The Community We Are Capable Of Creating

Hi friends!  I hope you all had a wonderful World Communion Sunday celebration.  We had a beautiful bread installation on the altar that made the chancel smell soooooooo good!

This Sunday we looked at the last three of the six antitheses, concerning oaths, concerning retaliation and love for enemies. Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
October 6, 2019

Matthew 5:33-48

The Community We Are Capable Of Creating

You can imagine my relief after last week’s sermon on anger, adultery and divorce when I opened my worship document on Tuesday morning and saw the heading, “love for enemies” as one of the headings in this week’s scripture.

Love.  I can do love.

It is actually perfect timing to settle here in the Sermon on the Mount this morning because today is World Communion Sunday, which is an ecumenical movement, that takes place on the first Sunday in October, where Christians all around the world pledge to celebrate communion in worship.  This is a Sunday where we, as Christians, lay aside the differences that threaten to divide us and gather around a table where all are welcome.

A table of forgiveness and love.

A table where enemies become friends.

A table where simple elements of bread and wine give us nourishment.

A table where we come together as the Body of Christ and do the work that God is calling us to do.

A table where grace is uncovered in the most unexpected ways and places.

Indeed it is a good Sunday to talk about love.

That being said, for some reason I was under the false assumption that a sermon on love would be easy.  But, of course, we talked last week about how stepping into some of these ancient texts and then trying to apply them in our own lives today is rarely easy.

And again, this is exactly what Jesus is trying to do.

Last week we looked at the first three of six antitheses, which are six concrete examples Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount of the moral behavior that is expected of his followers.  Jesus uses Jewish laws as his starting point and then expands on them to explain what he thinks they mean in his world.

The challenge, of course, for us today, is to do the same; to step into these ancient texts and then explain what they mean for us in our world.  Last week we wrestled with anger, adultery and divorce and this week we are turning our attention to the last three of the six antitheses – oaths, retaliation and love.

Like in last week’s text, Jesus starts each antitheses by saying, “You have heard that it was said,” then states a Jewish law, then follows it up by saying, “But I say to you,” and then talks about what this means for the disciples gathered around him.

Jesus starts by talking about oaths.

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’[1]

When Jesus talks about swearing, he is referring to an ancient practice where two parties would “swear to God” – in other words, they would make an agreement and invoke God as the guarantor of the agreement.  If one of the parties did not fulfill their part of the oath, the assumption was that God would punish them.

The problem with this particular practice, however, is that human beings, as we all know, do not always make the right choices; and therefore sometimes these oaths were broken.

But people did not actually want God to punish them and so, over time, rabbis proposed, rather than swearing to God, perhaps to swear to some sort of substitute – heaven, earth, Jerusalem and a person’s head are ones that Jesus lists here, in the Sermon on the Mount, and were some of the most popular substitutes.

Here Jesus is saying, do not swear to anything; be honest about who you are and what your intentions are rather than making false promises – to God or anyone or anything else.  It is almost as if Jesus is saying that we do not need oaths; we have the promise of God’s love and truth and that is enough to hold us accountable.

Oaths existed in the first place as a way of protecting people from the lies and the deception of others.  But, Jesus says, if we ground ourselves, our relationships and our communities in this promise of God’s love and truth, then we do not need oaths.

Jesus then turns to the subject of retaliation – jus talionis.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’[2]

Jesus is referring to a very well-known Jewish law, one found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[3]  This law was established as a way of imposing proportionate justice when a wrongdoing occurred, as opposed to the wronged party taking it upon themselves to administer their own private revenge.

What Jesus does here is begin a conversation about nonviolent resistance.

If someone hits you, turn the other cheek.

If someone sues you and tries to take your coat, give it to them and give them your cloak, as well.

If someone forces you to go one mile (which was the legal limit Roman military personnel could require a civilian to go when they were forcing civilians to transport military gear by foot), go an extra mile.

Retaliation, Jesus implies, only perpetuates these systems of violence and injustice.  Perhaps we should not focus so much on proportionate justice, but on moving past the wrongdoing.

Then Jesus talks about love.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

I should probably point out that there is not actually a scriptural command to hate ones’ enemies; there are instances where it is implied, but it never comes right out and says it.  Jesus is likely referring to how people were justifying their behavior towards others, both good and bad.

But Jesus says, rather than hating your enemies, you should to take this practice of love one step further and pray for the people you stand in opposition to, remembering that you are all children of God.

As we think about what Jesus’ words mean for us today, I think it is important to remember who Jesus is talking to and when.  He is talking to the disciples; people he has called to be in ministry with him.  And he is talking to them at the very beginning of their ministry together.

The Sermon on the Mount can be found in the fifth and sixth chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.  The first chapter is Jesus’ genealogy and birth, the second chapter is the visit of the Wise Men and escape to Egypt, the third chapter is the proclamation of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism and the fourth chapter is when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, calls his disciples and then begins ministering to crowds of people.  It is at this point that Jesus goes up the mountain to give this sermon.

In other words, they have not been through a lot together yet, at least not on paper; they are just starting to have dreams and visions about what this world, this Kingdom, could look like.  And I think Jesus is using his interpretation of these laws as a way of sharing what he thinks they could build – what he thinks communities are capable of if they are grounded in love, kindness, grace, compassion, honesty and understanding.

Laws and traditions give structure and boundaries of course; but God is calling us into something so much deeper and greater than that.  Jesus is not throwing the rules away, but he is looking at a much bigger picture and asking what the goal is, where the vision lies, what the disciples are – what we are – capable of building.

These antitheses are powerful for us to read today as we seek to build our own Christian communities, because they show us the bigger picture and remind us what really matters in terms of how we live our own lives and how we exist in community with one another.

I thought about these words a lot this week and, I have to be honest, I am having a hard time finding my own words to sum up what I think they all mean for us.  And I think the reason I am having a hard time is because all of this stuff is way easier said than done.  Of course we should take the higher ground, we should trust others to do the right thing, we should resist the urge to retaliate and love everyone, regardless of how they feel about us.

But my goodness this is not easy.  In fact it is really, really difficult.  Our human tendency is to hold onto things, to want to be right and to punish people when they have hurt us.  To resist these tendencies very often feels like we are resisting what it means to be human.

But – these tendencies are the burdens that drag us down – as individuals, in relationships and in community.  These tendencies are the things that create division among us, that distract us from God’s call to spread the Gospel.   These tendencies are what Jesus is saying that laws and rules do not necessarily solve, but just distract from.

And even though it is hard, what Jesus is saying makes sense.  It is beautiful and inspiring.  It is what I want the world to look like.  It is what I believe we are capable of creating.  We are capable of creating a community grounded in love, kindness, grace, compassion, honesty and understanding and I believe with my whole being that, when we do this, then together, we can change the world.

So today, on World Communion Sunday, as we all gather around a table and find unity, strength and wholeness, I would encourage you to really let these words settle within your hearts.  Rise up against the need for oaths, retaliation and hatred of enemies.  Acknowledge the depth of what Jesus is asking you to do.  Know that it will not be easy.  Give yourself grace if you stumble.  Be patient as you try again.

And remember to love.  Love God.  Love others.  And love yourself.  For you are a child of God.  And together we are called to be one Body.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:33, NRSV
[2] Matthew 5:38, NRSV
[3] Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21

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