Scripture: Luke 6:27-38
So Lisa and I were having an argument a while back—it wasn’t an important argument, and I was at fault. But we were having this argument, and—friends, let me tell you—my perfect, 52-year-long streak of never winning an argument remains unbroken. Why do I keep trying? It’s worse than Charlie Brown’s stubborn hope that this time Lucy is going to let him actually kick the football. “This time I’m going to win an argument!” But I never do. But during the argument, I promise that these words came out of my mouth: “Yes, sure… what I did was wrong, but I guarantee you that 99.9 percent of other husbands would have done—or failed to do—the exact same thing in this situation.”
But do you see what I was doing? It’s as if I were saying, “Honey, your standards for my behavior are way too high! You expect way too much from me! You see, it is not in my nature to behave differently from the way I behaved—this is just the kind of person I am… I can’t change!”
Lisa, believe it or not, was not impressed by this argument.
Some day, when we face our Lord in Final Judgment and give an account for our own thoughts, words, and deeds, and the extent to which they conformed to Jesus’ incredibly high standard of Christ-like love described in today’s scripture, what will we say? “Lord, your standards for my behavior were too high. You expected way too much from me! You see, it was not in my nature to love the way you commanded me to love—this was just the kind of person I was… I couldn’t change!”
I don’t think Jesus will be impressed by that argument, either.
But listen to these words from verse 27:
Love your enemies…
Okay, let me stop right there in order to clear up one misconception right away: Did you know that Jesus says it’s okay and normal and an expected part of life to actually have enemies? Jesus gives you permission to have them. Dallas Willard, who wrote a masterpiece of a book on the Sermon on the Mount called The Divine Conspiracy said that in the course of just living life, you’re bound to accumulate a few acquaintances who will breathe a sigh of relief some day when they find out that you’re dead! That was kind of shocking to read! I’m like, even Dallas Willard! He seems like one of the nicest guys! Who would possibly be happy that he’s dead!
See, we think “nice people” like us shouldn’t have any enemies. Jesus disagrees… But Jesus says:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
He goes on, but it doesn’t get any better or easier!
First, a clarification. Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek do not mean that we can never defend ourselves or our families or our loved ones from violent attack. This text says nothing about violent attack, or about what victims of abuse should or shouldn’t do to protect themselves. It says nothing about what a nation’s military can do to defend its people. And it says nothing about what law enforcement can do to protect law-abiding citizens. On the contrary, Paul says in Romans 13 that God has instituted governments in the first place to maintain law and order and serve the cause of justice. That’s a God-ordained role.
No, when Jesus refers to “one who strikes you on the cheek,” he simply isn’t talking about violent assault or abuse; rather, he’s talking about a slap intended to insult and belittle the person, not to cause physical harm. We are not permitted, in other words, to “fight back” or “even the score” when people do things to insult or mock us or belittle us.
But don’t think that I’m watering down Jesus’ words here. I don’t even need someone to slap me gently to make me want to knock someone’s block off! And if I want to do that, to say the least I am not loving with Christ-like love. So forget insulting slaps… insulting words do the job just fine. And I don’t usually respond with Christ-like love. Instead, I often strike back with words… if not directly to the person who hurt me, then indirectly, when I “marshal my troops,” when I gather my friends and tell them and anyone who will listen what a terrible human being so-and-so is. I don’t give my enemy the benefit of the doubt: “Gosh, maybe that person is just having a bad day… maybe they got some bad news… maybe they’re grieving… maybe someone hurt them.”
No, I know for certain why that person did what they did to me: it’s because they were motivated by nothing but pure evil.
That’s the definition, by the way, of the sinful kind of judging that Jesus prohibits in verse 37 and elsewhere… And there’s another misinterpretation of Jesus’ words. The sinful kind of judging that Jesus prohibits isn’t judging whether some behavior is a sin—or confronting someone who sins against us. We don’t shrug our shoulders at sin and evil and say, “Who am I to judge?” No, Jesus and the apostles authorize the church to make those kinds of judgments. See Matthew chapter 18, among other places.
The sinful kind of judging that Jesus prohibits is when we see someone’s behavior—especially when they hurt us—and presume to know for sure why they did what they did… And it’s because, obviously, they’re terrible human beings. When we judge, we interpret someone’s behavior in the worst possible light, instead of interpreting it in the best possible light. Christ-like love always leaves room for the possibility that, gosh, maybe that person really is having a bad day… “I’m sure I don’t have all the information, and unless or until I do, I’m unwilling to pass judgment; I assume that this person is acting in good faith; and they certainly didn’t do what they did because of some flaw in their character.
But I’m not good at the whole “not judging” thing, either. If you don’t believe me, take a trip with me to Atlanta, and let’s drive in Atlanta traffic! No, never mind… because if you were in the car with me I would just bite my tongue and avoid saying those things that I would otherwise say… because I’m good at being a hypocrite. And that’s also failing to love with Christ-like love.
I posted a picture inside the gym that I attend on Instagram recently. They post these words on the wall: “Judgement Free Zone.” My caption read: “This isn’t true. Otherwise they would never let me be a member.”
So you see… I’m a mess. And maybe you are too, even if you’re not as bad as I am!
So… are we as hopeless as we seem when it comes to obeying these difficult commands of Jesus?
Not at all! And in this sermon I want to tell you why we are not as hopeless as we seem—in fact, why we’re not hopeless at all… And I’m going to do so by talking about three “prerequisites” that we need in order to love in the way that Jesus commands and describes in today’s scripture: Failure, faith, and fullness… As I’ll explain, this is what loving with Christ-like love requires.
I said last week that the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6 is a variation on the same sermon Jesus preaches in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, The Sermon on the Mount. I said last week, for instance, that in Luke 6:20, when Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he’s speaking to a crowd filled with poor people, and Jesus’ surprising point is that even these kinds of people are now eligible for eternal life and admission into God’s kingdom. That no one is excluded for entry, no matter what sins they’ve committed.
In the Sermon on the Mount, by contrast, in Matthew 5:3, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” And there he’s making a slightly different point: He’s not merely saying who’s eligible for salvation, he’s going deeper… He’s saying something about how we become eligible in the first place. He’s saying, “Regardless whether you’re poor or not, you need to become spiritually impoverished.” That is, you need to swallow your pride and your dependence on your own ability to do good and declare moral bankruptcy. You need to admit that you are a hopeless sinner who’s incapable of doing anything to win God’s favor or approval or acceptance.
In other words, we begin to love the way Jesus commands by admitting that we are failures at this kind of love. If we want to do what Jesus commands, we first admit that we can’t do it… not apart from God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit. And that’s Point Number One: Admit that we are failures when it comes to loving the way Jesus commands—and pray that the Lord will change us!
But maybe you object: “Okay, Pastor Brent, I understand that we’re failures at the beginning of the Christian life… when we first get saved… but I’ve been a Christian for decades! Shouldn’t I stop being a failure by now? Why do I still struggle to love the way Jesus commands me to? Does this mean I’m in trouble? Is there something wrong with me?”
Listen, I take great comfort in Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:11. There, Jesus is preaching to his disciples—not to heathens, not to non-Christians—but to people who are already his followers, to people who are already saved, to people who have already been adopted into God’s family through faith. And listen to what Jesus says about them: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”1
Did you hear what he just said… about his own disciples, of all people! He said, “If you… who are evil.” Yet he also says that these evil people who are his disciples still have the same Father in heaven that Jesus has! They’re still part of the family!
That makes me feel better! If Jesus calls his own disciples, even the Twelve who had lived with him and ministered with him for three years, “evil,” then clearly these disciples are also still failing to love with Christ-like love!
If you don’t believe me, there’s an episode later in Luke’s gospel—not long before Jesus was crucified—in which Jesus and the disciples are passing through a Samaritan village. Remember: Israel and Samaria were hated enemies of one another. And the Samaritans refuse to show Jesus and the disciples hospitality. It’s not they pick up rocks to stone them; they just refuse to welcome them; they insult them. And how do James and John—two of Jesus’ three closest disciples—respond to this insult? They as Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”2
This is James and John—people who had lived with Jesus, and ministered alongside Jesus, for almost three years at this point! They had been eyewitnesses to the very sermon we read today, in which Jesus tells them to love, to do good for, to bless, and to pray for their enemies. Not… burn them up with fire from heaven just because they got their feelings hurt!
Yet our ever-patient and merciful Lord doesn’t say, “You’re out of the family! You’re no longer sons of my Father! You’re going to hell!”
No, Luke tells us, Jesus merely “rebuked” them. Well… he rebukes me all the time when I read his Word.
My point is, there’s no other kind of Christian besides Christians who often fail to love… Christians like you and me!
So that’s Point Number One: Failure is to be expected. Jesus does not require perfection when it comes to loving others with Christ-like love.
Point Number Two: We need faith in order to love with Christ-like love… And you might say, well, of course we do: Of course we need to receive Jesus as our Savior and Lord, to have our sins forgiven, to be born again. Of course we need faith in order to become Christians in the first place. And that’s absolutely true. But since I’m mostly talking to people who already are Christians, that’s not my point right now: When I say we need faith, I don’t mean faith as an event that happened in the distant past, when we got converted, I mean we need to actually exercise our faith—to put our faith into into action… to trust in Jesus right now, in the daily struggle of just living our lives in this world.
One of the most humbling things about being a pastor—and I hate to tell you how often this happens—is having my wife, Lisa, remind me that when I’m freaking out about something going wrong in my life or ministry… having her remind me, “Brent, you preach about this all the time. Either you have faith or you don’t. But if you believe these words that you preach, then you need to…” Dot, dot, dot, fill-in-the-blank. “You need to trust the Lord when he says, over and over again in his Word, that he is giving you many, many reasons not to freak out right now!”
So let’s consider how faith—if we could only pull it off—might answer the underlying reasons that we fail to love with Christ-like love. Look again at today’s scripture: Most of situations Jesus describes here—situations to which we’re supposed to apply Christ-like love—are genuinely bad, genuinely evil: to be hated, cursed, and abused… to be struck on the cheek, insulted, humiliated… to be stolen from, taken advantage of, ripped off… to be judged by others… to be condemned by others. These things are not fair. These things genuinely hurt us. And when we get hurt, we get angry and lash out… and we fail to love with Christ-like love.
How does faith help us to do otherwise?
Faith enables us to have the perspective, for instance, of someone in scripture who was also a victim of injustice: Joseph, whose story begins back in Genesis 37. Remember that Joseph is his father Jacob’s favorite son—by far. And Jacob goes out of his way to show that favoritism. And his brothers are jealous. So much so they plot to kill him before deciding, finally, to sell him into slavery instead—“Oh, gee, thanks, guys!” So Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt, and after a long series of twists and turns—which includes spending years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—Joseph is set free and prospers, eventually becoming the Pharaoh’s most trusted advisor—the Prime Minister of Egypt. And under Joseph’s wise leadership, Egypt is saved from the deadly consequences of a terrible famine.
Who should show up in Egypt looking to buy food during this famine but Joseph’s own brothers? And when they realize that their brother Joseph, whom they so badly mistreated, is now the powerful government official who doles out the life-saving grain, they’re afraid for their lives! But Joseph says some remarkable words:
[D]o not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life… God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.3
Later Joseph tells them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”4 Genesis 50:20.
“You meant it for evil—God meant it for good.” See, Joseph’s brothers thought they were in control when they sold their brother into slavery in Egypt. But no… As one pastor writes, “[T]here is something, someone, some deep, loving presence behind the story—some hand greater than the brothers’ guilt and evil deeds, some author greater than the actors.”5 Joseph’s brothers did some evil things, but nothing they did could prevent God from accomplishing his will and carrying out his plans—and bringing great good out of great evil and suffering.
If God did it for Joseph, why do we think he won’t do it for us—his beloved and highly favored sons and daughters? That doesn’t make sense! So we have a choice: whenever something bad happens to us, we can choose to respond in anger—in which case we will fail to love with Christ-like love—or we can respond with faith. We can let this frightening, threatening, evil thing break us, destroy us, wreck our faith, ruin our lives. Or, by trusting in the Lord, we can look at this thing and say, “What my enemy intended for evil, God intended for good.” “What this person who hurt me intended for evil, God intended for good.” “What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.”
So I invite you to look at those things in your life right now that are making you afraid, making you anxious, making you angry, and you say, “The devil may be doing this to me, in order to hurt me, but what the devil intends for evil, God intends it for good! And God wins every time!”
So I commit to memory and remind myself of amazing promises in God’s Word like Genesis 50:20 and many others. These promises fight against doubt, against worry, against fear, against despair, against anger… all of which play a role in preventing me from loving my enemies with Christ-like love.
And it takes faith to see things that way, and that’s Point Number Two.
But don’t misunderstand. The kind of faith that heals the underlying spiritual illness that prevents me from loving like Christ isn’t a matter of gritting my teeth and reminding myself, intellectually, of God’s promises: “Remember, Brent: God intends this for good… God intends this for good… God intends this for good.” No. We need something else to enable this kind of love! And the good news is we have something else… or I should say, Someone else. Unlike even the great Joseph, we have God himself living within us, God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us. The Holy Spirit connects the words of scripture to whatever challenging trials we’re facing in our lives right now and shows us how they apply. The Holy Spirit kindles love in our hearts… for God and for others. The Holy Spirit produces the kind of inward change in our hearts that makes possible Christ-like love!
A little later on in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus makes this same point. Verse 43 and 44: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit.” If we try to love others with Christ-like love apart from this kind of inward change by the power of the Spirit, it’s the equivalent of duct-taping healthy fruit to dead tree branches and expecting the tree to become healthy. It won’t work!
So this is Point Number Three: In order to love with Christ-like love, we need to be filled with the Spirit… we need fullness… we need to be happily satisfied in our relationship with Christ. And you say, “Hold on, Pastor Brent. Isn’t ‘being filled with the Spirit’ something for those Pentecostals down the road at The Pointe? We’re Methodists! We don’t get filled with the Spirit”—oh, I hope we do! I hope we do!
Not so fast! The apostle Paul describes the happy consequences of this fullness I’m describing—and says we all need to be full like this. Listen to Ephesians 5:18 and 19:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…
Paul mentions intoxication. People use alcohol and drugs because it brings them a short-term kind of pleasure. And people often use other people for the same reason. But notice what Paul says: If we can only be filled with the Spirit, what would happen to us? We would “sing and make melody to the Lord with your heart.” Have you ever been so happy you just break out in song? That’s what Paul says can happen when we’re filled with the Spirit. We would be far happier than any drink or drug or person or thing could ever make us! We would be satisfied. We would be full. If I’m so happy I break out in song, I simply don’t need anyone or anything else to make me happy.
Because God himself is giving me what verse 38 promises: A “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over,” placed right in my lap by Almighty God.
I can live my life off of that kind of fullness, brothers and sisters. I can live off that! I promise. I wouldn’t need anything else. I wouldn’t need, for instance, other people to love or respect me, or speak well of me. I wouldn’t need other people to pat me on the back and tell me how wonderful I am. I wouldn’t need the money or possessions that someone steals from me. I wouldn’t need the career success that’s seemingly put in jeopardy every time someone misjudges me or gossips about me or puts me down. I wouldn’t need anyone to return my favors or pay me back. I wouldn’t need to see my enemies “get what’s coming to them.” Because I’ve already got everything I need.
If that kind of fullness is available to me right now, I want that. Don’t you? And if I had that fullness, I could love the way Jesus commands me to!
In Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, he writes:
We are often running on fumes, spiritually, but we must know where the fuel station is and, even more important, that it exists… Christians have learned that the worship of God with the whole heart in the assurance of his love through the work of Jesus Christ is the thing their souls were meant to “run on.” That is what gets all the heart’s cylinders to fire. If this is not understood, then we will not have the resources to be good spouses. If we look to our spouses to fill up our tanks in a way that only God can do, we are demanding an impossibility.6
Keller is saying that in order to love our spouses, we need to have our tanks filled up elsewhere—outside of any person. And if that’s true when it comes to loving our spouses, it’s at least as true when it comes to loving our enemies—or any person in between, whom the Lord puts in our lives.
So, be filled with the Spirit, remember the amazing promises that Almighty God has made to you in his Word, admit you that so often fail to love the way Jesus commands, and pray that the Holy Spirit will give you the power to change. If you do these things, you just might find that you can love the way Jesus commands here. Amen.