A sermon by Steve Cooper
When I was young I learned these lines: To live above with those you love, undiluted glory; To live below with those you know, quite another story!
Those lines remind us that it’s often not easy to get along with people we know – including certain others in our family and our church. These people might not aim to hurt us, but we find them irritating and annoying. They are hard to love. They seem to us to be awkward people.
This morning let’s reflect on how we can grow in love for these people. Stay with us as we listen to songs and as we explore this theme.
This year our church embraced a statement of purpose for the coming five years: ‘growing in love for God and people.’ It’s a summary of the 2 great commandments given us by Jesus: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second [commandment] is this: Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:30-31). It’s important to come back regularly to those two commandments, and see if we are healthy. Are we making progress, growing in love for God and people?
As our church has considered this purpose, we’ve recognized that one of the hardest areas to grow in love is toward people who irritate and annoy us. Jesus included these people when he commanded his disciples to love their enemies. Here is one example. Jesus said: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you’ (Luke 6:27-28).
This command is one of the hardest demands Jesus gives to his followers. For me personally, if someone hates me, curses me, or ill-treats me, my natural human reaction is to lash out, to get my own back, to retaliate, or to withdraw into my own shell and nurse my bitterness. But none of these human reactions are acceptable to the Lord Jesus. Instead, this radical call comes for us to love our enemies, to go them good, to bless them and pray for them. That’s hard!
This morning I want to focus not on the ‘big enemies’ but the ‘little enemies.’ But this distinction between ‘little’ and ‘big’ enemies I’m not referring to physical dimensions – bantam-weight enemies as opposed to 140kg enemies – but of the scale of how much they try to hurt us.
Not all Christians face persecuting enemies, but all Christians face little enemies. We encounter people whose personalities we intensely dislike. It might be a family member or relative who is selfish and thoughtless; a stubborn church member who won’t listen to reason; an employee or employer who specializes in insensitivity, rudeness and general arrogance; a work colleague who is unscrupulous; the person who keeps ringing you with demands on your time when you are in a hurry; people who feel you have hurt them and they nurture bitterness for years; insecure people who try to tear down those who are more competent than they; the arrogant who are convinced their opinion is always right and everyone else is stupid.
The list is easily enlarged. The ‘little’ enemies are offensive, sometimes repulsive, especially when you have to be with them regularly. It often seems safest to avoid them, and if you can’t you try to be ‘nice’ and beat a hasty retreat as soon as decency permits. It’s particularly hard if they are in your family – the temptation is to stay away from them as much as possible.
How do we learn to love these ‘little enemies’? It’s not easy. Fortunately, Jesus makes it clear what he expects, and he provides the resources we need to grow in love for these awkward people.
This morning we’re thinking about how we can love those people in our lives who are irritating and annoying. Maybe a good place to begin is to recognize that all of us, including you and me, can be awkward at times. It’s humbling to realize that some people find us to be annoying. That recognition forces us to examine ourselves honestly, and ask God to show us those areas which need addressing. If I’m annoyed by someone, it could be because I’ve annoyed them.
Both our neighbourhood and the church will inevitably include their shares of imperfect, difficult people. In fact, the church will often collect more than its proportionate share of difficult folk, especially emotionally or intellectually needy people, precisely because despite all its faults the church is still the most caring and patient large institution around. There is a sense in which we should see in our awkward brothers and sisters a badge of honour. The dangers, however, become much greater (as do the rewards) when the church is richly multicultural, because the potential for misunderstandings rises significantly.
I’m not suggesting that we overlook every offense. There are some things people do which are so serious that they should not be overlooked. The New Testament is full of exhortations to watch over each other, to warn those who are erring, to rebuke a person who is hurting others or themselves. Sometimes those are the actions which love demands. It’s what is often called ‘tough love.’ But we must always do this correction lovingly, gently, humbly aware of our own weaknesses (Galatians 6:1).
But in many instances, what is simply required is simply forbearance driven by love. I like Proverbs 19:11 – ‘a man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offence.’ I’ve memorized that verse, and I quote it to myself as soon as anyone irritates me or annoys me. I run it through my mind: ‘a man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offence.’ I quickly pray and say ‘Lord, can I react to this person patiently, is it right for me to overlook this offense?’ Often I sense this is what God wants me to do.
The apostle Paul puts it so forcefully: ‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you have a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity’ (Colossians 3:12-14).
Paul is aware that relationships, even in the local church, will not always be smooth. That’s why we need this exhortation to bear with one another and forgive grievances. Most of the time, what is required is not confrontation, but forbearance, forgiveness, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. These actions and attitudes are tough things to do – they are not soft, weak and ‘nice’. They require courage, self-control, strength and character.
It’s not easy to love people who are ‘little enemies’ – those who annoy and irritate us. Jesus makes it clear that if we are his followers we are to love our enemies – including some in our family or church who are hard to love. Jesus’ command to love our enemies is reinforced by the New Testament writers.
When Paul tells us to love our enemies, he grounds it on a distinctly Christian appeal. The awkward people Paul has in mind in Colossians 3 are to be loved and forgiven, because of the Christian’s experience of God’s grace. ‘Forgive as the Lord forgave you’ (v.13). The redemptive work of Christ is the example for us to follow.
As Paul explains in Philippians 2, Christ Jesus humbled himself to become a human being, and humbled himself yet further to die the odious death of the cross, and in consequence God has exalted him to the highest place. The motivational appeal in these verses in Colossians and Philippians is the example of Jesus.
There are probably many people you can think of already who come into this category, for you, of ‘little enemies.’ These are people you find it hard to love, and it might include some Christians. We must ensure we don’t ignore or avoid those people. It’s too easy to retreat into our little circle of ‘in’ people, those compatible with us, our friends. But Christian love must go beyond that to include those outside this small group. The objects of our love must include those who are not ‘in’: it must include enemies.
When you think about it, the church itself is not made up of natural ‘friends.’ It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural compatible gathering, but because they have all be saved by Jesus Christ and owe him common allegiance.
In light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says – and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.
When this happens it’s a powerful statement to a world where socially incompatible people don’t love each other. A Christian community that loves in this way points powerfully to the reality of Jesus. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:34-35).
I began with the lines: To live above with those you love, undiluted glory; To live below with those you know, quite another story! That saying reminds us that we are on a journey together, and one day we will love one another, in the new heaven and the new earth. We must begin to live out now the values of the eternal kingdom of God that will be an inescapable part of our makeup then. Karl Barth was once asked the question: It is true that one day in heaven we will see again our loved ones?’ He replied, ‘Not only the loved ones.’
Life is a journey of learning to love – growing in love for God and people. When we realize how much God loves us, and accept the complete sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross, our response is to love God and love our neighbour. Some of these people we are called to love are not easy to love. They are like ‘little enemies’, they irritate and annoy us. But Jesus brings a clear command to love them, and he also brings his presence to us to enable us to grow in love.
Let’s pray: ‘Loving God, teach us to love. We find it so hard to love others, especially when people seem unlovable. Make us aware of your immeasurable love for us, demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. May your love fill us and overflow out of us, expressing your love through us to a lost and broken world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’