In 1569 a young man named Dirk Willems was burnt at the stake for heresy in the town of Asperen in the Netherlands. Some of you have heard me tell his story before; for others, it will be new. Today many Christians around the world look on him as a hero. Let me tell you why.
When Dirk was a teenager he met some Anabaptists. In the 16th century, these were the Christians who opposed the idea of having a state church. They didn’t believe that people were Christians just because they were citizens of a so-called ‘Christian country’; they believed that you had to choose for yourself to become a follower of Jesus, that you should be baptized as an adult as a sign of this commitment, and that you then became part of a fellowship of people who were learning how to put Jesus’ teaching into practice. In particular, most Anabaptists believed that followers of Jesus should not participate in war, and should literally love their enemies as Jesus taught us. The state churches considered them a threat to their power, and so hundreds of Anabaptists were horribly tortured and executed.
Dirk was attracted to Anabaptist ideas, and he was baptized as an adult in Rotterdam. He then returned to his home town of Asperen and quietly began to host illegal Anabaptist meetings in his house. At those meetings, he and some others taught a way of being Christian that was incompatible with the way the established church at that time taught it. Eventually he was arrested and imprisoned, but he managed to escape from the prison by climbing out of the window and clambering down a rope made of knotted cloths, and he ran for safety. However, he was seen from the prison, and a guard ran after him. It was early spring; Dirk approached a still-frozen pond, but he had been eating prison food and didn’t weigh very much, so he made it across the thin ice. The guard, however, had been eating rather better, and he broke through the ice. In terror of drowning, he cried out for help.
What would you have done, in Dirk’s shoes?
Dirk turned back. At great risk, he reached across the ice to rescue his pursuer. When the guard was safely on dry ground, he promptly re-arrested Dirk and incarcerated him in a more secure prison – the tower of the Asperen parish church. This time there was no escape. Dirk was tried for heresy, and was condemned to be burned to death at the stake. The execution was exceptionally painful; the wind blew the fire away from his upper body, and so he died very slowly. Witnesses are recorded as having heard him cry out many times, “Oh Lord, my God!” as he was being burned.
Was Dirk right to do what he did?
Christians for many centuries have disagreed over the issue of war. Is it right for Christians to participate in wars and to kill the enemies of their country? Those who say it is right have argued that Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies was intended to guide personal behaviour, not state policy. Personally I think there’s a lot more too it than that, but be that as it may, what we have here is precisely a story about personal behaviour, and so, at least in theory, all Christians are agreed that we can’t wiggle out of this one. Dirk did as Jesus commanded in our Gospel for today, and he was not delivered; he suffered horribly for his decision. Why did he do that? And why did Jesus command us to do this?
The reason Jesus commanded us to do this is because this is the way God treats us. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies. And that’s what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.
But before we look again at the words of Jesus for today, let’s remind ourselves of what he is doing in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier in the chapter he told us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter God’s kingdom. The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people in Jesus’ day, so this might seem like a tall order, but as we read on we see that Jesus had a different view. To him, their religion was often only skin deep; they were satisfied with outward conformity to the letter of the law, while they ignored the spirit of it. And so Jesus challenges us, his disciples, to go beyond the letter of the Old Testament law and to focus on the inner transformation that is God’s dream for us.
And so, as we saw last week, we aren’t to be satisfied with just avoiding murder while all the time nursing anger and resentment against others; rather, we’re to do all we can to be fully reconciled with one another. It’s not enough only to tell the truth when we’re under oath in court; we’re to be such honest people that no-one would even think of asking us to take an oath because they know we always tell the truth.
You see, in all the examples he gives, Jesus calls his followers to move beyond the Old Testament laws and to strive to live by the perfect law of love. He’s quite clear about what he’s asking his followers to do with regard to the Old Testament; over and over again he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…”. Obviously, though he respects the Old Testament law, he doesn’t see it as completely adequate as a basis for living a godly life, and so he ‘fulfils’ it in the sense of exploring its deeper meaning and even, in some cases, apparently overturning it in favour of a more perfect way.
This is particularly relevant to today’s passage. In the Old Testament, as you know, there are many stories of wars and violence apparently being sanctioned by God, but Jesus offers his followers a completely different way of dealing with evil. Let’s listen again to his words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
I wonder what your instinctive reaction is when you hear these words of Jesus? Perhaps you think he’s being outrageous: how can he possibly demand such a thing? Doesn’t he understand that if we act in this way we’re just going to encourage people to continue their evil behaviour? Surely he’s being impossibly idealistic here! I’m reminded of the story of a Scottish pastor who was preaching a series on the Sermon on the Mount. An old lady objected to his sermon about loving enemies, and when he replied that he was simply quoting the words of Jesus, she replied, “Yes, but Jesus was a very young man when he preached that sermon!”
But here’s the catch: don’t we assume, every one of us, that God will treat us in this way? Don’t we almost see it as our right? The God Jesus describes to us in the Gospels is constantly loving his enemies. As Jesus says, God doesn’t check to see if you believe in him before he lets you benefit from the sunshine. He doesn’t check to see if you’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he decides whether or not it will rain on you. No, ‘he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (v.45).
The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly loving people who don’t deserve to be loved. It’s almost forty-two years since I first gave my life to Jesus. I have to say that I’m still confessing some of the same sins, on an almost daily basis, that I was confessing forty-two years ago. I’ve made progress in some areas, but in others I’ve gotten nowhere at all. Sometimes I put in an honest effort to change; at other times I just like an easy life too much. Sometimes, to be absolutely honest, I find a particular sin just too enjoyable to give up! And yet, day by day, I go to God and ask him to forgive me. I never think of saying to him, “I don’t think you’d better forgive me for this, Lord – if you do, you’ll just reinforce my bad behaviour”. No, I ask for forgiveness, and I know I have received it, because he continues to bless me with a sense of his presence and an awareness of his mercy and grace. That’s what the Christian gospel is all about: a God who loves people whether they deserve it or not, because it is his nature to love.
The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly turning the other cheek. And in this case, it’s like Father, like Son. Jesus, of course, was the ultimate practitioner of his own sermon. He loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted him. When the soldiers were nailing him to the Cross he prayed for all who were involved in his execution, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. And his death was the ultimate example of how God treats human sinfulness. God chose not to send the entire human race to hell for our rebellion. Instead, he came among us in Jesus and took the sins of the world on his own shoulders. Rather than making us suffer for our sins, he chose to bear the suffering himself, so that we could be forgiven.
So this passage, you see, is rooted in the Gospel, the good news of God’s grace. Grace is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t deserve’. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to do something to purchase it; it just comes to you for free, because God is that kind of God. God doesn’t love us because we’re loveable; he loves us because he is love, whether we’re loveable or not.
And that’s the wonderful good news that Jesus has commissioned us to announce to everyone, everywhere: that God has declared an amnesty to all who will take advantage of it by coming to Jesus and putting their trust in him. You can be the older brother who never left home or the younger brother who squandered his father’s property with prostitutes. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee or a tax collector who’s broken every rule in the book. God’s not choosy – if you turn back to him and put your life in Jesus’ hands, you can be forgiven.
But here’s the catch: if you want to take advantage of God’s grace, you have to commit yourself to living by that same principle of grace in your own life. Jesus spelled it out for us in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. He goes on to say, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Yes, we were God’s enemies, but fortunately for us God is in the habit of loving his enemies, and so instead of being cast into the outer darkness we were welcomed home to the Father’s house. Very good, Jesus says – now: go and do likewise.
The way Jesus sees it, children who have good parents should want to be like them; if they don’t, there’s something wrong. So often, when we are confronted with some piece of sinfulness in ourselves, we say, “I’m only human, you know!” And of course God understands that, which is why he is such a patient and merciful God. But he longs for us to aim higher than that! He longs for us to look up to him and say, like a little child who is so proud of his father, “When I get older, I want to be like my Dad!” And so he ends today’s reading by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v.48). This sounds like an impossible ideal, and no doubt it is very difficult, but let’s remember that the word ‘perfect’ in this context means ‘complete, with nothing left out’. What Jesus is saying is ‘Our heavenly Father leaves no one outside the circle of his love, and you must do the same’.
No one ever said this would be easy. No one promised it would never get us into trouble. Dirk Willems knew very well that turning back to help his enemy would probably mean his death. But he did it anyway, because he wanted to be like his heavenly Father, and like his Master Jesus. Followers of Jesus are content to do as Jesus says, and trust that the same God who vindicated him will one day vindicate us as well. And so, like him, we are called to walk the costly path of love. Let us pray that the God who strengthened Jesus will strengthen us also, so that we too are able to leave no one out of the circle of our love.