“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37
If you did not squirm in your seat, at least a little bit, when these words of Jesus were read, then you are either holy, on the level of Mother Teresa or have allowed yourself to be made numb by our post-modern age— where personal expression– whether in strong emotions, human sexuality or political action and speech, has arisen as the inviolable law of the land. Indeed, any attempt to restrict personal expression and self-definition is met with a ferocity that would make the most ardent Nazi and Fascist slack-jawed with awe and admiration. Make no mistake, if you were to share these words of Jesus with your unchurched co-workers, friends and neighbors, it would fall upon their ears as incomprehensible nonsense. For they have drunk deeply from the wells of our day– a generation (or two or three) convinced that to be truly happy and fulfilled, one must surrender completely to the strong desires that well up within. Even if that desire is to be a woman, despite being born a man, and vice versa.
So, can these crucial words of Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount be of any use in our day– so overthrown with self-worship, so awash with re-definitions of foundational and fundamental concepts– male-female, marriage, family, right-wrong, good-evil?
First, you and I must embrace these words as true and crucial for you and me. I suspect that most of us immediately put these words of Jesus into the category of the “thou shall not…” list of items to avoid. However, this list adds the seeming impossibility to check, not only our outward actions (murder, adultery, etc), but our inward motivations as well. It is not unreasonable for us to respond, “Jesus, I MIGHT be able to avoid open murder, divorce and adultery, but you have established an unrealistic expectation when you insist that I keep my angry and lustful thoughts in check as well!”
It’s not unlike when the undeterred Yoda asks the petulant, immature Luke Skywalker to use the force to lift his X-wing out of the bog and place it on firm ground. After Luke failed in his efforts, he angrily turns on Yoda and declares, “You want the impossible!” Yoda then proceeds to accomplish what young Luke could not. In exuberance, Luke shouts, “I don’t believe it!” To which Yoda, with sad expression, says, “That is why you fail.”
The wise words of Jesus are much more than a moral check-list we need to tick-off on a daily basis. Instead, they are words that cut to the very heart of our inner motivations– the secret movements of our thoughts. They are words of great hope and good news– we do not have to be held captive by every selfish, angry, lustful, prideful thought! These bonds are meant to be broken by the power of the risen Christ and the strong wind of the Holy Spirit. The only question is, do you believe Jesus’ instructions to be true and achievable?
Second, the church as a whole must hold steadfast to these words as life itself and live them out visibly in community. It seems most church leaders and preachers avoid teaching with authority on these words of Jesus– for a multitude of seemingly sensible reasons. It’s too controversial, too hard, no one believes it possible anyway, too offensive to seekers, etc. So we turn to other more socially acceptable topics– how to handle finances, grow our ministry, fill our churches, retain visitors, acclimate new folk to our particular church culture, etc. But in our day and time, what could be more important than the difficult and messy work of helping one another to live out these hard instructions of Jesus? Within our own churches, how many marriages, families, confused teens, shattered homes, dysfunctional neighborhoods could be made new if the redeemed of the Lord were to visibly, and with joy, live out these words and lovingly help one another to do so? We fear being viewed as legalists, prudes and “holier-than-thou” Christians. And that fear prevents us from being a beacon of light, freedom and true, lasting joy.
Third, all believers in Christ must proclaim these words, in speech and action, as breath, life and true joy to a world under the dominion of merciless false gods. In short, the church must be an Ark in a flooded, tempest-tossed world. The jetsam and flotsam of the ruined lives that surround us due to the false-god and false-promise that sexual free expression will bring happiness to life are reaching such overwhelming numbers that we should clearly see the “fields white unto harvest”. In other words, the church is like the Avengers or the Justice League who look around and see a super-abundance of imperiled folk who need rescuing by super-natural powers. But if we see fellow human beings caught up in sexual addiction, divorce or emotional dysfunction as just another “normal” member of society, then instead of a rescue effort, we will simply attempt to use marketing techniques to win them to our local church “club” so that our numbers may swell and budgets increase.
These words of Jesus should be a bucket of ice-water dumped on our heads, church. Either because we need to cease and desist from being wrathful, lustful, selfish, promise-breaking people; or because in stead of offering life and freedom to the dying, enslaved folks around us, we have done little more that invite them to “club Christian”– where real, lasting, internal transformation is assiduously avoided because it is messy and unpredictable and may derail us from our vision and plans for our church.
Let us be careful to not get caught up in playing “church”– to confuse our agendas, visions, and hopes for the clarion call of the one true Gospel.
Let us choose life. Let us offer life. Glory to God— Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.