Did you find today’s gospel disturbing? If so, that’s a good start. The kingdom
of God has come near. And it’s going to disturb us. Shake us up a bit.
One of the reasons that we hear today’s gospel as disturbing or even painful is because we hear it as ethics. We hear it as a high ethical standard, which I know that I don’t meet, and that makes me liable, and I don’t like to hear that. We hear Jesus teaching about the law as ethics, and it sounds like it’s aimed squarely at us.
But it’s not about us. It’s about God. This is not ethics. This is revelation.
Two weeks ago, when we started reading the sermon on the mount together, I said that this was Jesus’ manifesto, his public declaration of who God is and what God wants. Or, to put it another way, in this teaching, Jesus is revealing for us what it looks like when the kingdom of heaven breaks into our lives.
In fact if I had to sum up today’s gospel reading in one sentence, I would use the exact same words that Jesus used as the opening statement of his ministry:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The kingdom of heaven is a vision of life the way God intends it to be, a vision of what it looks like when we become the people that God created us to be.
What would that look like?
In God’s kingdom no one is disposable. People are not plastic cups. No one in God’s kingdom will be insulted or dismissed as a fool. No one will be denied their dignity by being objectified and looked at with lust. People are not tools to be used for profit. Women are not something to be discarded when they no longer serve a man’s purpose. All people deserve to be told the truth. When promises are made they are to be kept.
This is what God intended when God created humanity in God’s image. This is the vision that God affirmed at our baptism when we were recreated as children of God and told that we are loved. This is the vision of humanity that was embodied in the person of Jesus. This is why Jesus called disciples to participate in the realization of this vision, on earth as in heaven.
In the kingdom of God, no one is disposable. That is what God intends. That’s what Jesus is revealing about God, what he’s trying to get us to see in today’s gospel. It’s not about me. It’s about God. And it’s about God’s vision for us. We are the people of God, and this is who we are.
It’s not like we haven’t heard this before. Each one of us at our baptism committed to this vision, or our parents committed to it on our behalf. Let me remind you of what you affirmed. Here are two the questions which were posed:
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
To which you responded each time with, “I will with God’s help.”
These are first and foremost statements about God. This God that we commit to in baptism, this is what God intends. This is what the kingdom of God looks like. First, revelation. First, we commit to God’s vision. Only then do we consider the ethical implications of God’s vision for his people. How then shall we live?
Remember what Jesus is doing on the mountain. He is not speaking in the first instance to the crowds. He is teaching his disciples, those who have made a commitment to follow him. He begins by teaching them who God is and what God wants, fleshing out for them what he means by the kingdom of God, pointing out the disorienting nature of a kingdom which blesses the poor and the hungry. Then he turns the focus on the disciples, telling them, telling those of us who have committed to following Jesus, that we are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world, and that this isn’t some kind of private practice that we are called to but rather a very public vocation that shines, that gives life and light to those who need it, life and light for the world around us. Because as disciples we are called to embody the kingdom of God in this world and to be the very place, the very community where God’s kingdom draws near and breaks into people’s lives.
This is the vision, this is the revelation, this is our identity, this is our vocation. First, we need to see it. Only then do we ask the question, how then shall we live?
And now with this perspective, this new perspective, it is pretty clear that it’s not enough to not murder or not commit adultery. Jesus is calling us to embody this new reality called God’s kingdom, a reality in which no one is disposable. When we are angry, or insulting or dismissive with another, we fail to embody God’s vision. When we objectify people and view them as a means to an end, we fail to embody God’s vision. When we consider some people as not worthy of hearing the truth or of having promises kept, we fail to embody God’s vision.
And when we do fall short, and we will, we confess our failings and God forgives us and reminds us once more that he loves us and that we are his children and that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, the ones that he has chosen to make his kingdom known. And we will, with God’s help.
Let me say a word about divorce. I know that gospel readings such as this one can be painful to hear for those who are divorced or whose loved ones are divorced or who are in the midst of a difficult marital situation. I know that readings such as this one have been used in a way that has caused hurt and harm. Let me repeat what I have already said this morning. I believe that Jesus’ words here are first and foremost revelation, and not ethical instruction. They are intended to reveal to us something of the kingdom of God, and something about who God is and what God’s vision is for humanity, what God intends for us. God never intended for us to have to go through the pain of divorce. God never intended that there be bad or abusive marriages. God never intended broken relationships. This is not what God wants, and when these things happen, God shares our pain.
In this text, I believe that Jesus is revealing to us what God intends for marriage, which is that two people should be joined in a life-long, loving, covenant relationship. That is after all, what each of us intended at the beginning of our own marriages. But when things go wrong, this teaching of Jesus about what God intends, this vision of the beauty of God’s kingdom is not sufficient for us to sort out the ethical issues involved. Our church has recognized that it is insufficient to use this text alone to deal with the ethical issues around divorce. We need also to remember that our God is a God of mercy and compassion. We need to remember that Jesus’ most important ethical teachings are love and forgiveness. We need to remember that the way that God deals with our failings is not by judgement and punishment but by the love manifested on the cross. As St. Paul puts it in his majestic letter to the Romans, yes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” and, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
This holds true for all of us.
When we hear today’s gospel as ethical instruction, as an ethical standard that no one I know has ever met, and for which we are liable, it is disturbing and even painful. And maybe it’s okay that we spend a little time in that place, and then know that we are forgiven.
But when we hear today’s gospel as a vision of what God intends for us, as an image of the kingdom of God which is coming near and breaking into our lives, this is glorious. Don’t you long for a world, for a day when no one is disposable? When the dignity of every human being is respected? When we recognize the image of God reflected in each member of our community? When we can fully live into our identity as salt and light? When each one of God’s children will know that they are loved?
That’s what God wants. That’s what we want. Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.
Homily: Yr A Proper 6, Feb 12 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Deut 30.11-20; Ps 119.1-8; 1 Cor 3.1-9; Mt 5.21-37
With thanks to Julia Bremner for the insight that 'no one is disposable'
Image by Chris-Havard Berge, Creative Commons