You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor 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. —Matthew 5:43-48
“Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.” These words were spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., Ph.D., in a sermon about Matthew 5:43-45, delivered Nov. 17, 1957, in his home pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
This coming Monday is a federal holiday in the United States, celebrating the birth and legacy of King. On this occasion those of us who are affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, whether American or Canadian, would do well to reflect on this Baptist preacher’s sermon and the need to break the chain of hate and evil through love. Even though he was an imperfect human being who did not always live up to his own ideals, to say the least, we can still learn from his words.
Anyone paying any attention at all to the CRC knows we are a denomination in conflict. The decision of Synod 2022 to declare the interpretation that homosexual sex is sinful as confessional has cheered some and alienated others. But this is only the latest of many conflicts that have stressed our denominational fellowship. The ordination of women is still a point of contention for some. Social justice is viewed by some as central to the Biblical message, while others see it as Marxism cloaked in religion. We have argued back and forth on these and other issues for decades without finding resolution. Denominational employees have been attacked online and even threatened. Name calling and charges of sinfulness have been hurled from all sides. The truth has been distorted in an effort to gain advantage in our arguments.
Love That Builds Up
“There’s something about love that builds up and is creative,” King declared in his sermon. “There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.” Is today’s CRC a place of creativity, the fruit of love? Or are we a community of destruction, feeding off a harvest of hate? Support for our joint ministries is at an all-time low. Our denominational university and seminary are constantly under suspicion. The process of restructuring to conform to Canadian law has been filled with conflict. A delegate to Synod 2022 says the church has blood on its hands and is censured. The congregation that was selected to host next year’s Synod is now questioning whether they can remain in the denomination; a midwestern classis is asking the general secretary and Council of Delegates to choose another church to convene Synod.
Many believe the solution is for the church to split. Is this a loving, creative response to the challenges we face? It certainly is an easy one. We certainly know how to split—there is nothing creative there. We were born out of a split and have split several times since. Sister churches such as the Methodists and the RCA are currently in the process of splitting. But is splitting the most loving way to deal with our differences?
Whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table we hear the words of Institution: “On the night of his betrayal Jesus took bread ...” (I Cor. 11:23). Lately I’ve been struck by the first five words of the institution of the supper. “On the night of his betrayal … .” On that sacred night Jesus not only instituted the sacred sacrament; he also prayed. His prayer was for us, that we “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). What does it mean to be in Jesus and the Father? At a minimum it means that we are people marked by love. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (I John 4:8). This God of love creates. The one who opposes God destroys. Love creates; hate destroys.
Love is not easy. King understood this. One year before this sermon, the Black community of Montgomery was in the middle of a 381-day boycott of the city buses. Fifty-five days into the boycott, King’s home was bombed by a white supremacist. After ensuring that his wife, Coretta, and his 2-month-old daughter, Yolanda, were safe, King addressed the angry crowd gathered on his front lawn with words that are echoed in this sermon, as remembered in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Clayborne Carson: “We believe in law and order. ... Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.” King understood love was not easy. Three weeks after his house was bombed, the Montgomery County Grand Jury indicted King for violating a state law against boycotts, a charge for which he was eventually found guilty and fined $500 or 386 days in jail.
Yet in spite of his home being bombed, his family threatened, and spending time in jail, King emphasized the importance of love for enemies. “I try to make it something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of Scripture at least once a year,” King told his Dexter Avenue audience that November morning, “adding new insights that I develop along the way, out of new experiences as I give these messages.” One of the insights in the 1957 sermon on this text was that love is hard. “Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard.” Jesus understood love is hard. So did King.
We Must Choose Love
We need to remember that hate comes naturally in our broken state. The story of the fall in Genesis 3 is followed by the story of Cain killing his brother Abel in Genesis 4. It’s easy to label those with whom we disagree, whether our disagreements are over theology or lifestyle. It’s hard to love them.
King concluded his sermon by saying, “As I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you.’” The eyes of his brothers in Alabama included members of the Ku Klux Klan. They included the eyes of people who were guilty of lynching. The eyes of people fighting with all their power to retain Jim Crow. The eyes of those who bombed his house. The eyes of the jury that indicted him and the judge that convicted him. King looked into their eyes, and said to them, “I love you.” He continued, “I would rather die than hate you.” And then he added, “I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.”
I’m coming to believe this transformational love is much more important than winning an argument. Like King, I’m foolish enough to believe in love. I’m foolish enough to believe in a God of love. I’m foolish enough to believe this kind of love drove Jesus to the cross. I’m foolish enough to believe that this loving God is sovereign, that the power of this sovereign God overcame evil, hatred, sin, and death through the resurrection. I’m foolish enough to believe in a Kingdom of men and women who have been transformed by love. I’m foolish enough to believe that it’s not too late for the sovereign God of love to heal our deep wounds, to bring us salvation.
I believe there is still hope for the church I love, for the church in which I was baptized and ordained. I believe there is still hope, because I believe the gospel.