Exodus 20, Matthew 5.38-48
Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of a Trappist abbey in Algeria. A veteran of the French army, de Cherge grew up in an aristocratic family.
After the rise of Islamic radicals in 1993, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to leave their monastery, because they refused to cease serving the community’s poor.
Held hostage for two months, de Cherge and his fellow monks were executed in 1996. Their heads were discovered inside a tree. Their bodies were never found.
Anticipating his murder, Christian de Cherge left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death.
Published in newspapers all over the world, his letter is a moving exemplification of the Gospel. In it, he wrote:
“If the day comes, and it could be today, that I am a victim of the terrorism that seems to be engulfing all of Algeria, I would like my community, the Church, to remember that I have dedicated my life to the Lord Jesus Christ.
If the moment I fear comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, and the faithfulness, to ask for God’s pardon for myself and to ask it as well for he who would attack me. I pray that I am able to love my enemy even in my death….”
The reason his note grabbed headlines and inspired a film, Of Gods and Men— Christian de Cherge then concluded his letter by addressing his would-be executioner:
“And to you too, my dear friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ ‘[go with God] in whose image you too are made. May you and I meet in the kingdom of heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our Father.”
No doubt, on any other day but today, I expect that you would find Christian de Cherge’s witness not only edifying, but inspiring.
If you heard the story of his martrydom on a different occasion, say All Saints Day, then in all likelihood you would understand, intuitively, how his exemplification of the Gospel is exactly the sort that first attracted pagans to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Christianity converted the heart of the Roman Empire before there was anything called the “New Testament,” and they did so at a time when nearly everyone was illiterate.
And in those first centuries of the Church, not only was the sacrament of holy communion off limits to outsiders— not only was the table closed to the unbaptized— so, too, was the Sunday worship gathering.
Unbelievers didn’t become believers by having been invited to the worship of Christians.
Unbelievers became believers by being attracted to the lives of Christians.
That’s just a fact of history.
The ancient Christians did not pass out tracts to people who could not read.
The lives of the ancient Christians themselves were the holy texts.
The saints were the scripture and the sacraments that persuaded pagans to the truth of what Christians professed.
That is, the Church in the ancient world grew by Christians daring to live in an odd, counter-intuitive manner that made no sense if God had not raised the crucified Christ from the dead and made him Lord of heaven and earth.
Christian de Cherge’s story is the kind of story that exemplified the story of Jesus and, in the ancient world, stories like de Cherge’s story made the story of Jesus more than a short-lived rumor from a backwater place called Galilee.
And for that reason, we rightly admire a story like Christian de Cherge’s story.
Yet, if you’re like me, not today.
Because, today, admiration alone isn’t an option.
Admiration is off the table.
Today, you might find the monk’s story unsettling— accusing, even— because today we’ve just heard his story in conjunction with the Sermon on the Mount where Christ teaches that we are to love our enemies.
We’d prefer to think the witness made by those French monks was the exception rather than the expectation.
We’d like to make their example remarkable, but today Jesus makes it the rule.
Moreover, Jesus putting this teaching (on how his disciples are to love their enemies) at the very outset of his ministry, implies that following Jesus will make for us enemies— enemies we would not have were we not following Jesus.
Our sentimental assumptions to the contrary, Christianity is not about having no enemies. Christianity is about loving the enemies we’ve made by our being Christian.
Jesus is not referring here to the enemies you had before you met Jesus, (he’s not talking about your mother-in-law or your ex-husband). Jesus is, instead, preparing his disciples for the command he will give them later in Matthew’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
To follow the Crucified One is to anticipate that there will be those who wish to nail you to a cross, too. And like the Crucified One, Jesus teaches today, you are to suffer your persecutors in patience and love.
This part of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly problematic for people like us.
After all, if we have any conviction, it’s that God is nice. And, because we’re a sanctificationist people, we think that the conviction, “God is nice,” ought to come with a correlative; therefore, we believe that we should be nice, too.
It seems a contradiction that nice people following a nice God should discover that they’ve made enemies for themselves precisely by being Christian— enemies to whom we’re required to be more than nice.
We’re required to love them, Jesus says, going so far as to offer them another cheek to strike, giving them the coat off our back, and walking an extra couple of miles in their shoes.
It might not be any credit to us if we love the people who love us.
But it sure sounds smarter.
Christ’s command to love the enemies we’ve made by following him— the unavoidable implication to Christ’s command is that if we’ve made no enemies by following him then we’re likely not following him.
We’re admiring him, maybe. But we’re not obeying him.
John Wesley called those who admire Jesus but who dare not obey Jesus “almost Christians.” “Almost Christians” want Jesus to secure for them life after death, but “almost Christians” do not want to offer Jesus the kind of life that could mean their death.
Let me make it plain.
This is what is at stake in the sermon Jesus preaches today:
If your account of Christianity is such that it makes no sense whatsoever why anyone would want to kill Jesus or his followers (or you)— if we’re just a club of nice people admiring a nice God— then, it’s not Christianity.
As Jesus tells the disciples later in the Gospel, following his peaceable way in the world will make the world more violent, not less:
“Do you think that I will bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I will produce division! Even households will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”
Which means— pay attention now—
Christ’s command to love our enemies is not a strategy. The point of Jesus’ preaching here is not, “Give peace a chance,” or “Love is all you need.” Christ does not promise us that through our love of the enemy our enemy will cease to be our enemy and will one day love us.
Christianity is not naive.
Jesus does not promise us that our nonviolent, cruciform love is a strategy to rid the world of violence.
Rather, in a world of violence Jesus has called his disciples to be a particular people who love their enemies, because that is the form God’s care for us became incarnate in the world.
This is what we do, not because it works, but because this is who He is.
“While we were yet his enemies,” the Apostle Paul says, “God-in-Christ loved us.”
“Let that same mind be in you,” St. Paul writes, “that was in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Love of enemy—
It’s not about what works in the world.
It’s about our witness to the world.
Our witness to what God has worked in Jesus Christ.
He has conquered.
He has overcome the crosses that we build with resurrection.
Just before this, Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths.
That sounds innocent enough until you think about it and realize that Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths because an oath is but an exception to lies, and every word out of his followers mouths should be “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Meanwhile, here we are in America, where we can no longer even distinguish the truth from the lie, much less speak nothing but the truth.
You gripe about some of our sermons.
Jesus preaches a hard sermon, and then he ends this section today with “Be perfect.” Actually, in Greek, it says, “There should be no limit to your goodness.”
Jesus preaches a hard sermon.
Just before the command about oaths, Jesus teaches that we are to live visibly in the world— like salt, like light— in a manner that substantiates our message.
And, let’s be honest, most of us live in the world in a manner that corroborates our sin, not our having been saved from it.
Even if you could take a red pen and redact this part of Christ’s preaching, this part where we are commanded to love the enemies Jesus has managed to make for us, even if you could cut out today’s passage, it doesn’t make the rest of the sermon any less convicting on nice, Jesus- admiring, “almost Christians” like us.
So, what are we to do with this Sermon on the Mount from which, on any number of counts, we all fall so short?
I mean, I can barely manage my inbox, let alone love all the people who love me, much less cover all the law Jesus lays down in this sermon.
What do we do with this?
When we treat Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal to be realized only in some future kingdom, when we regard it as a collection of generalized principles that anyone can follow whether or not they’re following Jesus, when we interpret the sermon only as overwhelming law meant to convict us of our sin and compel us to Christ’s grace— when we interpret the Sermon on the Mount in any of those ways, we neglect to notice how the Sermon on the Mount is a sermon.
That is, it’s not directed to unbelieving individuals.
Nor is it meant for believing individuals.
It’s a sermon.
It’s addressed to a particular congregation.
It’s intended for that community to act out and embody.
This is why Matthew tells you at the top of Chapter Five that the twelve disciples have visibly left the crowd on the mountainside and drawn close to Christ.
They are the ones for whom the Sermon on the Mount is meant, because they are the ones through whom Jesus is reconstituting Israel and relaunching Israel’s vocation to be a light unto the nations.
And like Israel’s Law, Jesus’ Torah on the Mount is meant for the particular people that Christ has called, and that Christ is putting into the world to witness to the new age inaugurated by his resurrection.
The Sermon on the Mount is not meant for everybody.
The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body.
The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body of disciples.
So, the good news is that the command to love our enemies is not a command for everyone to obey.
The bad news is that, by virtue of your baptism, it is a command— just like all the others in the sermon— that claims you.
But, that burden is not all bad news for you are just a part of the Body, and, as St. Paul tells us, the Body of Christ is made up of many different members where no part of the Body can say to another part of the Body, “I have no need of you.” Which is but a way of saying, “I need you.”
I need you.
We need each other.
We need each other if we are, as a community, to be Christ’s sermon illustration.
You see, the object of Jesus’ sermon is that it makes us dependent on one another if we are to exemplify it.
Some of you speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but you do not know how to pray well.
Others of you are skilled at prayer, but struggle with gossip.
Some of you are open about your faith, while others of you hide it so far under a bushel basket your closet friends would be surprised to discover that you’re a Christian.
Many of you hunger and thirst for justice, but you do not pray for those who persecute the victims of injustice. You advocate for vicitms of oppression, but you do not pray for the victimizers.
We need each other if we are to be Christ’s sermon illustration.
The point of the sermon isn’t that each of you, individually, need to be like Jesus Christ.
The point of the sermon is that Christ’s Body, collectively, bear witness to him.
You might be weak on sanctification.
But, taken together, Christ’s Body spread through the world— there is no limit to the goodness.
And so, perhaps you aren’t very compassionate on the poor, yet here you are today a part of a people who will package thousands of meals for them.
Maybe you can’t imagine ever being capable of loving your enemies in any risk-taking ways, yet by baptism you belong to a Body with members that include witnesses like Christian de Cherge.
Brother Paul (Favre-Miville) was another Trappist monk martryed at the abbey in Algeria in 1996. He came from a family of blacksmiths in France, a family of cultural Christians who had Paul baptized as a baby, but who did not practice the faith with any real commitment.
Paul’s family did not welcome his decision to become a monk, nor did they understand his insistence on remaining at the abbey after it had become dangerous.
When his unbelieving friends and secular, skeptical family would ask him about his life in Algeria amidst enemies, Brother Paul would often joke to them, “Well, my head is still on my shoulders.”
In a letter to his friends and family, Brother Paul wrote:
“Becoming a monk is a choice, like the choice to become a follower of Christ…. Our sins are not the same nor are our gifts the same and in this way the calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another. The faithfulness of his Body is bigger than the failures of its individual members.”
The calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another.
I’ll tell you what that means—
It means faith does not name your own inner commitments, your own private beliefs, or your own interior feelings.
No, faith names making your life vulnerable to a people who will hold you accountable to what you think is true, a people through whom, by belonging to one another, each of us is made more than we otherwise might be.
That is the hope we call the Gospel.
And it is the hope that takes flesh in these creatures of bread and wine; so that, we might taste and see here and now what, one day, we shall become.