ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH APRIL 2, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: IT’S NOT EASY
Matthew 5: 9 – 12, 17 – 33, 38 – 42; 6:24
(Letter of Marine writing home which mentions the “soft ways” of the “city boys”)
In the scheme of the universe, Christians in the west are the “city boys” of our faith, liking things to be easy. In SM, Jesus is clear that following him doesn’t make life effortless or safe. Discipleship is demanding. To be a Christian means that: we leave the world a better place; in the struggle between good and evil, we choose the good because our hearts belong wholly to God and we work to establish right relationships between people, bridging gulfs and healing breaches. In the passages today, Jesus speaks of 3 ways in which the life of a Christian is hard: we will suffer persecution; we are to be righteous and we are to serve God alone.
In his closing beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5: 10 -12) Jesus pulls no punches. He doesn’t entice followers by promising a life free of hardship; just the opposite. Like the prophets who suffered violence and death, we can expect hostility. Following a righteous path doesn’t bring admiration but persecution. If we behave in un-Christian ways and are called to account, that’s not persecution. If we’re self-righteous, thinking and acting as if we’re superior, we won’t be liked for good reasons; that’s not persecution. Persecution is undeserved. Over the centuries, and even today, Christians have endured torture and the cruellest forms of death, even though they were innocent of any crime. We will be falsely maligned, both personally and as a group. Today the Church is accused of having made up Jesus to gain power; of starting the Crusades; of contributing nothing to the betterment of the world – none of those statements are true. Persecution is not a reasoned response. It’s routed in ideology, emotion and paranoia. Christophobia can range from dislike, avoidance or insult to hatred, torture and death. Our suffering tends to be on the easier end of that scale but persecution is something Jesus told us to expect, “you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13: 13) Jesus does not promise us an easy path.
In verse 17f Jesus affirms the Judaic Law for his Jewish audience, “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets but to [complete] it or clarify it’s true meaning. If Jesus’ listeners were hoping this new Rabbi would make life easier, they were wrong. He makes it harder! “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5: 20). He expects his followers to be more righteous than the most law-abiding citizens of Israel. Jesus goes on to make 6 statements that follow a pattern “you have heard it said… but I say to you…” His message is that our hearts give birth to our deeds. God wants more from us than empty ritual or ethical duty, God is concerned about our intentions as well as our actions. To ensure self-discipline Jesus makes some extreme, even impossible, suggestions. “Hyperbole” or ‘exaggeration’ is an oratory device not meant to be taken literally, but to drive home the seriousness of the point. We examined two of these statements when we looked at the SM in relation to Others: “…I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And to Honouring Self: “…I say to you do not make oaths at all”. The other four are equally challenging.
The first addresses relationships, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (vs. 21f) Knowing the 10 Commandments, every Jew agreed murder was wrong. Jesus insists the anger that leads to violence is unacceptable. Any break in a relationship needs to be addressed in order to be forgiven by God. We’re to owe nothing to anyone, not even an apology. Closely related is Jesus teaching on retaliation. It’s hard to mend relationships when we know we’re in the wrong, but even harder when our victimized souls are screaming for justice. Jesus taught, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer” (vs. 38f). For occupied Israel, the greatest justice would be political retaliation. People wanted Jesus to over throw the government in a revolutionary blood bath. Instead they got the opposite. They were to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to anyone who coerces or steals from you. Violent vengeance was not the path to God. We all have broken relationships where reconciliation isn’t possible, but do we have active anger in our souls? Are we like a volcano on the verge of eruption? Do we come to worship unable to forgive another or plotting revenge? Paul was adamant that we should not come to the Lord’s Table burning with anger, pride or ill will towards our neighbour.
The next two teachings deal with sexual and relational morality. Both statements grow out of a culture where women were property and their worth was sexual – whether for pleasure or for breeding. Because Jesus elevated women by protecting their rights, the role and dignity of women in the early church changed drastically and continued to grow. Today these teachings apply to both men and women. The first is “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (vs. 27f) Rather than blaming another person, Jesus held the people responsible for their own base desires. It’s not enough to keep our hands clean, we also need pure hearts. The next teaching is on divorce. “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery…” (vs. 31f). In the ancient world a man could have several wives and he could divorce a wife for very small things simply by saying “I divorce you” 3 times in front of a witness. Because women didn’t work, a divorced woman’s options were to find another partner or to become a prostitute. Jesus was saying that while the Law allows for divorce, ethically it was wrong to put someone in a position where all their options would lead to sin. Today people who are obsessed with sex or sexual power – pornography, prostitution, the sexual abuse of children, human trafficking all speak of unbridled lust. Spousal abuse, adultery, and abandonment are callously selfish and destructive acts intended to hurt. People who are lonely or trapped in a destructive relationship sometimes choose divorce as a means of survival. If the wages of sin are death, the sin lies in the actions that destroyed the marriage; divorce is its death. When a relationship is beyond repair, rather than enacting empty ritual and duty, sometimes the healthiest and most ethical act of integrity a Christian can muster is to leave with as much respect and responsibility as possible for the other person and the children involved. However, for Christians this is a last option only after we’ve examined our motives and intent and pursued every way possible to redeem the relationship.
For Christians, especially in our society in the 21st C, following Christ is difficult because“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24) In an interesting twist, today money is often a stand in for love. There are different ways we show love – signs of affection, work, declaring our feelings, spending time, providing for others. Today, financial indulgence or “things” often replace the others. For some the pursuit of money comes before all else we’re called to love. For others, having money in the bank is where we get our sense of security. Of course this spills over into other priorities as well. Where we spend our Sunday mornings will give us some idea of what we really love. We all need to reflect on whether we’re a servant of God or a slave to the seductions of our world. It’s not easy living contrary to the values around us or having to make choices between God and other things. It is the cost of discipleship.
In a way all these teachings are summed up in the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peacemaking is not a neutral state like the absence of conflict. Our dislike of conflict often leads to passivity, where we ignore injustice and put up with abuse to avoid conflict. Passivity always leads to worse hardships in the future. Sometimes our dislike of conflict leads to passive aggression where we doing things behind someone’s back, control by what we don’t do and take responsibility for nothing. Neither of these tactics lead to real peace. Jesus calls us to be peace makers; people who actively work to create peace. We are to be people who maturely work out our issues with others; mediators, bringing people together; healers, who mend the gaps and wounds in the aftermath of conflict. We will always have conflict, so we need to learn to live truthfully and transparently with people, not provoking them or getting even. We do not create conflict for personal gain, vengeance, power or pride, but we do stand up to injustice, violence, abuse or tyranny especially to protect others. Sometimes that calls us to lay down our lives for another. Telemachus, a monk, arrived in Rome on the day of a gladiator fight. He was appalled that four centuries after Christ, men were still being killed for entertainment. He ran to the coliseum, jumped over the railing and got between two gladiators. He held up his hands and said “In the name of Christ, stop.” The crowd shouted, “Run him through!” A gladiator hit him. He got up and again said, “In the name of Christ, stop.” The crowd continued to chant, “Run him through.” One gladiator plunged his sword through the monk’s stomach; bleeding profusely, he fell into the sand gasping, “In the name of Christ, stop.” A hush came over the 80,000 people in the coliseum. Soon a man stood and left, then another until the arena was empty. This began a movement to end gladiatorial contests. Following Christ isnot easy but it makes a difference not only in our lives but in God’s kingdom.