13 February 2011
9.00 Communion @ Stone
10.30 Communion @ Woodchurch
Readings Matthew 5:21-37
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips reveal something to us of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living Word, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.
I was at a communion service recently [it wasn’t in this church I have to say] and during the sharing of the peace there was a lot of moving around and joyful greeting and even a bit of hugging and back slapping. On the whole it was a joy to see. But I saw some people was obviously weren’t enjoying the experience and I overheard someone being really quite grumpy and saying that he couldn’t see the point. And I know that he is not alone in feeling grumpy about sharing the peace as my Father-in-law makes no bones about the fact that that is the part of the service he dreads most, and that may even be true for some here today. Well, whilst I can certainly understand English reserve and reticence, I can honestly say that the sharing of the peace before communion is not merely a modern affectation for people who like that sort of thing but, understood properly, is a direct response to Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, as we have heard today, and is an absolute necessity to receive the wholeness and healing that God offers us through communion. But I will come back to that in a moment.
This week’s gospel reading is a direct continuation from last weeks reading and together they form part of what is called The Great Instruction, and the Great Instruction readings carry on for the next couple of weeks. During much of Jesus’ ministry he taught those around him about who he was and about how they should behave indirectly through the example of his behaviour and through stories and parables. He would often say things like : “Let him who has ears to hear understand.” – and it seems that Jesus often liked people to take the time to figure out the meaning of what he had to teach for themselves. But the Great Instructions, it has to be said, are quite different in style and they place Jesus much more in the position of a rabbi or a teacher of the law who is interpreting the Jewish law and telling his disciples what it means for them and how they should live.
At the end of last weeks reading Jesus said this about the Jewish law:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until all is accomplished”…and then a couple of verses on… “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees…you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
This is pretty challenging stuff. Jesus says that until heaven and earth disappear not the smallest letter, literally not one iota, of the law will disappear. When we are talking about the law here of course we are not just talking about the 10 commandments but much of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of laws and, from the Jewish perspective, these laws are expounded further in works such as the Talmud. I don’t know how well you know those books of the bible but they contain pages and pages of laws about all sorts of things covering everything from food, clothing, growing crops, dealing with infectious skin diseases, women’s problems, men’s problems, disputes over land ownership, dealing with mildew in the tent to bigger stuff such as who can marry who and which animals to sacrifice at which festivals and how to do it. And, it has to be said, the penalty for getting most of this stuff wrong was, quite frequently, being put to death. We simply do not follow this law. Anyone who is a fan of the West Wing may remember the way that President Bartlett dealt with a Christian who tried to prove a point they were making by quoting Leviticus at him. I shan’t repeat it all here but it was a useful reminder that we can’t simply pick and choose scripture to support our own views while conveniently ignoring lots of other stuff – the fact is that the Christian community stands in a slightly odd relationship to the laws of Moses. But Jesus seems to be saying that the law will not pass away – So, the question arises, has the Christian community been doing something wrong since the time of Jesus or is something else going on here?
Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them. What might that mean? It might be easy to see how Jesus came to fulfil the prophets in the sense that he was the one whom the prophets foretold, so his appearing was both the fulfilling of Jewish prophecy about a coming messiah and an end to the prophetic line. But how does one fulfil the law? It may be helpful here to think about the laws as governing relationships vertically with God and horizontally with other people.
How does Jesus then fulfil, say, the laws governing the vertical relationship between God and man? Well, the laws of Moses laid down very detailed and often quite graphic descriptions of the sacrifices required at particular times of year and for particular purposes. But we no longer follow the sacrificial system because we believe that Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the law by becoming the ultimate, which can mean both the best and the last, sacrifice:
As Hebrews 10 puts it:
“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sin. But when this priest [i.e. Jesus the great high priest] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.”
That’s us by the way – we are the ones being made holy.
So although the law of Moses in relation to sacrifices has not passed away and it still forms part of our scriptures we would say as Christians that it is not binding on us as Christ fulfilled the whole purpose of the law which was to take away sins and overcome the barrier between man and God.
If that is the vertical relationship between man and God, then what about the laws governing the horizontal relationships between people?
Some of them are touched on in today’s gospel – Jesus talks about the laws relating to murder, divorce and taking oaths. Of all the laws governing a civilised society a rule against murdering each other is one of the most basic and it is not surprising that “You shall not murder” makes it onto the ten commandments and is repeated in various forms throughout the law of Moses.
Jesus says in today’s reading:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”, and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement…and if you say ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
If you thought the other stuff was challenging then this is even sterner – Jesus is saying that it is not enough to simply refrain from killing people we must not even be angry with them or even call them a fool. If this were the last word on the subject then we would doubtless all be doomed but, fortunately it is not, and I’ll come to that in a moment.
Jesus goes on:
“You have heard it was said, “You shall not commit adultery,” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a women with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
There are all sorts of arguments about what ‘lust’ means in this context – does it mean looking at someone with the actual intention of committing adultery with her or does it just mean “Phooar, she’s a bit of alright.” Given what was said about simply calling your brother a fool I suspect it means the latter and I doubt there is any man here who is not guilty of adultery on that measure.
Jesus then talks about the law of divorce and how the law of Moses permitted divorce but how if a man divorces a women except in cases of infidelity then the divorce is essentially not valid in the eyes of God and, therefore that those involved become adulterers.
So although Jesus starts out by saying that the law of Moses shall not pass away it becomes clear even as he speaks that Jesus expects his followers to supersede that law by showing them the purpose of the law, which at heart is always about loving and respecting the rights of each other as fellow children of God, and encouraging them not simply to live out the letter of the law in a mechanical fashion but to live out the spirit of the law. And the spirit of love is not lived out by simply refraining from killing someone it is only lived out by being genuinely at peace with someone which means not even calling them a fool in your heart. So Jesus fulfils these laws by showing us that our true calling is to follow the purpose of the laws rather than the letter, which can control only the outward form and not the heart.
And that brings us back to the sharing of the peace:
“So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus is saying that we can’t approach God if there is anger, sin or unforgiveness on our hearts. We start our communion service with confession in which we seek God’s forgiveness and reconciliation for all that we have done wrong but during the peace we also seek forgiveness and reconciliation from each other. If you are ever tempted just to shake hands with your friends during the peace but never to shake hands with Joe Bloggs because you have never really got on then that is to misunderstand what we are about here – to be a community in communion with God is to be a community in communion with each other and that is something that can never be controlled or created by laws but can only from our hearts.
Jesus does set the bar high on how he expects his disciples to behave and he does say that our righteousness needs to surpass that of the Pharisees to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and that is always the goal towards which should strive. But we know that none of us here is capable of keeping such strict laws simply by our own efforts. But the Good News is that God knows that too and the purpose of this service, and of every communion service, is to be forgiven by God, to forgive and be forgiven by one another and to enter further into communion with God and his people, who are the body of Christ. And that is you too.