3 before Lent: February 12th 2017 Ecclesiasticus 1 1 Corinthians 3.1-9 Matthew 5.21-37
In our reading today, Paul is challenging his straying young Church in Corinth with a few of the basics: For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, he asks them, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? And while we may well look at the church today and think that nothing has changed, that’s not an excuse for doing nothing – rather the reverse, for Paul’s advice resonates as it has done for centuries and calls us to strive to look at our world through Christ’s eyes, not through our own clouded lenses, fogged by worldly concerns which may have little to do with Our Lord’s gospel of love.
Paul knows full well that as long as the Corinthians persist in looking at their discipleship through purely human eyes, then they will never grow in the spirit. And this growth, of themselves as individuals and of the church on earth, is God’s purpose. As the people grow, like infants, they have different needs, sold food, the nourishment of the spirit rather than baby-milk. The church in Corinth has foundered at the point of weaning and has simply stopped growing – worse than that, it has begun to turn inward on itself.
It is God, however, that gives the growth. All those called by Christ, leaders and people alike, are there to do God’s work. Apollos and Paul themselves, for all their huge contribution in advancing the kingdom, are servants by whom the faith is fostered, servants who have been instrumental in the task assigned. Paul, as we might expect, reminds them that it was he who planted the first seed, Apollos following on as the waterer, appointed for his enthusiasm and his eloquence to tend the young church. But none of this careful attention would have borne fruit had that not been God’s will. Planter and waterer merely do God’s work, working his field, building up the church, the people of God. And we ourselves, today, are called to be God’s co-workers, to tend the garden in which we grow spiritually and help it to bear fruit.
It is that spiritual growth which Jesus tackles in his Sermon on the Mount. Far from being the handing down of a dry moral code, a list of new rules to replace the Law of Moses, here is Christ teaching us to look anew at God’s law, the law of love, of faith and obedience. As Our Lord teaches the crowds, he urges us to look deep within ourselves, to examine what drives us, what lies behind the things that we do. And if we are driven by anything less than the spirit of love, then we fall short of God’s expectations. The Sermon on the Mount gives us our blueprint for life; it challenges us to consider our relationship with the Father and how that relationship affects the way in which we behave towards each other. So in the rather lengthy reading this morning, Christ takes the commandments of murder, adultery, divorce and false witness and asks us to think about them not as a matter of what will happen if we break these laws, but rather what lies behind the letter of the law – anger, lust, disrespect dishonesty and so on.
If taking life is clearly wrong, then we need to tackle the anger that inevitably lies behind it, that sets people against people, family against family, nation against nation. Adultery stems from inappropriate feelings that need to be faced up to; the legitimate and yet cold-hearted granting of a certificate of divorce pays scant regard for the consequences to the woman who will be the recipient of that certificate; and vows made in God’s name for whatever reason should be no more binding than a simple yes or no – to do otherwise is to imply a double standard of honesty.
In teaching the law, Jesus is upholding the Law of Moses whilst at the same time stressing the justice and the mercy which lies at its heart. And the powerful example of the law of murder commands us to search for justice in a way that we take our own share of responsibility when things go wrong. We all get angry from time to time, some of us more than others, and in most cases that it is an understandable human response and we all have our differences and disagreements. Please God, very few of us are swept along by that anger to such an extent that we commit the act of murder. But like the troubled church at Corinth, there is nothing that can’t be reconciled, a reconciliation which is imperative if we are to grow as human beings made in God’s image. Anger may be human, but reconciliation comes from God. It is the very core of the gospel, for it is the reconciling love of the Father seen in the obedience of his Son that restores each and every one of us to new life, brought back to the Father for all time even when we were still far off.
Reconciliation, of course, isn’t a simple matter. It is tough and demanding, largely because it inevitably involves some form of giving up or compromise. Above all, it involves acceptance of where things are and the resolve to move forward. The exchange of the Peace during our Eucharist symbolises that resolve; it is a collective act, the people of God coming to terms with an imperfect world before offering ourselves at Christ’s altar. And all this is done through grace, for we are invited to the altar in all our unworthiness because of God’s love for us. This is his justice, his mercy, which holds us all together in communion with himself and with each other, a glorious resolution built not on anger or the need for revenge but on the recognition that we are children of God and that is all that is important. Loving each other and working out that love in our everyday lives to the best of our ability is our response to that gift of grace.
How that is to be achieved is something which we all struggle with as followers of Christ – and yet it is precisely because we are followers of Christ that we are able to reveal God’s justice and loving-mercy in a difficult world. In Our Lord, we have a perfect example of a human being full of grace and truth, God made man, who lived life to the full and who invites us to share in his body and blood, at one with his godliness, empowered by the same spirit to share those spiritual gifts with the rest of the world. Discerning the way forward is a risky business but if we strive to tend God’s young plants, and to let ourselves be tended to, then we will become part of the growing process.
Christ’s teaching is meant to challenge – that is the joy and the excitement of the Christian life. Throughout his sermon, the phrase ‘You have heard it was said’ is answered by ‘but I say to you,: in other words, look at it this way. And if we really listen to what Our Lord is telling us, then we will be able to see things in a different light, the light of Christ. And in responding to that, then we will make ourselves worthy of our call to serve, as Paul and Apollos did, knowing that neither the one who plants not the one who waters in anything; only God gives the growth. Amen.