+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen +
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Theme: Christ and the Law
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
God is a patient instructor. If He weren’t we’d all be dismissed from His tutelage. More importantly, He is long-suffering in His compassion. He is faithful to His promise. He steadfastly restores frail and fallen sinners. Christ sees us through our journey from beginning to end. The more we mature in our faith the more we recognize the need for His grace.
In today’s Scripture reading as recorded in Matthew Christ concludes a remarkable interpretation of the Mosaic law. A cursory reading of this chapter could give one the impression that Jesus goes beyond what the law given through Moses demands. For example, He says it’s not enough to refrain from murder, one must not be angry; it’s not enough to refrain from adultery one must not lust; it’s not enough to keep one’s oath, better to not swear at all. Jesus cuts right to the heart of the issue. Christ’s interpretation of the law is not meant to relax the standard or make it sound more achievable. Rather, His explanation of the intent of the law makes it more unattainable still. He is not engaging in clever rhetoric, but a surgically precise diagnosis.
Our sinful nature is always looking for a way to lower the bar; to make the standard more achievable. Yet, whenever our intent is only to meet the letter of the law we’ve failed to see the spirit of the command. If I am able to restrain myself from murdering someone but inwardly I’m seething with rage then I’ve already transgressed the command in a fundamental way. The very root and heart of sin is revealed. We’re not simply dynamic sinners, that is, sinful because of ungodly actions and activities. We are inveterate sinners, that is, we are sinners by nature, from conception. When we sin we’re only being who we naturally are.
God wants us to be other than who we naturally are; godly even in our motivations. Now we must be clear that keeping the law outwardly does have important benefits. Some are obvious. If I’m contemplating murder but I don’t actually carry it out then my victim is spared. If I begrudging pay the taxes I’d rather not pay, the system is still supported. If I give reluctantly to charity the cause is still benefitted. But the issue of motivation is still not solved. You see, we can never be freely or properly motivated by the law. We may obediently concede out of fear of punishment or we may comply out of hope for reward. This can go on for a lifetime in a situation dominated by fear or legalism.
Societies have a long history of making laws, some which soon sound absurd. Here’s a sampling of a few obsolete and current ones. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts it is against the law to eat peanuts in church. In Baltimore, it’s illegal to take a lion to the movies. In Hartford, Connecticut, you aren't allowed to cross a street while walking on your hands. In Kansas an old law states that you cannot eat snakes on Sunday. A sign in the middle of the Royal Gorge bridge in Colorado, the tallest suspension bridge in the world, rising 1053 feet above the water level: "No Fishing From This Bridge.” Apparently in the outer Melbourne suburb of Brimbank it is against the law to vacuum clean your house between 10pm and 7am on weekdays and 10pm and 9am on weekends, pending an immediate fine. And perhaps the clincher; in 2012 the Queensland LNP Government re-instated the law that makes it illegal for a politician to lie; the law had been abolished by the Labor Government in 2006.
So where do we stand with God’s law, His immutable will? Our Lutheran Confessions say, “Merely preaching the Law, without Christ, either makes proud people, who imagine they can fulfill the Law by outward works, or forces them utterly to despair.”1 God’s law makes demands on us but gives us no power to meet those demands and offers no forgiveness. So, as sinners, we tend to look for loopholes and excuses. “Everybody does it,” is a common rationale even Christians use to justify something unlawful, unethical, or immoral. Bad company corrupts good morals.
So, finally, the Holy Spirit intends to use the law to crush our self-reliance, our selfishness, and all schemes to make excuses for our behavior. Repent, no ifs or buts; Christ then becomes a Saviour. His work then becomes redeeming. He is no longer a tired historical figure or an extraneous moral guru, but the unique and all-sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. If there was no act of intervention, no promise that reconciliation had been made, the law would drive us all to hopelessness. It would be an unbearable burden.
But Christ is the end. He is the fulfillment. He is the completion. The cross has the final word. Noting else pays the debt of sin. Easter is pure light, joy, and vitality. All this depends not on us, but on His mercy and power as our Confessions say, “Without His grace, and If He does not grant the increase, our willing and running, our planting, sowing, and watering- are all nothing. As Christ says in John 15:5, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing.’ With these brief words the Spirit denies free will and its powers and ascribes everything to God’s grace, in order that no one may boast before God.”2
IN HIM you are perfect. In Him you are holy. In Him you are righteous. In Him your obedience is complete. But only in Him. Christ is your righteousness, holiness, and redemption. In baptism you are buried and raised with Him. You are already a citizen of heaven. You already have a place in the heavenly courts. You are fed by His body and blood. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and are supported by a community of believers.
So now, everything is transformed. We’re under the law, but not legalism. We live in grace. We want others to know the life we know. That’s why Jesus could say today, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”3 Is such a seemingly extreme view of pacifism realistic? What about self-dense in the interest of protecting a loved one? What about an abusive situation? Remember, your own life is a gift from God that you are charged with taking care of. Christ is not saying to intentionally endanger your own life. But He most certainly is directing believers not to respond in kind. The individual Christian does not respond to violence with violence or aggression with aggression. We are not to be commended for doing only the things unbelievers also do.
The Holy Spirit leads believers in a truly freed life of service. What does the apostle say, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”4 Christians strive to make a difference in peoples’ lives. It’s no small charge to love selflessly. Christ calls believers salt and light. St. Paul calls them living sacrifices. Christ shines through us.
Dear friends, the Bible says, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”5 It says, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”6 Amen.
+ In nomine Jesu +
1 Augsburg Confession
2 Formula of Concord
3 Matthew 5:39
4 1 Corinthians 3:16
5 Romans 10:5
6 2 Corinthians 1:20
Seventh Sunday After Epiphany
23 February 2014
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt