HEARERS AND DOERS
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Not long ago the headline was “Pope Says it is better to be an ATHIEST than a hypocritical Catholic.” That’s not actually what he said in a Thursday radio address. Pope Francis’ message was very much modelled on Matthew’s message – it matters not only what we believe or what we say we believe but it also matters what we do. Here are the quotes - 'There are those who say 'I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this and that association',' the head of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church said, according to a Vatican Radio transcript. He said that some of these people should also say ''my life is not Christian, I don't pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, (I lead) a double life'.' 'There are many Catholics who are like this and they cause scandal,' he said.'How many times have we all heard people say 'if that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist.’ Here’s another story from AP: “Broken Faith – Years of Ungodly Abuse At Western North Carolina Church – Congregants of the Word of Faith Fellowship were regularly punched, smacked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to ‘purify’ sinners by beating out devils, 43 former members told the Associated Press…Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers – even crying babies who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons.”
It matters what we do. We all know stories like one of a good friend of mine who went to Sunday School and church as a child. He heard a lot about God’s love there and how we’re called to love one another. This lasted until he heard some kids from youth group making fun of his sister behind her back. We all know stories like this. The pregnant teen who is shunned by her church family. The person suffering through a divorce who is shunned by his or her church family at the moment they need their church family the most.
Matthew takes pains to emphasize that following Jesus involves faith and ethics. This idea goes right to the end of the Gospel when Jesus gives his followers The Great Commission, telling them to go and make disciples (students/learners) of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Teaching them to listen and to do. It’s important what we do.
Now if you’ve been around church things a lot you may be saying “Are you talking about works righteousness?” I’m not. As we’re going through this story and looking at these blocks of teaching, we must always keep in mind who it is that’s doing the teaching. Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. The beloved son of God. This is what we’ve been looking at over the last two weeks. The one whose coming on the scene announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. The one who was bringing deliverance. The one who is one his way to the cross.
When we talk about what it looks like to follow Christ, we must remember that all our talk of doing is predicated on who Christ is and what Christ does. This story is heading toward the cross. On his way Jesus is bringing deliverance, bringing healing, bringing peace. Bringing us back to God. He’s teaching too. Then we read that he began to speak. He began to speak about what following him looks like. Jesus went up the mountain, and taught them saying…
I’m going to try something a little ambitious here, but stay with me. I’m going to try and go through two chapters of the SOTM in about 10 minutes. As you look at the sermon, you can almost hear Jesus saying the same thing. Stick with me. Or “Are you still with me?” Again as we go through this we remember that the attitudes and actions of which Jesus speaks are founded on the basis of the one who is speaking them.
Jesus starts with an inner disposition. The Beatitudes as we call them. Blessed are… Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who know their poverty of spirit – their need for God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – that is for the righteousness of God – the deliverance/justice of God so much spoken of in the OT – for they will be filled. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
To participate in God’s Kingdom, to follow Christ, is to be salt and light. It matters what we do. One writer talks of how salt of the earth has become such a commonplace saying (We often say so and so is the salt of the earth) that it’s hard to know how strange this phrase must have sounded to Jesus’ listeners. This writer goes on to say “It’s like saying you are the red hot chili sauce of the earth.” You are the hot sauce of the earth. A little can go a long way. Spice up the whole soup. I put that stuff on everything. Go put that stuff on everything.
This will result in a new ethic. Look at the headings from 5:21 on down – concerning anger, concerning adultery, concerning divorce, concerning oaths, concerning retaliation. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient time, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.” Anger is not something to be held onto. Insults are not something to be given and answered. This will never lead to a good place. Nicole and I like to eat at a sports bar called Shoeless Joe’s. Two weeks ago I woke up to hear a man had been stabbed in their parking lot. A fight that had spilled out of the place which had no doubt started with offense and anger and insults. You know how these things can go. You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” This is hard! I know each of these need a sermon in themselves but stay with me. Hear Jesus saying “Are you still with me,” because it’s about to get even harder. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” It’s not just about loving those and doing good to those that love us. That’s the easy way. Even the tax collectors do that, Jesus says. To be children of God is to come ever more to bear a family resemblance to our Father. Our God who is moving toward the cross where he will pay the price for our sins, our failures, and pray even in those moments for the people who are killing him.
Are you still with me? We need to be turning to our Father all the time. Practicing acts of piety. Almsgiving. Giving things away. Not to be seen by people but to be rewarded by your Father who sees in secret. Pray. We just went over Jesus’ prayer here at Blythwood. Fast. It’s a bit of a shame we’ve let this one go so much in our tradition. I know it can be meaningless but any act of piety can be meaningless. It doesn’t mean we don’t do them. Do them to stay connected to our Father in heaven. Make the Kingdom of God the foundational thing of your life. Do not be consumed with storing up treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven. Are we giving the Kingdom of God thing our attention? Are we taking it seriously? Is it foundational for us? I am asking these questions of myself as I listen to Jesus’ words. Jesus tells us to look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and remember that they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, neither do they toil or spin, but see how they grow. See how your heavenly Father feeds them. What a beautifully poetic passage. One that’s given such comfort to followers of Christ through the centuries. We’re not trying to say don’t plan. We’re not trying to say don’t work. We know that sparrows starve to death. We know that not every lily comes to bloom. We’re talking about God’s care for us. Do we take it seriously? Ask for these things to be true in our lives. Ask for the character of God to be made known through us, in our actions, in our words, in our attitudes. In how we see the world. In how we see everyone and everything. Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.
And Jesus says “Are you still with me?” These things are hard. You might say they go against our nature. The gate is narrow and the road is hard, Jesus says. But the thing about this road is, it leads to life. These are matters of life and death that we’re talking about friends. I really struggled with this sermon, I don’t mind telling you. These are matters of life and death. We need to stay vigilant on this thing. We need to beware of things. We need to beware of false prophets – false teachers, false preachers who would tell us to go the easy way. They are destructive. They’re compared to savage wolves in Acts 20:29. You might say today they’re like a car bomb going off in a crowded market. We’ve seen the aftermath of such a thing. It’s a destructive force. You’ll know them by their fruits, Jesus says. Hold your teachers up to this standard. Hold me and Pastor Abby up to this standard. Are we practicing what we preach? Hold our faith community up to this standard. Are we part of a community in which acts of love are borne out? William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew writes of some of the ways love is not borne out. In a faith that solely or mainly concerns itself with the externals –with its rites and rituals. Solely or mainly, note. In a faith that concerns itself mainly with prohibitions. Those who present or view Christianity as a set of things we don’t do. It’s like when we as Canadians define ourselves by not being American. Teaching that presents the faith as arrogant or specialist. Teaching that divorces religion from life. Teaching that says only we have the true doctrine. A church leader whose way is the only way. We must be careful and hold one another to account. It’s not about being judgmental, it’s about being discerning, about looking for the fruit. About asking the question in any circumstance we face as followers of Christ – “What does love call for here?”
What does love call for here? We are constantly faced with situations in which we ask that question. A couple of years ago a friend at OOTC was asking for “The Reverend” at the door. Dixon Hall wouldn’t let him in. He was too drunk. He was a danger to himself, to the people around him, it was deemed. They told me not to let him see me, as it would just cause problems. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I make myself scarce? Would it exacerbate the situation to talk with him? Should I try and overturn the decision, plead his case with Dixon Hall? I came upstairs and said let’s talk. We sat in one of the back pews. I felt awful. He was soaking wet. I didn’t want to go against the decision that had been made. He would come to our Saturday night services regularly. He tried to guilt me and it was working “So all that talk about love, and you serving the bread and the cup to me, that’s all meaningless?” I looked at him. I said “You know that’s not true.” He did know. He knew I cared about him. I put my arm around him and helped him back to the narthex. Dixon Hall allowed him to wait there. I found out later that after a couple of hours he had sobered up enough to be let in, to be given a mat. Things worked out but not without a lot of internal questioning around what should I do and how much am I being manipulated and what should I say and what does love call for here.
What does love call for here? This question should always be on our minds. There’s a slightly terrifying thought here. It appears in the Gospel of Matthew that what we do is of eternal consequence. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” Yikes. Where is the love? This is the question. Paul said “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” What we do matters. In Matthew 25 Jesus will tell the story of the sheep and the goats and the sheep will be surprised – they’ll be told by Christ “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The sheep will be surprised! “When did we do this?” they’ll say. “When you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The goats on the other side will be told they did not do those things and will go away into eternal punishment. Matthew 25.
This seems slightly terrifying and I suppose it should be. It keeps us from getting complacent. I don’t say these things to scare us. As the preacher to the Hebrews says, God will not overlook the love that you showed for his sake, in serving the saints, as you still do. I know you. I know your acts. I know your deeds. I’m not thinking we should all be going around worried about this. We might start outperforming acts of kindness out of fear of God’s judgement. We’re not meant to stay there though. Perfect love casts our fear. As we’re on this narrow way together and going through this narrow gate together, God will write his love on our hearts when we ask him. Teach me to love as thou dost love, and do as thou wouldst do. Faith and ethics are two sides of the coin. Faith matters. What we do matters. This is the narrow gate, the hard path, to life.
The question for us is “What do we do with this teaching?” Jesus is teaching one time in John’s Gospel and a lot of people leave him. This teaching is too hard for us, they say. Jesus looked at those who were left and said “Are you going to leave me too?” Peter so famously answered – “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The Holy One of God. The one on whom we’re being invited to let everything ride. The one who opened his mouth and taught, and showed what Kingdom living means. To hear his words and do them is like building your house on rock – a foundation strong enough to withstand anything. This is the one who is leading us to the cross throughout these weeks friends. Who do you say that he is? God grant that we might ever increasingly know him as our rock, the one for whom we listen and the one whose words are borne out in our actions.