“What has Christianity ever done for us?” This is the title of an article written by the retired English Unitarian Minister, Rev. Frank Walker.
In answering that question, he makes a distinction between official (or doctrinal) Christianity with it’s emphasis on correct doctrine and, and unofficial (or practical) Christianity, with it’s emphasis on following the practical way and teachings of Jesus, which has always been the emphasis of our Non-Subscribing tradition. He opens his article by writing the following:
“Let us suppose that one bright sunny morning in winter you decide to on for an invigorating walk in the UK (for our purposes we will say Dromore). As you stride briskly along, revelling in the keen frosty air, you are suddenly appalled by something very disturbing. Shock. Horror! In a ditch you are appalled to see a baby, lying there with no clothes on, freezing. Is it alive? Is it dead?
So what do you do? You pick it up, wrap something around it to keep it warm, and take it at once to the Lagan Valley Hospital and inform the police, in the hope of finding the parents or family of this child, knowing at the very least, foster-parents or some kind of home will be found for it.
Now lets go back two thousand years to ancient Rome. You go out for a brisk walk in the hills on a frosty morning, and the same thing happens. What do you do? Rescue the child? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely, perhaps even much more likely that you will do nothing.
That would be the accepted custom in ancient Rome. People might feel sad, but they wouldn’t necessarily feel guilty. So, in Rome, you would have simply, silently passed by on the other side. It was the coming of Christianity that changed all that. When Christians obtained power in Rome, they forbade the abandoning of children to exposure and death.”
For all of Christianity’s faults, and there are many of them in Church History, Christianity did begin to infuse the wider European culture with a new ethic of love, in which human beings, and especially the lowest and poorest, were invested with a new sense of value. Last week we saw Jesus special concern for the poor and the struggling of this world.
This week, we see Jesus ethic of love extends even to one’s enemies. “If you love only those who love you, that is nothing special,” says Jesus. “Even the pagans do that”.
Jesus roots his teaching on the love of enemies in his understanding of God’s nature, and God’s character. In verse 35 He speaks of the Most High being kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
The Greek word that is used for love in this passage is the word "agapao". It is an ancient Greek word that can be translated as the feeling or attitude you have towards a special treasure. To "agapao" something would be to treasure it.
What this passage suggests is that we are all God’s treasured by God. You are treasured by God. Your family, your friends, the strangers you walk past in the streets, those you struggle to get on with at work,. Treasured and loved by God. Inexplicably, even the ungrateful and the wicked. Even our enemies, somehow, also treasured and valued by God.
Trevor Hudson, who I quoted from last week compares God’s love to the sun. It is the nature of the sun to shine. The sun cannot help but shine. If it ceased to shine, it would cease being the sun. The sun cannot choose to shine on some people and not on other people. The sun’s light can be blocked by clouds, but trees, by high walls or by hiding in a cave. But the sun itself continues to shine.
So it is with God’s love. It is the nature of God to love. God cannot help but love. If God ceased to love, then God would cease being God. We can hide ourselves from God’s love. We can build up walls between us and God’s love. At times it might feel that clouds blow across our lives that it feels like God’s love has been obscured from us. But just as the sun itself never ceases to shine, so, God never ceases to love... and it was the conviction of Jesus that God’s love shines even on the wicked and the ungrateful.
That is good news for us. Because it means that there is nothing that we can do to make God stop loving us. Rev. Ray Light under whose preaching I grew up used to say the following:
“You can be the very best person you know how to be, but it wont make God love you anymore than God loves you right now. You can also be the very worst person, the most wicked person you know how to be, and it will not make God love you any less than God loves you right now.” Why? Because it is God’s nature to love. God is love, and to cease being love would be to cease being God.
Does that mean that it doesn’t matter how we live any more? Does that mean we have free license to live as we like, and to to do whatever we want because it no longer matters?
It may not change God’s love for us, but it still matters for we all reap the consequences of our actions. We reap the consequences, not only in the kind of life that we create for ourselves, but we reap the consequences in the type of persons we become. We see this in our passage from Luke’s Gospel. In verse 37 we see reflected there the law of consequence when he writes “Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven..."
And so in this passage, we find two principles seems to be at work simultaneously. One is the principle of God’s love: that God’s love is constant and unchanging, expressed even towards the ungrateful and the wicked. The second is the law of consequence. When you live in a moral universe as God has created it we cannot evade the consequences of our actions. This is very different from saying that God punishes sinners. In the end, it is sin itself that is its own punishment.
At the beginning of this sermon, I quoted from Frank Walker, who asks: What has Christianity ever done for us? There are many in this world, who have grown tired of Christianity doctrinal claims to having the final truth all wrapped up in a creed, and that to be a Christian, you somehow need to take every word and story in the Bible literally. As a result, many have come to dismiss the whole of Christianity as being a fairy tale, or superstition, an irrelevant relic of the past that has no more value for us today. But Frank Walker reminds us that many of the values reflected in our modern Western, secular democracy’s, actually have their roots in the way and in the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies makes us feel uncomfortable. But we don’t realise that this little verse probably lies at the root of our modern laws that demand that prisoners of war be treated in a humane and dignified way, and also at the root of why in any modern democratic country, prison warders are not given permission to torture and mistreat those who have committed even the most atrocious crimes. Where else does it come from, if not from Jesus injunction that we should love our enemies? It certainly did not come from the Roman Empire where enemies were crushed and dealt with ruthlessly.
I will close with a quote from the Progressive Jewish Rabbi Harold Kushner: -
“Do things for other people, not because of who they are, or what they do in return, but because of who you are”. Amen.