Sermon for Matthew 5:21-37
The gospel of the Lord? Hard to say. We just want to hear Jesus talk about grace, mercy, forgiveness. Evidently Jesus just wants to pound law. You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely. That’s 3 commandments that we already know – 7 more to go, right? So how can this possibly be gospel. Gospel means good news. If it’s not good, and it’s not news, then it’s not gospel. Kind of simplistic, but it’s absolutely true. This just feels like Old Testament on repeat. But in fact, we don’t even need Jesus to tell us that this is bad stuff. We know how they tear apart our communities. Every day people are killed. Relationships fall apart. People lie. Cheaters cheat. And we’re all wounded by it in one way or another. Either it’s you, or someone close to you, or maybe you just hear a story and it doesn’t feel obvious that you’re affected, but I bet you’d expect Jesus to say you are, even if you don’t believe it, right? I know it sounds cynical, but isn’t it hard to imagine things changing any time soon?
Except, why would Jesus talk about any of this unless there really was another way? I mean, it sounds all glossy and fantastic, but if Jesus really is as trustworthy as we claim he is, then there has to be something to all of this. Is Jesus really just telling us to not lose hope, because a change is coming? No more betrayals or violence or bitter disappointments? I mean, if there’s no alternative to the way things are, then Jesus would just be setting us up for failure.
But when we dig deeper into what Jesus is actually telling us about these very familiar commandments (I want to emphasize familiar), all we hear is our failure. When he talks about murder, he’s not talking about some kind of CSI homicide or a front page news story, but he goes so far as to accuse us of murder for every time we feel even a shred of frustration with anyone else. Now, Jesus says anger, but Luther rightly goes into painful detail in the Large Catechism about all kinds of jealousy and slander and it really makes you wonder who Luther must have been hanging out with. The point is, we deny it, but sticks and stones do kill. Now, it sounds like Jesus gives us a fix here. Immediately seek reconciliation, but you and I and Jesus all know just how short-lived that is, like every time we get behind a steering wheel. Then Jesus turns to adultery and lust and now he doesn’t even pretend to give us advice. If your right eye causes you to sin, cast it out. That’s not penance, that’s just mocking. Not because it’s too gruesome, not because it’s over the top, but because your left eye will prove to you just how much it doesn’t work. Right eye, right hand, whatever. It’s all the same. But Jesus isn’t done. Don’t just swear falsely, but don’t swear at all. He doesn’t mean a hand-on-bible oath, but every time we’ve ever sought to prove to someone that we’re telling the truth, because deep down we’re not sure we even believe ourselves anymore. Do you see what Jesus is doing? We’ve already killed everyone else with our words and thoughts, and now we’ve finally killed ourselves. We don’t have any idea what trust is anymore.
But Jesus still isn’t done preaching, as if that wasn’t too much already. What’s left? How epic does he actually think we are? And yet, some part of you feels like maybe he’s kind of right. He finally hit the nail on the head. And that’s exactly why we don’t totally trust Jesus, because he sounds just like the rest of the world that constantly accuses us and leaves us swimming in our doubts. It’s bad enough that immediately before today’s reading, Jesus tells us unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. But we don’t respect them. Aren’t they just a bunch of game-playing hypocrites? Aren’t they the ones who played Jesus when they nailed him to a cross? So, that’s why Jesus is going to drop a great big bomb in just a few short verses from here – be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. If it wasn’t for the great chasm of tears that Jesus just opened before us, we might barely be able to pretend that he’s being ironic.
But I’ll tell you what, brothers and sisters, Jesus wasn’t ironic or setting us up for failure. He was dead serious about you and me, so serious that he willingly goes to the cross, to suffer and die for our sake. Because that’s how he could finally empty himself once and for all, to give us everything he is and has, so that we would be perfect just like him. Just like our heavenly Father. The point isn’t that perfection has anything to do with your actions or your thoughts or your abilities. The point is that perfection is the very definition of who you are, the very core of your being, and what that being is, is that you are the children of God, because Jesus has forgiven you. But he doesn’t just dangle forgiveness out there like some kind of carrot for us to chase after. He comes to where we are, and gives it to us even when we haven’t asked for it. It’s because forgiveness is release. It’s how Jesus releases us from this whole bondage of self-destruction and failure, that we never could escape by ourselves, and that we never even totally understood. But Jesus does. And when he forgives you and me, that’s the holy earth-shattering car crash of repentance. Repentance isn’t preparation for forgiveness. It’s not about us somehow getting ready to receive Jesus’ gift. Because we’re never ready. No, Jesus’ forgiveness is how and why we can even repent in the first place, because now we know there’s another story. There is another way – it’s called the kingdom of God. Remember the very first thing Jesus ever said to us? Repent for the kingdom of God has come near. That’s news, that’s good, that’s gospel.
But that’s not all. It doesn’t end with the cross. It begins with the empty tomb. Jesus, resurrected and risen and bringing life out of death. Bringing us into community with each other, against the odds. Bad news and broken commandments have never stopped the power of God before, and they certainly won’t get in the way of God’s will now. What’s God’s will? That somehow we can and do care for each other. We support each other. The Spirit of God makes us to serve the world, and we always do it together because not a single one of us can do it all by ourselves, and you suddenly realize that God’s got a strategy. So very, very crafty. You see it here in our congregation all the time, We act together in countless ways. We teach and form each other in faith, to show others the love of Jesus. We worship together so that we can join our voices together in praise and thanksgiving to the God who we know gives abundantly. Together, we maintain a space where the community can come in, and even if they’re only thinking about civics and good intentions, the love of God is sustaining them the entire time. You could go on and on, but the point is that we’ve been acting together all along, and that’s how God makes us to be Christ Lutheran Church.
Lately we’ve been talking about stewardship. A lot of people think it’s complicated stuff, but we want to make it simple. Following Jesus, facing the truth, sharing enough, and today we’re talking about acting together, for the glory of God.
Dear reader, here’s what’s in the recording….
But I’m not the only one with something to say about that. I’d like to invite Claire and Kaila to come up, and share a little about what they’ve been noticing around here.
That’s the power of God right there. I can’t top that. Thanks be to God!
But this is what I preached at an earlier service….
At late service a couple of our younger members are going to be sharing some of their stories about how they see us acting together. But for now, I’ll just say this. It’s easy to talk about acting together, because everyone knows that’s just what nice people do. But that’s just talking about the surface. What we’re really talking about, is that in spite of our conflicts and our complications and all those dead ends Jesus called out this morning, we still manage to serve the world together as the perfect body of Christ anyway. That’s our shared story, and it can only mean the power and love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.