Tough Love (11am)
Topic: Loving Your Neighbor Scripture: Matthew 5:38–5:48, Romans 12:14–12:21
When I say the words “tough love” what comes to your mind? I’m guessing it’s a range of things, really. For some it might be letting someone we care about endure the consequences of poor choices. For others, it could be something like spanking. Maybe it’s more like a long act of endurance instead of one single action. For me, there were two images which immediately popped into my mind: toddler sleep cycles and being a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Let me explain.
Anyone who has raised kids has either endured the tumultuous waves of the toddler sleep cycle or heard the mythical tales of nocturnal desolation from friends or family. I, by God’s grace alone, fell into the second group so far with Isaac. But my sister would share how she would have to let her daughter “cry it out” at night, so Alayna would learn to sleep by herself. I’d see similar stories of friends with kids Isaac’s age sharing narratives much the same. I’ve come to regard those accounts as the horror stories of parenting so far. But that “tough love” is something that is seen as necessary for the one we love. We have to do it so that some end will come about as the result. That end could be learning to sleep in a crib or a bed, learning the in’s and out’s of finances, or really any scenario we can think of. That’s one image of tough love for me.
As I said, the other is being an Eagles fan. The last time the Eagles were the #1 team in the country was before the Super Bowl was called the Super Bowl. We’ve come close but never gotten that coveted prize. In truth, back East, the mantra for all Eagles fans is something along the lines of “It’ll happen next year.” Tough love in these terms, means that I love and show devotion for something that rarely gives back any return of that love. It takes the sharpest of optimism and the most steadfast of will and heart to go into the start of a new season believing your team is going to play well. Bears fans, you know what I’m talking about.
Both of those things are examples of tough love and really serve us well as we finish off our series this week on “Who is my neighbor?” As we wrap up this series, we have to address an aspect of Christ’s love and our call to be a neighbor that we haven’t exactly touched on yet. In reality, I think it might be one of the most difficult of Christ’s teachings to actually practice in real life. What I’m talking about is, when Jesus tells us to love our enemies. We’ve already heard what Christ said in the sermon on the mount where he tells us to love our enemies and leave behind a life of revenge. Now we’re going to look at Romans 12:14-21.
Up until this point, answering the question of “who is my neighbor?” has focused strongly on identifying the neighbor we might never consider and then trying to figure out what we do with that new information. But what if our neighbors are not only those we’ve possibly never noticed before but also those we go out of our way to avoid? As it turns out, that is the case. Both Christ and Paul drive home the frustrating truth that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to love our enemies and treat them as neighbor. All of a sudden, our scope of neighbor, the way we answer our central question, expands even further; and maybe for the first time, into a range or number of relationships we wish that definition didn’t reach. Paul Achtemeier, father of Mark Actemeier, who will be joining us next week, wrote a commentary on Romans, and when he opens up about this text, he begins by saying that grace is the sole structuring power that shapes the Christian life. It is the foundation, mortar and girders, and load-bearing beams, that makes us children of God, and followers of Christ.
A simple way I used to define grace to my students, is by saying that it is receiving that which we do not deserve. Or, if we are practicing grace, that it is giving to another that which they do not deserve. This is connected to the virtue of mercy that we talked about last week but distinctively flipped - whereas mercy can be described as not receiving consequences that we DO deserve. And I know one thing for certain, there is absolutely no way we can do the things Paul talks about in our text unless we are wholly and absolutely devoted to living a life marked by and practiced through grace. And grace has no limits. It has the power to reach every heart…including the heart of those we might consider our enemy.
Our text this morning is like a list of bullet points for how to deal with difficult people. In reality, it could be called the “How-To Guide for Loving People You Don’t Want to Love”. And Paul just checks off every aspect and covers every corner so that there really isn’t any place left for us to stand, where we can do anything other than see our enemy as our neighbor. He tells us to bless, not curse, those who persecute us. For us, this could mean those who seem to go out of their way to make our lives harder. Those people who always have a snide comment or judgmental word toward us. For the audience in Rome, it literally meant people who were chasing them and might even be seeking their demise. But this means more than when we say “God bless you” after someone sneezes. To bless someone is to implore God to enter that person’s life and do good on their behalf. When we bless, we are going to God on behalf of that person and asking God to protect, provide for, and ensure goodness for that person. That is what Paul tells us to do for those that likely never have anything kind or encouraging to say to us.
Paul says to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. This is exactly what I was talking about last week when I shared that line from my time with Bernice King: Your joys are my joys. Your problems are my problems. I’m really inspired by and shaped by the words of John Calvin. He was one of the first voices of the Reformation and a father of Presbyterianism; and he’s a pretty familiar voice in terms of guys who have been dead for centuries. I’ve even got a Calvin bobble-head in my office. Which, oddly enough, was given to me by a close friend who is a Benedictine monk. The life of a pastor is weird. But I digress…
Calvin grabs this verse from Paul and highlights it saying, “For such is the nature of true love, that one prefers to weep with his brother, rather than to look at a distance on his grief, and to live in pleasure and ease.” So, taking that, we see that Paul is upping the ante even further. In the context of talking about enemies and persecutors, we’re told to rejoice and mourn with them. To, as best as we are able, enter those vulnerable spaces with them. And Paul keeps going and going and he continues making things harder and harder.
Live in harmony. Don’t be so conceited that you think you’re better than them. Don’t repay evil for evil. Again, this is why the whole “eye for an eye” thing gets thrown out of the playbook. Live in peace. Instead of silence or vengeance, give your enemy food and water. Paul basically leaves us no out. If we want to seriously answer the question of “Who is my neighbor?” then we have to include those we think of as enemies in our answer.
That means they receive all the same conditions and actions that any other neighbor would receive. Every word we’ve spoken, and considered about loving the isolated, also refers to those we actively try to keep out of our lives. Every act of kindness we would give to those in need or in pain needs to also be given to those who very well may be causing the emptiness or sorrow in our own lives. The work we do of rewiring our hearts so that we can truly love another that we consider a “neighbor” must include the enemy as well. It can’t simply be an empty gesture. Again, our guy John Calvin hits the nail on the head. “God by his word not only restrains our hands from doing evil, but also subdues the bitter feelings within; and not only so, but he would have us be concerned for the wellbeing of those who unjustly trouble us and seek our destruction.”
This isn’t to say we or God excuses or overlooks the behavior of those who truly act as villains in this world. Not at all. As Christians, we have a very perplexing and difficult time when we try and hold grace in one hand and the reaching ramifications of sin in another. Our God does not share this difficulty. We know that the grace of God is ever-reaching, always-pursuing, and completely-transforming. But it also takes us little time within Scripture to see how God views and deals with sin. Even if we were to set aside every other instance, we only need to look to the cross of Christ to see just how firmly and drastically our God addresses sin. The cross shows us how seriously the Lord considers sin. He is not a weak judge or an indulgent grandparent. Sin will be punished. Even in our text we are told to leave room for the wrath of God. All this is to say that the act of loving our enemy does not mean our enemy will not face justice for their sins. What it means instead, is that we relinquish the right to call ourselves the Judge.
This is why we have to remember that we are commanded to not return evil with evil. Twice, Paul tells the people of God this command. Do you know why I tell Isaac something twice? It’s for one of two reasons. One, it is so important that I cannot afford to have him forget it. “Always hold mommy or daddy’s hand when we are near a street or parking lot.” “Do not put your fingers in a power socket.” “Absolutely, under no circumstances, do we ever root for the Dallas Cowboys.” It’s often life or death stuff that I need Isaac to know and internalize. The second reason is because Isaac has clearly not listened to me the first time. In other words, he’s disobeyed and now must be reminded. In the case of Romans, I think this is a “both/and” type of scenario.
The church at the time was facing the darkest of evils. Despotic rulers were on blood-thirsty jaunts of persecution, corruption to the nth degree in the government, even in-fighting what threatens the fabric of the church itself. We don’t have to play the comparison game long to see how our own existence as followers of Christ might mimic that of our brothers and sisters from centuries ago. But we cannot attempt to combat darkness with more darkness.
This is why Batman was never one of my favorite heroes. He takes the vigilante route with the deep voice and was overly prone to hanging people over buildings to get the information he needed. Nah, give me the ol’ boy scout Superman any day. But it’s not just biblical authors and superheroes who hold this truth to be true. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Darkness and hate may be the most imposing of enemies but if we reflect those things back, we only serve to strengthen that which we seek to destroy, and that which often is destroying us. And this takes applicable form in Paul’s words. He tells us to give food and drink to our enemy. We are called to bless those who harm us.
Two more things before we wrap up. You might have noticed that I’ve made no attempt to identify who our enemies may be. Aside from the ancient possibilities from our text, that has been left to your own discernment and imagination. And that’s for an intentional reason. It’s because the identity of our enemy does not change the response we should have. It doesn’t matter if the nemesis you have in your mind has only slighted you or if they represent all you stand against. Love, forgiveness, compassion. Those are the weapons we take into battle with us as the people of God. Until we master those, all other efforts are threatened by the possibility of becoming the darkness we are determined to fight.
And my final encouragement to you is this: Tough love is the work of the lover, not the loved. It demands no reciprocation. It can be a thankless, frustrating, laboriously long effort. But our Christ came to this place and brought healing to lepers who walked away without giving any thanks. He dealt with the most frustrating, stubborn, self-centered people…and I’m only talking about his own disciples. And Jesus took the longest, loneliest walk up a hill to his own execution. And yet, he loved utterly and completely. And that love made an impact. And it turned enemies into friends and followers, all because our Savior practiced and offered tough love.