Sermon for 6th Sunday after Trinity
This morning Gospel reading is among the harshest admonishments of Old Adam, our sinful nature, in the New Testament. It is difficult to understand, difficult to accept, difficult to even process. It is counter-intuitive to many, a stumbling block for others. But this is not exactly apparent due to the way that the reading has been trimmed. Sometimes, lectionaries separate passages that are more easily understood if kept together because the whole gives a context that the part is lacking. This morning we come across one such instance.
We are given only the first of a series of comparison between what had been the benchmark of righteousness among the Israelites and what, according to Christ, must henceforth be the benchmark of righteousness. We heard the following: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment (Mat 5:21-22a). Now add to this the two verses that follow immediately after the reading: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Mat 5:27-28).
This turns up the pressure somewhat. But there is more, several more such comparisons, until the chapter concludes with the following: Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Mat 5:43-48).
We are called to transformation, to newness, to a life in which we are to be perfect, even as our Father which is heaven is perfect. If this isn’t daunting, I don’t know what is. Especially given that, as St Paul points out, it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one (Rom 3:10). Does the Gospel reading for this day, together with its conclusion, suggest something different?
Not at all, but it is worth dwelling on what really goes on in this passage, along with its implications. This is one of those readings that I have mentioned before, that some have come to see as Christ setting up an impossible benchmark in order for us to realize how absolutely depraved we are, that we cannot live up to His standards, and that we have to rely on grace alone for our salvation. But before we even get to grace, it is worth asking the question: is this impossible, or is it simply really hard? Is it unattainable pure and simple, or is is a really hard struggle that requires grace—for sure—but also discipline, patience, perseverance and a level of seriousness about discipleship that is difficult to muster?
Let me start at the other end, away from grace and love. There is a continuity of passions that we do not think about nearly often or hard enough. But passions matter because they not only cause us to commit certain actions–those very same passions also cause us to feel and think in certain ways.
What causes someone to commit adultery? Generally, it is safe to assume that there is some element of lust involved. Well, that is exactly what Christ goes on to condemn—not merely the open fruit of lust, but lust itself. Similarly, what causes someone to do murder? Again, from Cain onwards, it is safe to assume that wrath is somehow involved—which is precisely what Christ goes on to condemn—not merely the actions resulting from wrath, but wrath itself. He is warning us of the passions that underlie the actions because they are entirely at odds with the heavenly passion: love.
Let me put the question this way—can I claim that I have love, that I dwell in the God who is love—if I go around secretly hating everyone I come across, simply because I don’t beat them up or kill them? Of course I can claim it, and you wouldn’t know the difference, but the spiritual reality, the reality hidden from you all would nevertheless be that of a victim of wickedness. Sure it is a wickedness that I somehow manage to keep in check, and it is often argued that keeping Old Adam in check is the best we can do. Well, the problem is that often, one wickedness is kept in check by another wickedness. For instance, I may choose to not steal stuff from my colleagues at work for fear of being caught and fired: ambition and the need for money keeps me in check, not godliness. I may choose to not be an adulterer for fear of being exposed and ending up in divorce court: pride and self-righteousness keeps me in check, not love. And so on. These are not godly reasons, and the fact that I do not carry out certain acts in no way means that I dwell in God and God in me. Abstaining from open sin for reasons such as these I just mentioned means, on the contrary, that my soul is gripped by exactly the same passions as that of a murderer, an adulterer and a thief—plus those additional passions that keep me in check. How, my friends, am I then any better?
Christ Jesus gives the answer. Not to how I am better, but to how I can escape and find refuge: in grace, which comes through faith. Yet it may not be immediately apparent that this is what we actually heard, in the very first sentence of this morning’s Gospel reading, but let’s try it again: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Mat 5:20). One unknown church father wrote that “The righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees are the commandments of Moses; but the commandments of Christ are the fulfillment of that Law This, then, is His meaning; Whosoever shall not fulfill my commandments, shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” What then, friends, is the fulfillment of the Christ’s commandments other than love? Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Mat 22:37b-40).
But friends, participating in God’s love through faith by grace requires a response from us. In return for these gifts, God expects a response: as Christians we are called to make use of that heavenly passion, to implement it, to nurture it–to live a life of love because love actually matters to us.
I am sure you recall that famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 about love that endures all things, etc. It is a favorite reading for weddings and other special occasions. It is also a favorite passage of modern “anything goes-theologians.” Its frequent use and popularity may have served to hide the fact that it is saying exactly the same thing as today’s Gospel reading: we are called to interior transformation and that what we do or refrain from doing does not automatically have anything to do with what is in our hearts:
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. … we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away (1 Cor 13:3-7, 12b-13).
Friends, that which is perfect is come: Christ Jesus. He loves us with a perfect love from the Father, and we are said, as Christians, to have a share in that love; to dwell in that love. God loves mankind, this is the only reason we have hope for salvation. But what is our response?
Our response, by grace, is transformation, newness, and a struggle to be perfect even as our Father which is heaven is perfect. To struggle for love in the face of the challenges that the world throws at us—that is to love God. Love is not some abstract, floaty, anything-goes thing. It requires discipline, patience and
perseverance. We have to work on it, and we do work on it. Marriages are a good example. There is a reason that the wedding vow includes the wording “for better, for worse.” Even for those who are so blessed that most of it is better, there will be times that are worse. Then you work on it, deal with issues, think, talk and pray on it. Why? Because love compels you, because it is important to you.
The bridegroom, Christ Jesus, warned his bride, the Church, before his execution that there will be times that are better, but there will also be times that are worse, much worse. In this context, towards the end of the gospel according to St Matthew, he emphasized the importance of our commitment to work on the marriage, to remember our vows—our baptismal vows—and what they mean to us. To order our lives in such a way that our imperfect response to his perfect love is a priority in our lives. To offer love to a world that hates. Again, it is worth our while to ask the question: is this impossible, or is it really hard? Is it unattainable, or is it a struggle that requires grace, discipline, patience, perseverance and a level of seriousness about discipleship that is difficult to muster?
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us all. Amen.