[i]If you’ve been worshipping with us with some regularity you may know that we have been using the Rite One liturgy on Fridays during Lent. I love that the liturgy begins with Jesus’ summary of the Law: Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. For me, while I know that fulfilling these two commandments is a challenge, there seems to be a graceful, even poetic quality to them that makes me want to strive for their fulfillment.
I sometimes wonder though what it would be like to begin the Eucharist with these words: Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Love thine enemies, pray for those who persecute thee. Thou shalt be perfect even as thy heavenly Father is perfect. Is it just me, or does this admonishment have a different ring to it? Love of God with heart, soul, and mind coupled with love of neighbor as self: I desire these things. I’m not sure I can say the same about love of enemies coupled with Godly perfection. It seems unrealistic.
I think the reason for this uneasiness about love of enemies lies in the meaning of ‘love.’ When we think of love it is mostly associated with warmth of feeling; the way we feel towards members of our family, our spouse, or even a best friend in whom we confide our deepest secrets. In the greek of the New Testament, each of these facets has its own noun and accompanying verb and they all indicate a type of love over which we have no control. These types of love seem to ‘happen’ to us; they’re instinctual. But the word for love Jesus uses in today’s gospel from Matthew isagape and its verb agapan. This is a godly love.
In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay says that godly love indicates unconquerable benevolence and invincible goodwill.[ii]Love of enemy has nothing to do with warmth of feeling. Love of enemy isn’t something that ‘happens’ to us. Rather, agape love is a love of intention; a love of action. It is with this love in mind that Jesus says when someone persecutes us that we must turn the other cheek. This doesn’t mean that we welcome more abuse, but rather means that we will not allow bitterness and resentment to invade our hearts, but with intention will regard them with unconquerable benevolence and goodwill. In the baptismal covenant we vow to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This takes on a deeper meaning when we consider them not only for those who are persecuted, but also on those who inflict pain on others; those we would consider our enemies.
How can we practice agape or ‘godly’ love? First, it may be that we need to put in place healthy boundaries that enable this godly intention; boundaries that protect and promote the well-being of both parties; that prevent us from furthering injury. Creating this space will enable us to see with greater clarity and give us a wider perspective; promoting healing in both ourselves and our persecutor. Second, it helps to pray for the person who has caused injury. Our founder, Fr. Benson taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them.”[iii] When we bring our enemies before Jesus in prayer, we sit in the company of a healing and transforming love that will destroy the enmity that infects our hearts. We may not think of them with an instinctual warmth of heart, however we will see them as equally beloved of God.
And it is this way that we will attain the perfection that Jesus alludes to. In the greek, the word perfect is telios, which again implies a state of intention. The perfection that Jesus wishes for us is to live fully into who God has created us all to be: His beloved.
[i] Book of Common Prayer, p. 324
[ii]Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew. Revised ed. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975. Print.
[iii] The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Chapter 25, p. 51
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