Archive for February, 2014

Sunday 23 February 2014

Posted: February 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

Mat 5.38-48

No sermon this week – I’m on holiday. However I thought our midweek group at St George’s might still appreciate a basis for discussion, so here it is.

These are the last of Matthew’s ‘six antitheses’ (Mat 5.21-48): six teachings based on the formula, ‘You have heard, … . But I say to you, … .’

The tag phrase, ‘You have heard’, points to two errors:
– Jesus is condemning an over-reliance on memories of over-familiar texts
– Jesus is also condemning an over-reliance on second-hand interpretations

The response to the first is, go back to the texts, put the words you know in context, restore their full force
The response to the second is, reject the reasoning of the scribes: seek confrontation, not accommodation, in your encounter with God’s word

Jesus’ parabolic method does both of these things
He directs us to the foolishness through which we learn divine wisdom
It is that technique we have heard of several times: Disrupt, Then Reframe (DTR)

Disrupt: offer advice no one listening could accept
This could be thought of as the doormat doctrine
It doesn’t, superficially, accord with even the conduct of Jesus himself
Are there any examples, up until the Passion, of Jesus being passive when others are being hostile?
What happens to ‘salt and light’ when we turn the other cheek?

Reframe: what are we actually trying to achieve by our conduct towards others?
The more acceptable term for the doormat doctrine is, ‘the counsel of perfection’
Here, the twofold commandment to love God and one’s neighbour is yet further simplified, to simply ‘be perfect’
We are commanded to be ‘different’, not merely ‘better’
It is a difference of kind, not just of degree

The commandment to love perfectly, as God does, begs two questions

The first question is, who is my neighbour?
The parable of the Good Samaritan appears to answer this question, ‘anyone to whom I can offer a neighbourly service’
This passage extends it to mean, ‘anyone who calls my love into question’: by their excessive demands, or even by their outright hostility

The second question is, what is love?
It is certainly not just being ‘nice’
The impulse to be ‘nice’ is easily challenged and soon exhausted
In contrast to love, which as Paul tells us, ‘never ends’

None of our actions is perfect
There is always, inevitably, some element of calculation, of self-interest, of holding back, of resentment: in short, of pretence or imperfection in our love
The extreme cases Jesus gives are not exceptions, just points further along a continuum
Love never draws a line

What is the earthly point of this teaching?
What this is really about, is holiness
It is about regaining the initiative in threatening situations
Remaining holy, by refusing to engage with the enemy on the enemy’s own terms

It is about bringing holiness, the fact of divine perfection, into situations that deny it
And also about asserting the incontrovertible will of God
Our enemies do not want our prayers, will probably be annoyed by them, but are powerless to stop them
Through prayer, we place ourselves and our enemies together in God’s hands

We are not to think humanly of our emotions and feelings
– We are to radically change the basis on which we judge and react to others
– We are to take as our pattern God’s seeming patience with the wicked and the ungodly
– We are to bless others as impartially as God does
– We are to regard this apparent madness as the key to the mystery of God

We are not to think of our enemies in relation to ourselves
– We are to think of our enemies only in relation to God
– We are to think of ourselves only in relation to God
– We are to be merciful on earth as God is merciful in heaven
– A traditional Jewish saying based on Lev 11.44, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’
– We are the ones God has made responsible for manifesting his holiness to others
– The lamp on the lampstand, in other words, radiates holiness, not doctrine

Clearly, this is not going to be easy
Our ability to love is an index to our progress
It is analogous to ‘the faith that moves mountains’
None of us has this much faith
We have not enough faith even to move a speck of dust
But we have to believe in the reality and possibility of this kind of faith
Just as we have to believe in the reality and possibility of this kind of love

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Deu 30.15-20, Psa 119.1-8, 1Co 3.1-9, Mat 5.21-37

We sometimes play a dirty trick on the Old Testament
We read it in a simplistic manner
Then we criticise it for presenting a simplistic view of God

We could read this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy in a simplistic way
Because it seems to present right and wrong in very stark terms

Obedience or disobedience; blessing or curses; life or death

“He’s making a list: he’s checking it twice;
“He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice”

But wait a minute — That isn’t God. It’s Santa Clause
The choice is simple – but what is required of us is not

There is a three-fold demand in this passage from Deuteronomy:
– Love the Lord
– Walk in his ways
– Observe his commandments

Later Jewish tradition turned turned this three-fold demand into what is known in Hebrew as devekut [dveh-KOOT]
Devekut
means ‘cleaving to the Lord’, or ‘holding fast to God’

It’s based on Deuteronomy 11:22 (NRSV)

Diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him

Some Bible versions translate this as being loyal to God or being faithful
Those translations don’t do it justice

Devekut means having God always in mind
Moulding ourselves to God
Refusing to let any gap appear between God’s will and ours

In other words, it’s a form of watchfulness (something we already talked about)
Seeking God with our whole heart

This watchfulness is expressed in three ways:
– In prayer
– In studying the Scriptures
– In performing the Law

All of these work on the heart

I was trying to think of a way of explaining this
The best example I can ome up with is jogging

In jogging, the visible work is mostly done by the legs and arms
But the part that is really being trained is the heart

We have to think of devekut as three different forms of spiritual exercise
All aimed at developing the heart
Because in biblical thought, the heart is the centre of our being

Prayer begins with the lips, but it ends in the heart
Studying the Scriptures begins in the intellect, but it ends in the heart
performing the Law begins in the actions we perform out there in the world, but the training of our actions in obedience to the Law is a way of training our hearts

How does this relate to our New Testament reading, from First Corinthians?

We probably think of Paul as a theologian of the head more than the heart
But that’s not accurate

Deuteronomy says, the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart (30:14)
Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10
To Paul, a Christian is someone who believes in their heart, and confesses with their mouth

Paul is a Christian, but his beliefs are rooted in Judaism

Paul endorses devekut: prayer, the study of Scripture and the performance of the Law

He’s always talking about the importance of prayer:

Rom 12.12: ‘be constant in prayer’
Rom 15.30: ‘strive together with me in my prayers to God’
Php 4.6: ‘don’t be anxious’ – just pray

His commitment to the study of Scripture is obvious: no one is Paul’s equal in the use of Scripture

He still insists on the performance of the Law, even though he insists it’s not enough on its own, without Christ:

Rom 2.8: ‘You know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law’
Rom 3.31: we do not overthrow the law: ‘On the contrary, we uphold the law’

So where have the Corinthians gone wrong?
The Corinthians are people whose religion has bypassed the heart, and gone straight to their heads

The Corinthians think they’re very clever
Paul is almost tempted to agree
But they’ve missed the entire point of devekut

The idea of devekut isn’t to please God by going through the motions of holiness
The idea of devekut isn’t to impress other people with our piety or our Bible knowledge
The aim of devekut is to train the heart

‘Happy are those who seek the Lord with their whole heart’ Psa 119.2
The Corinthians think this is too easy for them
Paul wants to point out their error

So again and again in his letters to the Corinthians, he tells them, you’ve got it wrong
You’ve forgotten the heart

1Co 4.5: the heart is where our real convictions reside: Jesus will return and ‘disclose the purposes of the heart’
1Co 7.37: our faith must be ‘firmly established’ in the heart
2Co 5.12: Paul has to contend with the opposition of people ‘who boast about outward appearance and not what is in the heart’

What happens when you neglect the heart? When your heart is not right with God?

You become childish, and selfish
You take God’s gifts, and use them in divisive ways: to build up yourselves, instead of each other
You place an excessive value on the gifts that look most impressive

You might be eloquent, you might be smart: but your witness will be a kind of empty prattle, divorced from everything that matters
The love of your neighbour
The whole-hearted desire to seek God and cleave to him alone

That’s what Paul tells the Corinthians in today’s passage

The temptation to take a pick n’ mix approach to faith is still there
Some people are strong on morality
Some people are strong on social action
Some people are strong on Bible study
Some people are strong on prayer and spirituality

But we’re not here to do what we fancy, or what looks good
We’re here to seek God as a community: as a whole people
To seek him with our whole heart

Psa 112.1-7; Isa 58.1-9; 1Co 2.6-16; Mat 5.13-20

As usual, there are four Lectionary readings this morning:

A reading from the Psalms, offering what probably seems to us a naïve understanding of the Law: that good things happen to good people; God blesses people who uphold his laws with prosperity, security and good reputation

Then a reading from Isaiah which paints a more complicated picture
It condemns people whose worship is not sincere
It shows how strong the temptation is to put all the emphasis on formal obedience: to ritualise worship and obedience to the Law, and use them as a way of evading the real commandment, to love God and our neighbour

Then a reading from Paul, which emphasises his essential humbleness in his apostolic role;
his determination to subdue and subordinate any personal element in his preaching,
so that he might reveal the power of the Spirit working in him and the mind of Christ at work in the gospel

Finally, a reading from Matthew containing a variety of related teachings,
in which Jesus places his own teaching in relation to the Law and the Prophets,
and talks about the obligation placed on his followers to see themselves in a prophetic role: as salt and light

The imagery of this gospel reading seems to point ahead to the Transfiguration
Christ’s revelation of his divinity on Mount Tabor, to his closest disciples
When they see him enveloped in a vision of uncreated light

The Transfiguration is an episode in which Moses and Elijah appear, and talk with Jesus
So it’s an episode which dramatises Christ’s fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets
An episode which brings together the mountains which represent the pinnacles of the people of Israel’s experience of God:
Horeb, or Sinai; Tabor; and Zion

Mount Horeb, which is probably another name for Sinai, is where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush and where he gave Moses the commandments; where Elijah fled for refuge from wicked Queen Jezebel and the priests of Baal

Mount Tabor, where the Transfiguration is said to have happened, is a stopping point for Jesus and the disciples on the road to Jerusalem, the road that leads to the Cross

Zion is Jerusalem: the mount of the Temple, the place of Crucifixion; the place where the nations of the world will come together to worship God

The imagery Jesus uses in this morning’s reading points to that final role
The light on the lampstand, the city on a hill
The light shining across the land, inspiring others to give glory to God in heaven

What all this tells us, is that the giving of the Law is not simply a matter of handing over a rule book
The giving of the Law is a revelation of God
And like all revelations of God, it is meant to be shared with the whole world

There are many things in the Law which strike us as mundane or obscure
Why would God ban meat cooked in a cream sauce? Or poly-cotton shirts?

But the real thrust of the Law is that we cannot compartmentalise God
Our relationship with God shapes the way we think about every area of our lives

God wants what is good for us: good for our well-being, not our short-term advantage
God also wants to constantly challenge us
To see him in every stranger, all the poor, everyone who is threatened by the powerful, everyone too poor to pay for justice

God wants us to ponder our real feelings for each other
To reflect on the reasons why so many relationship go wrong
Why it is so hard to live in community with others

More than anything, God wants us to ponder the roots of our own behaviour
To appreciate how deeply-rooted is the instinct that draws us away from him

When Paul wanted to think about the Law, in his letter to the Romans, he zoomed in on the commandment that says,

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his servant, … or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s. (Exo 20:17)

Why did Paul choose this commandment?
Because this commandment makes it clear, that sin doesn’t start with wicked deeds
Sin doesn’t even start with wicked thoughts

Sin starts with a disposition
A disposition to seek one’s own good rather than the good of one’s neighbour
A disposition to self-love rather than the love of God: the disposition of covetousness

A long time ago we talked about resentment
Covetousness and resentment are one and the same

Covetousness is resentment against my neighbours for having the things that I want
Things I feel I deserve more than they do
Covetousness is resentment against God for blessing my neighbours more than me

To live without covetousness is incredibly difficult
But someone who has conquered the spirit of covetousness in themselves has learned humility
And someone who has learned humility is someone God can use

Jesus talks about salt and light

Salt is the voice of prophecy; the ability to speak truth to power
The ability to express speak directly and forcefully, without any desire to look smart, without any desire to seek confrontation, but without fear of opposition

Light is the voice of truth: the voice of spiritual discernment
The ability to enlighten others, without any need to make claims about one’s own spiritual gifts;
simply from a desire to push back the darkness, to bring other people out of the shadows

Salt and light were the characteristics of Paul’s ministry

I want to close with words from the Book of Deuteronomy
From Moses’ words to God’s chosen people before they entered the Promised Land:

Deuteronomy 4:5–8 (NRSV):
See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

Diligence, wisdom and discernment:
these are the qualities we are called on to cultivate in ourselves

Other people will not learn about God from our boasting
They will learn of God from our patient obedience
Our humble determination to seek him, all through our lives
Our humble acceptance of his will; our humble eagerness to proclaim his blessings

Mal 3.1-4, Psa 84.1-10, Luk 2.22-40

The prophet Malachi raises the question: how will the Lord we seek come to his Temple?

We delight to hear his Word: but who can stand before him?
Will the Day of the Lord be great or terrible?

Our reading from Luke answers the question
The Lord comes to his Temple in his mother’s arms, as an innocent child
The Lord comes to his Temple as an offering: as a gift

What lies behind the dedication of the Christ child in the Temple?
There’s the story of the infant Samuel, brought to the Temple by his mother Hannah

There’s the story of Samson in the Book of Judges
Samson is bound from birth by a nazirite vow, commanded by an angel:

Drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.

There’s the commandment in the law of Moses that every firstborn, animal and human, must be offered to God
The animals for sacrifice; the firstborn child to be redeemed with an offering

Behind these stories is the common tradition in the Ancient Near East that every firstborn son should be dedicated to serve in the temple of their gods

Underlying all of these stories and beliefs is the sense that a child is a gift from God
That each birth re-enacts the God’s creation of life
A gift so huge and incomprehensible, the only way to respond is to offer it back

I think we still have that sense of an overwhelming mystery when we contemplate a newborn child
The question is, how does the gift of a child compare to other gifts?
How do the gifts of God relate to human giving?

Marcel Mauss was a French anthropologist
– In the nineteen twenties he invented gift theory
– He said that giving is one of the distinctive human behaviours
– Behaviours that gave our species a survival advantage by enabling us to cooperate

In Marcel Mauss’s analysis, gift-giving is motivated by the sense of obligation
– Gifts create a sense of obligation that can only be satisfied by offering another gift

Why do gifts create this sense of obligation? Mauss struggled to explain it
– He suggested that every gift contains something of the giver
– a mysterious ‘something’ that demands to be returned
– I think we sense this in the gift of a child

But the Christian explanation of gifts and offerings goes beyond what Mauss proposed
Christians see gift-giving as something divine
Everything we receive from God comes to us as a gift; revelation is a gift

So gift-giving is a behaviour we learn from God himself
– God’s generosity to us inspires us to be generous to each other
– Every generous act of giving brings us closer to God

It’s as Jesus says in his parable: the righteous say,

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?… And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to acknowledge God’s gift of a child
– To buy him back from God: to ‘redeem’ him
– Is a baby ‘worth’ one lamb? Two pigeons?
– No: the pigeons are not the ‘real’ price of a child’s life

The act of dedication recognises the child’s origins in God’s creative act
– The act of dedication recognises God’s sovereign will in what the child will grow up to be
– It recognises the one-sided nature of God’s covenant with his people

The act of dedication is also an act of celebration
There were a lot of smiling faces here today when Annabella was baptised
Those smiling faces should remind us that true giving is not motivated by the sense of duty or obligation
We want the one who receives our gift to be delighted by it
We want to ‘see the face we love light up’

God delights in his creation
– He delights in his people: Deuteronomy says, ‘The Lord had a delight in your fathers to love them’; David says, ‘he delivered me, because he delighted in me’
– The language of the covenant is the language of delight: the Psalmist says, ‘delight yourself in God, and he will give you the desires of your heart’
– The Father delights in the Son, as we all delight in our own children

Delight is the loving response to another person’s generosity
Delight is the joy we feel at being the cause of someone else’s happiness

Delight is a feeling shared by both the one who gives a gift, and the one who receives it
Delight characterises the relationships between the persons of the Trinity
Delight is the emotion that should characterise our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other

To give and receive should be a delight, not an obligation

Delight is the divine joy in giving and receiving we celebrated in this morning’s baptism; and the divine generosity we celebrate now in Holy Communion. Amen.