Remembrance Sunday: How to Love Your Enemies

I was born on 27th July 1953. Not a particularly significant date in Britain but in South Korea, where I have been this week, it is hugely significant. The Korean war which began in June 1950 saw the Republic of Korea (South Korea), supported by the United Nations and British Commonwealth, defend its borders against a surprise attack by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), at one time supported by China and the Soviet Union. Over three years the battle lines moved up and down the country leading to over 1.2 million deaths, at least half of whom were civilian non-combatants. The armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.

It was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” But no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved yet. So while the Cold War in Europe ended when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, North and South Korea have remained in a perpetual state of war. How have the two nations responded?

North Korea has made repeated attempts to invade the South. On Tuesday I entered one of the tunnels dug by the North, deep underneath the DMZ using slave labour and dynamite. Only 44 km (27 miles) from Seoul, the tunnel was discovered in 1978. It is 1.7 km (1.1 miles) long, 2 m high and 2 m wide. It runs through bedrock at a depth of about 73 m (240 ft) below ground. It was  designed for a surprise attack on Seoul, and could easily accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weaponry. A total of four tunnels have been discovered so far, but there are believed to be up to twenty more. Furthermore, North Korea has 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, which makes it the largest military organization on earth, even without its nuclear weapon programme. How has South Korea responded?

Through its ‘Sunshine policy’ it has been giving millions of pounds each year to provide vaccines, medical care and food for North Korean children. It has built a railway to bring the two countries together and opened factories in the north to further economic ties. But most significantly of all, while the North has built the largest army in the world, the South has sent more Christian peacemakers into the world, as a proportion of its population, than any other country in the world. The first evangelical missionary to Korea was a Welshman, Robert Thomas. Aged 24, he landed in Shanghai with his wife Caroline in 1863. She died of an endemic disease just a year later, and Robert himself, became a martyr on the shores of the Daedong River in 1866. But a church was born. Even though the Evangelical church in Korea is just 150 years old, numerically, after the USA, there are more South Korean missionaries in the world than any other country.

Two nations – North and South – two very different responses – one fuelled by hate, the other fuelled by love. Today we rightly remember and honour those from our community who made the supreme sacrifice to defend our freedoms and values. It is one thing to risk your life to save a friend or even to put your life on the line for your neighbours. It is quite another to give your life to fight a formidable enemy to defend your country. But at best, all we can hope for is an Armistice – a cessation of conflict. In our gospel reading today from Matthew 5, Jesus wants us to take one step further, to realise that, whether in war or peacetime, God wants to enable us to transform our enemies into family. This is the kind of radical motivation that characterizes an authentic follower of Jesus Christ. Let’s make three observations.

1. Love Your Enemies 

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44)

The love that God commands of us is love so great that it even embraces our enemies.  When Jesus said, “I tell you, love your enemies,” he must have startled his audience, for he was saying something that probably had never been said so succinctly, so positively, and so forcefully before.  The human tendency is to base love on the desirability of the object of our love. We love people who are attractive, we love hobbies that are enjoyable, a house or a car because it looks nice.

The love of which Jesus speaks here, however, and which is most spoken of in the New Testament, is agape. The love that seeks to meet another’s highest welfare.
“Eight times the Ministry of Education in East Germany said no to Uwe Holmer’s children when they tried to enroll at the university in East Berlin.  The Ministry of Education didn’t usually give reasons for its rejection.  But in this case the reason wasn’t hard to guess.  Uwe Holmer, the father of the eight applicants, was a Lutheran pastor at Lobetal, a suburb of East Berlin.  For 26 years the Ministry of Education was headed by Margot Honecker, wife of East Germany’s premier, Erich Honecker….[Then] when the Berlin wall cracked….Honecker and his wife were dismissed from office.  Under indictment for criminal activities the Honeckers were evicted from their luxurious palace in Vandlitz, an exclusive suburb of palatial homes reserved for the VIPs in the party.  The Honeckers suddenly found themselves friendless, without resources, and with no place to go.  No one wanted to identify with the Honeckers…

Enter Uwe Holmer.  Remembering the words of Jesus, ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,’ Holmer extended an invitation to the Honeckers to stay with his family in the parsonage of the parish church in Lobetal…. But Pastor Holmer’s charity was not shared by the rest of the country. Hate mail poured in. Some members of his own church threatened to leave or cut back their giving. Pastor Holmer defended his actions in a letter to the newspaper. “In Lobetal,” he wrote, “there is a sculpture of Jesus inviting people to himself and crying out, ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ We have been commanded by our Lord Jesus to follow him and to receive all those who are weary and heavy laden, in spirit and in body, but especially the homeless… What Jesus asked his disciples to do is equally binding on us.”

This kind of agape love is the love that God is, that God shows us, and therefore expects of us.  “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us“ (Romans 5:5, 8).

God’s love sees all the hatefulness and all the wickedness of the enemy yet desires to free him from his hate, to do him the highest good, to rescue him from his sin, and save his soul.   Our “enemies,” of course, do not always come in life–threatening forms.

Often they are people who are simply mean, impatient, judgmental, self–righteous, spiteful—or just happen to disagree with us. In all our personal relationships, God commands us to love them. Whether a conflict is with our spouse, our children or parents, our friends our fellow church members, a devious business opponent, spiteful neighbour, political foe, our attitude toward them must be one of love.  One or two individuals seem to have had it in for me in recent years. One in particular is known to some of you because he wrote inviting you to read his articles about me. When a Christian publisher got in touch to ask my advice on whether they should publish his first book – I read the manuscript, said “yes of course”, and wrote the first review, commending the book. The world says retaliate. Jesus says reconcile. Jesus commands us to love our enemies. How can we when we don’t want to?

2. Pray for Your Persecutors

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44)

Charles Spurgeon said, “Prayer is the forerunner of mercy. ” I like that – the forerunner of mercy. I’m sure you have found that when you start to pray for someone you don’t get on with, God begins to answer your prayer by softening your attitude toward them.  We must love them because of who they are—sinners fallen from the image of God and in need of God’s forgiveness and grace, just as we were and do.  We must pray for them that they will, as we have done, seek His forgiveness and grace.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who suffered and eventually was martyred in Nazi Germany, wrote of Jesus’ teaching in this verse:

“This is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves and pleading to God for them.”

Love our enemies and pray for them. Why should we love like this? Because God loves us in this way. And because his love is made visible and tangible through the way we treat others. You see, God desires nothing less than we…

3. Become Like Jesus

“…that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?…
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:45-48)

The sum of all that Jesus teaches in Scripture—is contained in these words. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). To love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors shows that we are children of our Heavenly Father because this is supernatural love. Jesus said,

“By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

God’s wills nothing less than that we become like him.  And that which God commands, God provides. Our own self-righteousness is possible, but is so imperfect that it is worthless; God’s righteousness is humanly impossible because it is perfect. But this impossible righteousness becomes possible when we consciously, daily, willingly, lay aside our reputation, lay aside our rights, lay aside our self-righteousness, lay aside our pride, and trust Jesus Christ to give us His love for all, for friend, for neighbour, and even for our enemy.

And that is precisely our Lord’s point here – to lead His audience, and us, to an overpowering sense of our own spiritual bankruptcy – to realise that only Jesus can turn us from enemies of God into children of God.  Jesus didn’t die just for his friends. He died for his enemies to make them his friends and family. He died for all who have ignored God, all who have rebelled against God, all who have denied God.  God’s enemies.

That is what we remain unless we come in repentance and sorrow for all we have thought and said and done that has grieved God, has angered God.  Jesus gave his life to be our Saviour, the Saviour of the world.  Today we rightly remember with respect and honour the heroes whose names are written on those tablets. There is another list of names. It is in heaven. One day we will get to see it. Get to see if our names are included. It is called the Lamb’s Book of life.

It’s a list of all those who have acknowledged Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.  It is a list of all those who, because they have received Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, have made peace with God. Have come over from the enemy side. Have had their guilt removed, their past wiped clean and their eternal future secure.

Today on Remembrance Sunday we realize we all need heroes. And we can be a hero to those we love, if we love our enemies, if we pray for those who persecute us we will become like Jesus. Today we also realize, above all else, we need a Saviour to transform us from being his enemies into his family. Lets pray.