Loving Our Enemies

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matt. 5:43-48

This passage in the book of Jonah is from one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. In chapter 1 we read that God calls the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and preach against it, because, God says, “its wickedness has come before me.”

Assyria was indeed an evil empire and a great enemy of Israel. But instead of doing what God told him, Jonah got on a boat for Tarshish in the opposite direction. 

What happens to him is pretty disastrous. The ship encounters a ferocious storm and is about to sink. Jonah admits to the sailors that he’s running away from God. He tells them to throw him overboard and the ship will be saved. 

At first the sailors resist doing that because they have compassion for Jonah, even though he was a foreigner to them. But the storm worsens, and they throw Jonah overboard.

God causes a big fish to swallow Jonah. From inside the fish Jonah asks God for mercy and God causes the fish to spit him out on dry land.

Then God speaks to Jonah and again tells him to go to Nineveh. Jonah has learned his lesson and this time he obeys God.

When they heard Jonah’s message that their city would be overthrown, the Ninevites repent and beg God for mercy. God grants mercy and decides not to destroy them. This angers and embitters Jonah who wanted the Ninevites to be annihilated. Here in today’s text we learn the reason why Jonah ran from God.

Jonah prays, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment.”

Jonah was afraid that if they heard his message the Ninevites would repent and God would spare them. Which is what happened. God was willing to love and forgive the Ninevites. But Jonah hated the Ninevites and didn’t want to have any part in God’s mercy.

An important lesson from Jonah’s adventure is God’s call to love our enemies. As Jesus instructs us, Love your enemies just as God does, and sends his life-giving blessings of sun and rain on the good and evil alike. Jonah’s sin was a sin against love.

So today we’re going to talk about loving enemies.

One of the most memorable examples of a Christian loving their enemy is Dirk Willems, who lived in the 16thcentury. Willems was an Anabaptist (literally, “Re-Baptizers”), a new Christian movement during the Protestant Reformation. Because Willems’ religious activities differed from the established church he was arrested and sentenced to death.

He escaped prison and was pursued by a guard. Willems was able to cross over the thin ice of a pond. But the guard chasing him, who weighed more, fell through the ice. Instead of using the opportunity to get away, Willems pulled the guard out of the pond, saving his life.

The guard immediately arrested him and returned him to prison, where Willems was tortured and burned at the stake. Dirk Willems loved his enemy at great personal cost. As did Jesus.

We will probably not face the degree of sacrifice Dirk Willems did. But we will have many opportunities to express kindness to people who mistreat us. Life is full of frictions and frustrations, disagreements and clashes. So we have lots of occasions to grow in the practice of love when we’re in tense situations with others.

Loving those who mistreat us means treating them with kindness and acting for their good, God helping us, even when that’s hard to do. It means praying for them and not taking vengeance.

We must let the Holy Spirit guide us in this. As I’ve noted before, Jesus’ command to love doesn’t mean that a wife, or sometimes a husband, must take repeated spousal abuse, nor do those in other similar situations. There’s a time when the most loving thing we can do for both parties is to remove ourselves from harm, to withdraw from a relationship, either temporarily or sometimes permanently.

Notice that it wasn’t Jonah’s personal enemy that he hated. It was Assyria, the enemy of his country Israel. For us too, it’s not only our personal enemies that God calls us to love, but also the enemies of our country. Jesus doesn’t make any exceptions to his command to love. He tells us to love our enemies, whoever they are, not to take up the sword against them, not to fight violently against them. 

In most of history Christians have been punished for embracing Jesus’ call to nonviolence and refusing to participate in war. During both World War I and II in the United States Christians who refused to serve in the army were socially ostracized. They were called cowards, refused service in restaurants, and faced efforts to keep them from voting. Their neighbors sometimes vandalized their homes. And their families suffered economically. 

Most Christian objectors were willing to cooperate with the government to some extent, as long as they weren’t required to bear arms. Some served in the army in noncombatant roles such as medics. Some did alternative civilian service, serving as orderlies in mental hospitals, working as farm hands, and fighting forest fires. But some religious objectors to war were imprisoned.

Thankfully things are better now, and the U.S. government and many Americans recognize the right of conscientious objection to war for religious and moral reasons. Though many countries still don’t.

Christians who refused to fight in past wars are examples for us today of faithfulness to one of Jesus’ most challenging commands.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish and Biblical Day of Atonement begins tonight at sundown. It’s a time to reflect on the ways we’ve failed to act in love. Yom Kippur is a day for confessing personal sins, and also for confessing the sins of the community as a whole.

As Christians it reminds us to examine the actions of the Christian community at large. Christians today especially need to reflect on our public witness in society.

America is deeply divided today by politics and culture. Most Republicans think Democrats are immoral and dishonest, and most Democrats think the same about Republicans. Many partisans use extreme language to express their contempt and hostility for those on the other side.

Some of us may feel that these political conflicts aren’t relevant to our life in Christ: what do we care if Republicans and Democrats hate each other? But I’m reminded of Jeremiah’s words to the Jewish exiles in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city in which you are exiled, for in its welfare, you will have welfare.”

Tragically many Christians engage in these unChristlike behaviors. Indeed Christians are often some of the worst, for example calling those who politically differ from them demonic and Satanic. Such Christians are treating their political opponents like Jonah wanted to treat the Ninevites. Like Jonah they are sinning against love.

This behavior of our fellow Christians should deeply concern us. As believers we want Christ to be honored and we want to reach people for Jesus. Christians’ public display of hostility and lack of love is a terrible witness that’s pushing people away from Christ. Many non-Christians think, if this is what Christians are like, I don’t want any part of Christian faith, of Jesus.

So this Yom Kippur let us pray for the healing of America, and of the church in America. Let us confess both our own failures to love as a Jesus loves. And also confess the sins against love being committed by much of our Christian community.

To close, if someone were to ask us, “What’s the mark of a faithful Christian?” “What does it mean to genuinely follow Jesus?”

The answer we can give is love. It’s not how much we pray or how well we know the Bible or how loudly we proclaim our faith. Christlike, self-giving love is the characteristic that identifies faithful believers. Love for God, love for our sisters and brothers, love for our neighbor and love for our enemies.

As 1 John says, “Love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Love also requires speaking and acting, as God leads, for truth and justice, yet with love and always remembering the words of the Apostle Paul that “our fight is not against flesh and blood,” not against other people.

As Christians we fall short in many ways and make many mistakes, and there is a lot we don’t understand. As someone has said, our life in Christ is often two steps forward and one back. Sometimes two steps back!

But let us desire above all to grow in love: love for God and love for all others. Because, as the Apostle Paul writes, “Three things are permanent – faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.”

Marty Shupack New Hope Fellowship, September 24, 2023