The great appeal of the Christian gospel is that ‘in Christ’ God accepts us just we are. He does not wait for us to be good or holy before we can enter into a relationship with Him. Some of the old hymns express this well: ‘Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me’ (Charlotte Elliot 1789 – 1871) and ‘Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found was blind but now I see.’ (John Newton 1725 – 1807) Just as the father runs out to meet his way ward son in that wonderful parable of the prodigal son, so there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15.7)
We must always remember that this is the way God reaches out to us and we come to God. It is only through his perfect sacrifice of love on the cross that any of us have hope of eternal life. Nothing that we do or say should give the impression that something else needs to be added. Again to quote an old hymn: ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.’ (Augustus Montague Toplady 1740-1778)
Our gospel reading today brings us again to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ where, according to Matthew, Jesus has much to say about goodness, righteousness and the law. As Moses had received the law on Mount Sinai which gave instruction for life in the promised land, so Jesus ‘fulfils’ that law in teaching his followers how to live in the kingdom of God. He is not talking about how we get into the kingdom of God, but about how we should live as citizens of it.
This is important. We might deride the Roman Catholic who will be in the confessional on a Saturday evening in total penitence before the priest but will be back sinning again before Sunday is out after a few ‘Hail Mary’s’. Before we see the speck in their eyes, we know the same thing can happen when we come to Holy Communion still nursing a grievance against another. People can respond to many altar calls at evangelistic events, attend Alpha courses and the like, make a profession of faith, but their lives remain untouched. God welcomes them, but grieves over again because they refuse to embrace his perfect law.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches this perfect law which expects a greater righteousness that the Ten Commandments and the laws subsequently based on them taught by the scribes and the Pharisees. He also gives some practical if painful sounding advice on how we might begin to live more in tune with this perfect law. In today’s passage, he covers three areas of life.
The first is our relationships with others especially when they go wrong. Jesus reminds us of the sixth commandment: ‘You shall not murder’. When we hear the Ten Commandments and get to that one; we probably quietly tick it off as one we can confidently say we have not broken. At least, I am guessing that’s the case for most of us! But Jesus teaches that this is about more than just taking the life of another person. That it is about dealing with anger and making for reconciliation. It is important to note that Jesus speaks here as God! ‘You heard that it was said of old’ (by God) but I say to you… As God’s word made flesh, Jesus can reflect more fully and completely the intensions of the Father.
The fate of the angry person is the same as that of the murderer! To call someone a fool is to be liable to the fires of hell! It is not that anger does not happen; it is how we deal with it that counts. If it is allowed to smoulder or burn out of control, it is murder, killing the relationship if not the body. If that person is a believer, it hurts the body of Christ. Efforts should always be made to find and make reconciliation. As Paul puts it in the letter to the Ephesians: ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ To work for reconciliation is to the benefit of both sides in the dispute and pleases God who has ‘reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’. (2 Corinthians 5.18) Whenever you find yourself saying: ‘I could murder so and so,’ that is the time to be thinking about how you make peace in keeping with God’s perfect law.
The second is the area of sex. The seventh commandment is: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ It clearly taught that once married, a man was bound to his wife and should not be engaging in a sexual relationship with another. With time, this had been refined somewhat with certificates for divorce being allowed in various circumstances. We could spend much time debating the issue of divorce in the teaching of Jesus. Whatever conclusions we reached, it is clear that while there are cases when it is inevitable, it is not what God wants for us. Therefore, Jesus teaches clearly that what is a stake is the controlling of very human passions and emotions. Men who are married will find other women attractive from time to time and that appreciation is not in itself condemned but self control is needed. To use the imagination to fan that appreciation into an intimate relationship is to commit adultery in the heart. The same principle works the other way around of course and also has its application to LGBT+ relationships whatever view may be taken of them.
Jesus is robust: ‘If your right eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away…if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…’ (Matthew 5.29-30) Physical mutilation in response to sin has been a part of many cultures through the ages and surfaces today in radical Islam. There is no trace of it within the Hebrew Scriptures and so we take our Lord’s teaching here as being figurative. If there are circumstances that will lead into sexual sin, do not go there, avoid the situation and do not develop a relationship which you know to be outside of God’s will. The internet needs to be handled especially carefully in this regard.
Finally in our reading this morning, Jesus covers the issue of truth. He couches his teaching in the form of the commandments but actually refers to a passage in Leviticus which talks about oaths although what he says relates also to the third commandment about not taking the name of God in vain and the ninth about speaking the truth. Many societies make a virtue out of linking something that they want to give special emphasis to with something greater in the created world or God himself. The scriptures and Jesus here teaches that our words alone should be enough. We should develop a track record of always speaking the truth so that oaths and expletives are not required. When we follow Jesus, who is the truth, we cannot allow ourselves to be known as economical with it.
We can rejoice that all are invited into the kingdom and that there is no entrance exam, no trial to be undertaken to see if we are fit enough or good enough to join. It is though the Kingdom of God, of Heaven and we are called to reflect the values of the kingdom in our lives, in the quality of our relationships, in self control and in truth. While this may seem daunting, remember that we are also blessed with the Holy Spirit. May we co-operate with the Spirit that our lives may bear his fruit.
3rd Sunday Before Lent 12.02.2017