Earnest Gordon’s book ‘The Miracle on the River Kwai’ is the amazing story of the power and victory of the gospel in the face of oppression, cruelty, brutality, violence hatred and death. It is Gordon, a Scotsman’s war time memoirs; Gordon was a soldier and became a Prisoner Of War during the Second World War. He was forced by the Japanese to work on the infamous Burma railway. Allied soldiers were forced to work long hours mistreated, starved, beaten to death, seen as less than human. Through the care of two fellow prisoners as he was near deaths door Gordon’s Christian faith came alive and as he recovered he became the unofficial Chaplin for the camp. One of his carers Dusty was tortured and killed on a tree only months before the end of the war, because his guards could not break him or make him angry, it made them loose face so they crucified him. He imitated Christ in life so they made him imitate Christ in death. Faith however spread through the camp and people began living out Jesus teaching.
Gordon tells of coming across Japanese soldiers who had been wounded and were not being cared for by their own people because they couldn’t fight so they were of no use, they hadn’t died in the defence of the emperor so they written off as cowardly. He says that his men would stop and bind up their wounds, give them what food and water they had, share their meagre medical supplies and give them a kind word. The Japanese guards tried to dissuade them they would dodge round them and kneel down to help. One of their own officers tried to stop them and Gordon says in response he told him Jesus parable of the good Samaritan, and as he turned his back Jesus words came to Gordon’s mind ‘Love your enemies’.
Over 8,000 allied pow’s died on that infamous stretch of railroad. When the starving prisoners in Gordon’s camp were liberated, their liberators wanted to exact revenge and kill the guards, they were only saved when their victims stepped into intercede on their behalf.
After the war Gordon became a Presbyterian Minister and moved to the Us where he became the dean of the chapel at Princeton university. The book was made into a movie called ‘to end all wars” just before Gordon’s death in 2002. While I can’t watch I without tears in my eyes, many critics sadly wrote it off as mere Christian propaganda. The film ends showing Gordon himself, meeting with one of his former guards who had become a Buddhist monk, as he did every year to pray for peace.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had proclaimed a revolution of grace, inviting not the spiritually elite but the spiritually poor to be part of his new Kingdom, to live together as God’s people. He had told this unlikely group that they and we who come after them were to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. To live in a different and new way that reflected God’s revolution of grace, a way that is summed up by Dietrich Bonheoffer, who learned to live out Jesus words in a Nazi prison, as being about the word that now appears in the reading we had this morning…”love”. A new way of living that is most profoundly captured in Jesus saying to love your enemies, the lavish extravagant grace of Jesus calls us to share that same lavish extravagant over the top love with everyone, especially those who oppose, oppress or persecute us. In a world where you can friend and unfriend people with the click of a button we are called to be committed to loving our enemies.
Love your neighbours comes from the passage in Leviticus we had read out to us today. The people of Israel were called to show care and kindness to their fellow Israelites, and while you won’t find and hate your enemies in the Old Testament, there are passages in scripture advising the Israelites not to form treaties or even seek the welfare of some of the countries that surrounded them. BY Jesus day it had become ensconced in their thinking that as they were God’s chosen people they could choose simply to care for and be kind to one another: That it was for friends only. But this is not what the scriptures of the Old Testament pointed towards, they had been chosen so that the other nations might know what God was like, and experience God’s goodness through their goodness and love,. The book of Jonah in the Old Testament is a book full of amazing stories and great events and it is a book that highlights the difference between Israel’s fierce nationalism expounded by Jonah not wanting to go to Ninivah and God’s great love for all people, as Jonah warned the people of Ninivah, Israel’s enemies of impending judgment they repented and changed their ways so god Spared them. Jesus tells his followers that we too are to reflect that love of God for all people.
In Occupied first century Judea, Jesus teaching to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you would have been very revolutionary. The Jews would automatically though ‘Jesus is saying we should love the Romans, and pray for them.” In the early church Jesus teaching would have equally been relevant and easily applied as they had found themselves accused and ostracized for breaking the faith and teaching a different faith in Jewish circles and we forget how revolutionary and politically challenging it was in the roman empire to proclaim Jesus is Lord, when all were called to swear allegiance to “Caesar as Lord”. Round the world today in countries and places where the church is persecuted, Jesus teaching is poignant. Many of us however may not readily relate to it, we don’t experience persecution and we may not experience enmity or hatred. But Jesus is calling us not simply to love our friends or those with our church community or culture but those outside as well, the ‘other’, the unloving and the unlovable, people that rub us up the wrong way and treat us the wrong way.
Praying for those who persecute you is also a great place to start when it comes to that often asked question how do I start loving people who are unloving or down right unlovable. Jesus says bring them to me, if you need help to love them start on your knees, If we are praying God’s blessings and praying for their good, it will move into how we think about them and how we act. Then we can begin to show love in practical terms In Luke’s version of Jesus teaching he gets more practical saying “ bless those who curse you”. What can you say that encourages and builds some one up when they have tried to rip you down. Paul in Romans 12:20-22 gets real practical… if you enemy is hungry feed them, if they are thirsty feed them.
I love the little golden book called the tawny scrawny lion. It is so old that I remember having it read to me when I was a child and I got a copy for my kids which was re released as part of the 50th anniversary of ‘little golden books’. It tells the story of a lion chasing animals to eat them and the animals finally getting feed up with it. A rabbit goes and talks to the lion and offers to have the lion over for dinner with his five fat brothers and five fat sisters. He catches some fish and gathers some vegetables for dinner. You can imagine the lion is thinking rabbit stew, but is made to feel at home by the rabbits and feed well. The story ends with the lion not needing to chase the other animals as he is now well feed and satisfied and befriended by the rabbits.
In real life, and I think I may have told you this before. I remember seeing a world vision video on reconciliation in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, where a woman had lost nearly 50 members of her immediate family to the violence in that country. Her next door neighbour had lead a mod that had beaten to death many of her family. The women decided the only way she was going to overcome her grief was through forgiveness. Her neighbour was in prison, leaving his elderly father with no one to care for him and so she wrote a letter to the neighbour in prison forgiving him and prepared a banquet for his father. I was also talking to a women this week who had been sexually abused by her step farther and after years of this had been rescued. She talked of learning about love and forgiving in being a caretaker for her stepfather in his old age.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
To greet people in Jewish society was just a quick saying hello, but rather it was to wish them well, to bless them. Jesus call to love even our enemies is a call to extraordinary love, not just settling for the way it is in society around us. I know that the examples I’ve used so far are from extraordinary circumstances, and they are the ones that inspire us, but we are called to this extraordinary love in our ordinary life. If we just love the people we like, or who are like us, what good is it says Jesus even the tax collectors, that loathed group of traitors who work for the Romans can do that. If we simply greet those who are our mates we are just like the pagans. Can I tell you in the showing love stakes we are often shown up by people of other faiths or no faith. What good does it do. No we are to be extraordinary. Patsy was a housewife in Tauranga she got involved with organising the o hour famine and decided she would go down to the local gang headquarters and ask them to get involved. She knocked on the door and was greeted by one of the gang leaders. She had bought along some baking for them and handed it over before asking them to sponsor her and get involved in the 40 hr famine. She was instantly known as mum by them after this. I can’t report that it bought transformational change to those guys life, but here is an example of that love your enemies. Maybe the Light of Christ just shone for a moment through the crack of the barbwire topped corrugated defensive wall of that place.
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This passage has been misused down through history to talk of the need for moral perfectionism as the demand of the gospel. I don’t know about you but I find myself responding by says… hey ‘no ones perfect’… and it is easy to let what is seen as Jesus conclusion to this section of the Sermon of the Mount demotivate us when it comes to seeing Jesus teaching as obtainable. Right… it seems to be simple pie in the sky idealism that I for one cannot live up to. But that is if we mis-understand what Jesus is saying here.
Yes only God is perfect, he is just and righteous in all he does, he is faithful to his word and can be trusted, he is slow to anger and quick to bless, and these are attributes that Jesus showed in his life. Here the call is that just as God is unbiased in how he shows his love to people, so should we be .Just as God is with the rain and the sunshine. In doing this says Jesus we show the family likeness of being sons and daughter of the most high. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums it up by saying we should imitate God’s wholehearted love, that we should not be divided in our heart we should not show partiality to anyone. But love equally.
Dean Smith says that this part of the sermon of the Mount is what slits us into two groups those who want to imitate Jesus and those who simply admire him”. As we will hear later Jesus finishes his whole Sermon by calling people not to be just hearers of his words but doers as well. The thing that really takes this out of the realm of idealism and makes it something for you and I to implement in our lives is the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is not all about us, it’s about Jesus as well, as we look at it is the blue print of Jesus life, he lived it out, He asks nothing of his followers he does not face himself. Jesus loves his enemies, while we yet God’s enemies, Christ died for us, to reconcile us to him, to restore that friendship. I want to finish with a quote from NT Wright which sums up this whole section of the sermon on the mount. He says
“it’s not all about how we behave. It’s about discovering the living God in the Loving and dying of Jesus and learning to reflect that love ourselves into the world that needs it badly”.
And who needs it more badly than those who do not love