We can’t be a Christ-centered church if the heart of Christ’s message is missing.
a lesson on law and life from Matthew 5:17-37
On January 20, 2009, Barak Obama stood on the steps of our Nation’s Capitol and gave his inaugural address as America’s first black president.
In it he said, “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
I remember watching this historic event and feeling a sense of pride wash over me. There was hope on the horizon. The kind of hope that dawned, some two thousand years prior, when Jesus stood on a mountainside and gave his own inaugural address.
Today, as our country is more divided than ever, Jesus’s blessings and charge are still the same. As we gather today in his name, let us be a united people and faithful community shining God’s righteousness like a beacon of hope in the world.
As we continue reading from Matthew 5, it’s important to note that Jesus isn’t saying anything new here. Its Torah stuff found in the book of Deuteronomy. Pretty much all he’s doing is making the commandments relevant to his followers, pushing them to new heights. On the surface it might feel Jesus is demanding a level of perfection that would leave the pope feeling hopeless.
In reading the text you might ask yourself “Who could ever live that way?” The answer is, no one can. And that’s the point. No one person can do all that Jesus is asking. But as a community, we can all bring our blessing to help one another.
As a Christ centered community, Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, mind and soul…and to love our neighbors the same. We rely on the righteousness God’s words, and the holiness of God’s children.
Jesus said, in Matthew 5:17-20:
Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working. Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.
Jesus makes the claim that he did not come to change the law but to uphold it. I believe him. What would be the point? God’s laws do not change. But if you abide in them like Jesus did, they will change you and the entire world.
By upholding the law, Jesus sets the foundation for heaven and earth to be one.
Next Jesus said, in Matthew 5:21-26
You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill. This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God. Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.
Jesus knows how dangerous words can be. Then used to belittle or hurt others they often escalate into greater acts of violence and retaliation. We need to be careful with our words, and our tweets, because they tell the truth about what is in our heart.
Later Jesus will have a confrontation with the religious leaders about purity laws - reminding them, “It’s not what goes into to a person’s mouth that defiles but what comes out.” Before words fall from our lips, they are first formed in our heart.
It’s imperative that a community centered on Christ be grounded in his heart, so his words will be ours. Jesus used words to heal and forgive not to harm or punish. His words had the power to transform us all into children of God because his heart was one with God’s love and righteousness.
That’s why Jesus said, if you’re at church and your heart is filled with angry words, then leave. It’s more important to seek reconciliation than sing a hymn. Every relationship we have will reflect our relationship with God. People are listening and looking for Christ in our Christianity. Just as our words need to be his, so too our actions must be his actions.
By upholding God’s law we too set the foundation for the kingdom of heaven to come.
Next Jesus said, in Matthew 5:27-32
You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt. Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump. Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
I agree with theologian Stanley Hauerwas who believes Jesus isn’t so much talking about divorce, but about establishing “a community of friendship that is an alternative to the loneliness of the world.” That’s to say, a community formed in Christ’s likeness will be a place where people don’t have to be married for social or economic reasons (which was the norm back then) because it has become place where everyone would be loved and cared for. Jesus shows us that God cares enough to become one of us for the sake of redeeming us.
Jesus knows God’s law intimately. It’s written on his heart. His actions reflect God’s love and grace. There can’t be a Christ-centered church if the heart of Christ’s message is missing.
Lastly, Jesus said, in Matthew 5: 33-37
And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
We are our word. It’s how a Christ centered community identifies with God. And what it means to be the salt of the earth. God has entrusted us with an important message of hope. People are listening and looking to see if our yes and no’s mean yes and no.
Jesus didn’t come to change the laws and prophecies. He came to uphold them – to bring us all together as a united community, redeemed in God’s righteousness and love. By upholding the law, Jesus formed an ethical community where people make amends and accept apologies no matter what. A community that knows your heart well enough to care for it and to trust you because of it.
By upholding the law, Jesus created a new kind of community, one that is always there for each other. One that focuses on hope instead of fear. A loving community united in purpose, seeking to build bridges of peace instead of sowing seeds of conflict and discord.
Jesus gathers people together in a new way and offers them a new way to live life – a new order of peace and truth – “by making concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person.”
This is what it means to be the church, the body of Christ, blessed and sent to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill and a light to the world.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) pp. 68-71 (Kindle edition).