When I was first at Kilmartin I mentioned that it was just after the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (18th – 25th Jan.), that is ‘unity’ rather than ‘uniformity’, and after recent events, I can’t help but reflect that others within these islands would have benefited from taking note of that week! For we seem to live at a time of dis-unity, wherever we look: left; right and centre, as it were.
So it is with some relief that I come here today, having reflected on the excitement and joy that shouts out from the passage in Genesis, when Joseph recognises his brothers (or half-brothers) but they don’t recognise him. This despite the treatment they gave him, which resulted in him ending up in Egypt. How would I react I wondered, especially as the last time I saw my twin brother via Skype (he’s in Singapore – no I didn’t sell him) it appeared that he had a halo around his head! The wonders of modern technology! I digress.
To return to matters much more significant, Joseph knew what it was to have faith in God and the peace (rather than resentment), that forgiveness brings. What followed shows the triumph of grace over judgment. Words of forgiveness and reconciliation come from Joseph’s lips. He calls them closer and adds to his opening words the word “brother”. He re-establishes the bond their betrayal had broken. Joseph’s story shows his profound understanding of God’s providence and how God used their wickedness for good. Although twice he says, “You sold me,” (v. 4, 5) three times he says, “God sent me ahead of you” (v. 5, 7, 8). Joseph doesn’t ignore their actions, he seeks to make sense of them, ascribing ultimate responsibility for the outcome to God, such is his faithfulness!
Their abandoned brother had become governor and he would ensure many, who otherwise would have died, would survive the famine. He has been sent “to save lives” (v. 5, 7). Instead of rejecting or punishing them he extends a hand to them and tells to bring his father down to Egypt to see out the famine years. Greeting Benjamin first, he embraced all his family and tears fell freely. Such is the wonder of forgiveness, of mercy and of grace. Healing and restoration comes, after all these years. The alternative? Thoughts of bitterness, greed and suffering come to mind.
The readings for last Sunday introduce those for today and when I was preaching with reference to the passage from Luke’s Gospel (6:17–26) I noted that it is no accident that part of the passage, termed the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ because of it’s similarity to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ contained in the Gospel of Matthew, is followed by a passage headed ‘Love for Enemies’ (N.I.V.). Luke tells us earlier in the chapter that this was after a night of prayer.
Jesus is challenging those present to see themselves as God/He sees them and/or will see them when the time for judgement comes. Challenging them (and us), as the prophets did, to repent and put love/desire for those things that are material to our lives well behind a faith that brings hope through love. The blessings he refers to are not particularly difficult to appreciate but given the context of the time (under Roman occupation etc.) they were very challenging and necessitated a change in action/lifestyle for all who heard them. They are still challenging to all cultures, however described. Easy to say but difficult to do!
The call to love God, to love our neighbour and to love one another is added to with one final call, to love our enemies. To love those who are different from us, to love those who disagree with us, to love those who are difficult and demanding and delight to do us down is asking too much, surely! The Greek word written down is ‘agapan’ (Prof. Wm. Barclay) which he translates as an ‘active feeling of benevolence towards other people’. We are instructed to do good to our enemies and to be merciful to them. These are wilful; positive acts, not negative such as withholding punishment. The teaching is positive towards our fellow human; doing that little bit extra brings greater reward, long-term.
The very fact that we have those we might regard and describe as “enemies”, serves to illustrate how difficult an ask this is. I tend to think of ‘agapan’ as attempting to cure the cause that produces “enemies” rather than repairing the hatred that results from having such “enemies”.
Jesus is very practical and pragmatic in the examples he uses by way of application. Whatever we feel, our actions should do good to all. As the former Anglican Priest, the Rev. John Stott said: “Love is not a victim of our emotions but a servant of our will”. Our attitude should be one of blessing not cursing, of prayer not provocation. Instead of retaliation, vulnerability; where exploited be generous in response; let loans become gifts and follow the Golden Rule. This countercultural way of grace marks the Christian community out from others. Jesus makes the point by showing how the default position of the world is self- interest. We love because we are loved. We do good to those who return the favour. We lend where repayment is guaranteed. But go to a different gear, operate on a different level and you will show the world the Christian family to which you belong.
Think back to Joseph and how you might feel if you suffered a similar experience. Not exactly a friendly act when you’re sold like a commodity by your siblings. You might harbour a grudge; ponder how to achieve some form of revenge – physically and/or materially, all fairly negative emotions, but look at the joy and peace brought to all through the positive Faith Joseph has.
One of the great things about being a Reader for our church is that you get to meet lots of people who have that faith and although you might not be meeting anyone who’s done you harm, you do meet people whose paths you might have crossed many years ago. That gives me at least some small insight into Joseph’s excitement and pleasure at seeing his brothers after so many years.
By way of example, I asked myself (and my wife) who my “enemies” were or had been but (we) couldn’t come up with any. The closest I could get was some years ago when I found the going so tough in gainful employment and with some of those I worked with, that I gave up my work, literally knocked my house down and started life in a different direction, that took faith!
As I’ve already said it’s easy to say “love your enemies” but much more difficult to do. An enemy after all presents hostility in some form such as: physical violence; emotional bullying; perhaps even makes you suffer in financial terms or just refuses to alter their point of view to one that you find more favourable. Ultimately when you find difference of such a scale that you regard someone as your “enemy”, then it can’t be a surprise that the “enemy” regards you in the same way. It may be argued that showing love for your “enemies” is a weakness and allows your “enemy” to triumph but that approach to life is very negative in nature and demonstrates no Faith in the love of God.
As the Psalmist says, at the end of Psalm 37:
‘The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord: he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.’ (N.I.V.)