Sermon for Epiphany 6 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Douglas MacArthur is attributed with an axiom which has become remarkably popular in the last half century: “Rules are mostly made to be broken,” he said, “and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.” Depending on your general disposition, you probably either mostly embrace this idea or mostly reject it. I fall into the latter category, myself. I’m a rule-follower. I love it when accepted procedures pave the way toward my completing some task, and it burns me when somebody goes rogue, as it were, and does things his own way. It strikes me as rather presumptuous for somebody to think he knows better than whoever came up with the blessed rulebook. Conversely, I’m sure my own love of rules and policies and procedures sometimes irritates those who think that rules are made to be broken, who believe that my problem lies in being too uptight. In reality, there is probably something to be said for both approaches and both criticisms.

Most people’s initial analysis of Jesus of Nazareth is that he was a rule-breaker rather than a rule-follower. He ate with tax collectors and sinners; he seemed far less impressed by those who followed the Old Testament rules “to a ‘T’” and far more concerned with what was in one’s heart. But then, at the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus said something we might find rather shocking:

Truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Was this not, we might ask, the same Jesus who seemed not to care so much about the rules? Was this not the same Jesus who criticized the Pharisees for their obsessive, hypocritical rule-following?

This is indeed the same Jesus, and he is not contradicting himself, though it will take a little theological work to see what this apparent tension in Jesus’ teaching is all about.

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus picked up where he left off by outlining how one’s righteousness can exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes. Whereas the law said “thou shalt not kill”, we are enjoined to not even hold onto anger with our fellows. Whereas the law said “thou shalt not commit adultery” we are prohibited from dwelling on lustful thoughts. Whereas the law required faithfulness to oaths, Jesus said we should be so honest as to not require oaths.

At first glance, Jesus seems to be making a move that was rather common among his coreligionists at the time. The Pharisees were known for a practice called “hedging the Torah”, in which they would create rules around rules, as it were, such that nobody would be in danger of accidentally breaking the law. If the Old Testament said you cannot boil a calf in its mother’s milk, the Pharisees would say that you’d better not mix meat and dairy at all, just to be safe.

While this is what Jesus seems to be doing, I don’t think that’s the real point. For somebody so concerned with conscience above blind obedience, with love above scrupulosity, the practice of “hedging the Torah” would have likely been so out of character for Jesus as to lead to real contradictions. I think what’s really going on here is a great deal more subtle.

To get to the point, we need to look at a possible misunderstanding which might accompany the New Covenant of Grace. We all, I hope, know that the primary distinction between the Old and New Covenants with regard to salvation is the distinction between obedience and faith. A faithful Jew had many rules to live by. They were not just rules to live by, but rules which, by following, had the effect of justifying the rule-follower. The New Covenant, by contrast, recognizes our inability to follow the rules perfectly, and by means of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has opened the door to Grace, that our faith alone is sufficient (as far as our part is concerned) to obtain the remission of sins. This much shouldn’t be news to most of you.

Unfortunately, a deadly misunderstanding can attach itself to this life-giving truth. You may have heard some claim, if not in such lofty theological terms, that the freedom effected by God’s Grace has exempted them from righteousness. In less theological language, people might say, “I will be forgiven, so I intend to do whatever I please.” This misunderstanding is often connected to a rather narrow view of salutary faith: the kind that sees one “saving” experience or the sincere recitation of some prayer on the televangelist station a single time, as being a sufficient definition of faith. That faith is more than a one-off experience or prayer is beside the point, though, because even those that recognize that faith is a process of being in relationship with God can fall into the trap I’ve mentioned.

What I believe Jesus is telling us in this morning’s Gospel is that we are not exempted from the responsibility to uphold the highest moral standards for ourselves. I’d even go a bit further (and those with a more reformed theology than mine may disagree), by suggesting that despite the fact that we’ll always fall short, our dogged attempt to follow the moral precepts of the law, which we know from scripture and which we know in our hearts, is itself an expression of the kind of faith which opens us to God’s grace. As the Epistle General of St. James puts it “faith without works is dead.”

But whether or not you can buy into James’ epistle or my admittedly unreformed view of justification, there is one thing about which I think we can all agree. Those sins which Jesus denounces in this morning’s Gospel severely handicap our Christian witness. Anger and lust and adultery and duplicity are rather popular in the church, and to those who need the saving message of God’s Grace the most, the presence of these sins is a scandal.

How many have been turned off of organized religion because of the hypocrisy of some of its adherents? How many have given up the faith because some priest or minister couldn’t keep his appetites for sex or money or power in check? How many have left the church because some fellow Christian harbored resentment for his neighbor or defrauded an associate? (And here’s a rather controversial one…) How many have got a bad taste in their mouth about our own Anglican branch of Christendom because liberals and conservatives alike have not followed Christ’s command to leave their gift at the altar and be reconciled, opting instead to take their brothers and sisters to court?

In the final analysis, the rules by which we govern our common life as Christians are not rules for the sake of having rules. They are commandments by which we can live in faithfulness to God and in love with each other. They are the means by which we can more fully embrace the Grace given us as redeemed people, and they are the most powerful signs we have to point those who do not yet believe to a way of life defined by faith and love and mutual responsibility. In other words, the moral direction given us by God in Christ are not a set of rules to be broken. They are not dogma behind which the lazy may hide. They are a challenge to live a life together in which the Gospel is realized more profoundly and by which others may see God’s Grace and be drawn to it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.