This is one of those Sundays when I want to make it clear that I don’t choose the readings. We follow a pattern that makes us read some of the bits of the Bible we find it hard to read, as well as those that we might want to memorise or turn into a song. At the moment we are going through the Sermon on the Mount, and though we don’t read every verse, we are encouraged not to flinch from reading the bits that might make us shuffle a bit in the pews. But I hope that God will give us grace and wisdom so that we might be able to find the blessing that I believe is always there, and we might hear good news. For sure as anything, we need it as much as anyone ever did.
Earlier this week some of you were reflecting on how people feel that the church makes them feel guilty, or at least that they think it would if they came. The church talks about ‘sin’ a lot, apparently, rivalled only by Slimming World, who mean something quite different I’m told. The Gospel reading today seems to fulfil the worst fears of those who think church is all about guilt. It seems to say that we shouldn’t only feel guilty about what we do, but what we feel too, that it’s not only actually murdering that infuriating relative or work colleague that would get you into trouble with God, but even the murderous thoughts that you stifle behind a false smile. It’s not only succumbing to desire for someone, but even feeling desire that will bring you down. And so, many people will agree with most of the church’s critics – we haven’t ‘come to terms’ with our humanity. We’re prurient, judgemental, self absorbed and too busy looking into our own hearts that we forget that there are people out there hungry for bread.. They would tell us to stop worrying about being perfect, for goodness sake, and get out there and do something about the real problems of the world. Get over yourselves, stop making one another feel guilty and get out of the pews..
But to understand this passage a bit better than that, we need to find out why it was spoken, written down and repeated in the first place. Would the first Christians, and even Jesus himself, really have wanted to send future generations of people like us on a perpetual, and pretty fruitless, guilt trip?
Last week we heard how Jesus was, as fas as we can gather, speaking this sermon to the kind of people implied in the Beatitudes; the poor, the suffering, the hungry and the persecuted. These were the desperate and the destitute, not the middle class respectables of Galilee, but the peasants, the landless, the dispossessed. They would have borne the scars of beatings from their imperial masters and the wounds of just living poor in the first century. They were just doing their best to get through each day, on the right side of the law if possible, but if not, well.. what counts for most when your children are starving? We heard last week how Jesus called those who others might have described as scum, the ‘salt of the earth’, how he dubbed those who did dodgy deals in dark corners just to get bread ‘the light of the world’. He gave them dignity and grace and told them to be proud of their life and light. Now we see him telling these same people to have a righteousness greater than those of the scribes and pharisees – greater than the ones who had gold medals in righteousness and who loved to wear them! He told them not only that he thought they could hold back from murder and rape and swearing and abandonment, but that they could even transform their inner thoughts and desires. He told them they could reconcile with their accusers without even going to law, that they really could learn to love each other properly and fully, that they could overcome the violence that lurks around any discontented crowd in troubled times. He told them they could be better than the pharisees. Which then was a bit like saying that they could be better than Mother Theresa, better than the Archbishop of Canterbury, better than the founder of the Big Issue or Comic Relief. You can do it, he seems to say, you can be better than this, you can be better then you think, better than the scribes and pharisees.. I imagine that few people believed him that day, not the crowd themselves and not the scribes or the pharisees much either, but Jesus believed it.. and you have to admit that Jesus has turned round a lot of human lives since then.
You see, the earliest Christians, the Christians of the first century, had a different kind of image problem from the one we have. In the first century most people’s view of Christians was a bit like Donald Trump’s view of Mexicans. Some of them, they assumed, were good people. But mostly they thought they were an immoral rabble; peasants mainly, tax collectors, women of the street, political terrorists possibly, revolutionaries, contagious lepers and thieves. Most faithful religious people in the Jewish community, or even the Gentile converts to the Jewish faith, thought that Christians were very flaky about moral values. They had heard that Jesus was more keen on forgiving sins than being clear about what was sinful. They had heard that among Jesus’ disciples there were some people with CVs that wouldn’t impress the local rabbi, or with contacts you wouldn’t want in your address book. They might have heard that in some Christian communities they even let women speak up. They weren’t at all sure that Christians kept properly to the law. Some of the men weren’t circumcised. Some of the women revealed their hair. Slaves and masters worshipped together and they didn’t always eat the right food.
You see, I think that’s why this passage is here. It’s aimed at the people who thought that because Jesus forgave people he didn’t really believe they (and we) could find a loving, good and faithful way to live. They thought that because Jesus attracted former terrorists that he must have tolerated violence. They thought that because he welcomed women and men who had sold their bodies that he didn’t care what we do with our desires and our love. They thought that because he welcomed ex-cons that he wasn’t bothered about keeping the law or making clear what’s right. But they were wrong. Jesus gives the deepest forgiveness and offers the widest welcome, and he also promises the most profound and transforming salvation, offering a way of life that will redeem everything we are, body, and mind and soul too. He believed that everyone can be redeemed, even the crowds of ne’er-do-wells who stood before him on that mountain and others. He believed that everyone can be holy, that no-one is beyond the redemption of a loving God. He didn’t threaten them with a guilt trip, but promised them the gift of a true and deep renewal that would change them right down to their hearts, right down to their boots. This teaching is not a guilt trip, but a promise, and a promise of God’s grace.
Stanley Hauerwas says about the Sermon on the Mount, that it not about ‘what works’ at the human level, but about ‘who God is.’ It’s not saying that we should all try harder, to control ourselves and think better thoughts, but it’s a promise that in God’s hands we really could be different. We all know that we will fail if we simply try harder to be better people – I’ve tried it, and so have you I expect, and it doesn’t work like that… But we also know, I hope, that God’s love is already transforming us – and that God’s Spirit can make a difference to our lives. We can take no personal pride at all in being more righteous than the pharissees, but we can rejoice that God can take hold of who we are and make of us something more blessed and more holy. The Sermon on the Mount describes for us the world that God is making, and making out of ordinary people like you and me, not spiritual heavy weights but ordinary human beings. It’s not another set of commandments, but a whole new set of promises about what is possible and what God can do. I want to be the kind of person who has no violence in my heart towards others. I want to be someone who is possessed by a love that looks always for the good of the other, a love like God’s love, the love that created the good and holy law that I want to find written on my heart. In the words of a poem by Jean Vanier, I pray that I might
accepting my poverty
letting the Spirit breathe
opening my being
to the delicate touch
of God’s hand
I want to find the freedom to be the self that God is making of me, and I want to believe that I can be that person, the one Jesus calls me to be, the person who is re-created when God’s love comes close.
I don’t know whether you’ve seen the film Life of Brian, a film that has a good laugh at the ways of religious folks like us. And sometimes the Sermon on the Mount can read a bit like the kind of parody that film is so good at. ‘You say your people are righteous? Well our people are more righteous than yours.’ ‘You don’t do murder?’ Well we don’t even do murderous thoughts.’ It all gets a bit Blackadder, if you see what I mean.
What I find in these verses is not, now, a guilt trip and an accusation, but a glimpse of how human life might be if it were different, and how perhaps even I could be, if God’s Spirit were to fill my life. Imagine a world where murderous anger and insults are turned to love, a world where grievances are dealt with graciously, where women and men are always treated as human beings and not as sexual objects, where no one is abandoned uncared for, where people mean what they say, and where violence is never repaid with violence. Imagine such a world. The people who heard Jesus describe this world must have thought he was unrealistic and naive…. But there must have been some who could see that such a world was worth hoping for.
I wish that something of that imagination is what people could see when they look at the church, when they hear ‘Jesus’. I wish they could know that Jesus has welcomed all of us exactly as we are – and that the church is just as much a community of flawed people as it ever was. And I wish we could help them see what human life, and this holy and beautiful world could be, with the blessing of God’s Spirit and the transformation of our lives.
Wasn’t it St Francis who said, ‘Preach the Gospel, and use words if you have to’? If people see in us the self-righteous and hypocritical prigs they expect, then we are not preaching the Gospel. If they see transformed sinners, people emptied of violence and filled with love, then they will hear Good News. May that be so. Amen.