Saturday, February 4, 2017

Year A, Epiphany 5, Matthew 5:13-20 “Costly Discipleship”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Gospel of our Lord.

Really?  That seems harsh.  And it hardly seems like good news. 

The truth is that there is an edginess about Jesus that we just don’t like.

We’d rather sing “What a friend we have in Jesus” than to actually listen to what Jesus has to say.

Jesus challenges us. 

And we don’t like it.

But this is the truth:  If Jesus was always such a nice friendly guy, he would have never been crucified.  He was crucified precisely because what he had to say was disturbing.  Enough so that people wanted to silence him.

Righteousness.  What is that?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Those were the words of Isaiah that we read.
Later on in Matthew, the 25th Chapter, Jesus says:
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. ' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? ' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. ' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Harsh words.
Words that condemn us.
And we don’t like them.
One of the things we do is to “tame” this side of Jesus, with the theology of Paul.
We can ignore Jesus because Paul said in Romans 3:
“21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”

Or again in Ephesians:
“8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
You see, we don’t need to worry about Jesus’ words because Paul has muzzled him.
Or at the very least we interpret what Jesus is saying based on our understanding of Paul.
“Yes, Jesus says our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees,” we say, “and it does, for the righteousness that we have is a righteousness of faith that is a gift of God, apart from our doing anything.”
Hah, dodged that bullet, didn’t we?
Or did we?

The problem with preaching that sermon is that Jesus also says:
“Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
When Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or obeying the commandments, he is very specifically talking about our behavior.  What we do or do not do.
In fact, the whole of scripture talks a lot about our behavior, and most of it we just don’t like.
Next week we will hear the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus declares that it is not enough that we don’t murder, if we even say ‘You fool,’ we will be liable to the hell of fire.
This one strikes home for me, these days, because I have to confess, in all honesty, there is someone we recently elected that has provoked in me the desire to say “You fool”.
What do we do with Jesus?
What do we have to say about this demanding side of Jesus that condemns our behavior?
One of the things we say in AA is that though God won’t send us to hell if we continue drinking, we ourselves will create a living hell out of our lives if we drink.
I had a similar thought as I prepared to preach on this text. 
What happens to us after we die, is that we will be saved by God’s grace.
The Kingdom of heaven, or the Kingdom of God, that Jesus speaks about, though, is “of heaven”, but not IN heaven.
The Kingdom was intended for us, in THIS life, and would be ours if we simply accepted Jesus as Lord, and lived our lives in obedience to his word.  Our refusal to do that has resulted in our not ‘living in the Kingdom’, but rather suffering under the consequence of our own sins. 
To put it differently, we had the choice of living in the Kingdom of God, but chose instead to live under the kingdoms of this world, and paid the price of our choice.
Martin Luther dealt with this question in a different way.  Yes, we are forgiven, we are justified, by faith apart from the works of the Law---- but “this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we  should not rely on those works to merit justification before God".
To put it differently,
If we have faith. . .
If we “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
We will “love our neighbor as ourself. “

We struggle with this, as well, though.
It is easier to love God than it is to love our neighbor.
And we’d prefer to be justified by our faith, without having to get involved in actually doing anything.
Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German theologian who died in the concentration camps during WWII called this “cheap grace”.
He writes in the “Cost of Discipleship”:“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
On the other hand, he writes:
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” 

And again:
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. . .”
One of my favorite passages from Martin Luther’s writings comes from his commentary on Galations.  There he writes:
"The person who can rightly divide Law and Gospel has reason to thank God. He is a true theologian. I must confess that in times of temptation I do not always know how to do it. To divide Law and Gospel means to place the Gospel in heaven, and to keep the Law on earth; to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly, and the righteousness of the Law earthly; to put as much difference between the righteousness of the Gospel and that of the Law, as there is difference between day and night.
In civil life obedience to the law is severely required. In civil life Gospel, conscience, grace, remission of sins, Christ Himself, do not count, but only Moses with the lawbooks. If we bear in mind this distinction, neither Gospel nor Law shall trespass upon each other. The moment Law and sin cross into heaven, i.e., your conscience, kick them out. On the other hand, when grace wanders unto the earth, i.e., into the body, tell grace: "You have no business to be around the dreg and dung of this bodily life. You belong in heaven.""
In short, Luther’s understanding is that our life in heaven depends entirely upon God’s grace,
But the quality of our life on earth will depend entirely upon the way that we live our lives.
This is difficult to understand.
And this sermon has been a struggle.
Faith and Works.  On the one hand they are so different.
On the other hand, they are so intricately tied to one another.

I’ll leave you with two statements.
First, how you live your life, matters.  Period.
And Second, it matters even more, that Christ gave his life for you.

May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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