BUT I SAY TO YOU
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When we started this series two weeks ago we talked about how things, like having a Jesus fish on our car or maybe having a cross on display, might affect our actions as we go through our days. They might make us more aware of Christlikeness, as it were. We hear from Jesus’ words this morning that following him is about more than what we do.
We get this, don’t we? It’s like when we’re children and our parents tell us something like “Tell your sister you’re sorry.” We come out with a grudging apology and the response comes “He’s not really sorry!” It’s like harbouring some kind of grudge against someone and outwardly we’re acting very polite and proper and friendly and inwardly we’re seething. Throughout these weeks in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re asking ourselves the question “What does life in the Kingdom of Heaven look like?” Let’s ask God’s help as we seek to do that this morning.
We commissioned our deacons this morning. This is not a word we hear very often – commission. It means an instruction or a duty or a command given to a person or to a group of people. At the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, we find what is called The Great Commission. It’s part of Jesus’ last words to his followers. Matt 28:19-20. Making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Jesus has issued the call. His first disciples have answered the call – “Follow me.” They have followed Jesus up the mountain. He has sat down, and he’s begun to teach them. We want to be students of Jesus. We want to be learners of Jesus. We want to know more about what Kingdom life means. We want to take Jesus’ commands seriously, including this one – “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” I’ve mentioned this before. In Jesus’ days' teams of oxen were used for a variety of farming purposes. Very often a young ox would be paired with an older ox and would learn from them. We have this image of being yoked with Christ, which is not burdensome at all. In his grace, the yoke is light and easy.
And in this yoke, we are becoming someone new. It’s not just about what we are doing but it’s also about what we are. Matthew 5-7 is not just to help us to know what do or how to make decisions, though it does that. It’s not just about how to turn to God, though it does that too. Someone has described the Sermon on the Mount as a catalyst for the formation of our character, our identity, who we are. It’s Jesus shaking up our moral imagination. A catalyst for the formation of how to perceive…. everything. Formation through the working of the Holy Spirit of our dispositions, of our intentions. Having our wills brought into alignment with what God wills for the world which God has created and brings back to himself through the person of God’s son.
Jesus. So we sit at his feet as he sits and teaches. Jesus has used the image of light for what we are and what we do as followers of Christ. He’s said what we are – we’re light. The light of the world in fact. Think about this for a moment. Jesus says that this is what he is – the light of the world. (John 9:5) Here he’s saying this is what we are. We are the light of the world only in Christ of course. This is not something we could ever claim to be on our own or claim to think that we’re just that good that we are light. We are made lights to reflect God’s nature and God’s ways. We’re called to be and we’re called to do. No one lights a lamp to put it under a basket, Jesus says. How crazy would that be? In the same way let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven. Our good works. What we do.
The ancient Israelites had been given a list of things to do and not do of course. The Law. The Torah. The Ten Commandments. How to live in right relationship with God and how to live in right relationship with one another. Jesus tells his followers “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…” As William Barclay puts it, “In this passage, Jesus very definitely warms men (sic) not to think that Christianity is easy. Men (sic) might say “Christ is the end of the law; now I can do what I like.” To live in the Kingdom of Heaven is rather to possess a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees. It’s about more than outward show. Jesus is speaking of those for whom fulfilling the letter of the law was the supreme importance. Scribes in Jesus’ day had interpreted OT laws to the point where how much one could write on a Sabbath was prescribed, or how much one could lift without it being deemed work. This is how they thought they were being righteous – faithful to God’s covenant in other words. At the same time, they were forgetting the weightier matters of the law – justice and mercy and faith.
“I came come not to abolish but to fulfill,” says Jesus. This word fulfill means bring expectations to fulfillment. All the law and the prophets pointed ahead to Christ, who would show what it means to live in right relationship with God and humanity and in his life and death and resurrection and in the sending of God’s Spirit his followers would be enabled to do the same. The word for fulfill also has the sense of “to confirm”. I’ve come not to abolish the law but to confirm and in fact to expound on it.
Because life in the Kingdom was never to be simply about adhering to a set of rules of behaviour. To live in covenant faithfulness means something new when we’re speaking of the new covenant that has been instituted in the person of Christ who is our Lord and who is our teacher and who is the ox beside us in our yoke….
(And I must pause here and say something about freedom. It’s in this yoke that we are free. The message that we often hear or subscribe to is that freedom is in being able to do what we want. Our message is that it is in living in this law of love that Jesus instituted and enables in us that we become free to live as the people who God created us to be. )
Christ says he is not abolishing the law but fulfilling it. We’re talking about what God intends for humanity. Summed up in Matt 22:37-40. Jesus is talking about a radical obedience to his words that starts from the interior, not simply a formal outward obedience. Someone has described Jesus’ teaching here like this: “radical interiorization, a total obedience to God, a complete self-giving to neighbour that carries the ethical thrust of the law to its God-willed conclusion.”
It seems right that Jesus starts with anger. If there’s one emotion that people don’t have a problem displaying it’s anger. If there’s one emotion that we go from 0 to 100 on very quickly it’s anger surely. We feel it as we go through our days. We see it. We read about it online. People getting shamed and flamed all over the place. People getting angry at others simply for disagreeing with them. We even have a word for anger that’s associated with being hungry!
How is the follower of Christ called and enabled to be light in this situation? “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘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; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
What’s going on here? Is Christ setting up some sort of moral equivalency? Are we to leave here today understanding that to be angry with someone is as bad as killing them? I don’t think so. Jesus is expounding on the law here. Jesus is talking about the spirit of the law. Don’t hurt one another! This is God’s will for us. Don’t hurt one another. To be a citizen of the Kingdom is to have one’s will brought into alignment with God’s. In the Kingdom, it’s not about saying “Well I’ve never killed anyone.” Someone has compared this to a marriage in which the spouses say “Our marriage is wonderful. We don’t steal from each other, lie to each other, or cheat on each other. And we haven’t killed each other yet!” This is good of course – well done for not doing those things. There is something more to an ideal marriage in which couples are growing in love.
We’re talking about living under the law of love. To let the spark of anger flame into something else is judged as missing the mark by God. To insult someone is judged to be missing the mark by God. To call someone a fool – to hold someone in contempt is to miss the mark. Don’t worry necessarily that falling and calling someone a fool means you’re going to hell. These are three escalating places of judgement that Jesus is citing – a judge, a council, a place called Gehenna. A valley beside Jerusalem which was a giant incinerator which came to mean the place of judgement and separation from God. These acts all run counter to God’s will for us.
I don’t think Jesus is making a moral equivalence here between anger and killing. I do think that a larger point is being made though. To sit with anger. To brood. It can begin a downward spiral that if left unchecked can end with someone being killed.
Break the cycle. “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph 4:26) Don’t let the spark of anger be fanned into a flame. Conversely, there are positive actions to take. Be reconciled to your brother and sister. Come to terms with your accuser. Be reconciling as you have been reconciled. This is the active part of this group of verses. Verses 21-22 talk about our reaction while 23-26 talk about reconciling action.
In his book The Good and Beautiful Life, James Smith writes of two things that contribute to anger – unmet expectations and fear. He writes of false narrative by which we live which create unmet expectations and fear – things like “I am alone. I must be in control all the time. Something terrible will happen if I make a mistake. Life must always be fair and just. I need to be perfect all the time.” In the Kingdom, the truth is that we are never alone. God is just. Jesus is in control and accepts us, imperfect though we may be.
We’re talking about soul-shaping exercises throughout these weeks. One way to live in trust in the Kingdom of Heaven is to pay attention to another one of the 10 commandments. It’s not one we might immediately think of but it has to do with trust. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Accept the gift of rest. To stop from all our striving. To have a day where we pay attention to this, no matter what day it is (though it’s going to be a Saturday or Sunday for most). It’s an act of trust that we don’t have to be always doing. That God has things under control. Smith calls it “allowing God to take care of us and enjoy life.” It takes work to do this of course. We have to make sure we get things done beforehand. Take time for things that we delight in. Read. Have a nap. Make a special dinner. Light candles. Pray. Read over a favourite passage in the Bible. Invite someone to share in your Sabbath. Accept an invitation.
Live as a child of the kingdom. A kingdom that shapes not just what we do but who we are. A kingdom in which we find our own will being shaped in the image of our teacher, our Lord, Jesus. May God help us in his grace as we seek God’s Kingdom together and as we go from here.