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Demands on Salvation - Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

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It seems like the further we get into the Sermon on the Mount, the more conditions Jesus puts on his people. But what is he really asking of them? 

 This sermon is quite a bit different from how it was written, therefore, please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The sermon notes which are included for convenience.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

February 12, 2017 - 5th Sunday after the Epiphany  

"Demands on Salvation".  Text is from Matthew 5:21-37



Good morning to you my sisters and brothers in Christ, saints and sinners, children of God. 

What is God saying to you? What is God telling you to do? 

Here in the third section of Jesus's sermon on the mount we move from God has done this to a "do this" point. And the things that Jesus is telling us to do here, these taking of God's righteous commandments and relating them to what we normally think of as relatively minor sins... it just seems to be making things so hard. 

The commandment not to murder for instance. I would venture to say that very few among us even dream that we could be guilting of violating this commandment, but Jesus is telling us to look at it a new way, that when we are angry with another, that when we speak ill of another, that when we call another a fool, we become subject to the same judgment! 

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And the same goes for adultery. It does not even take the act of engaging in relations with a married person or outside of one's marriage, but the thought that if a man views a woman with lust that he is, in fact, committing adultery in his heart. And while I venture to say that the specific language here was probably designed to protect the vulnerable women in their society, I sincerely believe Jesus' intent, inasmuch as how this carries over to us today that if anyone views another with lust, that an act of adultery is taking place.  Never mind the rather famous proscription on divorce, that when Jesus says until death do us part that he means that for all people, divorce is not only the end of marriage but it becomes the end of all marriage...now and in the future. 

And finally, when it comes to swearing, Jesus means sincerely that a person's word on its own standing is good enough. That invoking the name of God in an oath to convince people of the sincerity of one's words is a recipe for inviting the devil into the conversation. That let one's words speak for themselves. Jesus says simply say "Yes" or "No" when asked a question. I'm assuming that means either you'll be believed or not. 

Is Jesus putting a demand on salvation that is a law so entirely perfect that all but the most saintly would fail to accomplish it? Because that is what I am reading here. A part of this passage used to boggle me when I was an adolescent who knew everything and was trying to read the bible on my own to discover what it was I needed to do to become a better person, one who the devil and heaven had no sway over, and I got to say, it really scared me. When Jesus is talking about how when a part of your body causes you to sin, pluck it out or cut it off. You tell me, what is a teenager supposed to do with that? 

And this legalism in just a few descriptions, Jesus is telling us that we cannot simply get by with not breaking the law. We can't even think about breaking it. And with those conditions in place it just seems like the whole effort is a lesson in futility. That we have to be a kind of person that we only imagine exist in our imagination, an idealized version of Mother Theresa. This is the type of view that sets us to imagine that heaven is populated by this very limited number of individuals, maybe one out of 10,000 of us, maybe even less. 

But what I think is going on here is the point that we keep coming back to. It is impossible to earn our way into God's kingdom by avoiding doing things that human beings only naturally do. Because our being perfect is not something that happens by the things that we do or that we avoid doing. We are perfect because Christ makes us that way, and that no law or commandment will make us that way, it is only the grace that we receive from Christ's great gift to us on the cross. 

Let us look back to just last week when earlier in his sermon on the mount, Jesus told us that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. And think that with full knowledge of his future, Jesus was giving an insight as to what his death and resurrection would mean not just for his disciples but for the world at large. Without Jesus, without grace, It meant that the full weight of scripture, of all 613 odd commandments we find in Torah applied to each and every person and without Jesus one must do a specific penance for certain kinds of sin. That meant that without Jesus, the gate to salvation was narrow indeed. 

But because he suffered, died, defeated death and rose again, we now have been given a new lease on life. Our sins are now redeemed in his blood, and his grace extends to each and every human being on earth. The perfection that was once so hard to achieve is now available in light of our savior's love for us. It is through the power of his love for us that we are able to love one another, sinful human beings that we are naturally inclined by virtue of our earthly condition now be become saints. Because we have been given this wondrous love from a God who despite all that we have been cares for us regardless, we become that which is worth God's care, and are now naturally inclined toward making miracles happen, lifting each other up and strengthening the work God does in the world.

And we understand that sin is not caused by our right eye or our left eye or our right hand or our left knee, but where our decisions come from: our hearts and our brains. We are each of us enclosed biological systems, and plucking out an eye won't fix the problems in our head and heart, we need our God and Savior to take all the broken parts of us that sin and make us whole and complete. 

So now that we have been given this grace and we have faith in Jesus Christ, knowing that our sins are forgiven, some of us may look askew and say, wait, does that mean that we are free to sin as we want? And what does that mean? This is one of those quandries that has been put forth by Christian, and in particular Lutheran theologians since the dawn of our faith. After all one of Martin Luther's most famous quotes is often encapsulated into two words: "Sin boldly". 

We are reminded, thought, that when asked "What is the greatest commandment?" Christ gave us one in two parts, "To love God with all of one's heart and soul and mind and strength and to love neighbor as one's self." And we find that if we believe in Christ's life death and resurrection and if we have faith in God's great love for us we find that it is not so much as a commandment but an impulse to love God and love our neighbors. 

Luther's famous quote in its entirety is "Be a sinner and sin boldly but believe in Christ and rejoice more boldly still." Christ's commandments demand a simple response. We acknowledge that we are broken people and that we need a savior and sin is natural for us, but because of the love of God we become something greater. Our inclinations turn toward the people around us. Where we were once selfish we become selfless. Where we were stingy, we now become generous.  And our self-worth grows. Because as we love our neighbor more we begin to see that we love ourselves more as well. And it is not so much about vanity or ego but we see ourselves as God sees us, humans with tendency toward failure but with the grace of Christ more tendency of being perfect, beautiful saints who belong with God. 

Through it all, the cross stands in our midst. It's good news is that there was a time when God loved us so much that God  came to earth in the form of a humble human being and because of that love for us and creation, God took on the sins of the world and suffered and died. And it is good news is that it didn't end there, because God, in the form of that human took on death and defeated death, and in defeating death rose to heaven and took a seat to rule us in the world as Jesus Christ. 

And it is good news that we, as human beings, with the glaring inadequacies of our earthly rulers have this, a heavenly sovereign who rules with love and outpours a spirit that we may be citizens of that kingdom on earth and awaiting our entrance into God's heavenly grace.

Amen

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