Loving Your Enemies: A Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

A sermon preached at United Reformed Church
on Mother’s Day, May 10, 2020

To listen to the author preach this sermon follow this link https://www.facebook.com/105243486193626/videos/558499111745095/

Introduction: The Story Behind Mother’s Day

It may seem strange to preach a sermon entitled, “Loving Your Enemies,” on Mother’s Day, but if you know the story of the mother who inspired this celebration, I think you will agree that the topic is very fitting.

Ann Reeves Jarvis, the woman who, by her faith in God and her love for her neighbors and enemies, inspired her daughter to found Mother’s Day.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, who lived from 1832 to 1905, was a staunch Methodist and community organizer during the Civil War era. She is recognized as the mother who inspired Mother’s Day. She is also a dynamic woman who lived out the teachings of Jesus throughout her life.  She loved her neighbor as herself. She also loved her enemies—caring, serving and praying for them.

Ann married at the age of 18 to Granville Jarvis and they settled in what would later be called West Virginia. She bore eleven children over the course of seventeen years, only four of which survived to adulthood. The others died of diseases such as measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria.

Inspired by her losses, at the age of 26 Mrs. Jarvis organized service clubs, known as Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, to improve health and sanitary conditions in her community. These clubs provided health education to mothers in an effort to reduce disease and infant mortality, they raised money to buy medicine and to hire women to work in families where the mother was gravely ill, and they also developed programs to inspect milk to insure that it was sanitary.

During the Civil War, Mrs. Jarvis urged the clubs to declare neutrality and to provide aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers.  When the first Union soldier in their area was killed by a Confederate, she offered the only public prayer for the soldier, even when others refused. When typhoid fever and measles broke out in the military camps, she and her club members nursed the soldiers on both sides.

Her efforts to keep the community united continued after the Civil War. She and her club members planned a “Mothers’ Friendship Day” for soldiers and families from both sides. Despite threats of violence, they successfully staged the event in 1868.  When the program began, Mrs. Jarvis, dressed in gray, and another woman, dressed in blue, took their places on the courthouse steps. After a bugler called the crowd to assemble, she shared with the veterans a message of unity and reconciliation. The band played “Dixie” and the “Star Spangled Banner” and the event ended with everyone, north and south, singing “Auld Lang Syne.” This emotional event reduced many to tears and helped the community to lay aside old animosities.  

Throughout her life, Mrs. Jarvis was active in the Methodist church. She and her husband helped to construct the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, WV. She taught Sunday school and was the Sunday School Superintendent for twenty-five years. She also was a popular speaker who spoke at local churches and civic organizations.

In May of 1908, near the third anniversary of Mrs. Jarvis’ death, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, organized the first Mother’s Day celebration.  She hoped to honor her mother, and other mothers like her, for a life of faithful service.  When you celebrate Mother’s Day, I hope that you will take a moment to remember Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis who lived her life following the teachings of Jesus.

(The preceding paragraphs are compiled and edited versions of two other sources, the Wikipedia entry on Ann Jarvis, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Jarvis; and a post from a genealogical site, Rightmire Family News, http://rightmirefamily.tripod.com/id14.html.)

So with that as background, let us turn to our scripture lesson.  Jesus says, “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.”  (Matthew 5: 43-44)

Exposition: “Loving Your Enemy”

Let’s be honest. Jesus has given us an impossible command in these words.  Our immediate reaction is, “Come on, Jesus you’ve got to be kidding me.  There is no way that I can love my enemy.”

And of course you’re right: you can’t love your enemy! But when the scripture rubs us the wrong way, that’s the time we most need to listen.  It’s not that the scripture is problematic; rather, the problem lies in us.

So why did Jesus give us this impossible command?  Because he is calling us to a higher way of living, a way that is different from the world.   RT France in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew says,

To love those who do not love you is not offered as a piece of pragmatic wisdom, but as a reflection of the character of God himself.  The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is not to provide an easy handbook for getting along in the world, but to challenge us to be people who live in the kingdom. … It challenges us to live on a level above that of ordinary decent people, and to draw our standards not from what everyone else is doing, but from our heavenly Father.

R.T. France, NICNT: The Gospel of Matthew, 2007 Eerdmans Publishing, p. 224

We are to draw our standards not from the world we live in, but from the world we aspire to, the world of our heavenly Father, the kingdom of God. In short, we are called to love like God loves. 

So how does God love? 

Jesus says, God loves impartially.  As he says in verse 45 “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” He takes care of both the good and the bad.

But more importantly, God loves unconditionally—he loves even his enemies. When Jesus was on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  In the original Greek the tense of the verb used to describe Jesus’ praying shows that he kept on praying while he hung on the cross.  It was not a one-time prayer, but an ongoing prayer that he kept praying throughout his crucifixion. His love had no limit. 

Jesus says, “If you are my disciple, then you will love in the same way that I loved you, even your enemies.”

James Montgomery Boice speaks for us all when he says, “At this point a person may be saying, ‘Well if that is the standard, I may as well admit right now, that I can’t attain it.’ That is true,” he continues. “In yourself you cannot attain it.  That love is possible only to those in whom the Lord Jesus Christ is working and in whom his love dwells. If you are not a Christian, you must begin by becoming one and asking him to create that love in you.”  (Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 143) But if you are a Christian then Christ’s love will dwell in your heart and what is impossible for mortals is always possible with God. 

Let me give you an example,

As a teenager, Tom Skinner, a black man who went on to become an evangelist, was converted to Christ while he was the leader of the Harlem Lords.  He left the gang the very next day and began to preach the gospel.  Several weeks later, while playing a high school football game, his assignment was to block the defensive end so that his own half-back scored the touchdown.  After the play his opponent slammed him to the ground, kicked Skinner and shouted racial epithets at him.

Skinner said, that under normal circumstances, he would have pulverized his opponent.  But instead he got up from the ground, looked the boy in his face and said, “You, know, because of Jesus Christ, I love you anyway.”  Skinner said that he even surprised himself, but he knew that this happened because Christ was dwelling in him and he no longer had to hate or retaliate.”

After the game the other player came up to Skinner and said, “Tom, you’ve done more to knock prejudice out of me by telling me you loved me than you would have if you had knocked my block off.”  

Boice, p. 137

Tom was able to love his enemy because Jesus lived in him. We are called to be like Jesus—to love the unlovely, to love even our enemies. What is impossible for you to do in your own strength becomes both possible and a reality when Jesus dwells in heart.

So in the time that remains let me give you three suggestions on how you can begin to better love your enemies.

1.  Meditate on God’s love for you.

Read Romans 5:6-8 “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners/enemies Christ died for us.”  Remember how much God loves you and you will find it easier to love your enemies.

2.  Pray for your enemy.

Jesus not only commands us to love our enemies.  He also commands us to pray for them.  John RW Stott explains why.

It is impossible to pray for someone without loving him and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures. We must not, therefore, wait before praying for an enemy until we feel some love him in our heart. We must begin to pray for him before we are conscious of loving him, and we shall find our love break first into bud, then into blossom.

John RW Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, p. 119

3. Do a good turn for your enemy.

The Sermon of the Mount is recorded in two places in Matthew 5-7 and in Luke 6:20-48.  In Luke’s version of the Sermon, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”  When we start to do good for our enemies we will find ourselves loving them more.  C.S. Lewis puts it this way. 

Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.  As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets.  When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.  If you do a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.”

Quoted in Boice, p. 144

A wise psychologist once said, “We do not feel our way into a new way of acting, we act our way into a new way of feeling.” Or in other words, “Fake it till you make it.”  Now I’m not telling you to fake love for your enemy, but I am telling you that if you make a choice to obey Jesus’ command to love your enemy, if you start to pray for and do good to them, then God will change your heart and give you a greater love. 

So let me ask you a personal question: Who is your enemy? And how is God calling you to love them?

This week, may we follow the words of Jesus and the example of Ann Jarvis as we seek to love our enemies.

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