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Kingdom living: A sermon on Matthew 5
February 20, 2011, 6:14 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , ,

This morning, we continue hearing Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In these chapters, Jesus calls his followers to a difficult life of discipleship. Our passage for this morning can be especially difficult, as we wonder what it means that Jesus calls us to avoid retaliation, accept ridicule, and even love those who hate us. I’m going to read this passage again, this time from a translation by Eugene Peterson, who is less concerned with sticking to what each Greek word means and more concerned with us getting the feel of what Jesus is saying. So, here is his translation of Jesus’ sermon, found in The Message:

 

38-42“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. (God) gives (God’s) best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

48“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

 

Throughout this sermon on the mount, Jesus is inviting us to enter the kingdom of God. I like how Eugene Peterson puts it with “you’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it.” That’s what all the salt and light, divorce and adultery, turn the other cheek, and love your enemies stuff is about. Jesus is telling us how to live in God’s kingdom right here and right now.

 

I’ve been surprised recently by our tendency to equate the kingdom of God with heaven. I wonder what you think every time you pray “thy kingdom come.” Do you remember Martin Luther’s explanation that “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” and that the kingdom comes about “Whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity?”

 

God’s kingdom comes- now, to earth. Jesus brings this kingdom to us. God’s kingdom is God’s good purpose for creation. God created all that is with a vision towards its flourishing. Jesus’ preaching and healing points the way to this kingdom, out of the broken reality in which we live today. We were created for relationship with our God, not worship of ourselves. We were created for community, not division and violence. God’s kingdom is the restoring of the wholeness of all creation and relationships.

 

Jesus’ ministry re-establishes this kingdom on earth. Even though Jesus has brought the kingdom, and in his death and resurrection has conquered death and sin, we know that this world has not been fully transformed. We know that people are captive to sin, entrapped by their self-interest, and quick to retaliate or use violence to hold on to whatever they perceive is theirs. So we live in an in-between time. Jesus has already established the kingdom through his ministry and sacrifice. God’s reign is breaking-in, coming to us, right here. And yet we still wait for a final completion of this transformation, this renewal of our world and ourselves.

 

Jesus ministry shows us what the kingdom of God looks like. Even though it has not fully come, we can live as if it were here now, completely. In baptism, we died to the old way of life, the way of a broken creation that seeks its own interests. In baptism, we were raised to new life, kingdom life, united with Jesus, as a child of God. Through Jesus, we have been made “kingdom subjects.” As baptized followers of Jesus, we live in the kingdom now.

 

Even as the world still waits to be fully healed, we can live as people of the kingdom, witnessing to the kingdom that is coming among us. Our lives can point to the new reality Jesus brings to earth. When we live as people who have been renewed as God wills all creation to be renewed, we show forth the kingdom of God. We are the light of God, shining forth glimpses of the kingdom at hand. But, it’s not going to be easy!

 

Let’s think about the examples Jesus gives. In these short paragraphs from the sermon on the mount, Jesus outlines what it might look like to be a kingdom subject in a world that is one step behind, not quite in the kingdom yet. In this passage, Jesus begins with a piece of the Jewish teachings meant to stop the tendency for escalating violent retaliation. He pulls even farther back from “an eye for an eye”- and no more – to “do not resist an evildoer… if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other as well.” And then he goes on, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

There are many different ways people have interpreted these verses. But for our consideration of what it means to live in the kingdom now, with a world that is out of sync, one interpretation comes to the front. I would summarize it as Jesus saying “when people attack you- physically, verbally, legally, emotionally- because you are witnessing to the kingdom- witness even further by throwing them a curveball in your response. Don’t do what they expect and refute or fight. Stand firm in your identity as a child of God. That’s where your life, your self-worth and your authority come from. No one can take that away. So, when people see the light of the kingdom which you carry, and they try to quench it with their displays of power and violence, don’t engage in the same battle. You’re in a whole different game- a whole different kingdom. Give them a taste of that.”

 

So, even when people attack you, misquote you, willfully misunderstand and twist your words and actions so that they can paint a nasty picture of you, don’t be baited into their world. The world, the tv and airwaves, are filled with arguments because its so easy to get drawn in when we perceive an attack. Can you imagine what it would be like if we simply let an irrational attack slide by, unprotested?

 

Now, I think it’s really important to work for understanding and dialogue between people of different opinions and experiences. But, most of the time, in my own life, I’ve experienced someone just trying to bait me into an argument, or spewing their own issues all over me. They’re not in a place where they’re interested in dialogue. Where I tend to falter is when they start to attack who I am, what my motives are, and try to tell me horrible stuff about myself. Typically, this results in me rising to the bait and probably just solidifying for that other person all their twisted ideas.

 

But what if the next time someone tried to insult or attack me – or you- I could simply rest in my identity in Jesus? What if I wasn’t afraid of losing anything through another’s insult- not my reputation, my job, my status, not even my property- but willingly let them all be attacked, smeared, and broken, because I know that who I really am is known and loved by God? I wouldn’t need to try to hold on to, to defend, anything. I could give it all away, let the broken world and its broken people do their best to destroy me.

 

Jesus already has done this before us. Jesus let the broken world and its broken people destroy him. He accepted all the attacks- and he died as a result. But the true kingdom has come. Sin and brokenness did not win, Jesus and the kingdom of God are triumphant. Jesus took whatever was thrown at him, and he suffered under it, but the kingdom of God did not stop there. Jesus was raised from the dead. Through Jesus, we are made citizens of this unending and most powerful kingdom of God.

No matter what is thrown at us, our citizenship in this kingdom has been made sure through Jesus. Insults and attacks will come, but who we are is made firm in Jesus Christ. We are beloved, claimed, and forgiven children of God. We have been gifted with life forever. We are called and given the authority to live the kingdom of God today. Jesus gave us all this, and no one will ever take it away.

 

Jesus preaches this sermon first to those disciples sitting on the hill with him. Their witness to the kingdom will not be easy. They will experience many insults and attacks because of their ministry. Their witness will be doubted and scorned, people will laugh at them, people will kill them, and they will be called blasphemers, people preaching against God. Yet, they will hold fast to what they have witnessed: Jesus’ life and ministry, and his death and resurrection.

 

I think it’s important for us to remember that Jesus was crucified because of the kingdom of God. What Jesus taught about God, about us, was too difficult for people to accept. Jesus shook the whole fabric of society- he turned the way things are supposed to be upside down! If we live as if this kingdom were here now, we’re inviting the same difficulties Jesus faced. It doesn’t sound easy, but that’s how we live as faithful disciples.

 

As we seek to live into this kingdom of God, we follow Jesus’ teaching and example so that we know what it means to live as a kingdom subject. At the center is faith in Jesus Christ, and his love for us. This love is what characterizes our lives as kingdom subjects. We have confidence in God’s love for us, and are free to share that love with a broken world, without worry that it will somehow be diminished or taken from us. One commentator, Douglas Hare, puts it this way: “The Christ whose enemies nailed him to a cross asks us to love our enemies without expecting a miraculous change of heart.” (Interpretation: Matthew).

We can love, and accept attack, knowing that our place is secure and even though the world and its inhabitants are still living in brokenness and sin, there will be a day when the kingdom of God will be fully real. Our kingdom living is a glimpse of that new reality Jesus is creating.

 

So we continue to pray, and to live: “Thy kingdom come.”

 

 

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Eavesdropping towards Discipleship: A Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20
February 6, 2011, 8:26 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

When I was in 5th grade, we lived a good distance from our school, and my parents couldn’t pick me up until they were finished at work. I would stay in the library and work on my homework until they arrived. Well, I was supposed to work on my homework. Sometimes I’d play games with the other kids. Sometimes I’d sit and pretend to be working on my homework, but would be distracted by the conversations around me. So I’d listen in. I know it’s not polite to eavesdrop, but when tables are close together in a silent library… and math homework gets a little too boring… can you really blame me? I wanted to hear what was going on. Maybe there’d be a way that I could get myself into the conversation. Maybe I could be a part of something more exciting than my mundane task at hand!

 

As we read scripture, we are eavesdroppers on conversations that happened long ago. Today, we listen in as Jesus talks to his disciples up on a mountain top. We’re not the only ones sitting around the edges. Crowds of people have been following Jesus. Some of them may have just heard of this new teacher. Others may have been following for a while, debating if this teacher speaks enough truth to commit their lives to his way. Maybe they’re hoping for an opening, an invitation, to be drawn in to something greater than themselves. We’re like the crowds of people around the mountain, straining to hear Jesus’ teachings. We trust that Jesus’ message is also for us today.

 

Last week’s lectionary introduced the scene and began what we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” In these chapters of Matthew, Jesus will describe to his disciples the difficult life of discipleship for those who choose it. After it all, I wonder how many among the crowds choose to enter more deeply into following Jesus, and become his disciples, and how many are put off by the demands and upside-down nature of Jesus’ teaching and simply walk back to their normal lives.

 

The beginning of today’s pericope sounds mild enough. Jesus is talking about everyday things: salt and light.

 

Today, they’re things we probably take for granted. My pantry contains a variety of salts, and you can bet there’s plenty in the various cans lining the shelves. For people in Jesus’ time, salt was used as it is today: for seasoning and in preserving, but it was even more precious, because it was rarer and more necessary for preservation (remember, they don’t have refrigeration!). Salt also had symbolic and religious meaning, and could be a symbol of covenant and promise.

 

Light determined the length of the workday. We’re used to lights coming on with a simple flick of a switch, but people in Jesus’ time would have to use candles or likely oil lamps. Each source of light was precious and needed to be used to its greatest ability. Lights would be placed where they would best light the whole space. We might think of them as being more eco-friendly, trying to stretch their resources; their decorating plans simply had to consider how each light could best shine.

 

Jesus uses these two familiar and non-threatening elements: salt and light, to explain a less familiar and more difficult idea: the shape of following Jesus.

 

Jesus calls the disciples the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They are like these common, precious, necessary, everyday, life-giving things. They are something essential to life.

 

Jesus’ declaration also carries warning. Whatever it is about the disciples that makes them salt and light, life-giving necessities, is not meant to be diluted, nor is it meant to be just for themselves.

 

Jesus has some harsh words for salt that loses its saltiness. He warns:

 

13You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

The disciples are special, set apart, vital. They came from various walks of life, and we who hear their stories in the gospels know that they are not perfect, not at the time of their calling, nor during their lives as disciples with Jesus before and after his resurrection. Yet Jesus names these ordinary people as essential for the rest of the world. Jesus has made them into a new creation, a gift for the world. Jesus instructs them to hold fast to their calling, and to make the effect of their discipleship felt throughout the world.

 

Jesus declares:

 

14You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

 

Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples they need to become salt or light, or better salt and light. It’s what they already are. Jesus declares: You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world.

 

The warning Jesus gives has to do with what the disciples will do with the fact that they are salt and light. It’s about how they live out being what they are and for whom they will live. What they are is to be shared with the whole world. Their lives of discipleship will bring them into conflict with the religious and political authorities, with the crowds, and with their own hometowns and families. Despite it all, they are called to serve, heal, baptize, and proclaim what God has done through Jesus Christ. They are to extend Jesus’ life-giving presence and promise to the whole world.

 

 

As Jesus and the disciples sit on the mountain, the world spreads out below them. They can see a slice of the world which Jesus calls them to serve. There are the uncertain crowds. There are the cities bustling with activity. There are the temples for the worship of other gods. There are the soldiers of the conquering empire. The world is not full of people readily worshipping the true God. The world is not full of people following the commandments or even of good people. Even so, Jesus calls the disciples to be salt and light for this world.

 

No matter if they believe the world deserves Jesus’ healing, forgiveness, and grace, the disciples are called to bring that to all people. Disciples are to witness to Jesus through word and action. They are to make clear their allegiance is to Jesus, who is the source of their life and their strength. They are to go wherever there is brokenness to bring, not judgment, but healing and reconciliation. They are to risk their own lives, their own livelihoods, for the sake of sharing the good news that Jesus has come with love, forgiveness, healing and welcome. They are to share that news in both word and action with even the most unworthy and undesirable of the world.

 

In our eavesdropping, we find Jesus inviting us to this life of discipleship. We do not simply listen in to Jesus’ instruction, it challenges us today. Through Jesus, we have been made salt and light for the world. When we are baptized, we are welcomed with word and sign that witness to the change Jesus has created in us. Jesus claims us as children of God. We are marked with the sign of the cross, and are sent out into the world, wet from the waters of promise.

 

When a new person is baptized, we present them with a candle lit from the Christ candle. As we present it, we say:

 

Let your light so shine before others

that they may see your good works

and glorify your Father in heaven.

 

This is to say that the Christ’s light is now also carried by this newly baptized person. He or she has been inaugurated into the great community of saints, whose role is to shine this gifted light onto all the world. As a whole congregation, we expand on this:

 

The presider invites: Let us welcome the newly baptized.

And the congregation responds:

We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share:

join us in giving thanks and praise to God

and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

 

Even to an infant, we name the mission of the baptized: “giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” Jesus has made us salt of the earth and light for the world.

 

Even, or maybe especially, as adults, we struggle in deciphering what it means for us to be salt and light, disciples, for the world, bearing Christ to this world. We might shy away from being too forthright in our faith and faithful living. We don’t want to scare people off, or offend them by being too verbal about our religion. But in our politeness and our assumption that everyone knows about Jesus, we may run the risk of hiding the light the world needs.

 

Jesus challenges us who sometimes think of faith as a personal relationship between me and my God. Jesus’ whole point is that the disciples exist for the sake of the world. Their faith isn’t for their own salvation, but is to heal others. Our faith isn’t just for ourselves. It’s not about having a good force behind us, or a source of comfort, or an assurance of heaven. Discipleship, following Jesus, is a lifestyle that serves the whole world. It’s a difficult path that follows Jesus’ difficult path: to be among those who suffer, who are outcast, who betray, and who kill.

 

The world is eavesdropping on us. Will people hear the good news about Jesus as they listen in on you? Will your life invite others to join in and become a disciple themselves? The world is hoping for an opening, an invitation, to be drawn in to something greater than themselves. Jesus has already invited you.