Several years ago, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) passed and the presbyteries ratified a massive and significant change to our Book of Order. The Form of Government section of our Book of Order was given a complete overhaul.
Now, for those of you who don’t know what the Book of Order is – it is one of the 2 parts to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Along with the Book of Confessions, the Book of Order is what we Presbyterians look to when ordering ourselves. If you go back a ways – say to when I was in seminary and studying for the Presbyterian Polity ordination exam – the Book of Order was considerably thicker than it is today…which is saying a lot because it’s still pretty thick. But, the Form of Government section of the Book of Order was fundamentally reenvisioned a few years ago and now, rather than outline restrictive rules and regulations as it once did, the Form of Government portion of our Book of Order now seeks to offer a framework in which the Holy Spirit lives and moves and has her being and we, as faithful Christians, seek to govern ourselves as church together accordingly. There are still some basic laws and guidelines in our governance, but, the nitty gritty rules and regulations are largely a thing of the past.
Our shared Book of Order, the national document that serves all Presbyterians across the country, provides an openness for local presbyteries and congregations to discern how they might faithfully govern themselves. The process of re-imagining the Form of Government was a spiritual process and a faithful practice – not just for the committee that drafted the new Form of Government but for all Presbyterians as we deliberated ratification. It provided an opportunity to look to the law in the Scriptures – to discover God’s presence within it, God’s purpose for it – and then to re-imagine what laws we might articulate for ourselves and consider how we might be governed by them. And, this process helps us as Christians today to understand the context of what’s happening in our Gospel Lesson this morning.
In today’s passage, we go back to that mountainside where we sat last week and we listen to Jesus’ words as he continues to preach the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is still speaking to a divided community, a community living in the ‘already but not yet.’ Last week, we heard Jesus articulate who it is that God blesses and that all are called to be salt for the earth and light for the world. (Pause) In today’s passage, Jesus talks about the law and its role in helping us to live faithfully in the world. He calls our attention back to the 10 commandments, back to the basics of the law and he draws us into a process of re-imagining God’s purpose for the law today.
So, let us turn to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verses 21 through 37. I invite you to open your Bibles and read along as I read aloud the passage. There are a lot of words in this passage and it might be easier to follow along if you follow along in your pew Bible too!
So, let us pray: Gracious God, open our hearts and our minds to your Word. Reveal to us Your love and light as we listen to Christ’s teaching. Amen.
Matthew 5: 21-37
‘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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
‘You have heard that it was 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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Yesterday, your Session and Deacons gathered for a time of retreat and orientation. We gathered together over breakfast and lunch and we spent a lot of time listening and sharing with one another our journey’s of faith – and I have to admit that I smiled a little more widely inside when several folks described experiences with Christian traditions in which ‘being saved’ was vital to living faithfully. They all encountered this experience in their youth – it was a time in their lives when they were curious about their faith, and they encountered communities that offered clear and understandable rules to follow and if done correctly, they would then be “good Christians.” Perhaps you have had this experience too – it is a common experience in many Christian traditions. And, in listening to their stories, I was reminded again of our propensity, as humans, to desire order, to desire boundaries or laws and the simpler, clearer cut they can be, the better. And, this is the experience to which Jesus speaks in our text this morning.
You see, in our text this morning, Jesus, as the teacher, begins to interpret the law – and this is not the first time we have heard the law interpreted. In hearing the Deuteronomical text this morning, we were reminded of Moses’ interpretation of the law for the people of God just before they entered into the Promised Land. In the text read this morning, Moses reminds the people of the law of love – that following the law according to the rule of love is paramount for life together in community. And now, on the side of the mountain, Jesus goes deeper and teaches the law according to the law of love, with a new interpretation. Beginning each lesson with “You have heard it said,” Jesus prepares his pupils to listen to the law with a new ear. Jesus reminds them that there are things they think they know and he invites them, and us, to listen to anew to the laws of God. “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”
So, let’s take the lessons one at a time. Now, undoubtedly, each one of these could use the time and attention of an individual sermon but since the reading included all three, I’ll touch on each and invite you to spend a little more time this week pondering them more deeply.
So, let’s start with the first lesson in our text this morning – the one that seems the most clear cut. “You have heard it said…do not murder…but I say to you…holding grudges, not seeking reconciliation, and not speaking with your neighbor is tantamount to death.” Right off the bat, Jesus starts with what we could all assume would be the most basic and clear cut rule to follow, but rather than let us dwell in the simple mandate of not taking a life, Jesus expands our understanding of the reaches of God’s righteousness. He begins with the traditional understanding of “right” according to the law and then Jesus reinterprets the law for the sake of the kingdom of God. And in doing so, Jesus invites us to recognize that the law is intended to safeguard human well-being – not just survival. Of course, we are not to kill one another, we are not to take the life breath from another human being – but simply not killing another is not the same as fully abiding by the law. We must expand our understanding of what life in the kingdom of God means – that the life God has created us for, the life Christ has come to illuminate for us, is life abundant – it is full of grace and mercy and to live, we must seek to be reconciled with one another. It’s not ‘my way or the highway.’ It’s not ‘I’m looking out for number 1.’ It’s not even ‘I’m saved so I’m good.’ Rather, Jesus interprets the law in such a way that opens our eyes to the ways in which our faithfulness to God, our faithfulness to God’s law, means that we must look to our neighbor and consider their well-being too. To be obedient to the law of God instructing us not to kill means that we must dwell in the world and do all we can to preserve that which brings life in the community – to be reconciled to one another and not prideful, to be fair with one another and not take advantage, to show mercy and receive grace and to resist the urge to be a procrastinator when it comes to the work of repairing the breach among human relationships.
And, just when Jesus has us starting to think about the ways in which we can bring about death among us – he raises for us the next law. ‘You have heard it said…thou shalt not commit adultery…and I say to you…do not objectify one another nor blame one another for your own actions.’ With this interpretation, Jesus is beginning to destabilize the ways in which societal structures were ordered – he is upending the hierarchy of us and them, of those who had power and those who did not. Jesus draws our attention to the ways in which we look at one another, to the ways we approach one another and to the responsibility we have in relationship to one another – and he does so by addressing the most intimate of human relationships. And, the words he uses here are important – because you’ll notice that Jesus’ interpretation does not instruct women to dress more modestly so that men do not look upon them and become lustful. This law is not simply about lust or cheating on a spouse. Rather, it is about our propensity as human beings to see others as “others” – and when we see another as “other”, and therefore “less than”, we have the tendency to place blame on others for our own shortcomings, for our own temptations, for our own failings. But, Jesus lifts up that our well-being, and therefore the well-being of all, depends upon each one of us taking responsibility for our own actions. It is vital to show respect not by seeing another as an object but by recognizing that all humans are beloved children of God. It is vital to show respect to one another not by casting blame where it is not deserved, but by taking responsibility for your own actions. Seems like Jesus was quite the feminist here…
And, finally in our text today, Jesus then teaches about the power of our words. ‘You have heard it said…do not swear falsely…and I say to you…say what you mean and mean what you say and know that you are not God.” Like the law against murder or adultery, lying is prohibited – and if this were the only offense to human relationships, Jesus would leave it at that. However, the commandment not to lie to one another is the basis from which Jesus warns us of the ways we seek to manipulate one another or wield power over one another. Presuming to know the mind of God, laying claim to the wisdom of God – these are claims of faith that create divisions among God’s people, that promote a hierarchy where some claim to be closer to God than others. Jesus warns us that it’s not simply lies that are harmful, but it is also the power of wielding words to manipulate others that breaks down the kingdom of God. And, by re-imagining the law, Jesus again expands our attention to the wholeness and well-being intended for God’s kingdom and the role we have to choose abundant life not only for ourselves, but for the whole community around us.
Reconciliation, Respect and Humility – these are just the first three laws that God has gifted humanity with – there will be more to come in the coming weeks as we continue to delve into the Gospel of Matthew, you can be sure. But, this is a remarkable start, don’t you think? How radical and life-giving are these laws are for us? Through the lens of love, through the lens of the Greatest Commandments to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, all of the law and the prophets have been reimagined by Jesus for us to order ourselves for wholeness and well-being. And, in these first three laws, we begin to see how the ways of death and abuse and manipulation are upended. This is the law we have been given. This is the law that we, as followers of Christ, seek to abide by today. Reconciliation. Respect. Humility. Reconciliation. Respect. Humility. This is far from where we are – these are not the laws we, as a society, as a community of faith, actually live by…but, can you imagine if we did? Can you imagine what it would be like if we sought to abide by God’s law? Rather than view God’s law as a boundaries and restrictions, can you imagine what it would be like if we actually order ourselves in such a grace-filled way? What would it look like for us to govern ourselves in such a way that reconciliation is paramount, that respect is vital and humility is the primary posture. The law is an incredible gift we have been given – and it is possible to live according to the law. We have have been gifted with the responsibility to choose life abundant rather than death. Isn’t that amazing?! May we be so bold to make that choice. May we be so bold to live life abundant. May we be so bold to participate in the revelation of Christ in the world and seek the wholeness and well-being of all of God’s children. May we be so bold to worship and honor with our ordering the magnificently miraculous God of Love in whom we seek to abide. Amen.
Sermon preached at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church on 2/12/2017