Love Your Enemies
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, October 1, 2023
Love your enemies. Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
This is the core of today’s gospel. It is a radical high calling.
We are called to experience the Glory of God. Doxa Si o Theos! My dear brothers and sisters, how is this law of love, loving our enemies, that Jesus sets forth today, relevant in our daily choices and efforts? To love the other does not mean to like them, necessarily. Surely God does not like everything he sees in us, yet he gives himself utterly for us. Each of us is called to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But first, let’s start with the question: how do we love ourselves? This is certainly not about protecting our ego, which is like putting on a protective mask that we begin to identify with. Eventually we have to attack anything which begins to break down our mask. Self-love becomes mean unless it is enlarged by a humble recognition of real value. Loving ourselves can be about forgiving and befriending the parts in us that we detest. In the same way, Jesus loved the tax collector who was despised by everyone else. This is the love that Christ calls us toward. This is vulnerability. Being open and vulnerable to ourselves and to each other is a completely different and new proposition.
What do we see when we look in the mirror? In the words of Michael Jackson, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and… change!” This is what it means to repent. To love ourselves is practical and positive. It means to want for ourselves and each other the best that life can give and to reach out and grab it. Now love of self is lifted up as the soul’s desire for ultimate happiness, which is to love our neighbor. Regarding ourselves and our neighbor as worthy (Axios!) of all the best in life that God makes available. And our neighbors include all mankind because Jesus places no fences around the world.
How do we do this? How can we ever surmount the inertia of our self-concern, our self-love based on fear? How can we overcome our impulse to resent injury, our anger and pride, our self-assertion, and the slowness of our sympathy? How can we translate into conduct the kind of spirit which Jesus has set forth here today? We know we can’t. The stars shine in the sky, but they are too far away for us to touch them. Dreaming of eternity, we are prisoners of time.
Nevertheless, we know that now and then some figure rises on the horizon who approximates these ideals of Jesus, like Francis of Assisi, who I’ve spoken about before, going through life with a radiant joy when he left all the cluttering things behind. Or Mahatma Gandhi attaining a peace and power of soul beyond all measure because he had cleansed his heart from hate and from every thought of violence and had committed himself completely to the persuasive power of love. Or take Seraphim of Sarov, who sat upon a stone for three years in the forest, welcoming the animals who came to visit him, and eventually attained the grace of enlightenment, proclaiming “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved!” We all have had a glimpse of this kind of love. And we can trust Jesus, who has set the goal so high, that he will have compassion and understanding for our slow steps, provided that the eyes of our desire are turned in his direction.
This Agape love bears the glow and persistence of good will. Now we can act in goodwill to those we do not like. We are to bless those who persecute us. We have received in Christ a love we do not deserve, and now, we can make every effort to treat each other with that same heavenly love. God gives us this power. This good will is possible through His grace. Thus, agape is divinely reinforced at the core of our new nature. Jesus asks us to press on towards God’s light. As Bob Dylan sang, “Well, I’m pressing on and pressing on and pressing on to the higher calling of my Lord.” There is no limit to this journey. Life is an adventure of goodwill that we can eagerly embrace, with open vistas that beckon us.
I understand that we are made in the image of God, and that we are growing in his likeness. I know that as an idea, but I want to share, how last weekend, during Father Antony’s 30th anniversary celebration, as I looked around at the congregation, and all those in attendance, how I witnessed so many happy reunions, it felt like taking my place at the festal table in the Kingdom of God. I could actually feel the holiness of the people around me, all of you, growing in the likeness of God, and this was no longer just an idea. I was actually experiencing a community of Christians who are growing in God’s grace, filled with Divine Energy. It was so powerful.
Our world is in desperate need of mercy, forgiveness, love, and reconciliation. We are ambassadors of that mercy. In living out the command of Christ to be perfect, we can bring hope, healing, and transformation to all of those around us all, just like St. Seraphim said we would for the Glory of God. So let us go forth in His Spirit of Peace. Amen.