Good morning, Christ Church!
We are fully in the midst of “the days between.” We continue to wait for the subsidence of COVID-19. The November elections are less than 100 days away. The start of the school year, in its various forms, will begin in the next several weeks. And here at Christ Church, Rick Miles+ has completed his term as our Interim. We now prayerfully await the announcement of The Vestry’s call and the arrival of the 29th Rector of this parish.
It is my intention to continue writing these reflections up until we know that the rectory is again occupied. I think that gives us about 4 to 8 weeks to consider the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Again, I want to do so from the perspective of what Jesus is saying to us about the true nature of discipleship and what following Jesus looks like in this moment of human history.
That brings us back to the theme of living in “the days between.” For no matter what our circumstances are, whether of the best or the most unsettled, the fact is that this is always our condition. We are living transitory lives. To pretend otherwise is a fool’s errand. Indeed, the people whom I have known over the course of my life who were always most at peace in their discipleship were also those who accepted in full faith this reality. St. Francis is an excellent example. John Lewis is another. They simply accepted Christ’s promise that he will come again and that set their spirits free to live one day at a time in love and with grace.
I am sure that you can think of others who have honored God by living their lives with such awareness. I recommend keeping them in mind as we turn to today’s reflection. Jesus now addresses the challenging matter of living as disciples according to all the law and the prophets. For all contained therein has not been rescinded. It continues to apply to us in all these days between. For those who seek to follow him, we must learn, with God’s help, to live accordingly.
Faithfully in Christ,
“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 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 until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
The temptation to try and excise the law and the message of the prophets as found in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) from the Good News of Jesus Christ has been around from the Church’s very beginning. Indeed, some of the earliest movements, led by Marcion and others, tried to dump the content of the Old Testament altogether, arguing that the faith present in the New Testament had supplanted the “old god” presented in the Hebrew Scriptures entirely. Of course, such movements were labeled “heresies” fairly quickly.
Even so, a strong tendency toward antinomianism exists within Christian communities to this day. I will never forget a meeting I had with a search committee many years ago. At one point in the conversation, I was informed that this particular congregation never made use of the Confession of Sin, not even during Lent. When I asked why, the answer given was that because of God’s grace revealed in Christ, the law had been set aside and thus it was not possible for disciples of Jesus to sin any more. I replied that sounded like a pretty selective reading of Romans and contradicted what Jesus had to say in Matthew chapter 5. Not surprisingly, that conversation very quickly came to an end and I was not called to join them!
At the same time, there is in some Christian traditions a strong emphasis on legalism. Succinctly put, our sinfulness seems to be the entire focus. According to this perspective, the world we live in is all about sin and depravity, and the only thing we really have to look forward to is heaven, if we are selected at the time of our judgment. Yes, I do believe that every day I break God’s commandments and therefore am always in need of God’s forgiveness. I do believe in repentance, reconciliation, and atonement. But I also believe that forgiveness is offered to us each and every time we seek it, and in that interaction, we experience God’s glory. It is a crazy, beautiful life, these days between, and obsessing over sin, either our own or another’s, is to miss the point.
Jesus is quite clear on this subject. He has not come to abolish a single stroke of a letter of the law found in the Ten Commandments and in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, he has come to fulfill them in a way the scribes and Pharisees do not understand. He is letting us know that fulfilling the law is the means of righteousness. Fulfilling the law and the message of the prophets is what holy living is all about. Fulfilling the law is the path to grace.
The key to understanding Matthew chapter 5, I think, is that Jesus is drawing a very clear distinction between “the letter of the law” and “the spirit of the law.” The scribes and Pharisees have mastered the crossing of the “T”s and the dotting of the “I”s when it comes to administering the laws of scripture. That’s why they get so angry. Jesus is healing the sick on the Sabbath. He is dining with notorious sinners. He is welcoming tax collectors and other assorted lawbreakers. He has no respect for the letter of the law, as they interpret it.
On the other hand, those who desire to follow Jesus are not only supposed to not commit the act of murder and thereby committed to the court’s judgment: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister (uh oh), you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister (gulp), you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘You fool’ (match point), you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
In other words, the spirit of the law leaves no room for anger, only love as enacted in forgiveness, reconciliation, reparation, and healing. It is first and foremost about relationships and the God-given conduct of those relationships.
Jesus goes on to say much the same about adultery, divorce, oath-making, retaliation, and the piece de resistance, loving our enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45) Indeed, Jesus concludes by comparing loving our enemies with perfection. Imagine that!
Is Jesus being hyperbolic at this point in the discourse? Perhaps. For example, I do not think he intends us to literally start lopping off body parts as described in Matthew 5:27-30. Is there really any way we can fulfill the law perfectly? No, I don’t think so, and certainly not on our own. However, the more you and I realize in these days between that the law and the prophets are of the Holy Spirit, and that same Spirit seeks to live more fully within us with each passing day, then I do believe perceptible change in how we engage with one another and with the world around us happens. The letter of the law tends to make us self-righteous and angry. The spirit of the law opens us to the love of God, a love we are to share with friends and enemies alike here and now, until our days are no more.