Two days ago, our series on the Sermon on the Mount arrived at the end of Matthew 5, and we reflected on Jesus’ deeply challenging words on the need for us to love our enemies, a theme which seemed especially poignant in light of last week’s horrific attack on Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich.
You can listen to the sermon here. After I preached, we had time for questions and answers, and I've been mulling over two of the points which were made from the floor. Alan spoke about the transition which is proving so painful to many of us at the moment, as the church finds itself losing the political power and influence to which it has become so accustomed in the history of Christendom. And then John, alluding to Romans 13, pointed out that while we’re called to love our enemies, it remains the role of those in civic authority to uphold law and order, which sometimes means withdrawing freedom from criminals, or imposing other penalties on them. In Paul’s words, the government is ‘the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Romans 13:5).
Reflecting on this feedback yesterday, I remembered some words from Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s wonderful book, Resident Aliens. In it, they describe the Sermon on the Mount as, ‘A vision of the inbreaking of a new society. They are indicatives, promises, instances, imaginative examples of life in the
. In Matthew 5,
Jesus repeatedly cites an older command, already tough enough to keep in
itself, and then radically deepens its significance, not to lay some gigantic
ethical burden on the backs of potential ethical heroes, but rather to
illustrate what is happening in our midst.’ (p84) kingdom
Offering the world a demonstration of the new work of God, of the values of the kingdom he is bringing to birth is a task which doesn’t sit easily with dictating terms to everyone. As soon as power is placed in the hands of the church, it’s only natural that we begin to feel a sense of presumption or entitlement about the level of control we feel we can exert on the lives of others, and we want to start playing the roles of judge, jury and executioner which scripture tells us to leave to others.
True love for enemies is something we don’t see often, which makes it so dazzling and compelling in the rare moments we encounter it, an unveiling of God’s love and mercy. Perhaps a key lesson we can take from Sunday’s reflection is a fresh awareness that demonstration of this love represents the prime calling of the church, with law and order a task best left to others.