The Greater Righteousness (a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37)

If a preacher stood up in a pulpit today and said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of Mother Theresa, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, I suspect the members of the congregation would be shocked. Mother Theresa, who gave her entire life to serving the poor of Calcutta? Mother Theresa, who thought nothing of cleaning out bedpans and washing the hideous wounds of lepers? Mother Theresa, who spent an hour in prayer every morning before the Blessed Sacrament? How the heck can we have a greater righteousness than hers?

And this is exactly how the crowd would have felt when they heard Jesus speak these words from the end of last week’s gospel reading: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were highly respected for keeping the Law of Moses. They had calculated exactly how many ‘thou shalts’ and how many ‘thou shalt nots’ were in the law, and they had added all sorts of traditions to apply the commands to every conceivable situation in daily life. In the gospels we mainly get a negative view of the Pharisees, but we should remember that most people in the time of Jesus looked up to them and saw them as the most holy and devout people of their generation. So for Jesus to talk about ‘a greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees’ would have been astounding to the people of his day.

What does he mean by ‘a greater righteousness’? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out today and next week, because Jesus spends the rest of Matthew chapter five giving us six concrete examples of this ‘greater righteousness’. With each example, he’s going to show us the problem with the Pharisees: they were satisfied with a strict obedience to the bare demands of the Law of Moses, but they weren’t going any further than that. They weren’t asking the question, “What sort of person is the Law designed to produce? How does God want to change me on the inside, so that breaking the Law is something I would never even think of doing?” Another way of looking at it would be to say that a Law-oriented person is going to ask, “What’s the least I can get away with?” whereas a follower of Jesus is going to ask, “How can I grow in love and become the sort of person God dreams for me to be?”

How does this work out in daily life? Well, let’s take a look at the first four examples, and see how the basic principle is worked out in them. The other two will be in our gospel reading for next week.

Jesus starts in verses 21-26 with the commandment against murder: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’, and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’” (v.21). We can imagine a strict Pharisee being proud of himself at this point and saying, “Yep, I can tick that one off on the scorecard; I’ve never murdered anyone”. How comforting it would be for us to know that there are no murderers in this church! We might even congratulate ourselves on what a godly church we are!

But Jesus is going to take it further than that. He’s going to ask us, “But what causes murders? Often, it’s anger, and resentment, and the desire for revenge. So I’m not only going to outlaw murder – I’m going to outlaw anger as well. And here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to make reconciliation a number one Christian value. So whenever you realize that there’s something wrong between you and someone else, drop whatever you’re doing and go and do all you can to make it right. This should be priority number one for you”.

You see what he’s doing? He’s going deep into the inner meaning of the Law of Moses and ‘fulfilling’ it – in other words, ‘filling it up’, asking not only ‘what’s the letter?’ but ‘what’s the spirit?’ And he’s going to do the same thing with the other examples too.

In verses 27-30 he turns to the commandment against adultery. There it is in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery”, and once again we can imagine a righteous Pharisee saying, “Yep, I can tick that one off too: I’ve always been faithful to my wife and never had sex with anyone else”. But once again, Jesus is asking the hard questions. “What causes adultery? Surely, it’s uncontrolled lust. How are you doing on that score, mister Pharisee? You may never have committed adultery, but do you have a roving eye?”

Jesus is not talking here about just noticing someone; we all do that. He’s talking about indulging that impulse, nursing it and cultivating it. Of course, in his day he never had to deal with the rise of Internet pornography, but we know today that it’s a huge problem in many lives. So Jesus is going to the root of the problem: the best way to head off adultery is to deal with lust, and the way to deal with it is to ruthlessly cut out all opportunity for it in your life. It might not literally involve cutting off your hand or gouging out your eye; it might mean, instead, putting some external controls on your Internet use, so that you become accountable to others for what you look at and what you don’t. A pastor friend of mine told me some years ago about a computer program that had been developed to help this happen; you give it the list of a small group of friends you want to be accountable to, and each day it emails them a list of all the websites you have visited.

This may sound drastic, but Jesus sees the damage that can be caused, and so he encourages us to take drastic measures, far beyond a bare obedience to the letter of the Law. The goal, of course, is a pure heart, one that’s committed to loving in a way that conforms to God’s dream for us. Jesus is telling us that this is a treasure worth making sacrifices for, so we ought to do whatever it takes to become that sort of person.

Of course, these commands of Jesus are demanding, and they touch every one of us. Many of us have been seriously hurt by people in our past, and we find it very difficult to avoid being angry and resentful. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to just avoid murdering them! And the Jesus we read about in the gospels is gentle on us sinners; he knows what we’ve been through and the difficulties we face. But he’s encouraging us to press on, to see the Law of Moses as just a start. God has a dream for us, and we will find our real freedom and joy as we press on toward that dream.

The same applies to lust. We live in a culture that’s soaked in sexual innuendo, and the media milks it for every cent it’s worth. Let’s be honest; to put Jesus’ teaching into practice here is very, very hard. But once again, we know he’s right when he says that it’s worth it. We all know marriages and families that have been wrecked by the pain of adultery, and we know that this all starts with looking, and indulging and cultivating that looking. So Jesus encourages us to go to the root of the problem.

The next topic that Jesus turns to is one that touches even more of us. Many of us here have been touched by the pain of divorce; many of us have been divorced and remarried. And once again Jesus turns to our Pharisee, who looks at the Law of Moses and finds there a command that says, “If you want to divorce your wife, be sure to give her a certificate of divorce”. So once again our Pharisee can congratulate himself and say, “Yes, I’ve done that one too; my divorce was all strictly legal and above board! Well done, me!”

But Jesus won’t have it; to him, every divorce is a tragedy, and we know he’s right. Maybe, in a small number of cases, the tragedy of the marriage was such that there truly was no other option, but there’s no such thing as a divorce that doesn’t cause pain and heartache. And, as Jesus says in another place, “In the beginning it was not so” – in other words, God didn’t design us for serial marriages, he designed us for lifelong faithful monogamy. So if you want to pursue God’s dream for you, that’s what you need to pursue, he says – keeping in mind, of course, that every single one of us has fallen short of God’s ideal for us in one way or another, and that the Gospel assures us that God always starts with us where we are, not where we ought to be.

Can I pause here and point out that the order in which Jesus has examined these first three examples is not an accident? Surely, if we want to save a difficult marriage, anger and lust are two major issues that we need to deal with. Many times, when marriages are full of unresolved conflicts, both partners are keeping score cards and lists of all their grievances, and as the lists get longer and longer, the chances of saving the marriage get smaller and smaller. Unless we can deal with the issue of anger and resentment, and learn the way of reconciliation, then Jesus’ words will become sadly relevant to us: we’ll never get out of court until we’ve paid the last penny! And it’s obvious that the issue of lust – adultery in the heart, as Jesus calls it – is a major factor contributing to the breakdown of many marriages. These examples Jesus gives, you see, are not isolated; they’re all connected to each other, and as we address one area, it has an impact on the others as well.

The final example we’ll look at today is his fourth one: truthfulness. Once again, we can imagine our little Pharisee congratulating himself and saying, “Yes sir! Every time I’ve made a promise, I’ve kept it! If I swear by the gold of the Temple, you can be sure I’ll keep my word, and if I sign a contract with you, you’ll get exactly what you’ve been promised”.

But once again, Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises at all? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our bare word! What are we actually saying if we feel we have to swear an oath? Are we saying, “Well, normally, you can’t trust what I say, but now I’ve made an oath calling on God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth, and I do fear God, so now you can finally trust me”?

Jesus is encouraging us to imagine a different level of honesty. Imagine a situation where I’ve been called on to be a witness in a court of law. So I take the stand, and the clerk approaches me with the Bible so I can swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. But suddenly the judge stops the proceedings. “Wait a minute”, he says, “that’s Tim Chesterton up there. The whole world knows that he’s a man of absolute integrity and honesty. There’s never been a known occasion when he’s told a lie, or when he’s said he’s going to do something and failed to do it. It would be an absolute insult for me to ask him to take an oath and swear to tell the truth, because that’s what he always does”.

Is that me? No, I’m afraid it’s not, but I have to say that I would love to be that person. Jesus is telling me that this is God’s dream for me: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this, Jesus is saying. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.

If we’re honest, these four examples Jesus has given today both scare us and excite us. They scare us, because we all know we’ve fallen short. But they also excite us, because we know in our hearts that Jesus is describing a life of integrity, love, and holiness, and this is attractive to us. We know instinctively that if we’re going to find the peace of mind and heart we’re looking for, the path Jesus is laying out for us is the right one.

Next week we’ll go on to the last two examples Jesus gives, revenge and love for enemies. But as we come to a close today, let’s remind ourselves of what the Beatitudes tell us. They tell us that the kingdom of God is for the weak, the poor, and those who know their need of God. So if you feel like you’ve fallen short, don’t be discouraged by that; the way of Jesus is for people just like you! The Sermon on the Mount is the curriculum in the School of Jesus; it’s not the entrance exam! The entrance exam is simple – repentance, faith, and baptism. If you’ve turned from sin and evil, put your faith in Jesus and been baptized – whatever order those things happened in – then you’re in.

God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there. As we continue to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we’ll discover the ways in which God is patiently teaching us a new way of living. As we learn to put that new way of living into practice, we’ll gradually find ourselves being transformed – not just on the outside, but on the inside as well – and we will discover for ourselves what the greater righteousness is all about. In the end, of course, there’s a very simple name for it: the greater righteousness is all about love.

Would you like to help me reach more people with my e-book?

Many thanks to the 24 people (so far) who have bought copies of ‘Meadowvale: a Novel‘ on Kindle or Kobo!

If you wouldn’t mind, here are three things you can do to help me reach another twenty four people!

1. When you have finished the e-book, go to the site you bought it from (Amazon, Indigo, Kobo etc.) and rate it out of five stars. Be honest – I don’t mind!

2. If you would take the time to write a short review, this would REALLY help. When it comes to books appearing in the algorithms, the number of reviews is really important. And if you wouldn’t mind copying your review to the other sites (Amazon, Kobo, Indigo, and – if you’re a member – Goodreads – that would also really be helpful.

3. Share the link to my e-book on your own Facebook page and/or blog, with a few words about what you thought of it.

Thanks very much! I really appreciate your help!

Just a reminder of where you can get the e-book:

Amazon.ca (if you’re not in Canada, search for it in your own Amazon stores – it’s in all of them).

Indigo.ca

Kobo.com

 

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Making a Difference (a sermon on Matthew 5:13-20)

Matthew 5:13-20

Some of you are old enough to remember the 1986 movie The Mission. It tells the story of an eighteenth-century Jesuit mission in South America which had the misfortune to get in the way of government-supported slave traders. At the end of the movie, after the slave-traders have massacred the Indians and some of the Jesuits, the Jesuit Superior – who was forced by the King of Spain to allow their action – is reading their report. He turns to one of them and says, “Do you have the effrontery to tell me that this slaughter was necessary?” The slave trader replies, “Such is the world, Your Eminence”. “No”, says the Jesuit Superior; “Such have we made it”.

Complaints about the state of the world are made every day. You hear them in newspaper editorials and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and we Christians are as involved in them as anyone else. But in the midst of all this complaining, we often forget that we’ve been called by our Master to do more than gripe about things. As the Jesuit Superior in the movie reminded us, the world is as it is because we human beings have made it that way. Now Jesus is calling us, as his people, to demonstrate by our way of life that there’s a better way.

I said last week that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves. That’s fine as a place to start, but we’ll soon discover that the School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my benefit as an individual; it exists to change the world. This is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us that we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples – people who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. That’s what today’s gospel is all about.

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. The word ‘You’ is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just as individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world as salt acts on food. Salt was used in the ancient world not just to add flavour to meat, but also to prevent it from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls us, his disciples, to have a positive influence on the world around us, and we can’t do that if we’re no different from the world. In God’s plan, our usefulness to the world depends on our being different, living by different values, following a different Master.

In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Modern table salt actually can’t lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt was not pure. It was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt, of course, was water soluble, so it would not be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and blend in with the world around you, going along with its priorities and its standards of behaviour. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to make a real difference for God in the world.

And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 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” (vv.14-16).

It’s interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, and holiness. He calls his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a church community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?

When I think of a Christian community shining with the light of Jesus, I think back to the Amish of Nickel Mines in 2006, and their response after a gunman broke into their schoolhouse and shot a number of their children before turning the gun on himself. Instead of anger and calls for revenge, the Amish reached out in love and forgiveness to the family of the gunman. When asked why they were doing this, they pointed out that it was very plain in the teaching of Jesus that people should love their enemies and forgive them rather than taking revenge. “We pray it seven times a day in the Lord’s Prayer”, they said. Many people in the media commented on this, and it seemed to really puzzle some of them. But my own thought was, “At last, instead of people talking about ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ someone is actually living it”. That community was acting like the ‘city built on a hill’ that Jesus talks about here, the city whose light can’t be hidden.

This example also reminds us that often it won’t be in our planned activities and outreach programs that people see the face of Jesus in us. Rather, it will be when stress hits our lives or when tragedy happens. No one in their right minds prays for tragedy, of course, but Christian history contains example after example of God working in times like that to shine his light into the world as his people respond in a Christ-like manner.

But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

As it stands, there is an obvious difficulty with this teaching: it doesn’t line up with the practice of Jesus. Jesus did, in fact, sit rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He declared that it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it was not unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but rather evil actions coming from within. He was not always scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself. So how are we to understand this passage?

We need to remember that Jesus was raised in a rhetorical tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we are interpreting what Jesus had to say.

So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus hung out with sinners, but that didn’t mean he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different, in such a way as to have a positive influence for God in the world. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.

In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so that we are transformed on the inside as well as the outside.

So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone; murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root those things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so we’re called to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you saying to people that you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive inner qualities which God is looking for – reconciliation, marital faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.

This may look good on the outside, but it’s not what Jesus is after. Not that he’s against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the love they feel for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there. He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, and so his purpose is to lead us out of that darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he’s not just doing this for our own sake; he wants the whole world to be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master, and then practices living it together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note: this is what God’s Kingdom looks like.

But in order for this to happen, our obedience can’t just be skin deep. Rather, the Holy Spirit has to work below the surface to transform us into people who love to do the will of God. As we continue our studies in the Sermon on the Mount next week, we’ll look a little more closely at the examples Jesus gives of the deep work of transformation that God wants to do in us.

What Does Discipleship Look Like?

follow%20jesus2‘Follow me’, says Jesus. In the ancient world, that didn’t just mean ‘walk after me down the road’. It meant ‘Become my disciple’. To Jesus, a disciple was an apprentice in the art of living in right relationship with God and others. It was not just about having a good time going to church, singing songs and saying prayers. It was about changing your way of life, turning away from evil and learning to do good.

What does this look like in practice? I keep asking myself that question, thinking of some of the specific things Jesus taught. Here are a few that come to mind.

Disciples have been captivated by the vision of the Kingdom of God. They believe that God is at work putting the world to rights, and that there’s a place in that plan for them. They believe that the loving rule of God is the highest possible good for the world, and so they seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness as their greatest treasure.

Disciples are the glad recipients of grace – God’s unconditional love. They know they have been forgiven and accepted by God, not because they are lovable but because God is love. They are secure in that.

Disciples are people of prayer. They have apprenticed themselves to Jesus and they say, “Lord, teach us to pray”. They have read about how their Master made prayer a daily habit; they long to go deeper in prayer and draw closer to God in this way.

Disciples are being formed by the story of God. They are growing in familiarity with the big sweep of the Bible story – creation, rebellion, Israel, Jesus and his Church, and the future fulfilment of the promise of shalom. As they read the Bible each day they are learning to see themselves as part of this story.

Disciples are people of love. Their Master teaches them that the two greatest commandments are to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. They are well aware of how far they fall short in this, but each day they are trying to grow in this life of love. And this love is unconditional, reaching out even to enemies and those who hate us.

Disciples are people of simplicity and generosity. They have been taught by their Master not to store up for themselves treasures on earth, and so they are content with few possessions and are learning to find joy in giving to others, especially those who are in the direst need.

Disciples are people of their word. It is unnecessary to ask them to take an oath to tell the truth, because everyone knows that they always tell the truth. And this includes being honest about themselves. They don’t try to pretend they are better or more impressive than they actually are; they are content to be known as ordinary sinners saved by grace.

Disciples are people of faithfulness. They are doing their best each day to be faithful to the promises they have made: baptismal and confirmation promises, marriage vows, promises to care for their children and elders, and in some cases ordination vows. They are members of a local congregation which is their primary spiritual home and they are faithful to that congregation.

Disciples are people who bear witness to Jesus and his love. They have been taught by their Master that it is part of their responsibility to share with others what they have learned of the Gospel of God. So they look for opportunities to share their story, and the story of Jesus, with integrity and respect.

Disciples are people who seek to bless the world around them. They live each day with the resolve to add to the sum total of love and goodness in the world, rather than adding to the sum total of hatred, greed, anger and selfishness.

Disciples are people of hope. Because they believe in a God who never gives up on the world and the people in it, they also can never give up. They believe the promise of the Gospel that one day the Kingdom will be revealed in all its fulness, and so they continue to work toward that day. They are, in fact, quite stubborn about faith, hope, and love.

Disciples are people of joy. They are growing closer to God each day, and are finding in God a joy that nothing else can touch. This doesn’t mean that they don’t ‘weep with those who weep’; neither does it mean they never weep about the struggles and failures of their own lives too. But underneath the sadness, there is still the joy of knowing God and being loved by God.

These are the initial thoughts that come to me. What do you think?

 

Do Unto Others

I don’t have a lot to say today in response to the fatal shooting at a Quebec mosque last night, or to all the evil policies coming out of the office of He Who Must Not Be Named in Washington. But somehow this Billy Bragg song (based on some words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke) seemed appropriate. This song can be found on Billy’s brilliant album ‘Tooth and Nail‘.

Upside-Down World (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12)

In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as if the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.

But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flown before.

Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world; the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us – things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.

The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’; in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life, and pronounces a blessing on them. Likely there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fit into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.

The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people with good long term marriages and people whose marriages are full of pain, or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?

There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.

 

In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.

Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes – the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers – she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Isaiah, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of a friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission he did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.

The kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful grief, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.

The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realize that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world and in their own lives. People like this are often laughed at and excluded. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look – there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.

The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the Son of God who came to bring peace between God and people, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group – the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.

So this is the kingdom of God – a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.

So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.

 

The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are – but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness – or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness – or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ – and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.

The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, get baptized into union with him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.

(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).