Matthew 5:17-26; Romans 6:1-11; Exodus 20:1-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Undoubtedly you have heard the question, “Can God create a stone so heavy that He can’t lift it?” The question is absurd, of course; it is a semantic paradox often used by atheists in an attempt to prove that God is not omnipotent (all-powerful) since there are some things that God cannot do, and the inability of an omnipotent being to create a task it cannot do contradicts its omnipotence. Similar semantic paradoxes include the questions: “Can God make a spherical triangle?” and “Can God make a square circle?” Of course, any child can see that such questions say absolutely nothing about God, but rather they are logically impossible because of the definitions of the objects involved (e.g., a triangle, by definition, cannot be round; the definitions of squares and circles are mutually exclusive). However, such paradoxes do cause us to reflect upon what it means for God to be omnipotent: For God to be omnipotent does not mean that He can do anything (even the Holy Scriptures do not make such a claim), but rather, what it means for God to be omnipotent is that He can do all that He desires and wills to do.
But, such wicked foolishness as this is what proceeds from the sin-filled hearts and mouths of men: Men try to explain God away. Men try to trap God in a box. Men try to eliminate the gaps in human reasoning where God can still exist. And, like our ancestral Father Adam, men hide in fear from our God who cannot be explained away, who cannot be trapped in a box, and who cannot be forced out of necessity and existence, and even worse, men blaspheme and curse the God who created them and still sustains them, who has redeemed them in His Son, who continues to show steadfast love to those who love Him and keep His Commandments, but who visits the iniquity of Father Adam upon those who hate Him.
For, it is God, not men, who has defined what it means to be a man, and it is God who has established the boundaries and who holds the measure of righteousness in His Holy Law. And so, it is God who has placed man in a box, not the other way around, and it is God who has also given man the freedom to leave the box, the freedom to choose to not keep God’s Law, and so to reap the consequences of disobedience, the true merit of man’s works – death and eternal damnation. And so, God has trumped the atheists before there were atheists, for God has given men a Law that is so perfect only God can fulfill it.
For, God alone is holy, God alone is righteous, and God is the definition, the standard, and the measure of goodness, righteousness, and perfection. He was before all things and He fills all things; all things are sustained by Him, through Him, and because of Him. And, in the beginning, God made man in His image of righteousness and holiness, in communion with Him, yet free to choose otherwise. But then, Satan tempted, and Adam succumbed, and he chose against God and against His Holy Law and Will. Adam sinned, and the sin of Adam is the sin of all men; Adam’s sin is your sin, and it is the substance of all sin to have another god in the place of, and before the face of, the True and Living God – that is to be a god unto yourself.
And, since there is no place where men can hide from God’s perfect and Holy Law, for the Law is written on our hearts and it accuses us in our consciences, therefore men take God’s Law and they make it to be man’s law. That is, they water it down and they relax it so that it appears to them to be more do-able. It is true that our civil laws reflect God’s Laws in part, forbidding murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness, and so men obey the civil law, man’s law, and they believe that in so doing they are righteous. However, while we may deceive ourselves, God is not mocked. For, our Lord Jesus teaches that everyone who is angry with his brother, everyone who insults his brother, and everyone who condemns his brother saying “You fool!” will be liable to judgment and the hell of fire. And, though you may not have murdered, committed adultery, stolen from your neighbor, or borne false witness against him according to the civil law, you have done all these things in your heart and in your thoughts, if not in deed. For, when you hate your brother in your heart or fail to help him in his bodily needs you have murdered him. And, when you look upon a man or a woman with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery. And, when you covetously desire what belongs to your neighbor instead of helping him to keep and protect what belongs to him, you have stolen from him. And, when you gossip and slander your neighbor and fail to defend his name when others do the same, you have borne false witness against him. For, the Law that all men break, ultimately, is the Law of Love. You do not love your brother because you do not love God. You do not love God because you love yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor, ever, in thought, word, or in deed, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law. You harm your neighbor with your thoughts, and with your words, and with your deeds because you do not love God. Repent.
Repent of your lovelessness, and then receive comfort. For, though your Lord Jesus has said to you that He did not come to abolish the Law of God and that, indeed, not a iota or a dot will pass away from it, He has also said to you that He came to fulfill the Law of God for you. And this Jesus has done for you in His Holy Incarnation, in His perfect obedience, and in His selfless and sacrificial suffering and death upon the cross. Tετέλεσται. It is finished. The Law is fulfilled. And all this is done for you that you might receive it as a free and perfect gift of God’s perfect grace, hold on to it, keep it, and treasure it in tenacious faith, and live, now and forever, in communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But how do you receive this free and perfect gift of righteousness in Jesus Christ? You receive this justification the way you receive any gift, by believing the giver and the gift that He gives and by claiming it as your own, that is, by believing that it is truly yours and by placing your faith and trust in it and in its giver. The way this works in the Christian faith is through Holy Baptism. In Holy Baptism you died to sin and lawlessness; In Holy Baptism you died with Jesus on the cross. And, as St. Paul wrote to the Church at Rome,
We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For, if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.
In Holy Baptism, you have already died and you have already been raised to a new life in and with Christ Jesus. It is your new life in Him that Jesus is describing in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has called you to a higher obedience to God’s Law and to a higher way of living. Not only must you not hurt or harm your neighbor, but you are to help and befriend your neighbor in every bodily need. Not only are you not to take your neighbor’s money or possessions, but you are to help him to improve and to protect his possessions. And, not only are you not to tell lies about your neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but you are to defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way. For, Jesus has called you to obey the Law, not motivated by fear or coercion, but freely from a heart of love for God and for your neighbor. Jesus has called you to obey the Law, not to earn or merit your salvation, but because you have salvation now through Holy Baptism and faith in Jesus Christ and in His atoning suffering and death.
Theologians often argue about Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – Is it Law, or is it Gospel? The answer has to be “Yes!” As Jesus teaches us, the Law has not passed away, but He has fulfilled it for us. Therefore, the Law still exists and still demands our obedience, but it has become for us no longer a Law of tyranny and fear, but a Law of love and grace and mercy. Sometimes this is referred to as the Third Use of the Law, a guide (rather than a curb or a mirror) offering instruction in how to live our new life in Christ and what that new life looks like and does. And, sometimes when Jesus teaches what appears to be Law or commands such teaching is referred to as Gospel Imperatives, commands that much less demand than empower obedience.
The Law was given first that men might become aware of their sin and, terrified of their standing before God, repent and die to sin that God might bestow upon them His grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. But, after justification, after forgiveness, men are raised to a new life in Christ and to a new and higher obedience to the Law, which never passed away but was fulfilled, and obedience that flows from a new will aligned with God’s will and that flows from God through Jesus through you to your neighbor and back to God. The Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz puts it this way:
There is no other path than the one that leads to the kingdom of forgiveness. We have to understand how bad it is, so we become poor in the spirit and start to hunger and thirst after righteousness. Then we can discover the precious pearl. We can understand why Jesus invites us to come to Him. We can receive His righteousness and begin to live with Him. That’s when we can reconcile with a brother without demanding judgment against him. That’s when we accept a speedy reconciliation without having to wait for the other party to confess to what he’s done wrong and ask for forgiveness. We have been acquitted and escaped imprisonment, despite the fact that we were guilty of both rage and harsh words. The only gate available where you can escape imprisonment leads you to the kingdom of forgiveness. There we live a new life.
Dear children of God, you have been born again in Holy Baptism and even now live a new life in Jesus Christ. Everything you have, everything you are, and everything you do is given you by grace so that you are a steward of God’s gracious gifts. These include, not only money and possessions, time and talents, but also love, mercy, grace, charity, and forgiveness. And, these you have received anew this day in Holy Absolution, in the Living Word of God, and in the Holy Supper of Christ’s real and present body and blood so that, once again, the chalice of your soul is filled to overflowing with the gifts Christ freely gives. And, you are empowered to give of His gifts to you, to forgive with His forgiveness, and to love with His love. And, in so doing to your neighbor, you do it to Him, and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is glorified.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.