Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Genesis 45.3-11, 15
Psalm 37.1-11, 37.40-41
1 Corinthians 15.35-50
Sunday 20 February 2022
The most important word ©Suzanne Grimmett
In our Lent book, Made for Goodness, Desmond Tutu tells the story of a nation on the brink of a violent uprising after the assassination of a beloved leader of the African National Congress, Chris Hani. In 1992, Tutu describes Hani’s popularity as second only to Nelson Mandela. Whereas Mandela was a Thembu prince, Tutu describes Hani as ‘a commoner with the common touch’, a man of action much admired by the young black men known as “the comrades” who were impatient for change. In 1993 there was a glimmer of hope for a negotiated end to apartheid. There were some who sought to disrupt this peacemaking agenda, including some zealots from the far right; one such was a Polish immigrant who saw Chris Hani’s popularity and concluded that his murder would spark a violent uprising. Chris Hani was gunned down in his own driveway, found by his 13-year-old daughter. A neighbouring white woman from this new integrated suburb of Johannesburg was the one to alert the police, which she did straight after writing down the license plates of the assassin’s car.
South Africa was like a powder keg set to ignite. In an unprecedented act, F.W de Klerk’s apartheid government invited Nelson Mandela, who had only been released from prison a few years before and held no office, to address the nation.
“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world… . Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for—the freedom of all of us.”
This vision cast by Mandela was enough to take what could have been a moment of exploding violence and changed it to a turning point for transformation. Chris Hani had been Mandela’s friend as well as colleague and it would have been so easy, surely, to choose a path of revenge. It would have been so easy to use this event as an excuse for war and to double down on the tribalisms that divide. Instead, this commitment to peace of Mandela for the sake of a shared future, changed everything.
We come today aware of the wars and rumours of wars, conscious of reports of military manoeuvres by Russia which appear to be seeking any excuse to ignite hostilities with Ukraine. A turn away from all that escalates tension and a vision cast of a shared future on this earth would be welcome. Jesus in the Gospel reading we hear today offers arguably his most important words and singular teaching; love your enemies. As long as we find prosperity and security by remaining trapped in our tribalisms or nationalisms, it will be a teaching that humankind does not want to hear. It is also a theological breakthrough, with Jesus making us “one flesh” as St Paul puts it, as we lay down the gods of our tribalism and recognise our shared humanity.
“Love your enemies” is the centrepiece of Jesus’ teaching, but it is so very difficult and through history has been the kind of message that can make you at best, deeply unpopular, or at worst, get you killed. Historian Christopher Dawson writes of some pre-medieval Scandinavian societies where priest-kings offered sacrifices on behalf of the people, but were then sacrificed themselves if their sacrifices didn’t work. The coming of Christianity unravelled this whole system, with Dawson noting that;
“It was hard for warlike barbarians to accept the Christian ethic of renunciation and forgiveness in their rulers who had been the living embodiment of their pride of blood, as we see from St. Bede’s story of King Sigebert who was killed ‘because he was wont to spare his enemies and to forgive them their wrongs they had done as soon as he asked them.’ He was trying to love his enemies, and his people rose up and killed him.”
When you tamper with conventional understanding, with the mechanisms that assert the hierarchy and desire to maintain rights to bloody retribution, you are destabilising the culture itself. This underlines the fact that Jesus is not saying something conventionally “nice” when he tells us to do good to those who hate you. It is the immensely challenging ask to want the best for our enemies and try to create change so that they may flourish, making sacrifices for them just as parents make sacrifices for their children to promote their well-being. It is to acknowledge that your own good is caught up with the good of someone who may have done you great harm. This is a teaching for those who seek to be followers of Jesus, so it is not surprising it is part of the same message he delivers not to the crowd, but to his disciples. A fragile unity is created within a group when you can blame enemies outside your tribe and build your world on judging others as worthy or unworthy and hating those who are different from you. You cannot follow Jesus and expect to maintain this approach because “Love your enemies” explodes it from within. Instead of judging and excluding people for their difference, human diversity can be celebrated and differences in gender, ethnicity, race, sexual identity, and even disabilities become assets.
But what are we to do with words from Jesus that sound a bit like good advice for becoming a doormat on which those who seek to dominate may wipe their boots?
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
There have been many good commentaries on the way this response in ancient culture would have led to the evil of the other being revealed. One thing, however, even on a superficial reading is clear. There is to be no acceptance of the role of passive victim. Jesus is describing a way of initiating the action and maintaining personal freedom. When your enemy takes even the coat off your back, seize the initiative and hand over your shirt as well. There is courage, but also an indomitable will to freedom behind this gentle but incredibly strong response, and a refusal to buy into an escalating power struggle. It says quite clearly and boldly, “The violence stops here, and you cannot make me hate you.”
If we are to be disciples of Jesus, we need to cultivate this kind of gentle, courageous strength. But how do we do it? If we know nothing else, we should know by now that Christianity is no self-help project. But how do we become the kind of people who can stand resolutely before those who would do us harm and choose our own freedom, while seeking also the freedom of our enemy?
To become like Christ is the work of God from start to finish. But we may need to allow ourselves to be first released by the Spirit from the prison of our own pain. Sometimes it can be hard to be free from our hurts when they have not been acknowledged. Sometimes the desire to slap back, and slap back hard is overwhelming. We think it will make us feel better. But it rarely if ever does. Most of the time it leaves the hurt festering, even as it create new problems which take from us any chance of recognising each other’s humanity. Desmond Tutu puts it simply, “If I slap you after you slap me, it doesn’t lessen the sting I feel on my own face.” Until we forgive, we remain locked in our own pain, which is why this is Jesus’ most important word of all.
It is impossible to create a world… or in fact a family or church community…. without mistakes, without pain, without loss, or conflict or hurt feelings. We can, though, choose to be people of gentle strength who refuse to be either aggressors or victims. We can be followers of the way of Jesus the Christ who calls us to love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us. As the community of Christ we can help one another by listening to the pain, hearing the wrongs that have been done and tending the wounds.
Sometimes we may need to hear from another, “You are right to be outraged. What was done to you was wrong, unfair, and undeserved.”
Sometimes to hear that may be the beginning of releasing the tight ball of pain within you so that you can allow the Spirit to lead you to the place where you can find yourself free to forgive.
When we do that…when we find that path…we can experience a turning point that transforms our lives and redeems the world.
 Tutu, Desmond; Tutu, Mpho. Made For Goodness (p. 73). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Dawson, Christopher, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pp. 80-83