Epiphany 7 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 20th February

1Cor 15.35-38,42-50; Luke 6.27-38

The Gospel reading which we just heard is at the heart of Jesus’ sermon on the level plain. It’s a pretty good sermon, perhaps the most incisive, plain speaking sermon of Jesus that we have. After that, more words, another sermon, from me is almost certainly unnecessary.

“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Silence maybe is the appropriate response. The silence of reflection, and prayer. Any further words run the risk of seeking to avoid the issue. For here we are met by the heart of the gospel, and in the reversal of our customary values the sheer magnitude of Jesus’ teaching is presented in all its starkness.

“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and expect nothing in return.”

Perhaps in our silence we wonder at the impossibility, or the futility, of such requests. It’s not sensible. As Russians and Ukrainians face off across fragile borders, and the rest of us fear what comes next; as we try and negotiate our own politics and society so often dominated by division, and anger, and social media driven bile; as we become aware of more and more people driven by cost of living increases into reliance on food banks; as we sometimes fall out even with those we otherwise love – what can it mean to love our enemies, to lend without expectation of return?

Martin Luther King knew something about the depth and power and possibility of loving our enemies, even as he also knew that that meant putting himself, in the name of love, in situations of conflict and suffering. But crucially that love of enemies was rooted in a desire for the redemption of all creation – the transformation of all things, himself included. As Martin Luther King told his most bitter opponents: “Be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not solely for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

So maybe in our silence we turn to confession: we know deep down that Jesus is right, that cycles of violence and retaliation will only be broken  – and us and them become we – when we walk the way of forgiveness and love, however difficult that may seem. We glimpse that in Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, but wonder if we can ever live up to that example. Perhaps we don’t think of ourselves as having enemies. But even here, in daily life, as friends, family and neighbours wind us up, the tricky practice of loving those we do love and live alongside can seem far off. And so in the silence, forgive us Lord, we pray.

And in the silence maybe the Holy Spirit can begin to do her work. Jesus’ words are not simply a new obligation, a command we are obliged to keep, so that we only ever fail. They are an invitation to see the world in different terms, and so let the Holy Spirit begin the work of transformation. So that us and them becomes we: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

In that mercy, in that forgiving love at the heart of all things, is our, our, redemption.

St Paul wrote to the church of Corinth, a church community somewhat wracked by divisions: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, let us also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

In a moment Beatrice will be baptised into the life of the Spirit, the Spirit who transforms the dust of which we are made into that which also bears the image of the man of heaven. Today Beatrice is welcomed into that community that walks, however hesitantly, that path of transformation. She will not be transformed in an instant; but the promises that you make today, parents and godparents, are about enabling her to walk in the faith that sees the world as a place of possibility, that imagines the overcoming of enmity and division, that is open to the transformation that the Holy Spirit enables. Where us and them, you and me, become we. That faith and imagination need nurturing in Beatrice, and in us; faith and imagination need space and silence and inspiration. They are born through death and resurrection, as baptism prefigures. We are dust, and yet capable of such acts of love and generosity. For at the heart of reality is a grace that loves beyond sense, loves us into life, loves us so that we might be that for which we were created, loves the dust into heavenly shapes. And it is that wonderful possibility in Beatrice, and the promises and intentions that will nurture it, that we celebrate today, as we ask the Holy Spirit to baptise her, transform the dust of which she, and we, are made, to bear the imprint of heaven.

I have filled the silence with a lot of words. Let us journey back into silence in the words of a prayer by Janet Morley, which says succinctly what, forgive me, I have struggled to convey:

Christ our teacher,
you urge us beyond all reason
to love our enemies,
and pray for our oppressors.
May we embrace such folly
not through subservience, but strength;
that unmeasured generosity
may be poured into our lap,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.

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