Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?

I had a friend who got a divorce. He hated his ex-wife. She could not do anything right. She was to blame for everything that went wrong. He thought she was evil and he could never find even a small positive thing to say. He was angry. Unfortunately, he was also blind. He refused to see the role he played in their break-up. He refused to believe that he was even a little bit at fault. Whenever I gently suggested that he look at his own sinfulness, he rejected my words. He even lashed out at me, insinuating that I was taking her side. I didn’t even know her.

The fault may have been mostly hers, but broken relationships are never wholly one-sided. The best we can do for our own life is to consider our own fault and work toward reconciliation. They may not have ever been friends, but they had children and had to find a way to work together. That would never happen if my friend did not even consider his own faults. Sometimes, for the sake of others and ourselves, we have to take the initiative to make things right in brokenness, even if we are not the one who is at fault.

Jesus says, “If you remember your brother has something against you...” This text is calling the guilty to be the initiator. Yet, how often do we wait until the other initiates the reconciliation because we believe they hold the greater guilt in the matter? We think we are innocent. Listen to the arguments on the day time court shows and you’ll see just that. One litigant refuses to pay because the other did something wrong. The other litigant will tell you that they did that thing because the other didn’t pay. It is a vicious circle when we play the blame game. How do we forgive someone who hasn’t repented? How do they forgive us when we don’t do so?

I’m reading a book about Martin Luther as I prepare to take a tour through Luther country in Germany in May. When he began his career, Luther followed the ways of the religious world around him which suggested that human beings were capable of earning salvation. This caused him incredible difficultly because he saw that the more he tried, the less he deserved God’s grace. It is often said that he lived through “the dark night of the soul” during this period and came close to despair.

He took his job as a professor very seriously and as he delved more deeply into the scriptures as he prepared for his classes. He even went so far as to learn Greek and Hebrew so that he could translate the texts from the original. His understanding of salvation changed dramatically, and thus revealed to the world the true Gospel, as he taught through the book of Romans. He realized that we can’t earn our salvation; he realized that human beings will always tend toward selfishness and self-centeredness. He grasped onto Romans 3:28, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” and in that verse found the key that set him free from the despair that nearly sent him to hell forever. Christ and Christ alone make Christians “perfectly whole in hope.”

Even with Christ, we are not right, that’s why we need Him daily. We fail. We sin. We make mistakes that break relationships. It may be true that the “other” has done something worse, but we need to accept that the brokenness is because we are all sinners. Sometimes it is best for us to forgive where there is no repentance. After all, we are forgiven not by our actions but by God’s grace. As forgiven sinners, should we not try to work toward reconciliation? The blessing will never be found in holding a grudge and we may discover that taking the initiative will make miracles happen.

See, holding on to anger can hurt us even more. That’s what I saw in the life of my friend who refused to forgive his ex-wife and that’s what Jesus is saying in the confusing verse in today’s Gospel lesson. My friend was hurting his children, himself, and his ex by holding on to his anger. Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be in danger of the judgment. Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be in danger of the council. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” This statement is a process before court. Each statement takes us further into punishment. Since anger is the same as murder, anger deserves a harsh punishment. We are first accused, and this sin deserves a sentence of death. What is the judgment? How will he die? He is found guilty and is already sentenced. Finally, he is handed over to the executioner and is sent to hell.

“Raca” and “thou fool” are both insults, but thou fool is the greater one. “Raca” suggests anger against neighbor, but “thou fool” (the word may translate as apostate and thus going to hell) suggests that the speaker sees the neighbor (or enemy) as already deserving of hellfire. The man who tells his brother that he is doomed to hell is in danger of hell himself. John Stott wrote, “Anger and insult are ugly symptoms of a desire to get rid of somebody who stands in our way. ‘I wish you are dead’ is an evil wish and a breach of the sixth commandment.”

The section of the Sermon on the Mount in today’s Gospel lesson goes on to talk about adultery, divorce and taking vows. These antitheses (“You have heard it said, but I say to you...”) show us the extreme expectations of Christian living. He quotes the Old Testament law and pharisaic understanding, but then tells us what God intends with the Law. He is comparing himself to the mistaken interpretation of the law. We are called to be Christ-like, even when it is hard. Actually, it is impossible, but we have God’s grace and His Spirit to help us. Luther wrote, “In the presence of God it is not by doing just works that one becomes just, but, having been made just, one does just deeds.” Just works include seemingly impossible acts of reconciliation.

Part of the liturgy in many denominations includes a moment of reconciliation between people. It is called “Passing the peace.” This has become a time to shake the hands of those sitting next to us, to wish them well and perhaps even ask about their kids. It often takes more time than it should as the worship leader had difficulty getting everyone to settle back into their seats. I know that on many Sundays I have chased after my friends to give them a hug and tell them how pleased I am to see them. This isn’t a bad thing, although it is not really the purpose of that time in the liturgy.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Passing the peace is about reconciliation. It is about restoring our relationships with one another before we stand before God at the Table. We can, perhaps, argue that we should not forgive without repentance, but the reality is that reconciliation is a two way street. Instead of running to the other side of the sanctuary to make peace with our neighbor, we should be meeting in the middle because we are all sinners in need of Jesus to make things right. We have a choice. We can hold the grudges that keep us apart, or we can pass the peace and find common ground in the reality of our need for God’s grace.

Our Father wants us to be reconciled, to live in peace with one another.

When I teach this understanding of the passing of the people, those listening joke that they are going to watch me. “We’ll know something is up if we see you cross to the other side of the sanctuary!” We don’t really want to make such a public demonstration of our brokenness, and so we pass the peace to those who are nearby and continue to ignore the conflicts that are causing us to lose sight of our God. See, brokenness in our everyday life and world is magnified in our relationship with God. We can’t hate a neighbor and love God; this is why God wants us to lay down our offering and reconcile.

The Old Testament lesson comes at the end of the Exodus story. The Israelites were wandering in circles throughout the wilderness for forty years because they broke their relationship with God. A whole generation passed and the new generation finally reached the Promised Land. They were standing on the far side of the river preparing to see the promise made to their forefathers fulfilled. Moses gave them one final message before they crossed. They made the choice once when offered the opportunity to be saved from Egypt. The choice was easy then: stay in slavery or go to the Promised Land. They overwhelmingly chose to go forward into God’s promises. Yet, that first generation did not stay faithful. They turned from God along the way. That’s why they wandered for forty years. They made their choice to not trust God and they suffered the consequences.

But now a new generation stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over. The next part of their journey would take even more trust. Joshua would have to lead the people in a parade around Jericho instead of into a battle. They would have to destroy everything according to God’s command. They would have to fight using ridiculously small armies. They would have to follow directions that made no sense at all.

“Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil. For I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it.” Moses called God’s people to commit to a life of obedience to God.

I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Corinth when Paul wrote his letter. Well, perhaps I can, because we continue to do the same things. There were factions in the church of Corinth, each following a specific teacher. One followed Paul and another followed Apollos. The people were missing that Christ was the center of both their ministries, and they were condemning one another in the process. We do the same by lifting up our own doctrines and denominations while claiming others are following false gods and false gospels. Now, there may be good reason to call a Christian a fool if they are following a heresy, but all too often we do so with anger and hatred and condemnation.

Paul had a problem. He wanted to teach the Corinthians a deeper understanding of God. He wanted to them to live a fuller, richer faith. However, they were not yet ready for spiritual understanding. They were still caught up in the world. He continued to teach them the basics of Christianity, even though they should have been moving on to deeper things; instead of having the heart of Christ, they were living according to their flesh. And their flesh was sinful. Paul writes, “For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?”

Paul tells us that we have different purposes in Kingdom of God. We have different gifts and different opportunities. The trouble that was happening in Corinth is that the people were following individuals. One group believed the Gospel from Apollos’ point of view. Another followed Paul’s witness. Yet, each was a part of God’s work in the world. They weren’t looking to God, but to man.

That is, perhaps, our greatest problem. We look to ourselves, to our opinions, to our points of view for guidance, when God has something completely different in mind. We get so caught up in what we want that we miss what God has for us. The Israelites followed God out of Egypt, but it didn’t take them very long to realize that the path was going to be hard, and they stopped looking to God. They wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. How often do we start following God but when the going gets rough we decide to turn around. We think, “This way is better.” Or, “God could not have made this decision.” Or “I can’t go forward.” And then we end up going in the wrong direction. And when we end up going in the wrong direction, we find ourselves suffering the consequences of our actions.

Worst of all, we hold on to our hurts and our angers because we can’t believe that God would want us to reconcile with that other person.

Jesus makes it so hard for us. He commands not only that we obey the Law, but that we live in grace. He desires more than a life of obedience; He calls us to reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger by voicing our hostility. After all, we learn from a very early age that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they are in danger of the hell of fire for calling someone a fool. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final, but even harsh words can destroy a relationship. We are called to live better; we are called to a life of peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with our brother, despite the foolish things we all do when we fall to the temptations of our flesh.

The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us each time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that destroy our relationships.

Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.” We humbly approach these texts with the reality of our sinfulness. We will fail. We will break the commandments. We will destroy relationships, with God and with our neighbors. But we come to these texts with a promise: even when we fail, Christ has forgiven. He has reconciled us to God so that we can reconcile with our neighbors.

This is an urgent calling! We tend to wait until the right time. We wait until we feel better. We wait for our wounds to heal. We wait until we are not so angry. Unfortunately, things do not get better while we wait. There is never a right time. We don’t feel better. Our wounds fester and our anger simmers in our heart. Healing comes with forgiveness. Peace comes with reconciliation.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to Yahweh’s law.” We aren’t perfect, and we will never be perfect in this life. We might get beyond the milk to the solid food to which Paul refers, but we will continue to be selfish and self-centered. Though we are forgiven, we are still sinners in need of the Savior. We will still do things that will satisfy our flesh and follow human understanding. But God gives us the grace and the Spirit to try to live as He has called us to live, to follow His commandments, and be obedient to His Word. We do this not of our own volition, but we do it because we have been forgiven. God makes us righteous. He makes us perfect. He leads the way. He loves us with a gracious and forgiving love and calls us to do the same with our neighbors. The deeper we love God, the more we will love our neighbors. When we truly love our neighbors, we will never abandon them to the hell of fire, but will invite them into the heart of grace.

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