Learning as we love

The following is a sermon I preached on Sunday, February 13, 2011. Touching upon the all too difficult issues of adultery and divorce, I had several requests for copies. I don’t usually post my sermons, but I am this week. I hope it sparks some healing reflections and conversations.

Lectionary lessons: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and Matthew 5:21-37.

Each and every day we wake up, we face a number of critical choices to be made. In big and small ways, we must choose life and prosperity or death and destruction (See Deuteronomy 30). We do this over and over again throughout our day. Each choice we make affects us and our world. Our relationships are fragile. Life itself is fragile, and so even the little choices we make can sometimes break down or destroy the things and people we should love. God desires more for us…desires us to make good and godly choices…so that we can truly live. Too often, such a standard sadly proves beyond our reach, but we are never beyond the reach of God no matter how low we might sink.

Due to the reality of our human weakness, God gave the law to help and guide us (not condemn us to Hell or keep us down). First, the Ten Commandments and other such laws are meant to help restrain the wicked. They have a political and civil use. They have practical applications as a family or as part of a larger community. Second, such laws help us recognize our own weakness. They indict all of us, because we can never fulfill the law perfectly despite our best intentions. Therefore as we struggle with our sin, our eyes might look to the hills for help. Through this theological use of the law, we recognize our need to repent, and even more so, our need for a savior. The pain of sin helps break open our hearts as we recognize our need, and our hearts might open to welcome Christ and his grace. Third, the law teaches. It helps shape a vision and means of how we should live together. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, the law is provided “as God’s merciful help in the performance of the works which are commanded.” Simply put, God didn’t give us law to burden us or to destroy us. Our loving God longs for us to live, and so the law (as scripture itself attests to in both Old and New Testament) is meant as a blessing, not a curse.

Over the last few weeks, we have been reexamining Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Recall that this large body of teaching begins with Jesus going up that mountain like Moses, and yet he is not presented any laws. Instead, Jesus proclaims laws as God himself – for he is fully human yet fully divine. This new community being formed (his church) needs guidance like the people of Israel, and his laws and teachings will prove a blessing. The Beatitudes on their face are a series of blessings, but they speak of difficult ethical actions that all Christians should strive for during their life. These are both blessings and laws. Saved by grace through faith…empowered by the Holy Spirit…we will find the grace and opportunity to live them out. We are blessed to be a blessing, called to live out these ethical commandments further blessing ourselves and God’s world.

Then, Jesus commissions us. We are the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. He declares this! Despite any imperfections, Jesus’ perfect love will work through us. Even our need for grace will witness to the world of God’s love. Yet, this doesn’t mean that all the old ways should be thrown away. Yes, Jesus came to make things new, but he clearly teaches that his way is God the Father’s way. He hasn’t come to abolish the law, but rather, he came to fulfill it. Our righteousness must be greater than that of the Pharisees and other teachers of the law. It must reflect who we are in our hearts. It must witness to the light of Christ within us and bring flavor, life, and healing to the world. The gift of faith is what makes us righteous (not our actions), but faith without works (we are reminded) is dead.

Building off of these teachings, we now come to what some scholars call an antithesis of the Beatitudes. The law is clearly taught, and so at this moment, the law can frighten us and even stop us in our tracks. How are we ever going to be so perfect? Like the people of Moses’ time, we can hear the law and think that we are cursed, but don’t be so fast! Again, remember the law is a gift. Jesus connects his newer, fuller teachings concretely to the laws shared through Moses. If we open our eyes from our fear of failure and self-condemnation just for a moment and calm down, we can hear love spoken to us. We need not get stuck in our sin. As he will do over and over again, Jesus reminds us that the fulfillment of all the law is love alone. Love God with your entire being (your mind, heart and soul), and love others as yourself (not better than yourself, but as yourself).

Looking at today’s lesson, note that Jesus begins with a shocking accusation; murder. To this very day, murder is commonly perceived to be among the worst and most dreadful offenses in society. It is so horrid that most of us believe ourselves free of that sin. Yet here, Jesus expands upon our simplistic understanding of the law. Just as Luther will mimic later in his Large Catechism, Jesus talks about murder in relationship to our anger and reconciliation. He expands our understanding. To follow Jesus infers that we must strive to be agents of peace and reconciliation whenever and wherever possible. To do otherwise can kill relationships. We become murderers. We can kill the spirit and love within other people through our angry words and self-centeredness if we are not careful. Anger itself is not a sin according to scripture, but we are not God. Righteous anger can turn into self-righteous, sinful, over reaching anger in a blink of an eye. Just like murder, the repercussions are severe for the individuals involved and the entire community. So, Jesus commands us, even when angry or when we have earned the anger of others, “Love others as yourself…always.”

After that, Jesus shocks us again. Even in the best and most appropriate of circumstances, adultery and divorce causes hurt, yet they are all too familiar in our fallen world. Just like murder, they are a scandalous indictment shared by each and every one of us. Among all the reasons for divorce, adultery seems the most acceptable. It is a terrible betrayal of a covenant made between two persons in love no matter why it happens. It often kills relationships and affects the entire community. Yet, look deeper. The charge of adultery is reflected in scripture to include any misuse of our sexuality and misdirection of our hearts. Jesus expands upon our understanding once again. Like murder, it is easy to say, “Well, I wouldn’t commit adultery. I wouldn’t ever cheat on my spouse.” Perhaps some of us wouldn’t. Yet in our sin, we are all at times adulterers. Doubt it? Than listen more closely to how Jesus teaches today. “You have heard that it was 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.” (NRSV translation) Adultery actually occurs whenever our hearts wander. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that God accused the Jewish people of adultery through the prophets when the people made idols in their lives…when they made anything more important than loving God and their neighbor. Whenever we do the same…when we act unjustly or ignore the needs of others…when we don’t love those entrusted to us or love and respect our bodies…Jesus says (like all the prophets before him) that we are adulterers.

In relationships and life, such wondering happens. We are all imperfect despite our best intentions. So, we find divorce is practiced today much as with faithful Jews of biblical times. Throughout time, divorce reflects the fallen realities of our communal life in this world. Loving others as ourselves is hard. Even in what might be deemed the best and most appropriate of circumstances (cases of adultery, times when a spouse is being abused or beaten, circumstances where a person’s heart loves liquor better, their job better, or anything – even themselves – better than the spouse and family they have promised to love)…divorce can not truly be celebrated. It might be a relief and offer safety, but wounds remain for the family and community; sometimes for years if not a lifetime.

Yes, we might try our best and still fail. Things might happen in this fallen world beyond our control or beyond our ability to repair, but we are asked to love anyway. So, Jesus teaches us of these laws and consequences clearly, but at the same time, we should never forget his words to the adulteress long ago. Similar words are also spoken to us in all our failings and imperfection. “Get up. Go and strive to sin no more. I do not condemn you.” (Paraphrase of personal translation for John 8: 1-11) Continue to love as best as you are able even in your brokenness. Make amends as possible. Try to seek and offer forgiveness. When you sin, repent and ask forgiveness form God and others. Such love will change our lot even when relationships cannot be mended.

In the Ten Commandments, the community, family, individual, and God are always intimately linked. The other ethical, communal commandments about stealing, false witness and gossip, as well as coveting…they all relate to what Jesus reflects on today. Our witness to Christ isn’t meant to be just with our mouths. If we are truly the body of Christ through faith, everything we do or fail to do matters. If our hearts are oriented inward upon ourselves and our self interests rather than God and neighbor, we dishonor God. So, Jesus connects all our oaths, actions and relationships back to the first Mosaic commands to honor God. How we live should reflect who we are called to be…who we are created to be through faith. Let your yes be yes, and your no mean no. Let all your actions and statements reflect your love for God and neighbor as yourself. Doing so, people will see an authentic witness to faith by the way we love one another. If we can forgive others and treat others as we would want ourselves treated, we honor them as God’s creation, and thus we honor God. When we seek to act as if we respect and honor our own lives and bodies as the children of God, we honor God. So Jesus teaches us to be authentic in our faith. Jesus might as well have said, “Love God. Love your family. Love others as yourself (not better than yourself but as yourself).” That is how I often summarize the Ten Commandments for children, and it echoes Jesus’ own teaching in scripture on how to fulfill the law and the prophets.

Today’s lesson is indeed a difficult one. Hearing the law spoken so clearly, the law reminds us that love is hard for mortals. Yet, Jesus asks us to love anyway. We can never succeed in being perfectly like Jesus, for we are not God. So give up that vain hope, but never give up on God. Believe as Jesus teaches that God has not and will not give up on you. Instead, God gives us more than the law. We are given Jesus Christ. He offers us grace and forgiveness. His love is at work in our lives in a way that will not fail to help us grow. Never perfect in this life, we will be empowered to progress in his ways. We are given what we could never deserve or earn on our own…the perfect, life giving love of Christ. You see, both the law and gospel remain proof of God’s love for us. They cannot be separated…ever. Together, Christ will use them both to make us and all things new. Not even sin or death will ever separate us from such a love. That’s the promise of Christ to each of us as his children, and he does not lie. Amen.

Bibliography

Bibleworks for Windows (Version 7) [Computer software]. (2006). Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC.

Engelbrecht, E.A. (Gen. Ed.) (2009). Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. (2009). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Keck, L.E. (Ed.). The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Vol. 8). (1995). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Kolb, R., and Wengert, T.J. (2001). The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (2d edition). Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Mays, J.L. (Ed.). (2000). The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Meeks, W.A. (Ed.). (1993). The HarperCollins Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tunseth, S. (Project Dir.). (2009). Lutheran Study Bible: NRSV Translation. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

Thanks also to Messiah Lutheran’s Daily Discipleship Group. Their honest and wise insights and personal stories of faith and struggle always inspire and teach me.

© 2011 The Rev. Louis Florio. All contents not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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