* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 12, 2017 *
Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.
Texts for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 + Psalm 119:1-8 + 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 + Matthew 5:21-37
Please pray with me this morning:
We are not saved by our works,
But instead we are saved for works of love.
Give us hearts to understand that we are connected,
One to another. Given to each other, for each other.
I’m a perfectionist. I like things to be just so, and I have a mind for details. I also have high standards and high expectations of myself. And when I’m not meeting those standards and expectations, I’m often not very gracious with myself.
Jesus feels very legalistic here. It doesn’t feel like Jesus is being very gracious.
It feels like Jesus is setting up impossibly high standards for us to measure up to.
And there’s a frame of reference that I think is really important for us to keep in mind as we work through the Gospel today, and that’s Jesus’ statement from last week’s Gospel text, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”
If we keep that in mind, I think it will help us more deeply understand what Jesus is doing here.
See, Jesus is highlighting certain pieces of the Law, of Torah, and taking them further. It’s not enough simply to not murder, but even if you are angry with someone else, you’re breaking the commandment.
You know adultery is wrong, but even if you look at someone else with desire, well, better to pluck your eye out and throw it away.
But all of this sounds so very rigid and legalistic, and not so much like the gracious and loving God that we hear about and experience so often.
And so it’s important here to understand the function of the law. See, Biblical law, Torah, was instituted by God in order to form…to create…to set the bounds around…God’s people. Torah, then, is used as a kind of fence, providing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is expected as people who call themselves God’s people. And while Torah is used as an identity marker of people of the Jewish faith in the Old Testament, Christians understand themselves as being in line with that faith tradition. St. Paul describes it as being grafted into the family tree.
The author of Matthew is writing this Gospel to a community that was trying to reconcile what it means to be culturally Jewish and Christ-followers. One of the fundamental questions that the author is trying to answer in this Gospel is, “How can was understand the Torah, in light of the grace we’ve received from God through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus?”
Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the ideas about who are considered to be God’s people are expanded to include us in the Christian community, but that does not mean that the Torah is no longer applicable or useful. It just means we have to reinterpret the function of the law.
Lutherans make a clear differentiation between Law and Gospel. Very simply, the Law gives us guidelines for how we are to live, and the Gospel communicates the liberating grace of a loving God. It’s not one or the other; we need both. But while the Law says, “If you are my people, you should do these things;” the Gospel says, “Because you are my people, and I have liberated you from the power of sin and death, you are free to do these things for your neighbor.”
So, when we understand the Law in light of the Gospel, the Law, then, isn’t about you, the Law is about your neighbor.
The 10 Commandments can be best grouped into one table of 3 and one table of 7.
The first 3 commandments are all about our relationship with God. There is one God, don’t use God’s name wrongly, and remember to take Sabbath.
The other 7 are all about your relationship with your neighbor, with each other.
Which I think is what Jesus is fundamentally getting at in our Gospel lesson today. These teachings about anger, and adultery, and divorce, and swearing oaths, are all about how we live together, with each other, in relationship together, as a community.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. asserts that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And the reason why that’s true is because, as King notes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together in a single garment of destiny.” Because “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
What Dr. King is articulating is the interconnectedness of all things, even the interdependence of all things on each other. This means, friends, that the oppression of anyone, oppresses all of us.
Whatever prevents anyone from living fully and abundantly as God intends all of God’s creation to live, whether it’s homelessness, hunger, poverty, joblessness, prejudice, bias, addiction, desire to exert power or influence over another, fear of those different than yourself…all of these oppressions, prevent all of us from living fully and abundantly as God intends us, God’s creation, to live.
The good news is that if our oppression is bound up together, then so is our liberation. That God has freed us to actively work and fight for all of God’s children to live full and abundant lives, and by doing so, you are also working and fighting for your own ability to live fully and abundantly.
If we truly understand ourselves as interconnected, even interdependent, I think that radically shifts how we approach the Christian life and the life of discipleship.
For weeks now, you’ve heard me talking about living a life of discipleship, and Jesus here puts real meat on what it means to be a Christian. They are impossibly high standards, but they are ways of living together that have real and meaningful consequences.
While it’s hard for us to dissect everything Jesus lays out for us this morning, there’s one example that I think encompasses much of them.
“If your sister or brother, if your sibling, has something against you, leave what you are doing at the altar before God, and go, first, and be reconciled to your sibling in Christ.”
Reconciliation happens before you come to the Lord’s Table together.
Holy Communion is the great leveling meal. What I mean by that is that we all come to this table as beggars. No one is of higher status or of greater importance before God. The lowliest are raised up and the mighty and powerful are brought low. From the most successful executive with millions in her bank account to the homeless addict fighting and clawing to get back on his feet, we all come to God’s table of mercy and grace with arms outstretched. And we all receive the same, a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, the very body and blood of Christ, broken and shed, for you, for your sake, nourishment and food to sustain you as you continue to work and fight for justice and for peace.
But before you come, as a beggar, to be sustained and nourished, first be reconciled.
And not a superficial reconciliation, but rather reconciliation that is borne out of the tough work of cultivating trust and love in relationship together.
And forgiveness precedes that reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without first an honest admission of wrongdoing, followed by forgiveness. But I want to be clear, the responsibility of apology, the burden of asking for forgiveness is on the one who has wronged the other, not the one who has been wronged.
So whether anger, or desiring another, or divorce, or swearing oaths, we should, as much as possible, seek to live in reconciled relationships with one another. That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever be angry or that marriages won’t end, but it does mean that God’s ultimate hope for God’s people is that we seek, as much as possible, to overcome our sometimes irreconcilable differences, and seek to live in relationship with one another as reconciled people in community together.
But again, I want to stress, the burden of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation is on the one who has wronged the other, not the one who has been wronged.
And just as I’m sure we can point to examples in our lives when we are the ones who have been wronged, I’m much more certain that we can all think of many relationships in our lives where we are the one who has wronged the other.
And so when I say that the Christian life, this life of discipleship, will demand everything from you, I don’t say that lightly. To truly follow Christ will find you at odds with yourself over the ways of the world. Sometimes to follow Christ is to outright reject the patterns and systems of the world. Jesus calls us to humble ourselves, to be honest, to recognize the ways in which we are oppressing others, and to instead actively fight for their liberation.
The life of Christian discipleship demands that we live with integrity. That our “Yes” be “Yes,” and our “No” be “No.” Integrity means that we don’t hear one thing on Sunday morning and live Monday through Saturday as if none of it matters.
Quite the opposite.
The Christian life requires that we be open to being transformed. That we allow God to so fundamentally change us that our patterns of Monday through Saturday being and living are the same ways that we hear God calling us to live and be on Sunday.
The commandments aren’t about you, they’re about your neighbor.
This is integrity, church. That you call yourself a Christian, so live like it.
The standards are high, and we are not perfect, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t try to live as God calls us to live.
As people with integrity, in meaningful relationship with one another, in community together, tied together in an inescapable network of mutuality, whose liberation is bound up together, who actively seek and work for and fight for that liberation for one another.
Christ has shown us what laying down one’s life for the sake of others looks like, and has given his very self for us so that we might do the same.
Choose life. Receive grace.
But first, be reconciled.