Sermon - "Yes or No"
Our Lord, grant us ears to hear and a heart to believe, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Bible is full of distinctions. Our world reflects this too. We can look at the world of work, where one person is hired, another isn't. One person gets a bigger pay raise than another. Not everyone is promoted at the same rate. Not everyone has the same job. And this is good and right. Or we look at the world of education. For the past fifty years we've been teaching children that it's good to be non-competitive. Everyone gets to play, we'll try to avoid having winners and losers. That is, until we start playing football or basketball. Or until we start looking at college admissions and scholarships. Then everyone wants to be the best. In fact, from what I hear as a teacher, every one of my students is the best, all of them are deserving of top marks in every area, each one is a top student and should get into the most prestigious college with a full scholarship, and if the student is not at the top of the class there must be something wrong with the way I am teaching him. Hmmm.
Our world is full of distinctions. And here, in Matthew 5, we see some very stark distinctions. Not everyone is the same. Our actions and the attitudes that underlie them do matter.
Before we dig into this text, I'd like to address a misconception about the Sermon on the Mount, this passage from Matthew 5-7, very briefly. Especially in the late 1800s and the early part of the last century, Bible scholars had a tendency to look at Matthew 5-7 and say it was a restatement and reinforcement of the Ten Commandments. We can look at today's passage, Matthew 5.21-37, and see it has a passing similarity to a commentary on God's commands about murder, adultery, and bearing false witness. But the overall passage talks about concepts that are not addressed specifically in the Ten Commandments. It also is missing some of the Commandments. Jesus does not seem to be restating the Ten Commandments here. He has some other purpose in mind, namely showing that he is the Lord of the Commandments, the one who will show how deadly sin is, and how in fact he is the one life-giving God. So the purpose of this passage is a little different from a re-statement of the Commandments.
We first see Jesus' proclamation of the value of life. It was a well-established fact that God's people were to value life. But in verse 22 Jesus increases the stakes. Can we be guilty of murder without laying a hand on anyone? Jesus says we can. Through our insults, through our slanderous speech, we may render ourselves guilty in the same way we would be guilty of murder. We're all familiar, I trust, with the passage in Matthew 18, where Jesus tells us to go to our brother who has sinned against us and ask him to repent and be reconciled with us. But sometimes we forget this passage, Matthew 5.23-24. If we realize someone might have something against us, going and being reconciled is more important than trying to make our gift at God's altar, the thing God has commanded most strictly. We are considered outcasts from God's people if we are not striving to be at peace with our brothers.
This is the passage that led to the rise of the "pax Domini," the asking of the peace of the Lord, in our divine service. It's right before the service of communion for a reason. Unfortunately, many people have misunderstood that practice, and misunderstood it so seriously that, after discussion with the leaders of the church, I chose to leave part of it out. You may have noticed it. We'll have to consider whether we can bring it back next week and try it or not.
Wishing the peace of the Lord is not the same as welcoming someone. It is not the same as a quick fellowship break. We have a time for shaking hands, checking up on people, and whatnot. It's called the time before the start of the prelude or after the end of the postlude. That isn't part of the divine service.
Asking the peace of the Lord is more than that. When Jesus sent his seventy disciples out to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God, they were to ask God's peace upon the household where they would stay. If it was not a worthy household, God's peace would rest on the disciples but not on the household. This is a picture of what we call performative speech. When we turn to one another and ask God's peace, we are seeking reconciliation and healing of relationships. We are granting our neighbor the gift of God. We bless those who curse us, and we pray for them. Can you imagine what the Lord will do in our midst as we believe that the divine service is a time of forgiveness and healing? Can you imagine the blessing you are asking on your neighbor when you pray God's peace on him as he prepares to take the Sacrament? It isn't a "let's be happy, welcome one another, shake hands, and make friendly" time. It's a, "may the Lord watch over you and grant that you should be reconciled with me and with all the other people who have sinned against you" time. Wow.
This is a hard thing. But our Lord has said we are to make peace with our brothers. It is more important than bringing our offerings. What's the promise? Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has seen our state. He died for us while we were yet sinners, while we were haters of God, while we were at enmity against God. He left his gift, he came to us, and he was willingly rejected and despised by men.
Very quickly now, we have eleven more verses to look at. What about Jesus' teaching about adultery? He says it isn't merely physical. He says it starts before there's even physical opportunity. He says the covetous attitude is every bit as important as any action we can perpetrate. He says it condemns us to hell. Why is adultery so important in God's eye? For many reasons, but probably most of all because the Scripture paints God's people as his bride, his dearly beloved one whose very best fortune is to be faithful to him. Adultery, apostasy, departure from the faith, they are all painted as one thing in Scripture. Again, what did Jesus come for? He came to rescue us from sin, to bring us into a true and faithful relationship with the Father, to purify us as the bride of Christ. We are to flee adultery. And as we are claimed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we would never wish to do something that would drive others into such a situation. We banish it from our lives. Are we successful? No. So again we see we need a savior, one calling us to repentance, and one granting us repentance to faith and everlasting life.
What about the oaths, the swearing falsely from verses 33-37? Let God be true. Our promise, the oath we can swear, this pledges ourselves to do something, often offering a pledge we are not able to provide. See how the examples of oaths Jesus gives all seem to offer security which is something we cannot offer? Rather, we simply make our promise. We say yes or we say no. We know there's a distinction. We may be able to accomplish what we try. But we may not. We're back to those distinctions again, aren't we? And those distinctions, that "yes" or "no" is what works in all our lives. We see God holding out before us life and death, good and evil, blessing and cursing, the distinction between a spiritual and a carnal life, the difference between God's commands and our attitudes, the difference between the power of God's work and the ability we have to work.
In the end, this Christian life is all about what Jesus has done. He is the one who has made reconciliation. He is the one who claims us as his pure bride. He is the one who makes promises and can guarantee that he will keep them. He is the mighty one of Israel. He is the one who has given himself for his people.
Let us rise to pray together.
Our Lord, you are the fulfiller of all your commands, and you have fulfilled them on our behalf, in our stead. By placing your name upon us you have claimed all your righteousness for us. Turn our hearts that we may live and walk in the righteousness you have placed upon us, rejoicing in your presence with us, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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