Sunday, February 12, 2017

Judgment from Within

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

 “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of The Lord.”  Psalm 119:1

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a lot to say but we must understand He is not talking to Gentiles.  Because He is the Word of God, He is speaking only to the people of God.  The Word of God would have no meaning for Gentiles.  This doesn’t mean those “outsiders” are of no concern to The Lord.  It means The Lord’s people must first find meaning in the Word so the Word may have meaning for Gentiles.  Until The Word has meaning for The Lord’s people, they remain only words.

There was still Roman law which theoretically applied to everyone, but we also know secular law often favors those who are well-connected; but Jesus was not - is not - talking about a code of law for its own sake.  He was talking strictly to – and about – those who claim The Lord as their God and His law as applicable to them … and only to them; a Law which transcends codified rules and offers no favors and no exceptions … even for those who are well-connected.

This understanding is key for the people of The Lord.  It makes me think of the current debate about a Ten Commandments monument on the state house lawn.  We think this monument might be good for everyone – and, indeed, it could be – but I tend to think those pushing hardest for this monument might be more concerned about the behavior of others than they should be, perhaps demanding a certain standard they themselves do not always live up to.  I also think these may be more interested in the letter of the Law as a matter of moral enforcement than the Spirit of Torah in the life of the faithful … those for whom these Words would have - should have – deeper meaning beyond the letters.

Consider the irony of reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which He has raised the bar – and the stakes! – of acceptable standard as it pertains to The Lord’s people.  Yet some elements of modern-day Christianity boldly proclaim the “old law” as no longer applicable to them.  The irony is in our demand for a monument to this antiquated “old law” that has no meaning for those who do not know The Lord.  We somehow think a monument of stone will change hearts.  It won’t.  But our faithful witness will.

Lest we forget, the United Methodist Church, as a matter of doctrine, embraces the whole Bible as stated in our Articles of Religion (VI): “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ …” (Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012, ¶104, pg 65) 

So how can it be that the “old law” prohibited murder, but the New Standard (which, incidentally, cannot be new since “The Word which was in the beginning” (John 1:1) must be, by definition, eternal) now says even “anger against a brother or sister” makes one “liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22)?  Furthermore, how can it be said that this New Standard is no longer applicable after Jesus’ death?  Or is applicable only to those outside the Covenant?

And how has the narrative so changed that the psalmist “treasured the Word (Torah) in his heart” (Psalm 119:11), but we Christians often see only burden?  A list of things we have to do?  A list of things we don’t get to do?  Many things we don’t really even understand or try to understand?  The psalmist expressed his desire that The Lord would “make me understand the way of Your precepts [so] I may meditate on Your wondrous works” (Psalm 119:27).  In other words, perhaps even the psalmist struggled to find meaning beyond the words themselves – but he knew where to look for answers.

Jesus insisted obedience to Him (to “The Word”) was the first mark of discipleship (John 14:15; 14:23), the affirmation of the First Great Commandment to “love The Lord your God” (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5).  And the Second Great Commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”, Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18) witnesses to those outside the Covenant that we are His disciples, servants of The Word in “your love for one another” (John 13:35).  Giving meaning to The Word to “outsiders” so they may desire to become “insiders”.  This is the mission of the Church!  And though it should go without saying, we love by what we do – not by what we only say or how we feel.

These past few weeks – actually since the inauguration of the new president – have been very trying.  From both sides of the many arguments and protests are Christians, those claiming to have been “reborn of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) and yet are acting entirely according to the flesh in “jealousy and quarreling”, as St. Paul admonished the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:3); each side claiming to be “holier than thou”.

Sad to say, however, I don’t think “holiness” is much on the minds of those who get caught up in the squabbles in person or on social media, but I also have to say I found a glimmer of hope the other day.  A lady asked a question on social media, and another jumped in to answer her question … but then called her “lazy” for not reading the article more carefully.  Well, the first lady called her on the name-calling … and the second lady apologized and admitted her insensitivity!  Usually the cowardly name-callers who hide behind social media double down on their personal insults, but this lady backed off AND made it right.  She repented!  I wanted to name her the patron saint of all social media!  And I will all but guarantee others were equally touched.

We don’t always get it right especially when we act (or react) impulsively rather than according to what has been revealed to us in our quiet prayers according to the Eternal Word, but consider that what could have easily been blown completely out of proportion – and off topic - was suddenly turned into a constructive, honest, and civilized discussion and exchange of real ideas about the issue at hand. 

We are too quick to pounce and take offense at insignificant things, and it is destroying not only the fabric of the nation but the essential spirit of the Holy Church as the heart and conscience this nation so desperately needs!  Worse; we are killing the spirit of our children!  Jesus’ lessons on the Law (Torah) demand a closer look, and for much more than merely being right. 

“You shall not murder”.  Check.  “You shall not be angry …”  Well …  “You shall not commit adultery”.  Check.  “You shall not look upon another with lust”.  Hmmm, these go a little deeper than the acts themselves.  Maybe this means I don’t literally have to murder a human being in order to destroy his or her life.

So our Lord is calling upon His own people to take a closer look … not at others but at themselves.  Ourselves.  We must look more carefully first from within before we can begin to speak about the spiritual or religious deficiencies of others.  And this careful and honest look inside must be according to the Spirit of Torah revealed in Christ rather than the letter of the Law handed down by Moses – and for much more profound reasons than just “getting to heaven”. 

We are called not just to live but to live fully, faithfully, and completely within and according to The Word which sets us free rather than according to a culture which only binds us, restricts us, and chokes the life out of us; that very Word which offers to us the fullness of that “joy unspeakable” when we are so engaged in The Word, when we actively seek out that joy rather than expecting that joy to be gift-wrapped and delivered only to “me”.

Faith is not at all about what someone else is up to nor does genuine faith grant to us the power or authority to judge, slander, or dismiss others – especially those for whom The Word has no meaning.  Faith is about what our Lord requires of His people, His people for whom The Word does have meaning and who are willing to take those risks, for we are the ones to whom He speaks.  And for a very specific reason: we are His witnesses to the Truth revealed in Christ; the Truth which will set us free from our own bondage from within. 

But first we must be willing to walk away from those shackles and chains once we find them broken.  Only then will we be able to be all The Lord has called us to be.  Amen

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