Matthew 5:21-37 * February 16, 2020
What do you think of when you think of God? What picture or word comes to mind when you imagine what God is like?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
So did today’s gospel reading align with your answer to the question what do you think of when you think of God? Or describe what you imagine God to be like? I’m guessing that there might be a slight difference. There is for me whenever I encounter this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.
The way we often hear this teaching from Jesus, and yes, this is Jesus speaking, is one of judgment. Judgment and suffering descending upon us for breaking God’s rules. Judgment and suffering descending upon us as Jesus speaks to us directly about anger and murder, adultery and lust, divorce and oaths.
And unfortunately, our more common stance with teachings like this involves descending judgment upon our neighbor because of their bad life choices. Life choices that we think allow us to place our own judgment upon them directly. We don’t need Jesus to mediate that judgment, we can handle it all on our own. If you think gossip and infidelity are recent additions to the human condition, Jesus just proved that theory wrong in today’s gospel.
Unfortunately, though, this is where you and I most often stay. We stay in a place where we feel like we are the one being judged and we’ll never be good enough. Or we feel like we are the one who gets to do the judging of another child of God. And we get stuck in one of those places.
We get stuck believing that our relationship with God is based upon a transaction. If we are good, God will love us. If we don’t break the rules, we’ll get rewarded with riches beyond our wildest imagination. If we have good morals – whatever that may or may not mean to you – if we just live up to our expectation of morality than all will be right with my soul and Jesus will love me more than the person who doesn’t live up to the same moral standards I’ve established.
21st Century author and theologian Bob Goff recently said, “Our problem following Jesus is we’re trying to be a better version of us, rather than a more accurate reflection of Him.”
The Sermon on the Mount, which encompasses the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew’s gospel, is Jesus showing us what our life following him is going to look like. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, everything we thought we knew about following Jesus is really quite different from what following Jesus is actually like.
Everything we think we can control, we really have no control over.
Every moral standard we think we can live up to far more successfully than our neighbor can, we actually can’t.
Every better version of ourselves that we create in our own image, has little to nothing to do with being a reflection of Jesus in the ways Jesus invites us to be as his disciples.
It’s important to remember, Jesus isn’t throwing the law out and saying it no longer matters. Instead, he is redefining the law as it has been interpreted by the Jewish leaders of his day. I think he’s also redefining the law for the ways it is often so poorly interpreted still today. Ways of using the law by religious and secular leaders that seek to divide God’s kingdom and destroy the possibility of you and I ever being able to have a healthy relationship with each other or with God.
There’s a rhythm to Jesus’ statements in this section of the Sermon on the Mount as he embarks on this redefining. It sounds like this “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus is being careful to show us that he does not abolish the law or that he is simply replacing it from any earlier version. He’s trying to show us that our relationship with God is now different because of him. That the law is now being fulfilled because of him.
And in this challenging section of Matthew’s gospel, maybe having this new picture of our relationship with God is all that Jesus is trying to show us.
Jesus is saying to us, “You have heard it said that you will never be good enough to live up to your parent’s or your bosses’ expectations, but I say to you, you are loved unconditionally.”
Jesus is saying to us, “You have heard it said that if you just live a moral life as determined by the society around you at the time, all will be ok, but I say to you, you are accepted where you are, as you are, because of whose you are.”
Jesus closing words to us in this section of the Sermon on the Mount help us go even deeper. Jesus says, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than that comes from the evil one.”
One of the 20th century’s greatest church and cultural reformers was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was an outspoken Lutheran pastor in Germany who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp just a few months before the end of World War 2. He was thrown into prison for the stances he took against the Nazi regime in Germany. Stances against Naziism that were deeply shaped by his Christian faith.
In a 1938 confirmation sermon, Bonhoeffer preached on the gospel reading that’s before us today.
Note that this sermon and gospel reading were offered at a confirmation worship service.
Note the date of the sermon, 1938 – a short time before the start of the war.
And note the context – young people receiving the rite of confirmation, about to affirm their Christian faith and begin to live out that faith as adults in the eyes of the church.
Bonhoeffer proclaimed, “You have only one master now…But with this ‘yes’ to God belongs just as clear a ‘no.’ Your ‘yes’ to God,” Bonhoeffer said, “requires your ‘no’ to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy. Your ‘yes’ to God requires a ‘no’ to everything that tries to interfere with your serving God alone, even if that is your job, your possessions, your home, or your honor in the world. Belief means decision.” Bonhoeffer preached.
Remember, those words were part of a sermon to a congregation of young people about to affirm their Christian faith and begin their adult journey, living into the promises made in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Young people who were about to face what we now know as a time when the world experienced the wrath of one of the most violent, lethal and evil regimes in the history of humankind. And remember, this didn’t happen 3,000 years ago. It happened just a few years ago.
I believe God’s proclamation through Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to ring true today, just as it did in 1938. I also believe that our savior Jesus’ teachings continue to ring true today, just as they did 2,000 years ago on a mountaintop near the Sea of Galilee.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there will be times in your life, I know for a fact there have been times in my life when it will be difficult to say no, so we can say yes to God.
There will be times when you and I will fall short of expectations – either our own expectations or the expectations others have of us or even the expectations God has for us.
There will be times when we will do something to another child of God that will cause pain to us or them without evening knowing we are causing pain.
There will be times when anger and poor decisions will break apart relationships to the point where they may never be repaired. At least not repaired in this lifetime.
And in all of those times, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus and do the best we can as we walk this faith journey each day, it is my hope and prayer that we never lose sight of the fact that our life in Christ is a shared relationship, not something we do alone. And in that shared relationship, let’s confidently say ‘yes’ to God…even as we live in the middle of a world filled with chaos that thinks we should say no.
So what was your picture of God when I asked you that question about 12 minutes ago?
500 years ago, students living with the great 16th-century church reformer Martin Luther asked him that exact same question. His response was, “When I think of God, I think of a man hanging on a tree.”
In the cross of Christ we see God’s love poured out for the whole world, God’s ‘yes’ to us.
The cross of Christ is a reminder that God will go to any and all lengths to show us just how much God loves us.
The cross of Christ shows us that God’s love has no boundaries no matter how many times and ways and places that we place boundaries in front of each other, no matter how many times we say ‘no’ to the God of all creation in order to fulfill our human egotistical desires.
The cross of Christ can’t be destroyed by any judgment we place on ourselves or our neighbor, because the cross of Christ always pushes us to more fully love one another.
May that same cross guide your journey and mine as we live out our Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition in a world deeply needing to know God is still here and that God is always with them in a savior named Jesus. May we never be afraid to say ‘yes’ to that truth. Amen.