Let’s be honest, that Gospel reading is difficult. The ideal it points to is seemingly impossible, and the consequences of getting it wrong – which we have all done, many times – are frightening. I am not talking about murder, I am talking about being frustrated and angry. It is hard to go through life not thinking that people are fools, whether we say it out loud or not, when so many people clearly are fools. So if we are both alive to the truth of today’s Gospel, and also honest with ourselves in our reaction to it, we may not have been entirely convinced that we wanted to respond, “This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ” at its conclusion.
These are hard words from Jesus, tough words from the writers of Matthew’s Gospel who portray the good news for us not in heavenly aspirations but in a very earthly challenge.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times,” says Jesus, “‘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 insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
This is the chilling stuff of apocalyptic challenge, and in a real way, perhaps, too much for us – if we are honest – to bear. Yes, we understand the ramifications and consequences of murder, but to be angry, surely this is the stuff of being human, and being alive.
Throughout this Gospel of Matthew that we gather around Sunday by Sunday this year, the writers are building their argument, painting their tapestry, to convince us of the claim that Jesus is the one so long awaited: the fulfilment of all that the law pointed towards, and that the prophets yearned for in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is the reconciler, the compassionate healer, the visionary prophet and teacher and the righteous judge, and yes, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Last weekend we jumped into the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, skipping over the Beatitudes – the ‘Blessed are’ sayings – which we will return to at a later date, and being hit between the eyes with the challenge to be Salt and Light. It is worth us remembering that the Sermon on the Mount is deliberately intended to be a parallel to Moses teaching the people from Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament.
Just as Moses taught the Ten Commandments, we have Jesus doing the same thing through this collection of teachings bound together in this great sermon. It is not by accident that intertwined in this Sermon on the Mount is the reminder that Jesus did not come to replace the law and the Prophets, but rather to fulfil them. Because Jesus is not issuing new laws, but rather engaging in the Jewish tradition of faithfully wrestling with the laws and continuing to apply them to ever-evolving situations. The law, after all, was dynamic and never intended to be a static prescription for right and wrong.
Human nature does not really change all that much over the generations. The Ten Commandments were given to the people of God so that they might be reconciled with him and with each another. But just hours after Moses received the Ten Commandments the people were worshipping a golden calf and killing each other over who was holiest and closest to God. Fast forward many generations, and those gathered around Jesus as he teaches them, are still fighting with one other, hurting each other, even on their way to the Temple. In their efforts to be righteous in the eyes of God, they are neglecting their relationships with each another. And Jesus, seeing all of this going on around him, names the situation, and calls out those people who are on their way to enhance their personal relationship with God, yet all the while ignoring their broken relationships with others.
Jesus is making the bold claim that it is not possible to love God without loving our neighbour. And more than that, it is in the act of loving our neighbour that our love for God is made manifest.
How many of us have argued in the car on the way to Church, only to pretend when we walk through the doors that nothing has happened? Or how many of us have spent the journey going home talking about the things that we did not like, as if we had not just gathered as the living Body of Christ; and those are just the small things, what about the grudges that we can store up for decades, that poision our relationships with those around us: and remove any claim that we have to be seeking to live lives that are authentically following in the way of Jesus, the one who came to reconcile humanity to his Father.
Here it is, we have stumbled over what this is really all about. Jesus the reconciler, comes that we might have life, but not some holy religious life for an hour a week which is bound up only in our relationship with God, or in our love affair with the past, or our admiration for architectural form, or our delight in music – although there is nothing wrong with any of those things in themselves… Jesus the reconciler comes that we might have life in him, and shared with one another, from which flows the creativity and the grace to replicate the quality of the relationships that we have with him and with each other within the Church, with those who are beyond the Church.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The spirit of the law given to Moses and preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was never about “do this… but don’t do this… and then you’ll be saved”, a how-to plan for salvation if you will, it is about how to live now in a broken world that will one day be redeemed and made new by a loving and gracious God. It is about reconciliation with one another in the broken present.
That is hard and difficult and sometimes impossible; because, despite what Jesus says, anger about situations and systems and institutions can be useful for us. It can inspire action. However, anger focused on a person can also be destructive. There is a saying in twelve step recovery programmes, “holding onto anger and resentments is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” There is incredible truth in this for all of us. Anger just creates a steel box around our hearts that prevents us from loving fully and drastically reduces the quality of our lives. This is not who we were created to be.
How then does God help us to live lives that point to reconciliation? He shows us reconciliation by the example of Jesus, and he guides us by the wisdom of his Holy Spirit. Firstly, reconciliation is God’s gift to the world. The healing of the world’s deep brokenness does not begin with us and our action, but with God and God’s gift of new creation. Secondly, reconciliation is therefore not something that we first do —it is something that is done to us.
We must always remember that it was Jesus who brought us back to God, reconciled us — and then (and only then) called us to participate with him in his Father’s grand vision to renew the world. So reconciliation describes what God doing is for us, which we cannot do for ourselves: helping us to forgive those who hurt us, and make us angry, and replacing it instead with wholeness. And God is going to keep on doing that regardless of how we feel about it. This is the true freedom of the Gospel.
God gave his own heart to us in the person of Jesus Christ, knowing before all time that it would be broken, and yet he did it anyway. And despite all this God’s heart is not clenched in anger against us.
“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.”
To reconcile means to bring together what has been severed, to move people from a place of enmity to a place of friendship. This reconciliation is not dependent on us deciding to make it happen.
When Christ tells us all the ways that we are blessed in the Beatitudes, and that we are Salt of the Earth and Light of the World, he is saying, “you are mine”. You already belong to me. I live in you. We are reconciled. In Christ, God has done this for us. In Christ, God has done this for the world. In Christ, we are called as his Church to offer this gift to others; and for that we can surely say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.”