7th Sunday after Epiphany: Hard Holiness
By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff
I got into a fight once.
I was in 4th or 5th grade and a classmate and his friends had been picking on me for months. They would make cruel and untrue comments about me, both behind my back and to my face. They would steal small items when the teacher wasn’t looking, and they would tell the teacher I had done something wrong even when I hadn’t, just so I would get in trouble. There was one classmate in particular who always instigated, and our mutual hostility grew throughout the year.
As I look back at the fight decades later, I can’t remember what finally set me off. I remember being in the gym and hearing him make yet another cruel comment about me, and I remember the months of anger and frustration that finally exploded as I tackled him. I remember how furious my gym teacher was when he pulled me off. There isn’t anyone in my life now who I would call my enemy (thankfully), but years ago if someone had asked me, I would have ranted about this student and all the hatred and animosity I felt towards him, and I would have seen the idea of trying to love him as laughably naive.
This is the hardest part of being a Christian; that we are to extend love to everyone, even if they are abusive or work to sabotage us. It’s a lesson that goes against every aspect of American culture that tells us whenever we’re hit, we need to hit right back twice as hard. The hardest part of being a Christian is that, just as rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, we are to extend God’s love freely to all.
I want to be clear that loving an enemy is not the same as condoning their actions and it is not about letting a pattern of abuse continue. A person in an abusive relationship may forgive and love their abuser but that doesn’t mean they should stay married. Someone who lost their life savings may learn to forgive and love Bernie Madoff, but they still shouldn’t trust him with their investments. Actions have consequences and offering an offender forgiveness and love is not the same as empowering them to do it again. Love is the double-edged sword that requires us to call out and fight injustice while still recognizing and loving perpetrators as fellow children of the Most High God.
In the Revised Common Lectionary, this Gospel from Luke is paired with Genesis 45:3-11; when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. It is a perfect complement to Luke 6:27-38 because if anyone had a right to bear a grudge, it’s Joseph who was betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph, whose life gets hijacked and whose father spends years mourning a death that never happened. Joseph had every right to be furious and we almost expect him to enslave his brothers as the consequence of reaping what they sow. Yet when they are reconnected Joseph feeds them and ensures their survival. In a reversal of fortune Joseph now has authority over them and while he confronts them with the wrong they did he is also aware of God’s activity in his life, and because of Joseph’s forgiveness a family that was once broken apart by jealousy and sin is reconciled and gather around a table to share a meal. It’s a moment that mirrors the Eucharistic feast when we are all to put aside grudges and grievances and greet each other with a sign of peace before breaking bread together at the table of God.
Loving someone who doesn’t deserve it is hard to do, but if love and mercy were only given to those who deserve it, then we would all be lost. The sacrificial grace of God’s love is extended to everyone like rain that falls on both the just and the unjust alike. By the death of Christ on the cross we have already been judged by God and even though all are unworthy and none of us deserve it, we receive God’s mercy. We have all sinned against each other by what we have done and by what we have left undone, but unworthy as we receive the grace of God’s love. Like the servant whose great debt is forgiven by the master, shouldn’t we follow the example of God and forgive the lesser debts we have against each other? When our day comes and we stand face to face with God, we will all petition for the mercy of God. We have been forgiven much and, as hard as it is, we must extend forgiveness to each other.
People are difficult and loving difficult people is even more difficult. It requires a kind of determination and tenacity to care about people when you don’t want to, or when they don’t deserve it. So why do it?
We do it because it’s not about them. While we are alive on this earth, we have an opportunity to work with God and craft our souls to be formed into the holiest versions of ourselves we can be. In the world yet to come we aren’t going to be concerned about the promotion we didn’t get, the alcoholic mother who ruined our financial future, the stalker that got us fired or whatever else it is. We can’t control other people’s actions towards us, but we can control our own. The ability to control ourselves, the refusal of letting someone else dictate our emotional response, allows us to enter deeper into the heart of a God who acts in all people. We have to love our enemies because love is our only option and the only way for us to grow closer to God. Aside from loving our enemies we could feel hatred or indifference towards them, but hate is an acid that destroys its container and indifference is a callous that becomes numb to the holy. We have to love because love is the only weapon we have. Resilient and tenacious love is an immeasurable power that creates a barrier against bitterness and cynicism and is the antibody to hatred and indifference. We don’t love because someone they’re likeable, we love them because they are a child of God. Loving our enemies requires overcoming pride even when we’re in the right. It means having the faith and confidence that one day we all stand before the throne of God and all wrongs will be made right, the ones that have been inflicted on us and the ones we’ve inflicted on others, knowingly or not.
It’s not easy but it’s good, and it’s not simple but it is holy.
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff earned a Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and currently serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Church, Southport, North Carolina. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife and two dogs and spends his free time on the beach, reading, or playing chess (poorly).