen is a command of obedience. To listen is to do more than just be quiet and hear what someone is saying. To listen means to hear what is being shared and apply it into your life. To listen to Jesus means to not just hear what he says, but to put into practice his very teaching.
We might understand that, but there is no place where we have more trouble listening to Jesus than what Christ teaches in Matthew 5:43-48. Once again on the shores of Galilee, Jesus speaks to the disciples and gathered crowd. He calls those who would follow him to do something that is, both then and now, challenging. He calls those who would follow him – seek to walk with the Lord – to love their enemies.
Yes, Jesus said what you think he said. He calls us to love the very people who get on our nerves, aggravate us, or push our last button. He calls us to love the very people who seek to harm us and have done damage to our lives. What Jesus calls us to is very difficult, yet, like much of what we have shared this month, nowhere in our faith walk with Christ does the Lord lower the expectations. He raises them, and even does it with how we care for society’s worst. Jesus calls us to an ethic of love that is counter to the world, but is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ.
We have to admit we get uncomfortable when we read these words. Loving our enemies, and even praying for them, is not our first response to harm or pain. It’s not even in the top 25 of our responses to those who have harmed us or have done immense evil in this world. We struggle with this, because when we think of our enemies, which at its most basic level means people we refuse to be in relationship with, there are some elements of brokenness. We do not just have broken relationship with people for the sake of having an enemy. Broken relationships come as a result of pain. These elements of pain include unthinkable acts of abuse, violence, distrust, or any other act that runs counter to what we would expect from one another. That pain is real and hinders our ability to love.
Instead of love what we want is revenge. When I volunteered with youth in Chapel Hill, N.C., I remember this one youth who would often say he wished how God would “smite” someone. This often was said when someone in the youth group said something he didn’t like. He wanted revenge.
Just like we want revenge when someone harms us. We don’t want to love that person. We want to get even with them. This innate attribute within us is why many Christians wrongly believe in the practice of karma. The belief is a Hindu practice that focuses on what happens in our lives should cause us to reflect upon the consequences. Society has often taken it to mean that bad things will come to those who do evil. Nowhere in Scripture does our faith allow us to practice karma, but in our conversations, even in the halls of church, you would think it was a bedrock principle of faith.
We struggle with Jesus saying, “love your enemies, pray for them.” As a result, we tend to minimize what Jesus says. Whenever we come upon a difficult passage, we will limit its connection to our lives by saying it is not relevant for today, how there is no way Jesus could have known about the evil we experience, or it is too hard. The thing is this: Jesus words, here, are relevant. Jesus spoke them during a time of oppression from the Roman government. What Jesus calls us to is an ethic that is not poetic words to be discarded, but a transformative way of life that can make a true difference today in sharing the love of Christ with all people.
It is worth our understanding and practice today, because what Jesus calls us to is the deeper meaning of Leviticus 19:18 and the command to love your neighbor. Jesus will call this one of the greatest commandments. The passage had been interpreted to only include those who were within your faith group, heritage, or held similar views This was the interpretation of the religious elites who wanted to separate the Jewish people from the Gentiles.
Jesus taught, however, how God’s love was available to both Jew and Gentile. In calling people to love their enemies, he is reminding us of God’s command to walk with mercy, to do treat people with justice and grace, and to even feed those who would seek to harm us. All of which are found in the law, prophets, and writings. Jesus is calling us to God’s kingdom ethic of love, which is to be shared with all people.
Jesus says there is no value in simply loving those who will love you back. That is what is behind the religious elite’s interpretation of Leviticus 19:18. The value was placed upon loving those who will love you back and recognize your value. This is how we live today. We are more likely to love those who will return the emotion to us. We will question and look down upon anyone who cannot do the same for us. This is what fosters our divisions and, also, our inability to understand one another. It creates fear for the other and acceptance only for those who look like us, talk like us, or share our values.
Jesus wants us to have a love that matches the Father’s love. He uses the example of sunshine and the rain. These benefits of creation are not limited to only those who do good. They are there for all. It is a testimony to God’s prevenient grace, which is the grace that is available to all people even before they know God. God never stops loving or caring for all people even if they choose to be disobedient and do things that are counter to God.
Love that is only shared with those who are like us will never change the world. What will change the world is to share God’s love with the very people who cannot return that love or whom we find difficult to love. If we share love and grace with them, then and only then do we have the possibility of making a difference in places of violence, division, and fear. Love that is only shared with like-minded people cannot make a difference, but love that is shared with the worst of the worst, our enemies, will shock the world and shock that person.
So, how does Jesus call us to love our enemies. Perhaps the most important thing for us to do is to see people as God sees them. Often when we think of an enemy, we see them for what they have done. We no longer see them as someone of worth and value. A person’s worth and value never goes away because they made a mistake. They still have the potential of being love and living for love.
We also need to restrain from returning harm with anger and revenge. To do so means we are allowing the situation to define who we are. That prevents us from being a faithful follower of Christ. Our best response is to seek to live in peace refrain from picking up a baseball bat or cursing someone out. Being at peace within our heart means we find ways to not allow that person and situation to control us, but when we think of that person we seek to respond in ways of grace from God.
We do so, as well, by putting ourselves in that person’s shoes. In this we are seeking to apply the Golden Rule to the moment: to do unto others as we would wish be done to us. This is not about treating people with kindness, but having empathy for someone in contemplating upon what we would like done to us in a similar moment of life and performing that towards someone else. Imagine if you were the other person, how would you want to be treated in that moment? Would you want to be hated? Probably not. Would you want to be cursed at? Probably not. Or would you want a third, fourth, fifth, 100th chance? Most likely. Would you want someone to try to understand who you are? Most likely. Would you want someone to be there for you? Most likely.
Finally, we love our enemies by praying for them. This is not a prayer for God to change them or to make them go away. We pray for God to be with them and for the Lord to help us to be a person of grace and peace when we come upon them.
Loving our enemies is difficult, yes, but when it happens it leaves a lasting legacy of grace and transformation. Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook for people to share examples of where people have loved their enemies. There were two that were memorable. They both connect to the World War II era and how the Nazis treated Jews and those who sought to resist Hitler’s evil regime. Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for being part of a resistance movement that attempted to overthrow Hitler. While in prison, Bonhoeffer treated his prison guards with grace and love. The guards, soon, came to see Bonhoeffer’s worth and value. Much of his writings survived because the guards took an interest in this pastor and made sure his writings were seen outside of prison. Bonhoeffer expressed a love that transformed someone’s world.
There was also Corrie Ten Bloom. She, along with her family, were among hundreds of people who hid Jews from the Nazis. She was arrested for her work, but after the war sought measures of reconciliations in order to heal the German people.
There are so many others. African-Americans who have expressed love with members of the KKK. Mother Emmanuel AME members who shared forgiveness following a church shooting. Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote to pastors who sought to limit his work by saying, “injustice anywhere is a threat to everywhere.” We could go on.
These are all shocking, because when love is shared with even the most unthinkable of people it changes the world and leaves a lasting legacy. This is the kind of love the world, and our community needs today. We no longer need a love that is “just for us.” We need a love that is shared across the aisle, across the street, and around the corner. We need a love that Jesus calls us to have that builds bridges, seeks reconciliation, and offers grace for people, even when we struggled to share it.
Jesus practiced this love. Jesus calls us to share this love. Yes, Jesus means for us to put it into practice. True transformation comes when we love not just us, but the people whom only by God’s help we can.
Yes, do nothing else, but love your enemies.