I don’t know if you have ever heard of Jennifer Thompson. In many ways she was, is a normal person. Except that in 1984 she was attacked by a man in her home.
Within a few days the police had her come to a line up and she confidently picked out the man who had attacked her. His name was Ronald Cotton
She eventually went to court and testified under oath that this was the man who had attacked her. Ronald Cotton was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Jennifer Thompson got on with life. Two years later Ronald Cotton was granted another trial. Jennifer Thompson, determined that justice should be done, again went to court. This time the defense brought in another suspect but she testified that she had never seen him. Again, Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Eleven years went by. Jennifer’s life continued. She got married, had children and as much as it could ever be, the nightmare was now in the past. But then, out of the blue, she was asked to provide a DNA sample. She gave it.
And then the unthinkable happened. She was told that beyond doubt the DNA evidence showed that Ronald Cotton was not the one who had attacked her. The man who had attacked her was the man the defense had brought in at the second trial – the one she testified to never having seen before.
Jennifer Thompson realized she had helped send a man to jail for over 11 years for something he had never done.
Now, yourselves into Ronald Cotton’s shoes. How would you react to this woman? How would you really react? What would you do if you were told that she wanted to come and see you – to talk to you – to apologize to you?
That is exactly what Jennifer Thompson did. She went to see Ronald Cotton. She told him of the shame she felt. She apologized to him saying that if I spent every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t come close to what I feel.
Ronald Cotton’s response was this: I am not mad at you. I have never been mad at you. I just wanted you to have a good life. Ronald Cotton had meet Jesus in Prison and had become a believer.
What would have been your response?
The end of Matthew 5, verse 48 says that you, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect. What does this mean? Is Jesus saying that we can reach moral perfection – a sinless state? No, that is not what he is saying. We know that because in the beatitudes he has taught us that a perpetual characteristic of a disciple is that we hunger and thirst for righteousness – in other word’s, in this life, we do not achieve it but, oh, we so desire it. Then in chp 6 Jesus will tell us to pray continually “Forgive us our trespasses.” We still sin, we need forgiveness and we should pray daily for forgiveness.
So what does Jesus mean. The word ‘therefore’ gives us a hint. He is concluding something – When ever you see ‘therefore’ in a sentence you should ask what it is there for! Jesus is summarizing what he has just taught. He is saying “in conclusion”. And what he has been talking about has been how we are with other people. How do we respond to others, but especially how we are to respond to our enemies. How do we respond to those who intentionally or not do us wrong or harm.
What are we to do if we are a Jennifer Thompson, or a Ronald Cotton.
Jesus challenges us in one of the hardest areas of life, and he gives us no quarter – his command is that we aim for perfection in love- loving those who we do not love; loving those who do not like us as well as loving those who even hate us and seek to us wrong. As John Stott says We are called to be perfect in love with the merciful love of God. In fact Jesus had already told us this is v44 & 45. Love your enemy – why? So that you may be like your Father in heaven! In other words we are to be the kind of people who exhibit some of the characteristics of God himself.
And then in v46 comes one of the toughest verses in this section – For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
This is very offensive. Jesus uses the despised and hated figure of a tax collector – one who was considered as almost sub human by the Jews as an example – even such evil people can love. To say I know what love is because I love my family, or my spouse, or my friends makes me no different to anyone else. Dictators, genocidal maniacs, war mongers all have loved someone – their mother, father, spouse, children.
We have not loved as we should if all we can say is that we loved those who like and love us. That simply does not cut it. That is a given. That is easy.
No, we are commanded to love those who do not love us – we are to love those who are hard to love, we are to love those who seek us harm.
To be God’s people means that we are to love others with the love that God has shown us. That has always been the call of God’s people.
Jesus also commands that this love we show requires that we remove any form of revenge, retribution or retaliation from our lives; You have heard it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say to you do not resist an evil doer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek turn the other to him also. Any form of revenge, retribution or retaliation, no matter how small, is not acceptable for a follower of Jesus Christ. They are not actions that demonstrate or exhibit the family likeness of God’s Sons and Daughters.
Now, these verses are probably some of the most explained away verses in scripture – surely Jesus did not mean we are to do nothing when someone punches us in the face or attacks us?
Well, no, Jesus did not say do nothing. Jesus said we ARE to respond – very actively respond – with love. You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
We are to LOVE our enemies. That does not mean we condone their actions if we believe them to be wrong. It does not mean we agree with their beliefs. We are to speak truth, and proclaim and teach and stand for the word of God but we are also to LOVE those who reject us. That means we do not ignore them, or avoid them, or keep out of their way, or do not speak to them. To love our enemy means ACTIVELY loving them. It means moving TOWARDS those who dislike us – to engage with them.
As Christians – as followers of Christ – we are to love like the Father loved.
The Father loved US – even when we were his enemies – while we were still in rebellion against him, when we did not want him. Romans 5 from v6 tells us that For while we were still helpless, at the appointed time, Christ died for the ungodly. And then in v10 it says For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life!
In fact, God loves all who do not believe in him. He shows incredible love to them. Jesus says God’s mercies still exist for the one who rejects him. The sun rises on the just and the evil and God sends rain of the righteous and the unrighteous.
You and I – the Church – are called to love others in the way God has loved us – even how he loved those who nailed him to the cross – Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do. We are to aim to love the perfect love of God to all who we encounter – even those who might disagree with us, or even hate us.
How are we doing at loving each other in the way God has loved us?
It’s hard isn’t it. We get angry. We feel the feelings of dislike and even hate rising up in us and it is hard to stop or even control. We may have even, in the darkest depths of our spirits, wished ill of others or been secretly pleased that someone has had something bad happen to them.
That is why we so need the Holy Spirit working us. That is why Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. As we read through the sermon on the mount we are should constantly be drawn back to the beatitudes reminding ourselves of those core characteristics of a believer – which always begins by acknowledging our poverty of spirit and recognizing that we need God actively working in our lives.
Most of us will never be called to love someone who was the cause of sending us to jail for 11 years like Ronald Cotton. For most of us, our ‘enemies’ those who do not like us, and whom we find hard to like or love – those who disagree with us and with whom we disagree, will be on a far smaller scale.
How we love, and especially how we love those who do not like us, is one of the manifestations of our new nature in Christ. If our desire is for Christ – to love and serve him – to follow him and want to do the things he is calling us to do then the overflow of that will be to love as he loved. To love in that perfect love of God that is to love even your enemies with an active love that seeks to pray for them and to do good to them even when you still disagree, even on fundamental issues.
My prayer is that we that by the power of the holy spirit we would be known as people who exhibit the love of God by out loving our enemies.