Br. Bob Pierson, OSB
Year A - Epiphany 7 - Sunday, February 16, 2014
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The last time that I preached on this Scripture passage, which was three years ago, I received an official reprimand for my homily from the board of directors of the retreat program I was serving at the time. I was told that I had upset people and that I should not do that in the future.
What did I say? Well, I started by remarking that Christians have always had a difficult time with Jesus telling us to love our enemies. He couldn't possibly have really meant that, could he? As Christianity became more aligned with the civil authority of the day, a just war theory was developed to help Christians determine when it was morally OK to fight with their enemies.
With the just war theory in hand, Christians have been going to war, feeling completely justified in killing their enemies. But it wasn't always that way. In the early church, soldiers could not be Christian. They had to leave their military service before they could be admitted to baptism. And in our present age, the just war theory has been called into question for a number of reasons, the chief one being that modern technology has made it impossible to contain war to killing only other combatants. Too many innocent people get killed.
But even if we accepted the traditional rationale for the just war theory, we would still have to question the morality of some conflicts, like the war in Iraq, for example. The just war theory says it is never OK to be the first to attack, and clearly the United States attacked Iraq first. Religious leaders around the world, including Pope John Paul, condemned the US for starting the war with Iraq. I concluded that homily by saying that we, as Christians, need to question our leaders' judgment when they decide to go to war because they are not always morally justified in doing so.
And that's what got me in trouble. How dare anyone question the decisions of our government and its leaders? Well, the reprimand didn't convince me that I was wrong, and now, three years later I would say essentially the same thing. In fact, I just did. The one thing that has changed for me over the past three years, though, is the fact that I am much more aware of some personal enemies in my life. Now I am faced with Jesus' teaching in a much more immediate way: “God, do you really want me to pray for these enemies, after what they did to me?”
Feeling anger and resentment is completely natural and normal when we have been injured by others, especially when we know that the injury was intended. It's quite natural to want to fight back, to inflict a similar injury on those who have injured us. But it's NOT helpful to act on those feelings.
If we have learned anything from centuries of conflict and killing, it should be that violence only begets more violence, even on the personal level. And sooner or later, someone needs to choose to stop the cycle of violence, and to seek to forgive the other party, even if the other party does not want to reconcile. That's why Jesus calls us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors.
As Christians, we are called to go beyond the conventional standards of our day to a higher standard of conduct, to be holy as the Lord our God is holy. And loving our enemies makes sense if we have learned the lesson of the Cross—that the only way to real life, to eternal life, is to accept the suffering we cannot avoid, and to let God transform it into resurrection.
Now, I am not saying that we need to allow others to hurt us. We need to take care of ourselves, and set boundaries where possible, to prevent others from walking all over us. But it does no good to try to return injury for injury. “An eye for an eye” only makes for two blind people.
Paul's words to the Corinthians that we heard a few minutes ago come to mind as I ponder how it is possible to really live Jesus' teaching: “You are God's temple and God's Spirit dwells in you....God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.” Yes, I am God's temple because God dwells in me. But you know, my enemy can also be God's temple because God can dwell in them, too. Their injury of me cannot justify my injury of them. I need to recognize that they are God's beloved children just as much as I am, and that there has to be a better way of settling our differences than blowing each other to smithereens. “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
I want to conclude my homily today with a quotation from "In the Eye of the Storm" by Bishop Gene Robinson:
“In refusing to demonize and hate his enemies, forgiving them and loving them to the very end, Jesus shows us the way to reconciliation. If we keep our eyes set on him, and upon his self-giving, self-sacrificing love, then we will know the way forward. Whatever difficulty may come, no matter how hard it gets, we will know how it eventually will end. We need not be afraid. God's fatherly saving grace will not be foiled, God's Son's sacrifice on the cross will not be in vain, and God's Holy Spirit will continue to lead us into reconciliation.” (page 160)