The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      12th February 2017
Sermon on the Mount Mt 5.21-37
Jan Rushton

3 before Lent Year A 12 Feb 2017 Sermon on the Mount Mt 5.21-37

This year before Lent begins we are reminded week by week what Christian living is all about! In last week’s gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to be salt of the earth, light to the world, and warns against anyone imagining that he has come to abolish the Law! This morning we have that Law explained for us.

We cannot wriggle around our deeper destructive urges:
“I could kill him!” You have committed murder! Rather show respect for the dignity of every person you encounter!
If you do not, you will live in hell fire! Do not let a grudge fester - go immediately and sort it out. You never know what may happen next!
“Mmm, nice body!” Tricky one this! Why is it so bad to appreciate God’s creation!? Of course light-hearted cheeky banter, which everyone understands as such, a twinkle in the eye, is what makes the world go round! But if we look at another without respecting their person and their well-being, their relationships with partners, emotional as well as physical, if we look with exploitation in mind for our own gratification, then what we do is as bad as adultery - quite literally a mortal sin according to the book in Jesus’ day!
Be someone whose word others may know is absolutely reliable - without any affectation to prove it! And lastly, no divorce. That too, is the equivalent of adultery.
We’ll come back to this thorny issue later.

Down the centuries the Church as much as individual Christians, has found grappling with the Sermon on the Mount difficult indeed! It presents us with a standard we can only aspire to fulfil!

Does Jesus’ really mean us to pluck our eye out, chop off our hand!? Surely not! What then is he doing? Does he seriously expect us to fulfil his injunctions? Well, for the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, yes he does! Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship’ is tough reading! Gandhi declared that had any Christian truly followed -the 480 precepts of this Sermon he would have immediately become a Christian!

Churches keener on Paul’s Christianity as mediated through the thinking of the Reformation, that is, the proclamation of ‘justification by faith alone’, those who hold to this version of following Jesus suggest he gave this Sermon to help his followers recognise in their very inability to follow it, recognise their sin! Thus enabling them to acknowledge the depth of their wrong-doing, and their need of forgiveness through faith in Christ. The purpose of the sermon is therefore, to teach us our sinfulness.

What do I think? Is this Sermon primarily to teach us about sin? Well first, the above is a profound misunderstanding of Paul. For Paul, to claim to have ‘faith’ could not be separated from action. Without action there could be no faith! Chapter 12 of Paul’s famous letter to the Romans, is the first record of Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbour. And Paul in this chapter spells out, just what that means! A chapter which for Lent could go up on our kitchen walls to be read daily! No, I do not believe Jesus presented us with these injunctions purely to make us aware that we cannot attain to them!

However, we do need to remember that it was customary in Jesus’ day to teach by presenting your point using hyperbole. Jesus does not intend us to self-harm! But he does intend us to take his edicts seriously. Not to dismiss them as merely impossible ideals he never imagined anyone would fulfil.

As I have said before, the original basis of self-help literature is the Sermon on the Mount! The very precepts we are thinking about this morning - and in our readings over the next two weeks.
So let us consider what Jesus does command of us: To let go of bitterness, resentment, the desire for revenge. We now all know from medical science that apart from our mental health, harbouring such attitudes is highly conducive to the production of chemicals in our bodies deeply inimical to our physical health - not to mention our happiness. Rather Jesus says, seek agreement with one another, even if it involves some compromise.

Jesus does not mean that anger is always wrong. He was angry himself when he witnessed injustice and gross lack of compassion. Righteous anger rightly moves us into action. And we may need to feel anger to get moving. But revenge eats away at all our joy.
Likewise lust is deeply unpleasant for those we lust after. It can destroy our capacity for forging deep and mutual relationships. We are called to discipline regarding the thoughts we choose to entertain and an honesty with ourselves, simply appreciating how attractive another human being may be, is not what this is about.

Of course we are all economical with the truth to some extent. Life would be unbearable if we never tempered what we said. But such thoughtfulness is not what Jesus is talking about here. Societies where no one can trust anyone are appalling places to try to live in. Corruption destroys lives. And sadly there is corruption everywhere, and yes, in the UK too. Our corruption may not be as wholesale as in other places, but is a legal system just which allows multi-millionaires, nay, billionaires, to legally set up schemes which ‘avoid’ straight-forwardly paying their tax, is this just while jailing foolhardy MPs following encouragement to make the most of their expense accounts! Is a tax system which allows the continual widening of the gap between rich and poor just? Studies show that this produces an unhealthy and unhappy society.
Rather we need to live with integrity, integrity which is obvious to all. There is a very great deal to be gained from such living.

So what of divorce? Nearly half the population of Britain has been divorced and many twice divorced. So, as Christians are individuals forever trapped in miserable marriages - even for the sake of children - when often those same children would rather their parents got real about their situation!

Is divorce really the only ‘unforgivable’ sin, the one failure from which we as Christians, may not get up and start again? Obviously I don’t think so.

We can only understand what Jesus is saying by understanding the society into which he spoke. He was profoundly concerned for those on the margins of society. In Jesus’ time women were most definitely second class citizens, they could not divorce their husbands, but husbands could divorce their wives for the smallest of reasons. “I no longer like your cooking. I divorce you. M’mm the family over there have a nice young woman coming of age.” The wife so lightly cast off has nowhere to go, no one to care for her, no means of sustaining her life, not unless someone chooses to help her out of the goodness of their heart. In his statements about divorce Jesus is protecting the women of his society. This of course, does not mean, marriage is to be taken lightly. We all know it requires work and commitment. And from which comes much reward in contentment for all around.

Despite the apparent sternness of his Sermon, the experience of encounter with Jesus fills all around him with a deep sense of their own worth, their worth before God. When we know our worth deep down, when we open our hearts to the love of God in which Jesus is wanting to enfold us, then we no longer feel the need to compare ourselves with others - and outdo them! We no longer feel that resentment which drives competition and conflict; instead we will look in awe and wonder on our neighbour and rejoice for them in their success; it will become deep within us to live honestly. Amen.

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