There is a logical and beautiful flow at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know if it’s the logic that makes it beautiful or if the beauty is in its logic. It does not matter. We really should read the whole of chapter five to get the natural movement. It starts from the description of those in heaven or headed for heaven in the Beatitudes. Then we have a description of what the believer is like and we had that helpful illustration last week from Father Anderson of how we need to be salt and light, but useful salt and light. The Sermon then flows into the type and amount of righteousness required to be part of God’s Kingdom by keeping His Law. Finally, we have the ultimate end and purpose of keeping the Law, the way Jesus wants it kept, and that the ultimate end and purpose of the Law is heaven and perfection. It’s wonderfully affirming and confirming. To receive the benefit of this movement Chapter Five ought to be read from the beginning to the end all at once. Our lectionary breaks it up into three Sundays of Gospel readings so I am going to go back and use the verses from the Gospel we heard last week because we need to hear those verses again to learn how to keep the Law or the Ten Commandments. Jesus preaches, Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For 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. “…until all is accomplished; that “accomplishment” is when Christ has come and claimed His Kingdom, or it could be when believers enter fully the joy of His Kingdom. “…all is accomplished.”
All is accomplished by keeping God’s Law. Everyone hearing the sermon was aware of that. Jesus’ teaching about keeping the Law is to keep it not as the scribes and Pharisees had been keeping it. He teaches that it can be kept in a much more complete, encompassing, and yes, fulfilling way. It seems that the scribes and the pharisees had fallen into keeping the letter of the Law and forgetting that the purpose of the Law was to love God and love our neighbors in the right way. When concentrating on keeping all the correct rites and ceremonies they had forgotten the true meaning and purpose of the Law. In their way of keeping the Law they had left behind the justice, mercy, love and peace that are the reasons God gave them the Law in the beginning. It was out of love for His people that God gave them the Law so they could love Him back in the right way.
Before we cast a doubtful and critical eye on the Pharisees and scribes, because we think we hear Jesus criticizing them, we do well to realize how easily we too can fall into the same practice, at least I know I can. I remember having to deal with the same problem when I was called on jury duty. I was called to sit on a jury that needed to hear the case of a man accused of driving under the influence. This is dealing with the civil law and not the moral law of the Ten Commandments, but the principle is the same. The man on trial was accused of being under the influence of alcohol while he was driving. I listened to the case and in the end voted with the rest of the jury members and acquitted him. I found myself sticking to the letter of the law and not holding to the spirit of the law.
It seems the man was indeed legally drunk while he was in his car. The car was running, he was sitting behind the steering wheel, and was just about to put the car in reverse to move the car. The police arrested him, charged him with driving under the influence, and brought him to trial. We voted as a jury to acquit. It seems that the way the law was written in North Carolina at the time, established that unless the car moves even a few inches then the driver is not driving. In this case the car never moved.
So in keeping the technical definition of driving under the influence, I found myself being somewhat self-satisfied that I could have a hand in giving the man a new start. I could free him from living under the stigma of being convicted of this drunk and driving charge. The problem is I never really felt good about getting the man off on a technicality. I think it’s because the true purpose of the laws concerning driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated is the compassion, concern, and safety of the people in the community and the safety and concern of the driver. We the jury probably did the man no favor by letting him off. In actual practice the man was going to move the car. He was going to place himself and those around him in danger. In keeping the technical definition of the law, we did not improve the quality of the welfare and care for the people of the community. Where is the love, mercy, peace, and justice in that?
It is very easy to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and think that Jesus is setting aside these Ten Commandments and replacing them with His own interpretation. He is not. He teaches that He fulfills them. Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. He wants them kept because they are the result and proof of God’s love for us. He doesn’t want them kept just outwardly or easily by meeting particular ceremonial obligations. Jesus is teaching that to love God the Law must be kept from the heart first. It reminds me of the Prophet Jeremiah prophesying about the restoration of Israel and the new covenant God would make. …this is the covenant which I will make with the the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jesus is indeed fulfilling both the Law and the Prophets.
How does this work? How is this different from the way the Pharisees and scribes were keeping the Law? Faith is the answer. Do you remember from the very end of last week’s Gospel passage Jesus let’s everyone know the amount of righteousness required to be part of the kingdom of heaven? I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. This is because unless the Law is kept first by faith. There is no amount of actions, no amount of material sacrifices, no amount of good thoughts that will allow the Commandments to be kept. To keep the Law, it takes the grace of faith first.
If we think about faith in God being that act of mind and spirit that accepts God’s Word and then submitting one’s life to its control, then we have the means to be in a right relationship with God. The faith of Abraham jumps out as such a powerful example of how the grace of faith moves the believer into right action. Can you imagine what faith Abraham must have had in being so trusting in God’s Word to him that he would offer his son Isaac? Abraham put his faith in God so unsparingly and moved into the action that God asked him to take. In the end Abraham was relieved of having to take that unimaginable step of purposely sacrificing his own child, but how strong a faith is it that moves someone like Abraham? God supplied a ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac, and the illustration with which we are left is how strong a faith there is in a man like Abraham and therefore how righteous.
For us, the means of receiving the grace of that righteousness that is faith in Jesus Christ. It is only by faith in Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice that allows the goodness of God’s grace to forgive our sins and then the Law can be kept. Jesus teaches that at the heart of the Commandments, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” are anger, lust, and hatred. Those are the sins that keep the Commandments, at least the Sixth and Seventh Commandments, from being kept. Before any of the Commandments can be kept, before any of the Law can be kept, the sin that is at the root of disobedience to the Law must be confronted. Jesus is truly teaching a more all-encompassing, a more exacting, or more fulfilling way of keeping the Law. They must be kept first inwardly.
Who is there that has not had to face these sins of anger, hatred, and lust. We can rely on the grace of Christ freely given by faith in Him to face and have those sins forgiven. We can move from acting on our anger in particular first by asking God to take it away. Please God, take away the anger that I have toward my loved one. Take away the anger that I have toward my neighbor, or the government, or toward You. God can and sometimes simply take it away. Pray, and I mean truly pray, for the person with whom you are truly angry. Really place the life of the person who is the object of your anger in the hands of God. It can be amazing how, if you truly pray for someone, you see them in a different light. I think it’s because you begin to see them as someone God loves. Ask God to help you step away, be slow to anger. In facing anger, hatred, and even lust in this way the possibility of meekness, that opposite of anger, will be shown forth. Remember, the meek are listed in the Beatitudes as the ones who will inherit the earth.
Why? Where are we going? What are we doing? Remember if we read the whole of chapter five we come to the fulfillment, the accomplishment. For 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. We have gone from knowing how we are supposed to be: that is Blessed ones from the Beatitudes. We have learned that faith in Christ is the means to righteousness by living a life in accord with God’s Law. Now we can go on to the accomplishment. The movement is complete with heaven. We are looking for Christ to accomplish His work of coming from heaven and claiming His Kingdom. Those who are part of the Kingdom by loving Him according to His Law will be claimed by Him forever.
His grace and love are here for us even now as they will be when He comes again. Just as we pray in the collect for today, …grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed, through Jesus Christ our Lord,…We can live and love God as He would have us. All the time we are keeping the Law we are being directed, pointed, and conformed to heaven. Father John Saward has written a book that defines the Catholic doctrine of heaven called “Sweet and Blessed Country”. In that book he explains the teachings of the Catholic Church about heaven using the images from a fifteenth century altarpiece in Avignon, France. There are many moving descriptions from the Early Church Fathers and the Medieval Doctors and one in particular from Saint Augustine that describes our seeking of heaven. Let us, then lodge in the inn of this life as passing pilgrims, not as permanent possessors. Eternal are the blessings that await us: life everlasting, the incorruption and immortality of flesh and soul, the fellowship of the angels, the heavenly city, honour without end, the Father and the Fatherland, the Father without death, the Fatherland without foe.
It is there in heaven that the movement ends and is fulfilled. Jesus has taken us in His Sermon on the Mount from showing us who will be in heaven – The Blessed Ones. He has shown us how to allow the grace of righteousness to enter and live in His Kingdom by loving the Law, and ultimately to be with Him in heaven where all things are accomplished.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.