The Life Jesus Describes: Is it even possible?

09
Feb

A sermon preached on February 9th, 2014 based upon Mathew 5:13-20.  
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To get at these words of Jesus, it is important to understand something of their context, and in trying to do so, I’m afraid I’ve prepared more of a lecture than a sermon this morning, but I trust nonetheless that God can use my words this morning.
Matthew’s Gospel is the most self-consciously “Jewish” of the four Gospels, and as such, he portrays Jesus as being the new Moses.  It is in Matthew’s Gospel that we hear the story of King Herod attempting to murder the baby Jesus, ordering the killing of all the male infants in the land.  Matthew intends to remind us of how Moses in his time survived the Pharaoh’s slaughter of the male infants.

Egypt is the land in which Moses’ story begins, and so in Matthew’s Gospel Joseph takes the baby Jesus and his mother and flees to Egypt, returning home only after the death of Herod.
Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, reminding us of the 40 years Moses spent in the wilderness, particularly the time he spent up on a mountain for 40 days when God gave him the ten commandments — the heart of the law — written in the stone of two tablets.   That the Creator cared about the moral life of human beings was an altogether original concept in the history of the human race; and henceforth the self-understanding of the Jewish people would be that they were the  to that the particular tribe on earth called to embody holy living as an example for the rest of the humanity.

Here now in the fifth chapter Matthew takes this idea further as Jesus, like Moses before him, goes up on a mountain in this case to deliver his famous “sermon on the mount,” the subject of which carries on the theme of what is the higher righteousness is calling human beings to live out.
In the portion of this sermon which Bob read for us, Jesus tells his listeners,  “I have not come to abolish” the law, “but to fulfill” the law, concluding with these words:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We are accustomed to thinking of the Pharisees as being nothing more to hypocrites, but that isn’t really fair.  The Pharisees were the Jews of their day who strove to live by a higher righteousness, trying to live out “holiness” by keeping everyone one of the 624 laws in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  This included specific directives to act mercifully, such as giving money to the poor, providing for widows and orphans, and offering hospitality to strangers from other countries living in the land.

In the Gospels the Pharisees come into conflict with Jesus and consequently have become something of a sinister stereotype for us, but that’s not really fair.  They were the ones in their day who were focused on living out a communal life of holiness through which Israel would be a light to the nations.  And so when Jesus says that the righteousness of his followers must exceed that of the Pharisees, this is no small thing.

The sermon on the mount continues through chapter 7, and we will hear more passages from it in the weeks leading up to Lent, but briefly I would like to highlight some of what follows to give you a feel for the “higher righteousness” Jesus is calling us to:

He talks about anger in the heart being essentially the same as murder; emphasizing the absolute necessity of actively making peace with our adversaries.

He equates lust in the heart as being the same as committing adultery.

He emphasizes absolute honesty of speech, so that there will never be any need for us to swear any kind of oath, because every word we speak will be without deceit.

He says we are to go well beyond the concept of an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” — a teaching from the law of Moses that was meant to put an end to the human tendency to perpetually escalate the level of violence, as in you wreck my car, I’ll burn down your house.  No, said Jesus, an “eye for an eye” isn’t enough.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek as well.  Do not engage in violence of any kind, even if violence is first committed to you.

Give to everyone who comes to you asking for your money, your help.

Love not only your family and friends, but your enemies too, because that’s what God does.  God loves everybody.

Jesus goes on to say that we’re never to do anything for the sake of appearances – to be well thought of.  (It only matters what God thinks of you; don’t try to control how others view you.)
We aren’t to invest our hearts in earthly possessions.  We are to put our trust in God, and have to no anxiety about anything.

He says we aren’t to pass judgment on anybody; as soon as we do, he says, we become hypocrites.

He sums things up with the golden rule: “In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” for that’s what God has always wanted us to be about – that’s the essence of the Law.
So if we seriously reflect on these words of Jesus in the sermon of the mount and what it is he is saying God requires of us – we come up against the question, is this even possible?

Over the centuries, Christians have responded to this question in different ways.  The earliest Christians seem to have assumed it was possible, but over time the idea arose that the life described in the sermon on the mount was a special calling that only cloistered monks and nuns might aspire to.   What hope is there for the rest of us living out in this world to carry out the love of all our enemies, to give to everybody who asks, to rid ourselves of all worldly attachments as well as all anger and all lust and every inclination to judge?  It’s impossible!  Sainthood came to be seen as something reserved for the few, the chosen who would withdraw from the temptations of this world.

Martin Luther himself started out as a monk, aspiring to live out such a holy life, and it was only as he came up against his utter failure of ridding himself of lust and anger and resentments and such that he came to understand what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he said that we are all sinners saved through grace by faith.  Martin Luther came to see the commandments of the sermon on the mount not as something that Christians could ever actually expect to live out, but rather as a kind of measuring rod by which we come face to face with our basic sinfulness.

And there is some truth to that.  Go back over all the demands Jesus makes of his followers in the sermon on the mount, and I think, we’re honest, we have to conclude that we fail before everyone of them.

We all flunk the test – but fear not, declared Paul and Martin Luther,  if we put our trust in Christ and HIS righteousness, by the grace of God we are given a passing grade.

So Martin Luther provided this great collective sigh of relief for serious Christians struggling with the awareness that they haven’t freed themselves from the ongoing power of sin.

But along with the relief, there was a also a sense in which the path forged by Martin Luther created a kind of collective pessimism regarding what we humans are capable of – a futility regarding any serious attempt to live out the teachings of the sermon on the mount.   

This is a major oversimplification of the history of Christian doctrine, but it was this futility and pessimism of Luther that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, tried to correct.   Wesley sought a middle way between the Catholic notion of there being a few special Christians who alone are called to be “saints,” and Martin Luther’s notion that we can never hope to be anything other than miserable sinners.

Wesley believed that the holy living expressed in the sermon on the mount truly was intended for life in this world.  “You are the light of the world,” said Jesus, “you are the salt of the earth.”  We who are Christians are not to flee from the world, but rather in the world, redeeming it with good works of mercy and justice.   So Wesley left behind the privileged walls of the churches of his day which were primarily inhabited by people who were comfortably well off, and went where the working poor could be found, lining up for work in the factories and mines, crushed under the wheels of the industrial revolution.

Wesley developed a theology out of his own experience.  His early adult years were spent as an Anglican priest obsessively trying to live out the sermon on the mount, which led him to a crash and burn experience in his early thirties while serving as the chaplain to the colony of Georgia.
Trying to be light of the world, he discovered a great darkness within himself.   He fell in love with a young woman but didn’t know how to integrate his experience of romantic love into his religious life, and had his heart broken when the young woman became impatient with him and married another man.  Despairing, Wesley found himself in a puddle of jealousy and anger.  Trying to be perfect, he showed himself to be very imperfect, making a royal mess of things, and ended up fleeing the colony to return to England a broken and discouraged man.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is how Jesus begins the sermon on the mount, and as I talked about last week, there is a kind of holy breaking that is necessary for the light to begin to really shine through us.

And so about a year after returning to England, John Wesley feeling miserable and full of darkness, went very reluctantly to a prayer meeting on a street called Aldersgate, and it was there that he experienced, as he described in his journal, his “heart strangely warmed,” experiencing divine love flowing over him, freeing him from his self-condemnation.

It was a year later that Wesley began to go out to the highways and byways to preach to the destitute masses, sharing the good news of God’s great love for them, revealed in Jesus Christ.
The genius of John Wesley had to do with his understanding that preaching alone wasn’t enough, that after experiencing a new birth, people need to be nurtured on their spiritual journeys, or else they would just end up worse off than when they began.   So every poor soul who opened their hearts to the Gospel he preached was guided into a series of small groups called “class meetings” in which they would meet weekly like an AA meeting to share how things were going in their souls – to find encouragement, accountability and simple spiritual friendship.

And in these settings Wesley saw people grow – he saw real change take place.  So he developed this theology that talked about how the doorway of religion is the new birth – that experience he had when it felt like his heart was strangely warmed – the same thing Martin Luther had encountered in his despair over his lack of success as a monk striving for holiness.  The doorway of religion is “justification.”  God declares us justified even as we are yet sinners.
But whereas the justification was the doorway of religion, the actual house of religion was what

Wesley called “sanctification” in which the Christian over time progressively grows in love.
For Wesley the Christian life was all about love – the very thing that the Pharisees in all their striving had ended up missing.  Love God and love your neighbor was the heart of the law, said Jesus, but love was the very thing the Pharisees in their obsession with the details lost sight of.
Wesley believed that it was possible for a Christian to become perfected specifically in terms of love, which is exactly what Jesus spoke of later in the Sermon on the Mount when, in talking about the command to love our enemies, he said, “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Wesley believed in this perfection of love as a possibility in this life, though he never claimed that for himself.   He believed that all of us are called to this perfection, but that for the vast majority of us, this full sanctification isn’t experienced until the moment of our deaths, when we enter into the purging love of God’s eternal light.

So, to wrap this up, at the outset of our scripture lesson this morning Jesus says that we are to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, which means we are to be very much in this world, as Jesus was in this world.  We are to be in the world as those who embody the compassion of God.
I shared a quote last week about how “the broken places are where the light shines through.”  How can we be compassionate with those who are suffering in this world in all their frailty and brokenness unless we know ourselves as being, in some sense, as broken as well?  It is only in facing our own darkness that we can begin to bear the light.

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