Digging in Deeper: Matthew 5:43-47

“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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary?” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Two things for you this morning right out of the gate. First, an update, then a more normal introduction. Here’s the update: This will not be yesterday’s sermon this morning. Yesterday we had a special service called Celebrate Sunday. We took the morning to delight in what God has been doing in and through our community over past year. We had special guests and a fantastic testimony from some of our newer members, and generally a lot of fun. I shared many of the things God has done in the last year rather than giving a formal sermon. Thus no sermon to post here. But, it would be worth your time to go and watch the service for the stories alone. You can do that on our YouTube channel here.

Just because I don’t have a sermon, though, doesn’t mean I don’t have anything for you this morning. Normally I have been taking Fridays to engage on various cultural happenings (especially from the big and small screen) and where they intersect with the Scriptures. And, when I’m watching a whole season of a particular series, I’ll usually wait until the end of the season to reflect on the whole thing. But as I’ve been watching the latest season of Cobra Kai on Netflix, I can’t help but offer some observations after watching episode 4 last night. Cobra Kai, of course, is a continuing of the story of the classic movie, Karate Kid, into the modern day. In the original film and the third of the series, the good guys and the bad guys were clear. Mr. Miyagi and his style of karate are good, John Kreese and his Cobra Kai dojo are bad. In the new series, especially as the story has developed, things are less clear than that. But rather than this being a mere modern, relativistic, woke attempt to obscure moral lines or to otherwise pretend they don’t exist, season 4 is so far displaying real life through a lens that, if not strictly Gospel-oriented, is certainly shaped by it. Let’s talk this morning about Cobra Kai and loving our enemies.

Given that we are four seasons into the series and that I’ve talked about it before, I’m not going to offer much of a recap here. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ve probably already binged the whole thing and so know more about where the story is going than I do. I’m just going to offer some reflections on what I’ve seen so far. As the fourth season opens, Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence have teamed up and combined their respective dojos and disparate karate styles and philosophies in an attempt to put a stop to the poisonous influence of John Kreese and his Cobra Kai dojo. The third season ended in the three senseis making a deal that whichever group lost the All-Valley Karate Tournament would go away in defeat.

As the fourth season begins, LaRusso and Lawrence are struggling to overcome their past animosity and the profound philosophical differences they bring to the table in teaching their respective styles of karate. Their own struggles toward cooperation and even friendship offer a terrific commentary on the worthwhile challenges of friendship. But what has most caught my attention this season is the introduction of a new character named Kenny. Kenny turns out to be the brother of a young man series regular, Robby, met in juvenile detention. Although the timeline has some issues with it, Kenny is new to the area and his shyness combined with somewhat eclectic interests has result in his getting bullied by kids at school including LaRusso’s son, Anthony. Anthony is clearly conflicted about being a participant in the escalating bullying being goaded on by his friends, but given his moral weakness as a 14-year-old boy, giving in to peer pressure wins the day and he goes along with the antics.

This bullying eventually pushes him to reach out to his brother in prison who sends him in the direction of Robby and the Cobra Kai dojo. His timidity results in a bit of bullying from that aggressive group as well, but Robby, feeling some loyalty to Kenny’s brother from the bond they formed in prison, takes Kenny under his wing as a mentor. Kenny’s joining the Cobra Kai dojo, however, does not immediately alleviate any of his bullying issues. In fact, it makes them worse when some of the students of LaRusso and Lawrence notice his wearing a Cobra Kai shirt and pick up right where Anthony and his friends left off.

The ongoing bullying of this young man who otherwise seems to have the makings of a terrific and likeable kid is what set my mind to whirring. While Lawrence teaches his students a brand of toughness that could easily lend itself in the mind of a teenage boy to bullying someone like Kenny who has unwittingly aligned himself with a group they have understandably and even correctly identified as the enemy (that being said, as Lawrence’s character has developed, he broke off his own ties with Cobra Kai because of his recognition of the wrongness of this kind of behavior which Cobra Kai’s brand of karate is much more explicit about teaching), LaRusso’s Miyagi Do karate is much less tolerant of this kind of thing on its face. Harassing anyone, even an enemy, doesn’t fit his philosophy. And yet, here are these students who are supposed to be on the good side doing this very thing. In the process, they are creating an antagonist and an intractable opponent where they could have easily created a loyal friend. In other words, their behavior is on the exact same moral level they mentally assign to their Cobra Kai opponents.

Another major storyline from the season is the ongoing conflict between LaRusso’s daughter, Sam, and Cobra Kai student, Tory, who wound up sending Sam to the hospital at the end of the second season. Sam’s anger at and fear of Tory has led her to adopt a very much “mean girl” posture toward her. Meanwhile, while Tory is inexcusably aggressive toward Sam for a variety of reasons, mostly rooted in envy, we are given a closer look at her own situation which is much harder than any 16-year-old should have to face which helps to explain her generally aggressive and antagonistic outlook on life. The summary of their conflict, though, is just what the summary is on the behavior of the others toward Kenny. The good guys are no better than the bad guys.

Let me land all of this on the point that’s been rolling around in my head for a couple of weeks now. The church and her people are supposed to be the “good guys.” After all, the church is the primary institution through which the God who is good operates to advance His kingdom into this world to roll back the darkness and evil of sin and the Devil. And the church is nothing if not a group of Jesus followers working together toward that end. The moral lines between the church and the world should be clear. And often they are. But not always. Too often the church and her people have been guilty of the exact same kind of moral line blurring that the Lawrence and LaRusso students are increasingly guilty of in Cobra Kai’s fourth season.

I would argue one of the primary reasons for this is that we are too often guilty of treating the people who oppose us in the world (and institutions that oppose us, like the church, are nothing more than groups of people working together toward a similar end) as if they are our enemies. And that may not be such a terrible thing except that rather than heeding the words of our Lord in engaging with our enemies, we borrow from their own playbook and drop ourselves down to a level that does not befit the character of the one whose name we bear.

In the opening segment of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers us six dramatic reframings of how the world normally thinks and how we as His followers should think instead. They are all powerful and challenging, but the last one may be the most challenging of all. The way the world has always operated, Jesus said, is on the principle of loving our neighbors and hating our enemies. We love those who are like us and who like us, and we hate those who aren’t and don’t. That kind of thing is entirely normal. And that’s exactly what we see in the respective dojos of the Cobra Kai series. Exactly which characters have been opposing who at anyone moment in the show has been a bit of a shifting target, but one thing has been consistent: they are loyal to the ones they understand are their teammates, and fiercely – sometimes violently – opposed to the ones they understand to be their enemies.

I suspect you’ve been in this kind of place before. You may not have intended to find yourself there, but we are naturally more loyal and generous with people who are like us and who we count as our friends than we are to folks we don’t. We’re naturally suspicious of strangers and outsiders. At the most basic level, that kind of thinking is a survival mechanism baked into the fabric of every creature. Something new might be a threat and thus will be treated like a threat until it is proven to not be a threat.

The problem with this kind of natural thinking, though, is that it creates opponents of people who otherwise might have a great deal in common with one another. It creates enemies of people who might otherwise be great friends with just a little bit of understanding and love. But whereas the world gladly draws lines and creates enemies, Jesus and the kingdom of God offer a radically different approach. He called His followers in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies. We are to pray for those who persecute us. We do this, because it’s what God does for us. We do this because our call is not to be like the world. It is to be like Jesus. If we operate toward the world around us in the same way the world itself operates, we’re not being like Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we can’t be like the world. We have to be better than that. We can’t demean and debase our opponents. We can’t treat people around us who have not signed up to follow Jesus and who even may give us a hard time about being followers of Jesus ourselves as our enemies. They are not our enemies. The ideas driving them are our enemies. They are precious individuals created in the image of God and are loved by Him so much that He sent His only Son to die on their behalf in order to pave their way to a right relationship with Him at which point they become our brothers or sisters in the faith. If we approach them on any different terms, we are not living up to the character of our Lord. We’re no better than we believe them to be.

If the students of Lawrence and LaRusso would adopt this line of thinking, number one, the series would look very different, but number two, many of their issues with the Cobra Kai students would go away. I wonder, if we would adopt this line of thinking more consistently in the church, how many of our issues with the community around us would look very differently or even go away entirely? Animosity from the world is, unfortunately, going to be part and parcel with the life of faithfully following Jesus. He guaranteed us as much Himself. But we should do everything we can to make their job of hating us as difficult as we possibly can by going out of our way to be loving and generous and kind every chance we get. If the world is going to treat us badly, we should make it as hard on them as possible by reflecting the character of Christ as fully as possible. We are to love our enemies. We are to pray for our persecutors. We are to battle against ideas and not the people who hold to them. Doing so won’t necessarily make our lives any easier, but it will make us more like Jesus and that’s what matters most.

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