17472193_sOnce I was in a small group that was discussing a sermon I had just preached. It was the first of two sermons on the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:13–26). It was a tough day for one of the group members to be confronted by the demands of the passage. A Singaporean, he was serving in the army as part of his national service. Several of his unit mates were picking on him and making his life hell. He had fallen sick with serious gastritis — acute abdominal pains, vomiting and diarrhoea. It had been so bad that he had to be hospitalised.

After he was discharged from hospital he was given two weeks’ medical leave. His unit mates thought he had somehow managed to get himself two weeks off so that he could escape work. They had to do his share of the work. They were mad and were now taking it out on him. My friend was angry at how unfairly he had been treated. And now he learnt that as a follower of Jesus, he had to say no to “hatred” and to “fits of rage”. More than that, he had to forgive his enemies (Matthew 6:9–15). Even more than that, he had to love them. Here is one of the toughest passages in the Bible:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48 NIV)

Commenting on v. 44, R. T. France writes:

The change from the singular “enemy” of v. 43 to the plural here may be intended to underline its comprehensiveness: no class of enemy is excluded…. To “love” (agapao) in the NT is not only a matter of emotion but also an attitude which determines our behaviour, acting for the good of the other… (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007, 225.)

The call to love one’s enemies is a key distinctive of the Christian faith. This principle is important enough for the apostle Paul to include in his letter to the Romans:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14–21 NIV)

This is a tough call. Even the call to “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) has a certain logic. But to love your enemies? But as France reminds us:

… to love those who do not love you is not offered as a piece of pragmatic wisdom, but as a reflection of the character of God himself. (France, The Gospel of Matthew, 45.)

This is how God loved us. While we were still sinners, enemies of God, Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). If the Spirit of that same God now indwells and transforms us, we too must be people who love our enemies.

Teachers of the Word must first be people who live out the Word. The call to love one’s enemies is tough to teach. It is even tougher to observe. There are many reasons to be angry and to curse people these days. I am mad when Ibrahim Ali, head of Perkasa, says things like:

The Christians’ fight for the right to call God “Allah” conveyed that they have no name for their deity, Perkasa chief Datuk Ibrahim Ali said today. (Boo Su-Lyn, “Perkasa: ‘Allah’ fight shows Christians have no name for God,” The Malay Mail Online, bit.ly/17PyhT1)

But if I end up hating him and others like him, I have lost a more fundamental fight, the fight to be Christ-like. I must forgive him. More than that, I must bless him.

I hope we will continue to fight against the ruling of the Court of Appeals that ruled that the Catholic Newsletter, The Herald, cannot use the word Allah to refer to God. This is not some narrow fight to protect Christians. It is a fight to protect the fact that the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens, and that the government of the day cannot dictate to any religion what they call God. If a country does not abide by her constitution, minorities will be at the mercy of the majority. (Here is another take on the issue: “Award-winning American Muslim scholar on Allah ruling: ‘We are laughing at you’,” bit.ly/18Fpzvb)

Still, however this matter is resolved, followers of Christ must not neglect a more fundamental call, the call to love our enemies. To be Christ-like. In this, my NS (National Service) friend and I must say no to the deeds of the flesh and we must say yes to the fruit of the Spirit. And we can only do it if we walk in the Spirit.