It was in the evening of 24th of June in 1859 when Henry Dunant arrived in the Italian place Solferino. That day a massive battle had taken place between the French and Austrian armies that had killed and wounded tens of thousands. Medical support at the battlefield was almost non-existent. The French army had more vets for their horses, than doctors for their soldiers. When Henry Dunant saw this, he went to a nearby village and asked local women to help him and he organised support for these wounded soldiers. 9000 of them reached the nearby village and were cared for in the next days by Henry Dunant and these local women.
Henry Dunant would become one of the initiators of the Genevan Convention, an international convention that set rules about how to treat enemies, especially those that are wounded or imprisoned. He also became a founder of an organisation you all know, the international Red Cross, an organisation that is famous for helping victims of war on both sides of a conflict.
Henry Dunant’s actions were very much inspired by his Christian faith and Jesus’ command to love our enemies. He argued that a fallen enemy is no longer an enemy. And one of the phrases he and the local women used when caring for the wounded in Solferino was ‘they are all brothers’. We all have a shared humanity and share the love God has for us. It is easy to recognise this in our friends, but sometimes so difficult to recognise in our enemies.
In the church year we are now in the third week of Epiphany. Epiphany meaning revelation or manifestation. This season is about Jesus Christ being more and more revealed to us. This week we find Jesus healing a Jewish man of leprosy and the servant of a Roman centurion. A Jew and a Gentile. These are people on two opposite sides of a very sensitive conflict between Jews and the occupying forces, the Romans. But for Jesus there is no space for our concepts about friends and enemies when they come to Him for help.
Today’s Gospel starts with Jesus coming down from the mountain where he gave His well-known sermon. The Sermon on the Mount has become known not only as the most famous sermon ever, but also as the unattainable law of Christianity. Here Jesus reminds us that sin is not only a failure in love in what we do outwardly, but also in what we say and think inwardly. The sermon also includes impossible commands such as loving your enemy and that it is also murder if you hate your brother or sister. This isn’t something new, it is at the heart of the Old Testament and this will also become clear by two references to the Old Testament in the coming minutes. This high call of love might lead us to despair [because we see ourselves failing all the time], but today’s Gospel gives us the answer to the unattainability of this law.
When Jesus comes down from the mountain, a man that suffers from leprosy comes to Him. In Jewish culture leprosy was a sign of impurity and uncleanliness, and seen as a punishment for sin. It was also someone who was not to be touched. It might reflect how we may feel about ourselves after reading the Sermon on the Mount or looking at the divine holiness of Jesus. The man kneels before Jesus and asks Him to heal Him. And Jesus reaches out his hand to the untouchable and heals him.
The second miracle in this Gospel reading is the healing of the servant of the Roman centurion. This miracle tells us the very hopeful news that Jesus Christ is revealed and ready also to respond to the Gentiles. The good news and grace of Jesus Christ is universal, it is for everyone. This Roman centurion experiences a strong sense of unworthiness, similar to what we may experience when we read the Sermon on the Mount or encounter Jesus. He says: ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.’ A humble confession of faith that has been repeated numerous times by Christians through the centuries about to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. His humbleness, and his sense of unworthiness doesn’t stop him, and it shouldn’t stop us, from approaching Jesus. And Jesus answers his prayer.
These two healings tell us purposefully the answer to the unattainability of the Sermon on the Mount. The healings don’t happen to settled, mature Christians, but to the most unlikely people present. Jesus heals an untouchable Jew and the servant of a Roman, the enemy! These miracles tell us about the healing touch of Christ and making the unattainable attainable through his love and grace. Even though we might feel impure like the man suffering from leprosy, and unworthy like the Roman centurion, that shouldn’t stop us from going to Jesus, and it will not stop Jesus from coming to us.
In the Epistle St. Paul calls us to ‘if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ And he continues to quote from the book of Proverbs: ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ To burn away our enemy’s (and our own) hateful attitude and his and our own prejudices.
In today’s Old Testament lesson we encounter a very beautiful example of this. We find Elisha surrounded by the enemy of Israel, because they have become annoyed by the fact that this prophet told the king of Israel every time where they would attack. Elisha then prays God to blind this army, a prayer that God answers, and Elisha leads them into the capital city of Israel. God opens their eyes and they find themselves surrounded by Israelite soldiers. The king asks Elisha if he should kill them. Elisha says, no, give them food and water before sending them back to their homes. It leads to a time of peace.
You can see how this relates to the story of Henry Dunant and those who work in the Red Cross today. They are following Jesus in not letting human conflict shape how we treat our enemies. All people are created in the image and likeness of God and loved by the same God.
On these principles and by grace we can love and care, even for our enemies. And this is one of the clearest ways in which God is manifested in the world. This isn’t easy and it unfortunately is rare.But the rules of international conventions to care for wounded and imprisoned enemies, and the concrete work of the Red Cross and many other organisations in places of conflict, is an expression of this principle of loving our enemies that Jesus commands us.
Jesus opens another way out of the conflicts in our life and in this world that seem to keep on escalating in mutual hate. Escalating conflict is like a vicious circle of hate, and these conflict only end in death and destruction, our enemy dead, gone or out of our lives and our hearts poisoned by hate. Jesus commands us to break this circle of hate by love. This is difficult and that’s where we need Jesus’ example and his love and grace to strengthen us.
With the people we heavily disagree with, or maybe even hate, dialogue can be very difficult and very frustrating. And maybe that’s why Jesus’ command to love our enemy is not accompanied by suggestions for debate rules or techniques, but by the very concrete call to care for them, especially if they are in need. And often in caring for someone, we don’t have as much time to be angry, we spend time with them and we find out that they aren’t as bad as the strawman image we’ve created of them in our minds. This also offers the opportunity that St. Paul insists upon, overcome evil with good, not by becoming evil ourselves.
When Christians are in conflict with other Christians we not only have a shared humanity, but also a shared love of Jesus Christ. That’s also what makes conflict between Christians so sad. Here today are many different people, from many different parts of the world and with very different opinions. But today we all come to the same Jesus, to acknowledge Him as Lord and to ask Him to fill us with his love and healing touch. In a few moments we’ll celebrate Holy Communion, an opportunity to confess our failures in love and our unworthiness, to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and receive his strengthening love and grace in this sacrament of His Body and Blood.