Preached July 11th, 2010
St. Matthew 5:20–26
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We began the Trinity season with Trinity Sunday, devoted to the celebration of the mystery of the Triune God, Three in One, followed by a five Sunday sequence bearing on the love of God. This morning, with the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, we begin a second sequence of five Sundays on the theme of “Christian Duty,” as man’s response to the love of God. Thus, I hope that you will see that there is a direct relation between the love of God discussed in the first five Sunday sequence and the response required from man that we begin to talk about this morning. Just in passing, I might note that the Trinity season, although it is not marked internally by any major feasts, is organized as a teaching season with lesson plans showing every bit as much care as the first half of the year with its great festivals
The first act of our Christian lives is our Baptism, and it is appropriate that we consider first the duty arising from that action. Now some may object, saying that there is none. It was Jesus Himself who said, Matthew 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: It appears that Jesus sets no conditions upon baptism, nothing of the sort of saying, “baptism them, provided that they agree to do this, that, and the other.” No, Jesus certainly does not explicitly place any specific obligations upon those that are baptized into His Church, but He simply provides the grace that each of us receives, being made new creatures in baptism, and given a place in His Kingdom. Baptism comes to us without conditions attached to it; it is an act of pure grace.
Our baptismal duty arises in what follows baptism, as we grow in the Christian life. Our duty is, first and foremost, just that, to grow in the Christian life by the grace given to us in our baptism and the continuing presence of the Holy Ghost in our lives. As traditional Christians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, etc., we baptize children as infants, at a time when their ability to comprehend is minimal. For this reason, both parents and godparents (sponsors) answer for them, and accept the responsibility for assuring that the child will be brought up in the ways of God. It is a great responsibility, and anyone who has reared children knows, it does not always work out quite the way you planned for it to do. But this matter of imparting the Christian faith to the baptized children is the responsibility of those who answer for them, and they succeed or they fail to greater or lesser degrees. When people have been baptized, at whatever age, but then fail to live into their baptismal responsibilities, it is most often because they have not been properly taught by those responsible for teaching them.
In our Epistle lesson, St. Paul describes our baptism in terms of dying in several verses:
Romans 6:3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
Romans 6:4a Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death:
Romans 6:5a For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death,
Romans 6:6a Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him,
To be quite honest, this is rather frightening imagery; most of us do not like to think too much about dying. Here is the Apostle Paul going on and on about how in baptism we are dying, an idea that we find really rather distressing. And yet, it is just that which we must come to terms with; we must die to sin — a hard thought, especially for those of us moderns who like our comforts. Paul is forcing us to look at the fact that Jesus actually died, that is, underwent a horrible, gruesome, excruciatingly painful, physical death on the cross for us, for you and for me, a death completely separating him from this life. In the same way then, we too must be completely separated from this life. We are not required to undergo a crucifixion, at least not yet, but we are required to be just as separated from the life of this world as Christ was when He died on the Cross. Only then can we truly be raised with Him, something that begins in this life and continues right on into the next.
You may say, “well, where is the Christian duty in all of that?” As we have talked about previously in describing the Peace of God, Christians will be protected, but they will face all of the temptations of the world, just like every other person living. We have the grace of God that offers us strength to ward off the wiles of the devil, but that does not mean we will not have to deal with the devil. Also the ordinary trials of the world will come our way, the things like sickness, loss of employment, natural disasters, accidents, betrayals by friends, etc. These are a part of God’s plan for our sanctification, and we should not think that they are all works of the devil, even though they try us severely. God our Father has our eternal welfare as His concern, not our short term needs nearly so much. In all of this, we are still called to be dying to the world that we be alive in Christ. Needless to say, this is not an easy thing, but it is the essential thing for our eternal salvation. This is where our Christian duty lies, to see to our own death to the world for our salvation and that of others.
When we were received into the Church in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we received the grace of baptism. This is a power given to us to enable us to live a holy life. But just as we have received this grace, so we must also use this grace. We must not let it slip through our fingers and go to waste, but rather we have a duty to “walk in newness of life.”
Every sentence of our Epistle lesson seems to point to both the way grace has been conveyed to us as we die to sin in our baptism, and yet in the same sentence, there is also the indication of the duty of the way we are to therefore live. The clear summary of all of this is simply that baptism sets us on the path to sanctification through life in the Church, the body of Christ in the world. Just as we have died to sin in coming into the body of Christ, we now have an enduring duty to continually renew our separation from life in the world, to constantly be expanding our new life in Christ’s Kingdom, and to put sin ever farther from ourselves. Our baptism, and the grace thus received, become the strongest possible motive for holiness.
Even as the coming of Jesus Christ reveals the love of God in a way never before seen in the world, so it also raises the understanding of religious duty to levels far above anything previously existing. Our Gospel lesson for today is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, that vast teaching in which Christ turned the religious world of His day upside down. He begins by talking about the standards that are now to be required.
Standards were everything for the Pharisees; they lived for standards. The Pharisees’ whole religion consisted in scrupulously keeping all 613 points of the Mosaic Law, and in their own minds, and in the minds of others as well, no one could imagine a more perfect religion. What more could one do more than exactly what God had said, down to the last tiny jot? But then Jesus comes along and says, Matthew 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Wow! What a shock! If the scribes and the Pharisees cannot get into Heaven, what chance has anybody else possibly got? Jesus says that more yet is required, and yet the scribes and the Pharisees do everything. Well, not quite everything.
Pride was the great sin of the Pharisees. If you were a good Pharisee, that is, if you really managed to meet the standard, you likely felt a great sense of pride in your accomplishment in meeting that rather difficult standard. It was not an easy thing to do, and most men could not meet the standard. Thus meeting the standard became a ready source of pride and self–satisfaction. But these characteristics are directly contrary to the humble and lowly self valuation that Christ describes as required for us in the Beatitudes. Further, Jesus describes even the thought of evil against our brother as equivalent to doing the evil act, an entirely new standard, and one vastly more difficult to keep. Passing judgement on our thoughts prevents many actual evil deeds from happening.
Christ’s new religion of love searches the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, rather than simply being content with our outward actions. It is what is in our hearts that matters, and no amount of external display will make up for hardness of heart. Jesus illustrates this in terms of murder, but clearly the same thing applies with respect to all of the Commandments.
In the matter of settling differences within the community, Jesus gives some very specific instructions: Matthew 5:25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. It appears that what Jesus is talking about here is particularly monetary debts, situations where the lender is taking the borrower to court to get payment of a loan. As we all know, borrowing and lending within the family can be the cause of no end of difficulties, so Jesus gives these very explicit directions. The borrower is directed to come to terms with the lender quickly, before they get to the court. The borrower is exhorted to make some sort of arrangements to repay the loan and not to let this go before the court. If it comes to the court, then the judge may have the borrower cast into debtors prison, and that is a bad outcome for the family of God.
We cannot compartmentalize our faith lives, such that we are Christians on Sunday, but forget about our faith the rest of the week. Nor can we be Christians each morning, but go off Christianity at 3 pm or some thing like that. Our faith, our commitment to the Kingdom of God, our pursuit of sanctification, our awareness of the Holy Ghost in our lives, all of these things have to be with us all of the time, or they are not really with us at all. Any thing less is false, a deception.
Let us remember always that we are baptized, and because of that we are members of Christ’s Kingdom. This gives us a privileged place in the world, the opportunity to sacrifice, to die daily to the world, that we might live to Christ as we grow in sanctification.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.`