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Bible students and commentators sometimes speak of “the hard sayings of Jesus”. These are teachings which Jesus gave and they are hard for two reasons: first, because they are difficult to do; and second, they are “hard and fast”, that is, there is no leeway in the saying. I think most of us would agree that Jesus’ teachings regarding the treatment of our enemies are hard sayings.

Jesus is very clear in stating how we should act toward those who wrong us. We are told to pray for them and forgive them (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:28, Luke 11:4), and we are told to forgive repeatedly (Matt 18:22, Luke 17:4). Taking these teachings seriously leads to a difficult life. If someone hurts me, my inclination is to hurt them back; hit me and I’ll hit you harder; I’ll teach you a lesson. But Jesus says, “No.” Jesus says don’t hit them back (Matt 5:39, Luke 6:29). Yes, you’ll teach them a lesson – the lesson of love and forgiveness, not of revenge.

It is far from easy to forgive, truly forgive, someone who has wronged me. It takes time and effort; the greater the offense the more time and effort it takes. We are called to this hard work, and Jesus does not allow any way to sidestep it. In fact, Jesus says that God’s forgiveness of my sins is linked to my forgiveness of sins against me. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14,15). That is very clear, and very frightening.

It sounds like a threat, or that God’s forgiveness is given after I have earned it by forgiving someone else. However, we know that all of God’s gifts are mercies and that we can never earn any of them. Bishop N.T. Wright gives us a way to understand the relationship between forgiving and being forgiven. Think of forgiveness as a door in your spirit. God’s forgiveness comes through this door and the forgiveness you give to others goes out the door. If you shut the door and don’t allow forgiveness to go out to others, then God’s forgiveness cannot come in. The door must be open, and being open, forgiveness flows both ways. Forgiving and being forgiven is not a quid pro quo but rather a sharing of the grace of God. Through grace God forgives me, and through grace I forgive others. The gifts of God are meant to be shared and this includes the gift of forgiveness.

Loving one’s enemies works in a similar fashion. God’s love is given to us, and that love is meant to be shared. We are to display God’s love just as God displayed it. God’s love was displayed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are called to display God’s love through service to others by following the example of Jesus. We are called to serve our enemies no less than our friends. In Lent, and especially during Holy Week, we are taught of Jesus’ service to his disciples and to us. This love, this life of Jesus, included loving and forgiving those who wronged him, both friends (such as Peter) and enemies (those who called for his crucifixion).

Forgiving and loving one’s enemies takes time. It may take years. It takes diligent prayer, hard work, and commitment. But it is the work to which we are called: to promote healing and love in a broken and offensive world. As we forgive and love, we find ourselves forgiven and loved, and we also find hope for our despairing world.

The Psalms often speak of God’s love and concern for people. In one place a psalmist says:

Why should the wicked revile God?
why should they say in their heart, “You do not care”?
Surely, you behold trouble and misery;
you see it and take it into your own hand. (Psalms 10:13-14, BCP)

The writer affirms that God not only sees what happens to us but that God gathers our woes into his hand and pulls them close to him. God wants to be involved in our trials and travails; God is moved by events in our lives because God cares. It is God’s nature to love and this love blossoms into compassion. Our trouble and misery aren’t forced into God’s hand; God chooses to reach out and take them.

Throughout the Old Testament we read of God acting to be closer to people and to bring people closer to God. In the law (Torah), the prophets, and other writings we are told of God’s work to bring us closer. The building of the temple in Jerusalem is one of the high points of this story. David planned, and Solomon built, a house for God’s presence in Israel. God, who cannot be contained in any building, accepts the temple as a place for God’s presence. (1 Kings 8,9). The temple is God in Israel’s midst; it is a place for God’s eyes and heart (1 Kings 9:3).

Despite God’s presence in the temple, and God’s words through prophets, the people moved away from God. We read the results of disobedience in 2 Kings and other books. One result of the disobedience is that the temple was destroyed. But the destruction of the temple and the punishments for disobedience did not negate God’s care and concern. God still desired to be close to the people and for the people to be close to God. God’s desire did not abate.

The best way the psalmist had to tell us of God’s caring is by saying that our trouble and misery are taken into God’s own hand. God watches from the heavens and reaches out to us. Later writers of scripture have a newer, and more sublime, way of speaking of God’s love and concern for us: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14, NRSV) In that short phrase John the evangelist revises the psalmist’s statement. God had reached out a hand (repeatedly); God had accepted the temple as a place for God’s eyes and hearts; God had spoken through prophets; what more shall God do to be close to us? God shall come and live among us. The way to be closer to us was to become one of us, so the Word, which was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God, came to live with us as one of us. (John 1:1)

This is how God came closer to us: God the Son became flesh and lived a human life. Jesus was born, grew up, loved, laughed, cried, made friends, had his heart broken, grieved, suffered, and died. This was a human life lived by the Son of God, the Word made flesh. These human experiences, the trials, the thrills, the joys, and the pains, were not just put into God’s hand. They went into Jesus’ heart – God’s heart. In the New Testament we learn that God, not being content to take our misery into his hand, instead took it into his heart. The heart of Jesus, the heart of a man, is also entry into the heart of God.

God wants to be close to us, and wants us to be close to him. There was a gulf between God and us. We could not bridge the gulf so God bridged it for us. Why would God do this? There is nothing we can add to God, the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient creator and sustainer of the universe. Let’s face it – God does not require us. The Word became flesh not because God needed the experience and not from curiosity about human life but because God loves us.

God shared in our life so that we may share in God’s life. This is the meaning of the incarnation: God is love, and that love covers all of creation, including, perhaps especially, us humans. The mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of God loving us and longing to be ever closer to us, and wanting us to be closer to God. This is what we celebrate in the Nativity.

Merry Christmas!

“Sunday, April 12, is the date the global Orthodox church will celebrate Easter Sunday, according to the Julian calendar. For the first time, perhaps in centuries, Iraqi and Syrian Christians, many of whom are Orthodox, will not celebrate Easter Westminster_Abbey_martyrs_stitch_cin their home churches, but rather in camps for refugees and displaced people.” (Timothy C. Morgan, Gleanings, NY Cardinal, ‘AD’ Producers Step Up Campaign against Mideast Persecution,
7 April 2015)

Persecution and killing of people due to their religious beliefs in the MiddleEast and Africa ought to weigh heavily on our hearts and minds. Those persecuted and their families should be in our prayers. But we need to do more. We need to speak out against the violence and intolerance, and we should assist those who have lost homes or livelihoods as a result of the persecution. Two websites which provide information on the situation and offer avenues to assist are 21martyrs and The Cradle Fund. I encourage you to visit these sites, read news reports from the regions, and prayerfully ask God to guide you in assisting our friends and enemies in the affected areas.

sunrise-153600_1280“To put it at its most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new world. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.”
— N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.67

Recommended reading for today: Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike.

The gospels have many passages which speak of God’s love for us and God’s desire to give us good gifts. In Matthew 7, Jesus teaches, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” God’s giving of good gifts does not spring from pity for us poor humans, or from a sense of responsibility for having created us, but from God’s love for us.

Jesus speaks of the depth and intimacy of God’s love when he tells us that “even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Matthew 10:30). Reflect on that for a moment: God loves us so much that he counts the hairs on our heads! Being in love is a universal human experience, and most of us have been deeply in love at some time in our lives. I have been in love, deeply in love, “head over heels” in love, but I have never loved so deeply that I wanted to count the hairs on the head of my beloved. Let’s be honest – if we saw someone counting the hairs on someone’s head, we would probably think that person looney. We would judge such a person to have gone “off the deep end”; he/she would be acting foolishly. And yet that is exactly how God loves us – intimately, lavishly, foolishly.

God loves us more deeply than we can comprehend, and God wants to give us good things. God wants you and me, all of us, to be joyous, deliriously happy. We also want this for ourselves. So why aren’t we all amazingly happy all the time?

The problem is in ourselves. We desire happiness, and we desire many things which we think will bring happiness. But our natural inclinations don’t bring happiness; our inborn sinful nature leads us astray. What we think we want, what we desire, and what we often work toward, are not things which will bring happiness and goodness into our lives. The Apostle Paul recognized this problem and wrote: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:18,19). And Paul also recognized the solution to the problem: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me …? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24,25). The solution to the problem is given in God’s greatest gift to us: salvation through Jesus, God’s son.

The solution is not a magical one – believe in Jesus, and poof! your life is all good and happy! It doesn’t work like that. When Paul writes the words quoted above, he is writing as a believer in Jesus. Paul was a believer but he still had difficulty living a life which reflected God’s love. We’re born with a human nature, and believing in Jesus does not put an end to our humanity. It alters our nature but it doesn’t do away with it. Accepting God’s gift of salvation alters us by bringing us into a new relationship with God through the loving sacrifice of Jesus.

The way in which being a Christian leads to a happy life is by demonstrating a very important fact: the source of happiness is not good things but good relationships with God and our fellow humans. We want good things to make us happy, but things, not matter how good or useful they are, won’t bring lasting joy or fulfillment. What brings happiness are relationships based in God’s love and growing in that love. The life of Jesus shows us the reality and power of such relationships.

Love abides (I Corinthians 13:8,13) and relationships founded in love – true love, pure love, God’s love – last forever and bring lasting happiness. Such relationships are not easy to build or maintain. Many aspects of our human nature work against us – we are often selfish, for example. But, as Paul recognized, our relationship to God through Jesus enables us to go beyond our human nature. Through effort, with God’s help, we can build relationships founded in God’s love, relationships which reflect Jesus’ life of love and faith. When we do so, we discover happiness.

copyright 2014 by the author

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