Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 6)

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.
From our perspective, sitting comfortably removed from first century Israel by nearly 2,000 years, it’s easy for us to judge and to condemn the scribes and the Pharisees as unloving, unmerciful, self-righteous, legalists. For, in truth, they were all that, although not for the reasons were often suppose. Surely, they didn’t know it, and most certainly no one else thought of them that way at the time. On the contrary, the scribes and the Pharisees were the most honored and respected of men. They were seen as holy and righteous by nearly all, for they took the Law and the commands of God in the Scriptures exceedingly seriously, and they honestly tried, and in many ways they truly succeeded, to practice them and live them in their own lives. They were visibly and recognizably pious, moral, respectable, and good. When Jesus recounted one Pharisee’s boasting concerning himself in the temple, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get,” we must understand that he actually did do these things, which most others failed to do. Consequently, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel stating, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” should cause you to pause and reflect upon just what Jesus, and God His Father, truly expect and desire from you. If it is works and obedience under the Law, then the scribes and the Pharisees were the absolute epitome of faithfulness and righteousness. And yet, Jesus regularly lambasted and laid into the scribes and the Pharisees like no others, not even the heterodox Samaritans and the pagan Romans, for their self-righteousness and for their failure to show love, mercy, and compassion to others.
For, love, mercy, and compassion, charity, grace, forgiveness, patience, long-suffering, and humility – these are the true piety, the true faithfulness, and the true obedience that the Law requires, even the fulfillment of the Law and its saving fruits. And, these all flow from the heart that has been broken by the Law’s demands and finds no comfort and peace, no righteousness in itself, but only in the love, mercy, compassion, charity, grace, and forgiveness that has been shown and poured out upon it in the selfless, sacrificial suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The scribes and the Pharisees were truly obedient to the letter of the Law, but they were deaf, dumb, blind, and dead to the spirit and fulfillment of the Law, which is love. They believed that so long as they didn’t physically murder someone, have sexual intercourse with someone to whom they were not married, or steal from someone, that they were obeying God’s Law and were righteous, and yet they could muster no love, mercy, compassion, charity, grace, or forgiveness for others. Truly, they could only give to others of what they themselves had received, but because they justified themselves as righteous according to their works under the Law, they could not receive God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness, for they didn’t believe that they needed it! Therefore, they could not truly love others. You see, you can only give of what you yourself have received. You can only love with God’s love. You can only give of God’s good gifts. And, you can only forgive with God’s own forgiveness. If you cannot do these things, that is a sure and certain sign that you do not have them from God. Thus, you are no better than the scribes and the Pharisees. In truth, you are much worse off, for I am certain that you do not obey the external letter of the Law as well as they did either.
However, Jesus says that your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees if you hope to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, it should be obvious, therefore, that the righteousness of which Jesus speaks is not a righteousness of obedience to the letter of the Law, for the scribes and Pharisees were very pious and obedient in that respect, but it is a righteousness which comes from outside of you and which changes your heart so that it bears the fruits of the Spirit without coercion, without threat of punishment, without a striving for self-justifying righteousness by works. Such righteousness is characteristic of a heart that has been broken by the Law, absolved, soothed, and comforted by the Gospel, is humble and repentant, and thus overflows with the love of God in Jesus Christ in love for God and in love for the neighbor. Such love is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and only such righteousness saves and receives entrance into the kingdom of heaven. This righteousness comes from outside of you, it is created in you, and it flows through you by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God because of Christ Jesus your Lord. This righteousness you must have if you hope to be saved, but you cannot produce it on your own, and neither can you earn it or merit it by your obedience under the Law, but you must receive it in faith as a free gift of God’s grace, and you must not hinder it’s work in and through you, but rather you must work with it, in love towards God and in love towards your neighbor, not in word only, but in deeds flowing from a changed heart, a broken and contrite heart, a humble and repentant heart.
Many Christians like to believe that Jesus relaxed and softened the Law of God, or even abolished it for believers today. They deceive themselves, for nothing could be farther from the truth! What does Jesus say? “Whoever relaxes 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.” Then Jesus explained what the spirit of the Law truly teaches: “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Now, anger, insults, and curses are not actions of the will and the hands so much as they are passions, thoughts, and desires of the heart. Jesus is not speaking of works and obedience under the letter of the Law, but of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, which are the fruit of the spirit of the Law, which flow from a changed heart crushed and broken by the Law, but absolved and healed by the Gospel. Similarly does Jesus speak concerning adultery, referring not to physical intercourse, but rather to lust in the heart, once again referring to a condition of the heart and not obedience under the letter of the Law. Quoting the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus says of such people, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
No, true righteousness, the righteousness of which Jesus speaks, the righteousness which inherits the kingdom of heaven, is the love of a heart that has been broken and crushed by the Law so that it is humble and repentant, full of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for all, even those who hurt you, who hate you, and who wish to kill you. Such surely seems a high bar and an impossible task for one who seeks to justify himself by obedience to the Law, but for one who has died with Jesus in Holy Baptism and has been raised with Jesus to new and everlasting life, that one has died to sin and now lives with, to, and for Christ. You have died with Christ, and you now live with Him, therefore you must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
It has become popular today for Christians to say they are spiritual, but not religious. They are well meaning, I suppose, if wrong-minded. Religion is simply a rule or an order. What such Christians are most often doing when they say they are spiritual, but not religious, is rebelling against and rejecting any sort of order or rule for their life and worship. This is extremely popular in the West and in the United States in particular, where freedom, independence, and equality are most highly valued even above truth and morality, which are sadly derided and considered old fashioned or simply non-existent and false. The fallen flesh and the Old Adam hate rules and order, and thus they hate religion too. However, listen to this exhortation from St. James concerning the true religion: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” You cannot be merely a hearer and not a doer and consider yourself a Christian or hold any hope that you are saved; you cannot be merely spiritual, but not religious. True Christians no longer strive to obey the Law of God out of fear and coercion, seeking to justify themselves by their works, but they bask in the freedom of the Law fulfilled in Christ, and they freely do it out of humility and repentance, bearing the fruits of love for God, and love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for the neighbor, to the glory of God. Thus we prayed in today’s Collect, “graft into our hearts the love of Your Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of Your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.”
All of our Christian life is defined by death and resurrection. When you were baptized, you died in Christ and were raised in Him to new life, His life lived in and through you. You should reflect on that truth and remember it whenever you participate in the Divine Service, for the Invocation, Confession, and Absolution are nothing less than a renewal of your Holy Baptism as you wash your robes clean once again in Jesus’ cleansing blood. And, as you are a new creation, born again of water, blood, and spirit, you are nourished, sustained, and equipped through the Word of God and the Word made flesh as you commune with God by eating and drinking Jesus’ body and blood. And then, you are sent back into the world, forgiven, refreshed, strengthened, and equipped, to love and forgive, to share with and to comfort others, with the love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness you yourself have received from God in Christ Jesus. Literally, you love with Jesus’ love, you give of Jesus’ gifts, and you forgive with Jesus’ forgiveness. This is the true religion, and this is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, the righteousness by which you will enter the kingdom of heaven. You are what you eat. You give of what you have received. Come, eat and drink and live. Go, sharing and caring with Jesus’ love that others may know Christ and live. In this way God’s kingdom will be filled, and His Name is glorified.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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