Relationship with Others IS Relationship with God
Relationship with Others Is Relationship with God
February 12, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
What if during worship everyone got up, walked across the room, and engaged in heartfelt conversation with someone? Or what if everyone got up and walked out of church calling some long-lost friend on the phone? Bad behavior in Church? No, I think that would great! Hold that thought—I’ll come back to it.
But first, what about those teachings where Jesus seems to equate anger and insult with murder and lust with adultery? What are we to make of that? Does he really mean it? Are we all in a lot of trouble?
Chapters 5-7 in Matthew’s Gospel are called the “Sermon on the Mount,” which is the Bible’s purest, highest description of how Christians should live. And today’s teachings about killing and adultery are the first of what scholars called “the Six Antitheses.” Six times in this sermon Jesus says, “you have heard it said that . . . but I say to you this.” In addition to killing and adultery, these antitheses are about divorce, taking oaths, retaliating when someone wrongs you, and loving not just our neighbors but even our enemies (more on that one next Sunday).
So morally challenging are these antitheses and the rest of this Sermon that several common interpretations over the ages essentially say that these teachings don’t exactly, or don’t fully, apply to most of us. For example, Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages taught that only monks and nuns were expected to fully comply with the Sermon on the Mount. Some Christians believe the Sermon on the Mount can’t be fulfilled here and now but only when Jesus returns. And one Lutheran interpretation is that the Sermon on the Mount is intentionally impossible for us to live up to and that Jesus was trying to teach us that we can’t meet God’s demands on our own and that’s how we learn to rely on the mercy and grace of Christ.1 Clever interpretations, all of them, by people far smarter than I. But it strikes me that they’re all ways of trying to avoid the fact that Jesus wants us to live higher and holier lives.
I assume and I believe that Jesus really wanted us all to live this way—to weed anger and lust out of our hearts, to hold marriage sacred, to let our word be our word, not to strike back when people hurt us, and to love all people, even our enemies, even those who persecute us. I’m not saying I live this way—I need God’s mercy every day. I’m saying that I believe Jesus wants us, he longs for us, he expects us to learn to live this way.
Now I would want to make that conditional in a couple of ways:
First, Jesus uses some strong and exaggerated language in the Sermon on the Mount. Did he really want us to gouge out an eye or chop off a hand? Well, I don’t think so. But I know what he means. . . And did he really mean that being angry is exactly the same as killing someone? I don’t think so, but I know what he means. . . The exaggerations show how seriously Jesus meant these teachings.
And second, I think Jesus was teaching a kingdom ethic. This is how Christians are meant to live in community with one another. This high and holy way of life may not be possible for each of us separately and individually. But together, as fellow disciples of Jesus, much more is possible.
So Jesus said, "You've heard it said, 'You shall not murder,' but I say to you 'If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be handed to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to hell.'" So does this mean, asks Tom Long, that "if you lose your temper at a church committee meeting and unload a piece of your mind on some poor soul across the table," that you're going to hell?2 Thankfully, no, since that would be bad news for me, and maybe a few of you as well. The Greek word Jesus uses for anger means literally to swell or run over; it was used of people who boiled up inside until they were ready to explode.3 This kind of anger doesn't just suddenly occur; it has to be allowed, even cultivated over time.
Clarence Jorden--the civil rights leader I mentioned last Sunday who helped found Habitat for Humanity--understood that murder is already being born when we lose respect for someone else as a human being and allow ourselves to overlook the infinite worth of every child of God. He notes that one early sign of this kind of overrunning anger is self-pity: craving attention or respect and not getting as much as you think you should, always feeling like you're carrying more than your share of the load, being unwilling to see how you have contributed to the problems around you. Allowed to flourish and spread, self-pity is fertile ground for the kind of anger Jesus is talking about.4
It is not hard to see how this is a kingdom ethic, the way we need to live for Christianity community to work. As one Lutheran bishop puts it, "In this commu- nity, it's not enough only to avoid homicide. There is no room even for . . . insult, or name-calling—no room for behaviors that chip away at relationship and community."5 But it's also easy to see that the person this kind of anger and self-pity hurt most is the one who carries them around. How joyful, how blessed, can life be when you're always lugging around that load of hurt feelings? The surest way to guard against killing, Jesus is saying, is to develop within yourself a peaceful disposition.6 Amen?
And again Jesus says, "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." First of all, notice that even though back then, as now, it was common to blame women for men's bad behavior, Jesus will have none of that. He directly instructs men to control not only our behavior but what's in our hearts.
But as with anger, surely Jesus didn't mean that sexual desire is wrong, or everyone's in trouble. Rather than desire, Tom Long teaches, by lust Jesus means our basic attitudes, the choices we make about what we will allow to take root in our imaginations, to shape our thoughts, to govern our actions, and to mold our relationships.7 Lust is, ultimately, looking at someone with an intention of breaking a covenant, looking at someone as a means to your end rather than a human being to love and care for. Unless we are mentally ill, each one has the capacity to decide what we will keep thinking about, what we will allow ourselves to look at, and what our intentions toward others will be.
I met once with a couple planning to get married, but along the way he developed a relationship with another woman. I don't mean that he touched that woman, but he met with her, he called her frequently, he confided in her. And his fiancé found out. He and I met to talk about it. He said, "I just couldn't help myself." I asked, "Is that really true?" He thought and then said, "Well, no. I didn't help myself. But how can I stop it from happening again?" And I said, "You tell me: how can you stop it?" And over the next hour he said:
I can take out of my phone the personal numbers of any woman I might think of confiding in. Uh-huh
I can make sure I don't meet with other women one-on-one, but only in group settings. Uh-huh.
When I'm feeling hurt or depressed (which is one I tend to get in trouble), I can reach out right away to a safe person to help me feel better, so I don't reach out to an inappropriate person. Uh-huh.
There were others, but you get the idea. Lust is looking at someone with the wrong intentions, and there are many ways to cultivate right intentions in all our relationship. Amen?
But let me return to where I started: what if everyone suddenly got up in the middle of church and engaged in heart-felt conversation with someone? Jesus said, "So when you're offering your gift at the altar [loosely translated, "when you're at church"], if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." Jesus is saying that our relationship with God is all mixed up with our relationships with other people. We are not fully reconciled to God until we are reconciled with one another. That is a challenging teaching for these divided times we live in. And to make it even more challenging, Jesus did not say "If you're at the altar and remember that you have something against someone else, make sure to go and point it out to them." That can be important in relationships too—don't get me wrong. But it's not where Jesus focuses. He says, "If you're at the altar and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, go and be reconciled."
One way we've been talking about God-Centered Wellbeing is that it's seeking to keep our relationship with God and God's love at the heart of all our other relationships. This gospel lesson teaches an important corollary: All of our other relationships are always at the heart of our relationship with God. You can't escape the messiness of your difficult relationships by coming to church; all of that comes with you to the altar. In fact, at the altar is where our need for reconciliation becomes so compelling that we just might get up and do something about it.
It happens all the time. Not long ago one Maple Grove member was disappointed and hurt by something another Maple Grove member said, and in turn he said some hurtful back. He took a few weeks off and was thinking of leaving the church completely. But as took Holy Communion one Sunday, he looked across the room and saw that person he was angry at taking the very same Communion at the very same time. And his heart cried out to be reconciled in the name of Jesus. So he reached out to that person, said he was sorry for what he'd said and wanted to repair things between them. And the other person rethought what he had said and affirmed that person in a healing way. The altar of God had done its holy work
So what if during worship everyone got up, walked across the room, and engaged in heartfelt conversation with someone? Or what if everyone got up and made a phone call to a person they hadn't talked to in ages? Bad behavior in church? No, no—it's called living out the Sermon on the Mount. Go, be reconciled to your sister or brother; church will still be here when you get back. Our relationship with God is our relationship with others.
1 See J. Carl Laney, “Nine Ways to Approach the Sermon on the Mount,” https://www.westernseminary.edu/transformedblog/2016/02/22/7141/, accessed February 10, 2017.
2 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 56.
3 Clarence Jorden, Sermon on the Mount, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1952), 88.
4 Jordan, 57.
5 Brian Maas, "Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary," The Christian Century (January 18, 2017), 21.
6 Joardan, 54.
7 Long, 54.