A Sermon for Sunday: Sunday V Post Pentecost; Revd Dr Robert Wilson

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Except your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.

Today’s Gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount, which lays down the life which Christians are called to follow. They are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world and live by the law of the new covenant, written not on tablets of stone but on the hearts of men. The tradition which all Christians are called to follow is the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who is the full, final and definitive revelation of God’s will.

The Torah (or Law of Moses) laid down the life that the children of Israel, the covenant people of God, were called to follow. It was designed to create a kingdom of priests and a holy nation of those who were brought out of the house of bondage in Egypt. But the Israelites were not faithful to this covenant. At the time when the kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah looked forward to a new covenant in which sins would be forgiven because unlike the old covenant written on tablets of stone it would be written on the hearts of men. In proclaiming himself to be the full, final and definitive revelation of God’s will Jesus proclaimed that in his person and work the age of the new covenant, in which sins would be forgiven, had dawned. Although future in its fullness, the Kingdom of God was now manifest in his words and works. He had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but rather to fulfil them, a righteousness surpassing that of the scribes. For the scribes (the learned teachers of the Law) had sought to apply the Law of Moses to a given situation in order to prevent the individual Israelite from transgressing against the Law. While they would not have denied that the right disposition of the heart was important (the law against covetousness was one of the Ten Commandments), the main emphasis was placed on outward conformity to the law, for it was ultimately based on the law written on tablets of stone, rather than the new covenant written on the hearts of men.

By contrast, the Law of Christ said that outward conformity to the Law was not enough, for what was necessary was a totally integrated unity of thought and act, of conformity of the heart with the will of God. Thus, it is not enough simply to refrain from murder, for it is necessary to look at the root cause from which murder comes, namely anger, for it is from the unbridled passions of the human heart that the impulse to murder comes. It is not enough to refrain from committing adultery, for whoever looks on another lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. It is not enough to love those who love us, we must rather extend it to include our enemies, and pray for those who hate us and despitefully use us.

At first sight this seems impossible and makes us despair that we can ever truly be good. The Sermon on the Mount seems to be asking us to attain the unattainable. Who is able to always restrain his anger? Who can keep his every glance pure? Who can love his enemies as he loves his friends? However, it is at precisely this point, when we recognise that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, that we can begin to accept the need for God’s grace to think, will and do that which is good. As the Israelites were called to obey the Law of Moses in gratitude for their redemption from slavery in Egypt, so the Sermon on the Mount is the Law of Christ, the rule of life, for the people of the new covenant written on the hearts of men. Our sufficiency is not of ourselves, for we can never get beyond being forgiven sinners, but we are called by grace to follow the Law of Christ in gratitude for the forgiveness we have experienced. Hence, the Law of Christ is not a scribal ethic designed to lay down rules for applying the law to every conceivable situation. Nor is it like the ethic of the philosophers, an attempt to apply a set of abstract principles to govern human conduct. Rather it is the absolute standard of the Kingdom of God, for those who are the people of the new covenant, the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Hence, the Sermon on the Mount does not distinguish between what can be realistically achieved in this present age and what can only be fulfilled in the world to come. Rather, it is the ethic of the Kingdom of God for those who have already been made partakers of the world to come in this world. It is not the law written on tablets of stone, but the law of those whose sins have been forgiven, which is written on the hearts of men.

The attempt to apply it has had effects on history, albeit in a very limited and imperfect way for we are all still very much fallen human beings. St. Peter seems to have had a very unstable and tempestuous character. He struggled to restrain his anger and denied Jesus in the end, but by the grace of God he became the rock on which the Church, the people of the new covenant was built. We have recently celebrated his martyrdom under the Emperor Nero and it is appropriate that we have heard in today’s epistle from words written shortly before his death. “Be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, being lovers of the brotherhood, merciful, modest, humble; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing: for unto this are you called, that you may inherit a blessing… And who is he that can hurt you, if you be zealous for good? But also if ye suffer anything for justice sake, blessed are ye. And be not afraid of their fear, and be not troubled; but sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts.”

Let us pray that we will follow the example of St. Peter in taking to heart these words. We cannot restrain our anger by our own strength, but the love of God, that most excellent gift of charity, has been poured into our hearts to enable us to live by the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, the Law of Christ. Let us make our own the words of the today’s Collect.

O God, who hast prepared for them that love thee such good things as eye has not seen; pour into our hearts such love towards thee, that we loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire.

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