I Cor 3:1-9
Epiphany 6A RCL
HE 2B 10:00
JESUS RAISES THE BAR
Credits: Sydnor, Fuller,Our Church Times 2/15/81 pp.2-3 & 2/15/87 pp.l,3; Pulpit Resource 2/13/11; Morris & Taylor, Worship & Preaching for Evangelism, 43-44 Previous: Excerpts from 2/15/87 & 2/11/90 sermons
We have in today's Gospel another portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with a series of blessings, the beatitudes, in which Jesus blesses those for whom life is often a curse rather than a blessing. And these blessings, like "Blessed are you poor" are beloved parts of the Scriptures.
I. But then Jesus switches from these beautiful blessings to a series of sharp contrasts framed around the words, "you have heard it said in old times, but I say to you." In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws a contrast between the better righteousness of the Kingdom of God and the mere following of rules as preached by the Pharisees - Pharisees of that day or our own. The better righteousness of the Kingdom of God requires not only good behavior on the outside, but also pure inner motive. God's claim for obedience is an absolute, total demand, claiming the whole of a person in all one's relationships.
Jesus uses three examples, based on commandments six, seven and nine. Let us see how sharply this contrasts with the merely wise and prudent behavior that is suggested by our first reading and other's like it.
A. First Jesus deals with murder: "You have heard it said, 'You shall not kill' - but I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment." That is, the prohibition of murder is enlarged to include anger. And which of us does not have angry thoughts in their heart?
There is in this passage a degree of anger, and an answering degree of punishment. There is first of all the one who is angry with one's brother or sister, with an anger which quickly blazes up and which just as quickly dies down, which rises speedily and just as quickly dies down. There is also a long-lived, simmering anger. That anger is liable to lead one to being judged. Our Lord condemns all selfish anger and forbids forever the anger which broods, the anger which will not forget, the anger which refuses to be pacified, which seeks revenge. The anger which lingers too long must be banished from life. But then Jesus deals with the dangers of insults and of destroying an individual's reputation, the dangers of tale-bearing and the dangers of gossip. Our Lord teaches here that not only are a person's outward actions under judgment, but one's inmost thoughs are under the scrutiny and judgment of God. Long-lasting anger is bad; contemptuous speaking is worse, and the careless and malicious talk which destroys someone's good name is worst of all, and in many ways on a level with literal murder. All are forbidden by Christ. Blessed are those who are blameless in these matters.
B. And then adultery - and Jesus comments:"But I say to you, 'Whoever looks on a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart'". And which of us can call himself or herself completely pure-minded in this part of life? Surely it is enough of a challenge for us frail human being not to commit adultery. We pray "Why burden us with guilt about our roving eyes, Lord Jesus?" Most of us are content if we can just avoid doing bad things in this matter. But Jesus raises the bar. He demands that we attempt to make even our feelings, our inward disposition, to match His way. If anger towards someone can be a first cousin of murder, then something like that needs to be said about lust. Lust may be a natural human disposition; but what begins in the heart as a natural human disposition, often ends in some destructive, sad behavior that destroys lives and families through divorce or scandal, or both. Jesus takes just as seriously the secret, invisible thoughts as He does our wrong actions.
C. And then the third example has to do with swearing falsely - bearing false witness. Jesus comments that no swearing of oaths should be necessary at all, since a simple Yes or No should be just as binding for a Christian. We've all heard people swear on a stack of Bibles that so-and-so is true, or we remember from our childhood an expression, "Cross my heart and hope to die" if so-and-so is not true. For a citizen of the Kingdom of God, all of that is unnecessary. A simple Yes or No is sufficient, and if anything further is necessary to have people believe us, then something is wrong in our heart, between us and God. None of us is pure in this area of life, either.
II. It has been said that the Sermon on the Mount, the standards of Jesus, by themselves are bad news - a sharpening of the demands of the Law to the point of the impossible. But that is just the point. For we know that we cannot achieve such an impossible standard by ourselves. And that throws us back on the need for strength, or grace, beyond ourselves. In some of the hardest of His hard sayings, Jesus adds to the Law of Moses, diving beneath our actions to the feelings that underlie them and calling us to choose God even at that deep, invisible level.
Has Jesus raised the bar too high? Is He pushing an utterly unrealistic standard for human behavior that makes us doomed to fail in our attempts to be obedient to Him?
Or is it possible that Jesus believes in you more than you believe in yourself? Is it possible that you are more capable of faithful discipleship than you think?
Christians believe that the One Who preached the Sermon on the Mount not only forgave us and made us right with God, but also gave us a way to be more godly.
There are people here in this congregation who could testify to the ways in which Jesus has enabled you to be a better person than you would have been if you had not been called by Jesus. You have taken your faithfulness beyond merely avoiding certain behavior, and moved on to discipline your thought in the manner of Jesus, inclining your heart in the way that you think God wants you to go.
The trouble with pointing out that anger or lust are perfectly natural, human, all-too-human inclinations, is that we throw up our hands, and stop trying to be better.
But God has not created us for sin but for salvation. We have been created for eternal communion with God, and our hearts are restless to engage in true love rather than love's pale substitutes, Jesus died to justify sinners, to make them right with God; but He also died and lived, and taught and acted in order to sanctify sinners, to make them holy for God.
It has been said that the Sermon on the Mount is bad news by itself, for it sharpens the demands of the Law to the point of the impossible! Exactly. The Sermon on the Mount drives us to our knees in the stark realization that our hope lies in the grace of God alone, never in our own deeds or deserving. We are called not only to name and to confess our sin, but also to be free of our sin. By the grace of God we can become better. The Sermon on the Mount invites us to imagine ourselves not only as victims of our passions and urges, but also as victors, with His help. God's help. A By the loving grace of God, we can do better.
As you can see, this is no milk-and-water gospel today; its radical demands rattle our bones.
What we may forget is that Christ is in the life-saving business, and does not worry about the bruises we may get as He starts our hearts again.