Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sermon - Matthew 5:21-37

Matthew 5:21-37

·         Continuing with the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we learnt  (a) Disciples are salt and light i.e. they are to be a pervasive influence for good, healing and transformation in society and (b) Jesus’ claim to FULFIL the Law[i]. What he meant should become clearer today.

·         Why were such big crowds following Jesus (4:25)? Because he was radically inclusive – especially of “sinners”; people who would normally be despised and excluded by the religious.

·         So when he calls his disciples (the 12 + others?) up a hill to teach them, you might expect him to relax many of the religious Law’s requirements.

·         Well he did amend the requirements of a number of central Laws, claiming the authority of God (“You have heard it said X, but I tell you Y”)

·         The problem is that instead of relaxing the Law, making it easier for people, he seems to make it a thousand times more demanding – apparently almost impossible to comply with. As if he’s saying: “You thought the bar was this high, but actually it is SKY HIGH!”

·         But why would Jesus, who criticises the Scribes and Pharisees for loading people down with heavy burdens of Law, make those burdens even heavier?

·         Why would Jesus who never hesitated to break the Laws of Sabbath and purity in the course of his mercy mission, require far more rigorous, stifling and all inclusive compliance to the Law from his followers?

·         Typically our study notes skirt around this obvious problem by saying that the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount represents some future ideal, perhaps the way things will be in heaven or when the kingdom of God fully comes on earth; but with no expectation that people will be able to live up to these standards in the present age.

·         I think perhaps this is an inadequate way of engaging with Jesus’ words and I want to propose a different approach which takes the text far more seriously.

A Fresh Approach

1.      What was the purpose of the Law (and Prophets)? To make peace between God and humanity and between people and each other. Another biblical word for this is RECONCILIATION.

2.      When Jesus says he has come to fulfil the Law, he means he has come to successfully complete what the Law was intended to do.[ii] In 2 Corinthians 5:19 Paul writes “God was

reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

3.      But what the Law had become in Jesus’ day was a means of avoiding God, by reducing God’s moral requirements to mere external obedience to rules, with plenty of loopholes for the insincere religious to exploit.

4.      So a religious person  might pray “Dear God I have not murdered any of the brainless[iii] or immoral[iv] people I am angry with and so I have obeyed your Law. What a good person I am. Amen.” But Jesus says NO! Being angry with people or despising them and calling them names which diminish their value are in the same category as murder. The person who has these attitudes to others will not be saved from God’s fiery judgement by the fact that they stopped short of actual murder.

5.      Or a religious person might pray “Dear God I have not actually committed adultery with the person I have been lustfully desiring all day, and so I have complied with your Law’s requirements. What a good boy I am. Amen.” But Jesus says NO! If you are looking at a person lustfully, thinking about what you would do with or to them if only it wasn’t forbidden, that sinful attitude is in the same category as adultery, putting you in danger of hell (5:30). This is more than just noticing and admiring someone who you find attractive, but I do think what Jesus is warning against includes TV and internet images we might dwell on. He is saying his followers need to avoid all these harmful attitudes in order to protect ourselves and our relationships with others. He is exaggerating when he talks about gouging your eye out or cutting off your hand, but only to emphasise the seriousness of these dangers and to say that radical action may need to be taken to separate ourselves from temptation. Don’t be a “Porn Again Christian”! Don’t be drawn in by the thought that it will be OK so long as it is not the actual act of adultery. It won’t.

6.      Next Jesus turns to divorce and in his day an old Law designed to discourage divorce for trivial reasons (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) had been twisted in meaning to allow that very thing. So a man might say “I have divorced my wife for burning my cal├žots and butifarra, but that’s OK because I wrote out a divorce certificate as God’s Law requires.” But Jesus says NO! Marriage must be taken far more seriously than that and divorce is only allowed in very limited circumstances.

7.       Finally in the section we are looking at today Jesus forbids the use of oaths. In Jesus’ day the old commandment to never misuse the name of God had been twisted into the casual adding of “in God’s name” or “by the Holy Temple” or something similar to a promise. Again Jesus rejects this practice. His followers need to be so transparently honest that their “yes” or “no” is utterly reliable. Adding any kind of oath is not just superfluous, it is offensive to God.

What does all this mean for us?

This teaching of Jesus is startling and hard hitting and let’s face it we all fall short in one way or another most of the time. In one sense I think he is setting the bar so high that no one realistically

has any chance of getting over it. It gets even more demanding in the rest of the chapter as we get onto turning the other cheek and love of enemies. So what’s it all about? Are we doomed to fail and be damned for it?

I think the answer lies in that word reconciliation which I suggested sums up what the gospel is all about. Let’s turn back to verses 23-24:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.   (Matthew 5:23-24 TNIV)

Reconciliation – making peace with God and each other -  is the key. And according to Jesus there can be no real peace with God unless we have made every effort to make peace with one another. Worship is a corporate act and we have a corporate responsibility to be peacemakers and not just recipients of peace. We symbolise this in the way we celebrate the peace, usually just before we bring ourselves forward as a gift, an offering and participate in Holy Communion, the sacrament of unity. But how seriously do we take this teaching? How different might things be if we took pains to do the hard work of making peace with each other?

So the standard set by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is incredibly high. But it is a standard we aim for and fall short of together, as a community, filled with the Holy Spirit and with the example of Jesus before us. We are not without help and so Jesus can give the reassurance that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28). The best any of us becomes in this life is “working towards” being the person we are called to be. The important thing is not which religious rules we have each transgressed but that together we are becoming what we are called to be, not conforming to the pattern of this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

We are going to end with a prayer, but I also want to say that if I have said anything which has touched on difficult or sensitive areas for you, do come and see me. Let’s pray:

Thank you Lord Jesus for this beautiful vision of the calling of your people and the reconciling purpose of Law and Gospel. May we never use the words of Scripture to justify ourselves or to despise, harm or exclude others. May we never use religious observance as a way of avoiding you and your deep but benevolent discipline. May we always seek peace and reconciliation with all our neighbours and with you and may we see the fruit of your kingdom grow. AMEN.


The Gospel of Matthew                                 William Barclay                     (St Andrew Press 2001)

[i] And the Prophets.
[ii] The Prophets had pointed out that the Law was failing to do this because of human shortcomings and they had looked forward to some new intervention by God in the form of a Messiah/Suffering Servant to sort things out. Romans 8:3 “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering.”
[iii] “To call a man Raca was to call him a brainless idiot, a silly fool, an empty-headed blunderer. It is the word of one who despises another with an arrogant contempt.” Barclay p.161
[iv] The Greek word which NIV translates ‘Fool’ (5:22) is ‘Moros’. “To call people moros was not to criticize their mental ability; it was to cast aspersions on their moral character; it was to take their name and reputation from them, and to brand them as loose-living and immoral.” Barclay p.162

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent Bible Study - Matthew 11:2-11

Bible Study – Matthew 11:2-11

Q1          Why was John in prison?

Q2          Why was the question John sent to Jesus a reasonable one?

Q3          Why did Jesus reply by quoting Isaiah 35? Do you think his answer would have satisfied John?

Q4          What did Jesus mean in verse 6 when he said “Blessed are those who do not find me an obstacle to faith”? How might Jesus be an obstacle to faith for people today?

Q5          Why did Jesus go on to question the crowds about their motives for going out to meet John in the wilderness? Why were they now with Jesus?

Q6          What is a “prophet” in the bible? Why did Jesus consider John a prophet and more than a prophet? Would we be right to describe anybody alive today as a prophet? If so, what expectations might we have about such a person?

Q7          Why did Jesus quote Malachi 3:1 and apply it to John? Was he right?

Q8          How do you understand verse 11? Who is the least in the kingdom of Heaven?

Q9          Which character in the reading do you most identify with? Might you have answered differently at a different time in your life?

Q10        In what ways does the reading inspire you or fill you with hope?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

For Vicars and people who care about them

Some good insights in this article on the Fulcrum website:
The comments thread is pretty interesting too :)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A New Foundation

Luke 7:1-10

·         An interesting thing about Luke 7 is that it follows Luke 5 and 6 J

·         In Luke 5, as Jesus teaches and demonstrates his inclusive gospel of grace,  it is becoming increasingly clear that the new wine of the gospel can not be contained in the old wineskins of the Jewish religion and all that it has become under the Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees.

·         Luke 6 starts with tension continuing to rise between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders – expressed in a dispute over what is lawful on the Sabbath.

·         The fury and plotting against Jesus grows and he responds by spending a whole night in prayer and then selecting and calling the 12 apostles, who are to be the patriarchs or pioneers of a new people of God who would convey his power and his love to the world.

·         He then preaches the Sermon on the Plain (not that kind of plane J), which is a shorter version of the more famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. The Sermon is a manifesto for Christian living, a manual for discipleship.

The Sermon on the Plain

·         Those who aspire to be disciples need to love their enemies (6:27-36), and not just in a theoretical or sentimental fashion, but in a practical, radical and sometimes costly way. “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, Jesus tells them.

·         Disciples must not judge or condemn others (6:37-42). Their attitude to the faults of others must be governed by a humble attitude to their own faults and weaknesses. They are to forgive the trespasses of others and to give generously to meet their needs, following the example of their teacher and being fully trained in his ways.

·         Disciples are reminded that the goodness or badness of a tree will be demonstrated by the fruit that it bears (6:43-45). They are called to live in a way that is fruitful, a way which feeds health and spreads goodness, drawing on the good which is in their hearts.

·         Finally Jesus warns the disciples that it is not enough to call him “Lord, Lord”: they need to do what he says (6:46-49). Hearing the words of Jesus and putting them into practice is like being a man who builds his house on a firm foundation of rock. To merely hear his words without obeying them is to build without a foundation and to court disaster.

·         So we come to chapter 7 with the scene set for someone to demonstrate the kind of discipleship that Jesus has been describing. This example is immediately provided, not by Simon Peter or John or any of the 12, but by a most unexpected person; a Roman centurion; an officer in the enemy occupying army.

·         Even Jesus is amazed and encouraged by this man’s faith and applauds him as a wonderful example of the kind of discipleship he has just been calling for!

·         What was so interesting and exemplary about this man? What was it about him that Jesus and Luke found so exciting and encouraging?

The Centurion’s Qualities

·         The first interesting point is that the centurion was already living in pretty much exactly the way Jesus had set out in the Sermon on the Plain:

·         He is loving his enemies. The elders of the Jewish people tell Jesus “he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” The synagogue referred to is the one in Capernaum, where Jesus had already preached and healed (Luke 4:31-37).

·         His compassion also extends to his household staff, to an unusual degree. When a slave or servant became sick and close to death in Roman society, they would no longer be of value and could expect to be disposed of like a lame animal.

·         This centurion is different. He highly values this slave/servant and is prepared to risk embarrassment in seeking his healing by the charismatic young Jewish rabbi he has been hearing about.

·         In spite of the power and authority of his position, the centurion is also humble, acknowledging his defects and unworthiness in Jewish eyes, not demanding and claiming not to deserve anything from Jesus (7:6).

·         The Jewish Elders (respected senior members of the community) DO think the centurion’s good works qualify him to receive Jesus’s attention “This man deserves to have you do this” (7:4), they tell Jesus.

·         We know that good works do not save us, however Jesus is not dismissive of the centurion’s case. He likes what he has heard about this man and is intrigued and compassionate enough to go along with the request. Perhaps he also senses a teaching opportunity for the Jewish Elders and his own disciples.

Amazing Faith

·         Before Jesus reaches the house, a message is brought to him by the centurion’s friends and it is this message which so impresses and encourages Jesus that he is amazed. It deserves to be read out in full:

·         “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come’, and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this’, and he does it.” (Luke 7:6-8)

·         These are the words, or rather, this is the faith that amazed Jesus. It is a faith he has not found anywhere in Israel. Here is a man who not only calls Jesus ‘Lord’ but puts that belief into practice and recognises Jesus’s authority, not just over people but over sickness and death.

·         The remarkable thing which has happened here is that a new foundation of faith in Jesus, of belief in his saving power and authority, has been added to this man’s qualities – and it is this faith which he is commended for and which brings life instead of death to his servant. It is faith like this which provides a new wineskin fit to contain the new wine of the gospel of grace.

·         I’m reminded of the Las Arenas shopping mall in Barcelona – formally a bullring, a place of ritualised death as a form of entertainment, which was raised up in a remarkable feat of architecture and engineering and had a new foundation added as part of its transformation into, well, into a shopping mall and entertainment complex (I recognise the limitations of this parallel J).

Lessons for today’s church?

·         Outsiders may be forgiven for thinking the focus of Christianity is on following a set of legalistic rules. It isn’t! The important thing is living faithfully; putting our belief in the Lordship of Jesus into practice in every aspect of life.

·         That is what the Sermon on the Plain was all about and it is what Jesus saw and commended in the centurian.

·         What church can become (and this is how a lot of people see us) is a self righteous bunch of people who are convinced they have correct beliefs and are consequently superior to people who do not share these beliefs.

·         When this attitude prevails there is little priority for engaging with and serving the world in the way Jesus envisaged. Its the kind of religion the Pharisees had developed. An old wineskin which cannot contain the new wine of the gospel.

·         We all want to build a better world and as Christians we want that to be a world like the Kingdom of God, with the values Jesus expressed so passionately in the Sermon on the Plain.

·         And it’s tempting to look at the sorry mess society is in and decide to walk away and build somewhere else. Or to say this will have to be pulled down before we can build something better in its place.

·         But a third option is that we can be inspired by the vision and achievements of Richard Rogers and his team who transformed Las Arenas, and by the example of our centurion who added faith in Jesus to underpin the good life he was already living.

·         Instead of walking away from society or pulling it down we can give it a new foundation, by preaching and demonstrating a gospel of grace, reaching out to all people, including people of goodwill who don’t yet acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus.

·         Together we can lift this place to a new level – one that pleases God, one that is full of faith and one that brings joy and glory to Jesus.