May 19: Christians Among Friends and Enemies

I was going to entitle this sermon, “How to have Christian Enemies,” but the church had just been dealing with several prominent deaths in the congregation, and I needed a title that was not as disturbing. 

Psalm 42 and 43

Galatians 3:23-29

This is one of those weeks when there is way too much in the air to process and get a handle on. The simple joy of new members joining the church, against the backdrop of the worst mass killing in US history, rendered even more volatile by the disturbing cauldron of Presidential politics. And of course, a terrible spate of personal losses in this congregation, with four funerals occurring in the course of eight days. There were three funerals and receptions that called upon the WOTC, Ginette, Dennis and myself into service. Finding a Word to bring in a week like this one is not easy.

It makes perfect sense to talk today about friends. We’ve lost some friends recently; but more importantly, we gain new friends today, as we’ve already celebrated. And so we find ourselves both struggling to bless and let go some of our past endearments, while joyously welcoming new endearments, in keeping with the spirit of last week’s celebration of our children and their future promise. That all makes sense, however emotionally complex is our situation.

But you’ll notice my title is “Christians Among Friends and Enemies.” I was not initially inclined to talk about “enemies” today in the midst of celebrating friendship. The very invocation of the word sounds ominous and dispiriting, especially after a week of loss. But I was compelled by current media stories, to be sure, but also by Scriptures. Did you ever notice how, every time you turn to a Psalm in a time of loss or grief, you find just the beautiful words of comfort that you need, but then you also get this stuff about enemies. It’s there in the Psalms we read today: “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forsaken me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’” Virtually the same line occurs in Psalm 42 and 43. Even in everyone’s favorite, Psalm 23, we read: You prepare a table for me in the midst of my enemies.

We find these expressions of victimization awkward. We want to quickly read past them and get to the comforting part. Our lectionary often does that for us, skipping difficult verses. But whenever we take time to encounter something in Scripture that makes us uncomfortable, we should try at some point to wrestle with that discomfort, and see if maybe it presents us with the opportunity to expand our narrow mindedness.

We think we know what it means to be a friend and an enemy. But God wants to trouble our waters here as elsewhere. To be a friend in God’s community means not to be part of a cozy clique. Friendship is always good and pleasant, but friendship sometimes leaves walls of division in place. The wealthy are friends with the wealthy, and the poor with the poor, liberal with liberal and conservative with conservative. We, my new friends, are called into a friendship that unites us across walls of division. In Paul’s day, this meant that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, or male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Allowing God to trouble our understanding of what an enemy is might be more difficult. For, like the way we skip over references to enemies in Scripture, we sometimes deny that we have enemies. We believe that Christians shouldn’t have enemies, right? We are supposed to be nice to everyone, right? And love everyone? Maybe King David had enemies, and so wrote psalms about them, but surely not Jesus, our meek and mild lamb! Well, of course Jesus had enemies. Somebody crucified him, remember? In fact, much of the drama of the four gospels is driven by Jesus’ relationship to his enemies, much more so than his relationship to his friends. And then there’s the ultimate frenemy, Judas. And Paul, who began as an enemy of the faith. The New Testament is all about enemies.

But mainline churches like ours have often eschewed and rejected all talk about enemies. For good reason: the church in the past has vilified its own enemies as the enemies of God: Jews, Muslims, heretics, homosexuals, and so on. They have enlisted God to sanction their enemy list and back it up with hellfire. And some Christians continue to do this today. We rightly renounce this idolatry, this taking of God’s name in vain. But simply removing the word “enemy” from our vocabulary brings unfortunate consequences.

First, we are sometimes forced into a naïve optimism about human nature. If God loves everyone and so do we, then people must really be worthy of love. People must be fundamentally good, despite occasional appearances to the contrary. We don’t have enemies because everyone is actually likeable if we just get to know them. And that of course goes for ourselves most of all. No one is really screwed up enough or sinful enough to be an enemy to God and to us. Now I for one think that opting for either optimism or pessimism when it comes to the bottomless complexity and diversity that is human nature is a mistake. But as for optimism, it easily falters and threatens a collapse of one’s whole faith when confronted with the capacity of human atrocity, which we see every day in the news. But less obviously, it also makes us incapable of acknowledging and dealing with the murky spirits in us that turn us away from the good.

Secondly, if we have nothing to say about enemies, despite many biblical references to them, we’ll find that we have articulating what God saves us from. The Psalms, by contrast, present us with a clear cry to God to deliver us from our enemies. It’s too clear, I think. But we need to make sense of God being a savior, a deliverer, if we are going to keep reading the Bible. If we can’t identify some kind of human enemy—and we might be our own worst enemy—we’ll end up focusing our faith on non-human enemies, like natural disasters or cancer. These often in fact dominate our prayer concerns, don’t they? And to be sure, God takes our side against whatever threatens or destroys the children of God.   But aside from praying to God for miraculous intervention in natural evils like tsunamis or leukemia—remembering that such evils are not always natural and quite often are affected by human practices—aside from praying for a miracle, which we should continue to do because God’s ways are mysterious, there’s not much for us to do about these problems. Or rather, there’s not much that God can do through us about tsunamis and leukemia.

But God is a rich resource of wisdom and guidance when it comes to our enemies; this is a real strongpoint of Christianity as a religion. Especially in the gospel of Jesus Christ, God has given the world a revolutionary way to address the reality of having enemies. What an immediate and direct way for our faith to transform our daily life!—especially for our kids. We might be inclined to shield our children from biblical talk about enemies, but the world of our children is heavily marked by the reality of enemies. Kids don’t play nicey like adults; they are openly hostile to each other, and so they constantly deal with the anxiety and anguish of having or making enemies.

Now some of you are so genuinely kind and good-natured that you really don’t have personal enemies. That’s a blessing. I’m not so blessed. But I’ve also been put in positions of confronting people in power who were using their power unjustly, and feeling myself compelled to call them to account. Tends to make enemies. It’s not something we should long to do. But Jesus did it. The prophets did it. If we are making enemies, it can be a sign that there’s something wrong in our spirit that creates unnecessary conflict. But it can also be a sign that you are preaching the gospel, and bearing the cross that comes with it. But let us hope that God will show us how to confront those abusing power in such a way that loves and respects their humanity, so that we can bring them around to justice without creating personal animosity.

Let’s be clear: we need to regard our enemies, and the very idea of enmity, in a way very different from the way the world often does things. On no topic does our faith so challenge us to act differently. But if we avoid the very issue of enemies, that same world will very quickly fill in the vacuum in our vocabulary. There are many voices out there who seek to gain power by presenting us with an enemy to hate. Most of our action movies and TV shows present a clear enemy, the bad guys against the good guys. Our vast sports entertainment industry encourages us to side with one team or hero against the opponent. And while I’m not at liberty to engage in political advocacy, it seems an uncontroversial fact that Donald Trump’s appeal is in part based on identifying personified enemies and stoking people’s fear and anger against them. And it’s working.

All of this appeals to something very elemental in us; hence its power. Whatever created goodness is common to us as human beings, we are nonetheless very prone to seek a unity with our ‘tribe’ against some external enemy, whose threat and villainy is almost always exaggerated in the process. I recently came across the theories of Carl Schmitt who argued that the most primary reality in human political life is the distinction between friend and enemy. And he and others have rejected the sentimental liberalism of some people who cannot accept the reality of enemies.

Well, it could prove politically necessary in the halls of power to exploit our fear of enemies. That be what it takes to govern; or it may be a really bad strategy. That is an important debate for us to have as a democracy. But as a church, we are not at liberty to hate on our enemies. Jesus presents us with a powerful but subtle way of dealing with enemies. He was never a sentimental liberal who couldn’t acknowledge that he had enemies; read how he curses out the Phrarisees and Sadducees in Matthew 23—the same Jesus who said, “Judge not lest you be judged,” go figure. But Jesus never sought to gain power by stirring up hatred of his enemies, and when he could not bring them to repentance, he chose submitting to them nonviolently rather than using his power to destroy them.

So let me sum up this complicated argument: If we cannot use the word “enemy,” if we can address the reality of enemies in our world, then no one is going to pay attention to us. And much of the Bible won’t be able to speak to us either. Instead, people will listen to all the voices telling people to hate their enemies. But the gospel gives us a way to address enemies without hating them.

Here I have to be brief. Rather than making the distinction between friend and enemy the beginning of all wisdom, the Bible makes the distinction between God and all creation the beginning of all wisdom. God alone is holy. Next to God’s goodness, nothing mortal can claim purity and goodness. How else to explain Jesus’ perplexing words: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Thus Paul sets out in Romans: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” The Christian life always goes back to repentance. And so we can never begin dealing with our enemies by simply assuming that we are innocent and they are wholly guilty. Nor must we assume, naively, that there is no guilt, no fault, everyone is just trying his best. Everyone has fallen short; and God has reconciled all through Jesus, the Son of God.   That’s the secret to Christian unity and love. We don’t love each other because we believe we are all wonderful and good. But neither do we being by dividing up human beings into the good guys and the bad. We know ourselves as deeply flawed, and yet loved by God; and we love others because God loves them in just the same way. That’s the love that faith produces. That’s how the church can overcome all of the persistent divisions of the world, as Paul says: “No longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”

That is the first word of the gospel about our enemies: we are all enemies of God who have been reconciled through Jesus the Christ. That’s the first and determining word, but it’s not the only word. We will have to acknowledge when we encounter particular opponents, as did Jesus, as did Paul. Those of you in Bible study have been frustrated at how harsh Paul is on the Corithians. Where’s the love and forgiveness, you have asked. But Paul thinks that some in that church have made Christian love impossible because they believe they are superior and perfect and have forgotten that they are sinners reconciled to God by grace. And there’s another lesson there: the Bible is frequently hardest on God’s own people; not on the outside enemy.

Beginning with God’s grace to all who have fallen short will allow us to acknowledge that people can really be bad, without demonizing them, without placing ourselves on a pedestal and them in a pit. We acknowledge the reality of alienation while maintaining the command to love our enemies as God loved us. And so when you acknowledge that enemy, whether it is the anti-American group halfway across the world, or that frenemy halfway across the church, do so with love and with repentance, and you won’t go wrong. Acknowledge the alienation, and in the appropriate time, tell that person about your grievance. Be honest and direct. But do so with repentant love, and so ask yourself before God what you have failed to do to reconcile. Don’t settle for proclaiming that you are innocent because you have done nothing actively hostile. Have you reached out to this person? Have you made him or her feel comfortable to express the source of hostility? Have you made it clear that you really want to be in right relationship, you want love to reign between you? We need to actively and compassionately love our enemy, even when we must call him to change.

The world knows enough about Jesus that people have some sense that Christians are supposed to love our enemies. But they need to see us doing it, and to embody its power as an alternative that brings God’s salvation into action. So if Christians have such a shockingly different way of loving our enemies, just imagine—for I am out of time—what a unique gift and calling is Christian friendship!

 

 

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