Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
July 31, 2011

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

If you noticed the citation at the beginning of this morning’s Gospel lesson you will see that it comes from the fifth chapter of St. Matthew, and thus, a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. How appropriate to have a portion from the Sermon on the Mount as our adult forum over the past few weeks has been taking a look at the beatitudes and sermon in a bit more depth.

I don’t know about you, but this passage makes me rather uncomfortable. I want to shrink back from a passage such as one like this and simply wallow in my impassable situation of not being able to attain to the standards by which I am called. After all, we didn’t have to look very far in the beatitudes to discover those places where we don’t quite measure up or where we fall woefully short. And what are we to make of the verse that we opened with that declares that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. I might as well sit down, and we might as well pack up and go home because no one is going to be able to exceed that type or righteousness. Or can we? What is it that Jesus is trying to say here and get us to understand?

As we all recall, the scribes and Pharisees were not exactly high up on our Lord’s list of people to praise and exalt. Like his cousin before him, Jesus had some very scathing words for these keepers of the law to the nth degree. They called them broods of vipers, Jesus told his disciples to beware of the yeast and leaven of the Pharisees, they were referred to as whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones. What is going on here? Are we called to exceed that type of righteousness? That doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of thing we are called to emulate.

Two of the most faithful expositors of Scripture within Anglicanism are the late nineteenth century Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle, and the late Dr. John R. W. Stott, rector emeritus of All Souls Langham Palace who died earlier this week. Their writings are so helpful in unpacking some of the more troubling portions of the Gospels and I resort to their works regularly. Their understanding of these verses and this passage in particular I think will help to shed light on what we have just heard.

One of the points that these two Anglican Divines highlight is that Jesus is here praising the scribes and the Pharisees in the sense that they do in fact recognize and hold on to the teachings of the Law, and their full acceptance of the fact that God’s authority is writ large in the words of the Law. They understand that a piece of their very identity as Jews and the People of Israel is that they are the benefactors and recipients of the Torah, the Law. In other words, a portion of their being considered righteous was in their faithful keeping of the Law. This was seen as something good, and Jesus is in fact saying that the Pharisees were accorded some measure of righteousness because they were faithful to the Torah.

However, the twist comes when we examine what it really means for us to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.

God is not doing away with the law. God is not telling us that because he sent Jesus into the world all bets are off, and the law doesn’t apply to us any longer. That doesn’t hold water with what our Lord said in the passage I quoted at the beginning of the sermon. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Nothing from the law will pass away until all has been fulfilled, which happens through Jesus’ atonement and death upon the cross. Those who teach that the Old Testament is no longer applicable to the Christian life do not teach the Christian faith. I realize that is a rather harsh statement, but it is the truth. Anyone who says that they belong to a New Testament only Church are not a part of the church catholic.

The fundamental difference comes in the why. Why do we obey and follow the Ten Commandments? Why do we still read the Old Testament as a part of sacred scripture, for our learning and instruction? We don’t do it, or at least we shouldn’t do it, just as a matter of checking off things on a to-do list. The major flaw with the Pharisees and lawyers and religious authorities was that they were keeping the law with their head and Jesus is calling for a keeping of the law with our heart. This is the only way that our righteousness can exceed that of the Pharisees. Only when we heed the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Or from Ezekiel, “And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” Or as the Psalmist declares, “BLESSED is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, * and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; * and in his law will he exercise himself day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the water-side, * that will bring forth his fruit in due season….But the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous; * and the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
The Christian life is the life lived in full recognition that the very God who gives us life gave us His law, and then sent Himself in the form of His Son Jesus Christ to be the complete fulfillment of that law. He gave us the law not to simply show us who we are, but to show us who He is. The law is an expression of his love. In a way that sounds quite oxymoronic. How can the law be an expression of God’s love?

It is an expression of God’s love in exactly the same way that we do the same things for our children. We give our children laws and rules not to exercise some arbitrary, authoritarian rule over them, but to give them complete freedom to enjoy the wonderful things of this life within an established set of boundaries. What happens when those rules are broken or the boundaries are pushed? Well, in the best case scenario there is simply discipline to help them understand why the rules are there and why they should be followed. In a worst case scenario, someone is hurt, or maimed, or killed.

Love is the underlying principle behind the law. Because God loves us he gave us his Law and then gave us Himself who is the perfect fulfillment of that Law so that we then might be able to see what true perfection looks like. We are then free to gaze upon that perfect fulfillment which is Jesus Christ and look to him as the “author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

How are we to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? By living out the words of our liturgy in which we come to God in faith and offer and present unto Him our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. That means meditating upon his Law and seeing it for what it is. It means giving our selves wholly into his never failing care and service. It means the life-long journey toward wholeness and health that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. It means rendering unto God true and laudable service in the worship of Him and in the outworking of that worship which is service toward our fellow Man.

“Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way, and walk in the law of the Lord….And my delight shall be in thy commandments, which I have loved. My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and my study shall be in thy statutes.”

O GOD, who hast prepared for them that love thee such good things as pass man's understanding: Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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