Last week Pastor Liz wondered in her sermon what or who frightens us. I tossed this question around all week. When I was in high school there was in individual who frightened me. Jeff Mitchell was failing tenth grade but was excelling in the bullying class he was taking at night. He made high school difficult for me, never missing an opportunity to embarrass, belittle, or physically challenge me. Even today, almost four decades later, something like hate bubbles up when I think about him. He became my enemy.
Often, people that frighten us become our enemy. In conflict with each other, we both might grow to dislike even hate each other. As an adult, anyone who challenges the safety or security of someone or something I love and cherish is likely to begin this spiral that leads to enmity. If a person were to harm my family or friends, they would become my enemy. If someone were to try to ruin or destroy the good work we are doing here at Messiah, I might respond from the dark place of hate. If one of you were to set your sights on me, to ruin my life through rumor or sabotage, you would frighten me.
The bible is full of characters and stories about enemies that grow from fear and how they react to each other. In the book of Acts, Stephen, was chosen by the early church to serve the poor, orphans and widows in their community in Jerusalem. His fame and belief in Jesus made the leaders afraid in his local synagogue, so they started telling lies about him. Their goal was not to ruin his reputation. The lie they told, that he blasphemed God, could lead to execution. Stephen was their enemy.
The chief priests at the temple heard their lies, arrested him and put him on trial to find out if this were true and whether he had preached that Jesus would come back and destroy the temple, the seat of their power. If this were true, they would fear losing their power. At the trial, Stephen declared that because of Jesus, God dwells again with God’s people through the Spirit, not in buildings like the temple. Stephen became their enemy.
The council seized Stephen and led the crowd gathered for the trial to the outskirts of the city. Men took off their coats and laid them at the foot of a young man named Saul, and then at the urging of the Chief Priests began to throw stones and heavy rocks at Stephen. Stephen became their enemy.
With each rock that hit him, skin was broken, blood came out and life left him. Stephen was certainly afraid. These men were now his enemies, too. Dying, Stephen fell to his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” His last words were a plea for the murderous crowd around him, his enemies. Fear creates all sorts of enemies in this story, but they are not all treated the same. Some enemies are met with rocks and stones and others with love and forgiveness.
Saul, the person watching the coats in that crowd loved God and hated God’s enemies. His enemies was anyone proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah, the men and women who were causing conflicts in the synagogues of Jerusalem by proclaiming the Spirit of God was upon them. Their changes frightened him. In the name of God, he went on a rampage, dragging heretics out of synagogues and bringing them before the council where they would be found guilty and executed like Stephen or imprisoned. After cleansing Jerusalem in a fervor of hate, he led men to the villages surrounding Jerusalem, then north to Galilee, pursuing more enemies, followers of Jesus, to bring them to justice.
From Galilee Saul turned his attention to those who had fled to the large trading city of Damascus, about 135 miles away from Jerusalem. There was a Jewish community in Damascus and his enemies were hiding within them, ruining faithful synagogues with their poison. He led his men to stop by force these blasphemers. And it was on the road to Damascus, that God stopped Saul and questioned his murderous intentions.
Glowing brighter than the noonday sun, God in Jesus asked the simple question, Saul why do you persecute me? Or stated another way, Saul why do you hate me? Or, Saul why have you become my enemy? God did not strike dead His enemy. God did not throw His enemy in chains. God did not punish him for his horrendous actions. God did not seek vengeance for the harm His enemy had done in the world. God did not meet Saul’s murderous rage with murder. God met hate with love and forgave Saul. The power of that undeserved love from God converted Saul from hating followers of Jesus, to loving who those had been his enemy.
Any of us here, might have enemies, people who frighten us and gin up the strong emotion of hate within us. God too has enemies, because God loves all of creation and daily there are threats by any one of us to what God loves. God’s enemies today include religious people like Saul that love God but who because of fear of change and confusion about how to honor God, hate, harm, injure, defame even kill those whom they see as God’s enemies. Yet, God meets all of these enemies with love because God’s greatest concern is not stopping them or even punishing them. God is interested in changing enemies and only love can do that. We are called to love our enemies, too. However, not stopping our enemies can be dangerous in our world as the death of Stephen and later Saul proves.
A popular television series right now that I recommend to no one is the Walking Dead. Many of you know, it’s premise is ridiculous, slow moving, flesh eating zombies have taken over the world. Most of humanity has been killed and only small communities of men and women are still around. To survive this violent, dangerous and deadly world, most men and women have become very violent themselves, except for one character, Morgan.
Morgan refuses to kill his enemies, men or women intent on killing him or the people he loves. He sees the promise for conversion in every person, like the conversion of the bloodthirsty Saul. Morgan had been changed by the grace of a man who could have killed him when Morgan was caught stealing his food. Morgan is committed to sharing that grace with everyone else, even if it means losing his life or the life of people he loves. In the violent, zombie filled world, Morgan is dangerous. He is playing by a different set of rules and thus he is in constant conflict in his community.
Who frightens me? Who has become my enemy? My enemies are those who challenge what I love. God requires that I respond to my enemies with love. This is foolish, even dangerous and makes no sense at all because violent retribution and death stops our enemies. But hate never changes our enemies only love, compassion and forgiveness will do that. The resurrected Christ declares new life, even for enemies who might wish to end our life. Can we have the courage to work for new life for them, too? Amen