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Sunday, February 9, 2014


Christ Jesus became one of us to begin a relationship between us and the Triune God, a relationship of love which shapes our love of God and love of neighbor and makes complete all God’s intention in the law.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, year A; text:  Matthew 5:13-20

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

How are you doing with that?  How is it sitting in you, in your heart, in your mind?  Those are harsh words, scary words.  How do we go on when our Gospel reading ends with such words?

Sometimes you can speak the same language and hear the same words and completely misunderstand what is said.  These words of Jesus are clear English, and are well-translated from the Greek.  We think we know what Jesus is saying.  It frightens us.  Sometimes it makes us angry.  Sometimes we would like to walk away from what those words seem to mean and deny their truth.

But what if we’re misunderstanding what he’s saying?  What if, as we consider all of who Jesus is as the Christ, the Son of God, and we consider all of what he said when he was with us, what if, in that light, these words don’t mean what we thought they meant?

Words can always be taken out of context, in a number of ways, but the context that always matters is the person who says the words.  How can we hear these words clearly without stepping back and seeing who is saying them, looking at the whole of what we know about our Lord?  Sometimes, maybe a lot of times, we take Jesus’ words away from Christ Jesus himself, and understand them apart from his suffering and death, his resurrection, even apart from claims he repeatedly makes about what he wants us to know and do.

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Why aren’t we asking Jesus what he means by these words?

We can ask him, you know.  That’s the gift of this Incarnation, that the Son of God is approachable, accessible.

This written Word of God, these Scriptures call out with God’s longing to have a relationship of love with us that is reciprocated by us and shared among all people.  Through Abraham and Sarah and their family, through judges, priests, and prophets, God sought better acquaintance with us, with all God’s children.

The coming of Jesus, the Son of God, whom believers after the resurrection began to realize was eternally one with the Father and the Spirit, who was present at creation, the coming of Jesus as one of us quite literally made relationship with God humanly possible.  He was a human being, this Son of God.  He could talk with people, love people, hug people, rebuke people, teach people, heal people, and they could respond back.

Maybe Jesus became Incarnate among us because we can’t understand relationships in the abstract.  For all the Triune God hoped for in having a relationship, maybe being one of us was the only way we could understand it.

Now, there’s truth that gleams from that, isn’t there?  The key to understanding Jesus’ teachings may be to hear them in relationship with him, and to hear them as God’s call to a new relationship.

We sometimes package salvation as some kind of abstract concept, usually centered around whether or not we go to heaven when we die, and we understand Jesus’ teachings through that lens.

But if the Son of God is telling the truth, that wasn’t the main point of God coming to be with us.  God came to be with us to bring us back into a relationship with God and with each other.  Coming in person was the way we’d be able to see, touch, feel, know, hear, understand God’s love in concrete ways, something humans had longed for and dreamed of.

Understanding Jesus’ goal as Jesus describes it sheds an interesting light on our Gospel today.  We see some juxtapositions of truth in that light: one truth answered by another.  Seeing these for the truth they are makes all the difference in how we understand what Jesus is saying, all the difference in how we live, whether in hope or fear, whether in relationship with the Triune God or in a different place entirely.

The first juxtaposition of truth is this:  checklists don’t make good relationships, but righteousness isn’t about checklists.

Checklists don’t make good relationships, but righteousness isn’t about checklists.

The scribes and Pharisees don’t understand this.

They’re good people.  We need to remember that.  They are people who try their hardest to live every aspect of God’s law, and who live their lives with the vocation of teaching others to do the same.  They’re doing their best to keep up a checklist of what God wants, and making sure they check off boxes regularly.  “Just tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it,” that’s what they say.

It’s hard not to admire that.  Not everyone cares about God’s law that much, or works that hard at keeping God’s law.

But this isn’t how true relationships work.

You don’t give your loved ones checklists to accomplish so that you will love them, or so that you will not punish them, or anything like that.  None of us wants our loved ones to be with us under those terms, to be people obsessed with keeping track of what we want and when we want it.  And doing just that, no more, no less.  Looking for loopholes wherever possible.  “Just tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it” sounds horrible from someone we love.  We’d rather they did what they did because they wanted to, because they knew it would please us, because they loved us.

Why would God be any different?

God seeks righteousness from us, yes, to “be made right with God,” have God’s “right-ness.”  But not from a checklist.

We know this from the Son of God, who reminds us often that all God seeks is that we love God with all we are and that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  This, he tells us, sums up all the law and the prophets.

Yes, the law was a list, given to God’s people to show them the way to live with God.  But in coming in person (and actually hundreds of years before Jesus Jeremiah said this would happen), in coming in person God said, “Lose the lists and do it all from your heart.”

“Love God with all your heart, soul mind and strength.  Love your neighbors as yourselves.  “Do this, and you’ll know what life really is.  Do this, and you’re doing all I ever asked.  “Do this, and you’ll be living in the relationship with me and with each other for which I’ve longed for centuries.”

That’s what the Triune God says to us through the Son.

The second juxtaposition of truth is this: seeking reward doesn’t make good relationships, but the kingdom of heaven isn’t a reward.

Seeking reward doesn’t make good relationships, but the kingdom of heaven isn’t a reward.

This is our greater difficulty.  We’re not so worried about lists these days.  But we don’t want to miss out on the lottery prize.

So much of the Church seems to motivate people to live by God’s rules that they might get a good place in death rather than a bad one.  Follow God’s laws, do everything commanded, so that your reward isn’t lost.  The motivation is purely self-centered: I don’t want to go to hell.

But this isn’t how true relationships work.

Which of us wants our loved ones to do whatever they do for us and with us solely for a prize, a reward?  To have someone spend time with us because they’re being paid, or they’ve got a promise of later gift?  To have someone act toward us only that we might give them something?  We’d rather they loved us honestly, openly, truly, not for profit.

Why would God be any different?

God promises that the reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is ours, is something we can enter, something deeply valuable, it is life-giving, life-sustaining, yes.  But it’s never a reward for a good life, it’s never withheld due to a bad life, it’s not even an end of life issue.

We know this from the Son of God, who spoke of the reign of God, the kingdom of heaven as being with us now, inside us, near us, real to us.  The kingdom of heaven is when people live in loving relationship with God and with each other as God intended from the beginning.  So it can be real now, and will certainly be real in the life to come.  It’s not a prize to be earned or won, it’s a gift of life that we can live in right now, this moment.

In coming in person, the Son of God said, “walk with me, love with me, love God and each other, and you will find life.”  When we live as the Triune God made us to live, in such loving relationships, we are already living in the kingdom, we already have the prize.

This what God teaches us through the Son.

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Ah, Jesus, now we understand: living in love of God and love of neighbor would be complete righteousness.  And entrance into the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God: you’re not talking about a reward but the reality that living in such a relationship is living in the kingdom.

Jesus is telling us the truth, that when we live fully as God’s law had hoped to describe, when our love for God is with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, when our love for our neighbor is as for ourselves, we have already entered the kingdom of heaven.

And we have found a righteousness that far exceeds anything a checklist can give us.  Because it is a righteousness of our heart, a forgiven and restored spirit, given by the One who in dying and rising actually fulfilled all this already, and now makes it possible for us.

Do you see?  He came not to abolish but to fulfill, that we might also fulfill and not abolish.  More than anything, this we see in Christ Jesus, the Son of God: that he fulfilled love of God and neighbor in offering himself fully to us, to the world, even unto death.  But he is risen from the dead, and gives us the same Spirit of God that we might be able to walk the same path, and so live even now in God’s kingdom, God’s reign.

No, nothing can be removed from what God asks of us: this is complete love, not from a checklist but from our heart, and it is a love that calls us to serve, to give away, to lose ourselves both to God and to others, even to die.  Jesus is right in giving a warning that he’s not removing anything.

But that’s only because he knows where real life is lived, in such loving relationships with God and neighbor, and deeply desires each of us to know it, too.

It does make a difference who’s saying this to us.

It makes all the difference in the world.  Because this is life.  The only life.  It’s not easy, it’s not casual, it’s not dismissable.  But it is life.  Christ Jesus give us hearts able to live this now and always.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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