Have you been paying attention? There has been a common theme, these last few weeks, of raising the stakes and expectations upon what it means to be a follower of Christ. It began as we joined the disciples and crowds who gathered along the shores of Galilee to hear these teaching statements when they were first delivered. We gather, today, to reflect upon what it means to live for Christ.
Throughout this study of Matthew 5, we’ve talked about some difficult and challenging passages and how they apply to our lives. If you remember, we said Jesus gathered this group together to express what the kingdom of God was all about. This was after people were curious about Jesus after he began preaching and healing throughout Capernaum and Galilee. As the crowds gathered around him, Jesus wasn’t interested in creating a popular movement that gave people what they wanted to hear. He wasn’t there to please the people.
He came to raise the expectations by expressing what it means to follow God and live out our faith. Jesus does not desire disciples who merely just show up or claim a faith in God but never put it into practice. He is interested in disciples – followers of Christ – who seek to become less of their own self and more like Christ every day.
This life, then, is not about simply checking the box. We think of this, often, as checking the box of what we perceive the expectations of a faithful disciple. Perhaps we have checked the box, this morning, as we gathered for worship. Checking the box can often include reading various passages of Scripture, examining our lives, and deciding we must be righteous because we do not do the things Scripture warns against. That is what legalism looks like. Legalism looks at the letter of the law and requires strict observance to the expectation of what the law desires. That was the basis of the righteousness of the Pharisees and religious elites. It was all based on fulfilling the law in a legalistic manner.
Jesus comes not to enforce a legalistic-minded faith. Instead, he came to show us the greater way of what it means to live out the love of God and the desires of the Lord. Jesus looks for disciples who seek to be transformed by the daily renewing of our minds and who seek to be aligned not just with the desires of God, but their deeper purposes in our shared relationships and connections with one another.
He continues this focus by expanding upon what the law of God actually means. Our passage, this morning, from Matthew 5:21-27 is the first of six consecutive passages in the chapter where Jesus says “you have heard it said.” It is the opening line of a series of passages where Jesus takes a known command from God and brings it to their fuller meaning. He is not seeking to abandon the law, but to share the deeper purpose of what is intended within the law and commands of God. In doing so, Jesus raises the expectations of what it means to be a follower of God and calls people who seek to follow him to take seriously how they are living out this life.
It is worth noting, as well, that Jesus uses an analogy to describe the judgment of God within these words. The phrase is the “fires of hell.” Jesus is referencing a real place that served, for Jews in those days, as a symbolic representation of the separation of the people from God. The place is called Gehenna. Today, it is a green valley in the southern sections of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time, it was a place where the city’s garbage was dumped and burned. At the same time, in the days of the Canaanites, it was a place where children were sacrificed. So, what behaviors and actions do we undertake that Jesus says leaves us liable to experiencing this place?
Jesus begins by focusing in on one of the known commands of God. We like to limit the commands of God to a list of 10 found in Exodus 20. There are, actually, more than 600 commands found within Scripture. If Matthew is intent on seeing Jesus as the teacher and word of God, as he is within the Sermon on the Mount, then focusing in on the Ten Commandments is a natural place to start.
Jesus says, “you have heard it said that you should not murder.” That seems like one of those check the box commands. We read it and, at the end of the day, go “well, I didn’t murder anyone today.” We might have days where that could be a closer call than others, especially when trying to shop at Wal-Mart on a Saturday, but we could all say that is one we feel pretty good about. Jesus knows this. He knows it is easy to read that command and think we are good and still have challenging and less-than-holy relationships with one another.
He wants us, then, to look at its deeper implications for how we share life with each other, especially within the community of faith. We may not have killed one another, but Jesus wants us to take a hard look at how we value and respect one another. This is the case, especially, when we have been hurt or wronged by something within the life of the church and faith. He wants us to take seriously how we respond to these moments and to consider what actions we intend to take to move from anger to reconciliation.
The reason for this, Jesus knows, is that there are actions and behaviors that can cripple discipleship and growth within a community of faith. Actions where we act as though things are fine, but try to sweep under the rug conflict, angst, disagreements, and hurts. While we’ve been taught not to engage these things by a society that would rather have a surface-level connection, Jesus recognizes that deep faith and connection with one another requires us to see what happens when we are hurt, how it affects us, and what actions we need to take to move forward in grace.
What often happens when someone is hurt or upset is it leads to anger. This is not just the action of blowing off steam, but it can be the emotion of the clinched jaw, the sucked in face, the tightened grip when something happens. It is the biting our tongue, so we don’t rip someone’s head off. If you’re like me, those moments often lead to anger after that person leaves that gets directed at someone else who simply becomes a pawn and an exit point for those hurt feelings. Anger in of itself is not bad, we’ll talk in a few weeks about places where Jesus had what I call holy anger, but it is what we do with the anger that can lead us to problems.
Anger when it is not dealt with properly can lead to resentment and contempt. A contempt where we refuse to recognize that someone is present or, as well, we look down upon the person. It can lead to a resentment to where we simply just do not want to be around that person. Feelings of contempt and resentment often produces insults, back talk, and words where we ridicule and tear someone down.
Jesus says these actions can destroy our connection with one another and in the community of faith. Can you imagine what it would be like if there were people in the church who could not get along with one another, because they refused to talk about hurt feelings from the past? Can you imagine what would happen if we saw someone come into church that we have a disagreement with? It probably wouldn’t be an enjoyable experience.
The thing is we know these places exist. We know there are places where we’ve gossiped about someone who has said something or done something we’ve disagreed with. We know there are places where we’ve gone home in anger, because of something that took place in a conversation. We know there are places that come up, years later, as if they happened a week ago, because we haven’t dealt with them in a holy and Christ-like way.
Jesus is concerned about these moments, because the connection we have with one another should be built around mutual care and respect. Our connection and relationships should be focused upon real dialogue about our hurts should come about. That cannot happen if we sweep things under the rug or refuse to talk about hurts and disagreements in a loving way. Jesus calls us not to be angry, but to seek reconciliation with one another.
Notice what Jesus says with the analogy of the offering. He says if you have something against someone, or if someone has something against you, if it is not dealt with then our offering is hindered. What he means is that our work, mission, and gift to God is ineffective if there are places where we need to be reconciled to one another. Jesus calls us to the hard work on building bridges and seeking reconciliation with one another, so that our work for God can be deeper and more powerful.
How do we do this work? We do it by having honest conversations with one another. Conversations that often take place around a meal or over a cup of coffee. It is in these conversations where our guard is down, our defenses put on hold, and we bond with one another over a shared experience of life. In these moments, we can talk, openly, about the things that took place, our experiences with them, and what actions we might take to build a deeper relationship with one another. This is a shared work and is deeper than just going to someone and calling them some no good so and so. It is about valuing and loving the person enough, having enough respect and care for them, and desiring the same open relationship that Christ has with us and his followers to seek that with one another so that our connection and relationships are defined by peace and hope.
It is why sharing signs of peace are so important for one another. In a moment, we are going to practice an ancient act within worship of responding to the sermon by sharing the peace of Christ with one another. The act calls us to greet the person next to us with the words “the peace of Christ be with you” and we respond with “and also with you.” It is deeper than our normal going around the room and seeking lunch partners at the beginning of worship. What this act does is puts into practice our desires to live in peace with Christ and one another, so that we are not filled with anger but, instead, a desire to be one with Christ and one with each other.
We do this, here, with one another – this practice of reconciliation instead of anger – so we can model it for the world. We do it here, with each other, so that we can show the world a better way than broken relationships and anger-filed expressions with one another.
Christ knows we can be better than that and shows us the greater way. A way of love built on not holding onto grudges, but to seek to live in peace and reconciliation with one another. Let us dare to do that hard work here, so that we can do that hard work in mission to God in our community.