Download or listen to The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, “Like Your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:33-48)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You know, sometimes it’s easy for us in the Church to think we’re set apart from those “out there.” We can come up with any number of examples of immorality. We look around and we think it’s all going to hell; no more morals! No standards! The foundations have been washed away; the moorings have been cut, and now we’re just floating, aimlessly adrift. It’s true, to some extent, although I think it’s not so much the foundations that are gone, but the cultural restraints. It’s not that people have changed; they don’t. What’s changed is that the cultural restraints on people’s outward behavior are now mostly gone, so that people can do openly what they always did secretly. They always did the same things, or at least wanted to; now they can, and now they do. So we talk about the gays, or abortion, or divorce, or how people don’t even bother to get married before they live together. And certainly those things are challenges to the Word of God, and rebellion against His will. But if we focus mostly on what’s happening out there, on “those things” or “those people,” we can easily start to believe that we’re not all that bad. We can begin to think that we’re in some sort of protected refuge, where we are protected from the more destructive and corrosive elements of our society. We see the outward actions out there, but we don’t see what has taken root in here.
But Jesus is not content to let us talk idly about other people and other sins. He comes shining the floodlight of His Word, not so much on our actions, but on our hearts. We may not have swallowed a gallon of poison all at once, but it might be more dangerous to absorb it drop by drop. Because then you don’t even seen it happening. You can think you’re fine, but it’s slowly killing you from the inside out. We’ve absorbed the poison of the culture and the world through our eyes, and ears, and minds, and hearts. And so Jesus comes to put our blood under His microscope, and it’s not a pretty picture.
We’ve been hearing it from Jesus over the past couple weeks. Jesus gives us six examples, starting at verse 21 of chapter 5. Even though our lectionary divided them four last week, and two this week, they are clearly divided three and three. So Jesus talks about murder, anger, and refusing to reconcile; He talks about adultery and lust; and He talks about divorce and adultery. Then, He talks about oaths and swearing, and the importance of words; He talks about vengeance and justice; and He talks about loving enemies and praying for those who persecute you. He doesn’t cover every circumstance or situation, but He very clearly and authoritatively interprets the true will of God behind His Law. How much has the poison of the world seeped into your veins? You can tell by how uncomfortable Jesus’ words make you. Again, you have heard it said, that you shall not swear falsely. I say to you that you shall not swear at all. It should be enough that you say yes or no. Christians, for their own part, have no need of oaths or swearing because they simply tell the truth. In a courtroom, we have to be placed under oath, but that is exactly because the Psalmist is correct: All men are liars (116:11). Because we all smudge the edges of the truth, blur out the parts that might make us look bad. So the State requires oaths, because we all lie. But as far as we are Christians, we have no need of oaths, because we simply speak the truth. We know that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Good trees produce good fruit, and on the day of judgment, all people will be held accountable for every careless word they speak. If that doesn’t terrify you, I don’t know what will: every careless word.
You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Simple justice, and put into place so that no one takes from another person more than what is owed. Justice tends to get out of hand, and turn in to vengeance. But I say to you, give to the one who asks from you. Whoever needs anything from you. Don’t resist the evildoer. If someone sues you for the shirt off your back, give him your coat as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go two. See, Christians, for themselves, have no need of either vengeance or justice. We know the one who has said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” We do not have justice in ourselves, and we really do not want what is coming to us. We have, instead, the highest justice and the highest righteousness, in Jesus Christ.
You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor.” That’s in the Scriptures. “But hate your enemies.” That’s not! But it’s a logical assumption if your neighbor is the one you like, part of your community or people. Love them, but hate those outside. But Jesus says, “I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” As my mom used to say, it’s hard to hate someone if you’re praying for him.
Now we can see just how much the individualism, the selfishness, the independence of our culture has seeped into our bloodstream. We think it is good and right, and even Christian, to demand our rights, what we deserve, what is good for us. We want justice when we have been wronged. We want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life. Unless it’s ours, of course. We have rights! But none of that is Christian; it is simply the way this particular country has been set up. And often it is good; often it protects the weak and the helpless. But just as often it doesn’t, and there are whole industries set up to exploit those same rights and demands. That’s why there are so many special interest groups with their own lobbyists. Do Christians need such things? Are we just one more special interest group among many? It often appears that way, when we absorb the ways of the world, rather than the words of Christ. We have been dying, and we didn’t even know it. The poison runs deep. And it doesn’t help anything to go deeper and deeper into ourselves, to be turned further inward. There is no help that way; there is only death.
So the Holy Spirit turns our gaze away from ourselves and toward Christ; just read the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Look at Jesus, the perfect Son of the Father. He says nothing to His accusers—until the high priest puts Him under oath, and asks Him again whether He is the Son of God. Then He answers, who has no need of oaths, who always speaks the truth: You have said so. At the same time, Peter swears that he doesn’t know Jesus, and then with an oath, he calls down damnation on himself if he is lying. That’s what happens when you don’t let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ ‘no.’ They slap Jesus on the face, and He does not resist; He does not take vengeance. He does not call down legions of angels to defend Him and destroy His enemies. No, He prays for His enemies: “Father, forgive them.” At just the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. While we were His enemies, His death reconciled us to God. Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry His cross. I don’t know if it was one or two miles, but it’s the same word as in Matthew 5. While Jesus hangs naked on the cross, the soldiers gamble for His clothes, and He lets them have them. He gives everything for and to His enemies, and to those who hate Him. He prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” But it is the will of the Father to crush Him, so it is His will to be crushed. Perfect, complete, holy, obedient. The Son of His Father in heaven.
Only where we are turned toward Jesus, only where we hear His words, only where we eat His Body and drink His Blood, will we be made perfect and complete. Only if our vision is never toward ourselves, but toward Christ by faith and toward our neighbor in love, will be completed according to the Image of God in Christ Jesus. But God has indeed put you in a particular place, in a particular family, in a particular community and congregation. There, be the best at whatever it is that you can be. They, whoever they are, need it from you. They need the love that is like your heavenly Father’s love: indiscriminate, toward anyone who needs it, simply because God is good. He makes His sun—His sun—rise on the evil and the good, and gives rain to the righteous and the unrighteous. That is how the Church is a city shining on a hill and a light in a dark house: by simply receiving what He gives to us, and by doing what God has given us to do. They will see, they will ask. So be ready to give a defense when they ask you for a reason for the hope that is within you. And then hear the promise of your Lord through the mouth of St. Paul. He wrote to the Christians at Philippi, and he said: “I am convinced, I have been persuaded, that the One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion—to perfection—until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6), because on that day, the command will become the promise: you will be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. Until that day, as Paul says to the Ephesians, we build each other up until the whole Church becomes one complete, perfect Man, who is Jesus Christ. You are His Body; He has declared you blessed before His Father. By faith, you lack nothing now. Do not boast in people, especially not yourself! But in Christ, you have everything: death or life, the present or the future, everything is yours, because you are Christ’s and He is God’s. Now by faith toward God and in love toward your neighbor, be perfect; then by sight: you will be perfect and complete as your Heavenly Father is.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/22/14