Choosing Love

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Matthew 5:38-48.

The night we got back from Honduras, I had a dream. I dreamed I was preaching a sermon to an Anglo congregation – including some of you, actually – but in a Honduran church. Well, not exactly a church: in the dream it was sort of a three-way combination of the church of Espiritu Santo, the patio of one of our favorite restaurants, and the seating stands of the Jaguar Plaza at the Mayan ruins of Copan. (If you’ve never seen the Jaguar Plaza, go look it up on the internet sometime – it’s really fascinating!)

And in my sermon I said “Have you had the experience of someone you really love telling you how much they loved you, even though you knew – deep down in your heart you just knew – that you were basically unlovable?” And as I watched recognition dawn in the congregants’ faces, I added, “Then you know what it is like to feel the love of God coming to you through the love of another person.”

And when I woke up I did my best to analyze that dream sermon. I detected its overt sentimentality; I was aware of the hints of dark narcissism. But even so, I really couldn’t contradict it. It is true: God loves us in and through and by means of the love of others; and it is especially true that we feel God’s love coming through human love most when we know we don’t deserve it.

And I think that is what’s going on behind Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, which we read in Matthew’s Gospel today, when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Jesus is calling us here to show love even to the ones we personally think are most unlovable, the ones most beyond the reach of our personal love, because that is how they will know that God loves them. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not to show God how good we are, but to show our enemies how good God is.

And for me at least, that really turns around the whole meaning of this teaching of Jesus. The commandment to love the enemy becomes less of a moral striving I have to make, and more of an opportunity to reveal God – or, better, to let God reveal himself – through me to others. It’s not a thing I have to do, but a gift God wants to give.

And that really emphasizes that, in this passage in the Gospel, the kind of “love” that Jesus talks about has more to do with choice than it does with feeling. C.S. Lewis famously pointed out that the Greek language in which the New Testament is written had four different words, all of which we translate into English with the single word “love.” And that means that New Testament Greek was able to talk about love with greater specificity and more precision than we are able to speak about it today.

In modern English, I can say anything from “I love the food in Honduras” to “I love the way Peter Capaldi plays Doctor Who” to “I love singing good church music” to “I love my wife with all my heart” – and I have to use the same word “love” to describe all those different realities – and they are very different realities, indeed.

But New Testament Greek allows a little more precision. There’s a word for feeling close to someone in a warmly affectionate way. There is a word for being passionate about someone and desiring them deeply. And there is a word for caring about someone else’s well-being so much that you would choose what is good for them even over and above what is good for yourself. And that sort of love is not so much a movement of emotion as it is an act of will. In New Testament Greek there is a word for “love” that’s less about how you feel than it is about how you choose.

And that’s the word for “love” that Jesus uses when he says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Which means this commandment is not about manufacturing a warm glow of affection for people who hate you and want to destroy you. This is not a commandment about praying for the success of people whose intention is to harm you. Let me be clear: Jesus doesn’t call us to be masochists like that.

What this is, is a commandment to be mindful of how our choices add up to the greatest well-being possible for the widest community possible in any given situation. It’s a commandment about choosing to do the good thing even in bad circumstances.

So when someone strikes you, physically or emotionally, you could strike back. Or you could choose to look for the good that will defuse the violence and make peace more possible.

Or when someone takes something from you, whether material goods or things less tangible, you could fight to get it back and struggle to protect your own. Or you could choose to look for the good that would help meet others’ true needs while not neglecting your own – not your true needs, at least.

Or when someone abuses their power over you – like a Roman soldier compelling a Jewish subject to carry something for a mile – or perhaps a power less military, maybe a power more psychological – when someone abuses power you could choose to assert your power back. Or you could choose to look for the good that would raise up the possibility of power-with instead of power-over. I sometimes think of this as the spiritual equivalent of the difference between sumo and aikido: sumo wrestlers oppose power to power, trying to push each other out of the ring; but in aikido you redirect the opponent’s energy so that it doesn’t hurt you and doesn’t hurt the opponent either.

The kind of love that’s appropriate for bad circumstances is knowing how to choose – and then having the courage to make the choice – that will still lead to good.

And Jesus is very clear that the reason we make this choice, the reason we love with this kind of love, is not because we are so good at loving, but because God is so good at loving. It is God who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” – including us – and if God does that for us, then God also empowers us to do that for others. If we experience God’s love coming to us through others, even when we know how unlovable we can be, then how can we not show God’s love to others, quite apart from how lovable we think they might be? If God so wants good for us, then how can we not choose what is good for as many people as we possibly can?

And choosing what is good for others, in a culture and an economy and a politics that constantly tells us to put ourselves first – choosing good for others can be a subversive act. Loving the enemy, in the midst of a public mindset that’s all about identifying enemies and putting them down at every turn – loving the enemy can be a genuinely countercultural thing. It was a hard thing in Jesus’ society, and it can be a hard thing in our current society, too.

But the good news is that we don’t love this love all on our own. God loves us. And God loves through us. And it is God’s love that empowers our love to choose what is good, truly good, for all the people God gives us to love – family, friends, strangers, enemies – all the people God gives us to love.

Who will you choose to love with God’s own good love this week?


  1. An important message for this day and time, that’s for sure, but I think the issue of “identifying enemies” is getting undeservedly bad press these days. My wife, for example, was struggling with Lyme Disease. Until she knew it was Lyme disease, she thought she was on her deathbed. It was not until she knew it was Lyme that the Lyme could be addressed (attacked, killed, smited). If something is killing our bodies, families, neighborhoods, countries, world, I think it is vitally important to identify and then address it. No?