I’ve preached each of the last two Sundays, and I’ll be preaching again next Sunday, too (but don’t worry, pulpits are safe from me the Sunday after). Last Sunday I was at St Aidan’s, Clarkston (where I’ll be next week), and this morning at the cathedral. I’ll post last Sunday’s sometime soon, but I don’t have it right at hand; instead, I’ll post this morning’s, video below and the text in the “more” section.
I was worried about continuity problems. It seemed to me that the sermon didn’t sustain its focus as well as it should, and several of the paragraph-to-paragraph transitions were too jarring. Yet though I was dissatisfied with it, a number of our friends in the congregation expressed their very positive response — so whatever my internal editor might think, it seems that things worked out all right.
6 February, 2011
Is 58:1-9a/1 Cor 2:1-12/Mt 5:13-20
St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
“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”
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
These words come to us not from some starch-collared bureaucrat who wants his form filled out in the exactly correct way, in triplicate; they’re not shouted by a caricatured fanatic from some other faith; St Matthew reports that these words come to us from Jesus himself. In a few verses, Jesus is about to say, “Therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, throught Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his followers to live by the Torah, perfectly to observe every jot and tittle, and to do whatever the teachers of the Torah tell us to do.
That teaching sounds strange to Christians — so strange that most of the time, we treat these words as though Jesus didn’t really mean them. For all the best reasons in the world, we tend ingeniously to neutralise the astringency of his commands. Sometimes we derogate the Pharisees as bitter, deceitful villains, setting the bar for our own righteousness all the more low. Or sometimes people just insist doggedly that Jesus couldn’t have meant what Matthew tells us that he said; since Matthew presents Jesus so consistently as an advocate of Torah-observant discipleship, Matthew’s Jewish flavour indicates that we can’t take what he says at face value (especially since for much of Christian history, we have treated the word “Jewish” as a synonym for “bad”).
I’m not so sure that we shouldn’t let Matthew have his say, though. After all, observing the Torah is not such a difficult practice; millions upon millions of Jews have led Torah-observant lives over the millennia. Evenhanded justice? That’s in the Torah. Particular concern with the well-being of vulnerable people: widows, children, slaves? That’s in the Torah. Although the Torah involves certain restrictions that most contemporary Christians disregard — and one, especially, that’s causing painful controversies these days — we ought not overstate how difficult it would be to abide by the Torah, especially not if we shared two thousand years of legal-theological practice in adjusting our interpretations of particular injunctions better to the suit the conditions in which we live. After all, most of the time, most of us have no problem whatever abiding by the law; we’re just abiding by a different law from the one Jesus had in view.
In the rest of this morning’s lesson, Jesus makes the point of this teaching explicit: The reason we should adhere to the Law is that we are called to display to the world what goodness looks like. “ You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Jesus urges us to live out a hyperbolic goodness, a goodness that’s more righteous and admirable than anything else that the world knows, so that our lives together provide a living gospel for the whole world to see and recognise.
That explains the exceptional examples Jesus gives us in his Sermon on the Mount. Our discipleship shouldn’t just involve not killing people (though that’s always a good start) — we should show everyone the patient forgiveness that God shows to us. Our discipleship shouldn’t just involve not-committing-adultery — we should see our neighbours, however attractive they may be, as our colleagues in the glorious shared venture of kindling such a light, raising such a chord, embodying such a grace that the furthest corners of heaven and earth can only step back and cry with joy. We may not be comprehensively perfect as God only is perfect — let’s be honest, we will not be perfect in that sense of the word — but we can begin by offering to God lives that willing reach beyond the bare minimum of law-abiding faithfulness. And if at last you or I don’t attain all the holiness for which we’re striving, then heaven knows we’re going to try, and we’re going to give the forces of cruelty, indifference, selfishness, a run for their money.
On one hand, that sounds like a tall order: People like us, regular non-saintly people, pushing back the smothering curtain of evil? And surely our fiction and films have overstated the role of isolated individuals (from Harry Potter to James Bond to Lara Croft or even Chuck Norris) in defeating evil. On the other hand, no one person topples tyrannies, nor does one person overcome centuries of bigotry or economic exploitation — and yet tyrannies fall, bigotries dwindle and rot away, and someday I know the wealthy will no longer accumulate riches at the cost of the destitute. These evils will fail, in the end, as more and more of us reach past what any one person can reasonably be expected to do, or to believe, or to endure. We will reach out to grasp hands with our sisters and brothers, and we will not let go, for we are not single individuals after all, but we are a Body, whole and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are one Body, a Body that neither Illness nor Powers nor Evil nor even Death, the last enemy itself, can hold back. The Body of Christ cannot be stopped by even by Death; Death has already tried and failed. Rome tried and failed. Conspiracy and falsehood, madness and leprosy and spite, all of these falter, powerless at the threshold of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus taught us that we are the salt of earth; we are the light of the world. He taught us that our city, built to stand visible to the furthest frontiers of human habitation, should illumine everything through our willingness to go beyond minimum law-abiding requirements. Then our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; our vindicator shall go before us, and the glory of the Lord shall be our rear guard.
When the Lord calls us to perfect discipleship, he is under no sentimental illusion that he will instantly be surrounded by flawless saintly followers. None of the men and women who walked with Jesus seem to have exemplified particularly commendable wisdom; not many of the Corinthians were wise, not many were powerful, not many were nobly born. The people whom Jesus calls out for praise are usually outsiders, not apostles. The same Matthew who tells us about the Sermon on the Mount also reminds us, repeatedly, about forgiveness and mercy. How often should we forgive? Innumerable times. How shall we pray for God’s forgiveness? By showing forgiveness to others. How great should our forgiveness be? Oh, about a hundred times greater than anything we want to be forgiven. Indeed, I daresay that mercy and forgiveness constitute integral elements of the extraordinary righteousness that Matthew makes into a rhetorical trademark for Jesus. Do we remember Jesus more vividly for always acting in accordance with the Law, or for enduring rejection, torture, even execution rather than striking back against his persecutors? Did Paul come to the Corinthians with a muscular physique and an advanced degree from the University of Glasgow, or in weakness and in fear and in much trembling? Do we take up our calling to light up the world by coercing everyone else to do things our way, even when it’s the right way, or by showing the world that nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?
Jesus sets us free from external compulsion under the Law; but he frees us, he longs for us to go beyond legal justice to build a luminous city on the heights of Zion, a city where the Spirit guides us into ways of extraordinary righteousness, of superabundant sustenance, of unquestioned even-handed justice, of a peace that passes understanding. Let those who strike with a wicked fist, the exploiters, the enemies, the rivals, the cruel oppressors do their worst to drag us into the depths of bitterness and antagonism — they can do what they will, but we have steeped forward to salt the earth’s savour, to light the world’s darkness, to inhabit a city not made with hands, to be yeast to leaven the bread of the world. And fulfilling all the Jesus instructs us by the power of the Holy Spirit, let the light of our city shine before the world, that they may see the supernatural goodness at work among us, and give glory to God forever.