Sunday, August 21, 2016

Conciliatory Church: Sermon on Matthew 5:21-26

Once again, here we are, gathered at the foot of the mountain where Jesus is preaching the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached, the Sermon That Built the Church.  In this sermon, Jesus is outlining his plan for a new society, a new Israel, a new fellowship of believers. He'll gather them from the misfits and bless them, because it's this motley crew who are really kingdom-ready – not the Zealots and not the Pharisees. 

But this blessed group have a mission to be salt and light in the world, to help it get ready for the kingdom, too. And to do that, they need to be righteous in a way only the Spirit can bring. Jesus' instructions aren't canceling the Law; but he's opening up the Law and showing us where it aims and how to get there in the Spirit's power (Matthew 5:1-20). So for the next few weeks, Jesus will be giving us examples of how he wants us to read the Law and live toward its goals.

And the first commandment Jesus tackles is one of the ones we think of first: “Thou shalt not murder.” Jesus reminds the crowd, “You have heard that it was said of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment'” (Matthew 5:21). That's the old standard. I mean, the Law says pretty clearly, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). It says, “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17). 

And it goes on to explain murder in more detail – there are some great passages in Numbers and in Deuteronomy. And what the Law says is that murder is killing that's predatory and violent: striking with an iron or stone or wooden tool, or a fist, or a shove, or any kind of blow that deliberately results in death (Numbers 35:16-21) – and once found guilty “on the evidence of witnesses,” plural (Numbers 35:30), such a person was deemed a murderer and turned over to the 'avenger of blood,' who “shall himself put the murderer to death” (Numbers 35:19).

The murderer can't buy his way out of it; he's guilty of death, liable to judgment (Numbers 35:31). A murder happens when “anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies” (Deuteronomy 19:11). That's what the Law says. 

But before all of that, the Law explains why murder is such a problem. It's not just because it causes chaos in society, though it does. It's not just because it pollutes the land, though it does. It's because “God made man in his own image” that the blood of man is so sacred, and because God holds us sacred as his image-bearers, he takes very seriously any crime against us or our neighbors: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man” (Genesis 9:5-6).

We tend to approve of the verse “Thou shalt not murder.” I mean, who could object to that? Without that, every society would fall apart. And most of us don't commit murder, right? So it's great for justifying ourselves. How many of our neighbors think of themselves as basically good people because they've never murdered anybody? It sounds silly, when you put it like that; but that's what happens when you divide the world into 'good people' and 'bad people' based on a surface reading of the letter of the law.

But these words were never meant to be just a rule. Jesus is not content with the letter of the Law. He aims for the spirit of the Law. So Jesus cracks these words open and lets us peer through the Law, behind the Law, into God's heart. Because God didn't give the Law merely so we'd be a bunch of boys and girls who just obey the rules and pat ourselves on the back. God gave the Law, and now gives the Spirit, to make a people, a whole community, whose heart looks like God's heart.

So when Jesus reads the verse, “Thou shalt not murder,” he make us ask the question, “Where does murder come from? What kind of heart makes murder?” “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder,” and so forth, he says, and that's what really makes a person unclean: what comes out of their heart (Matthew 15:18-19). 

So what kind of heart makes murder? A heart that's full of anger. A heart that's full of contempt. A heart that looks at other people and doesn't see the image of God – or, worse, sees it and disregards it, sees it and despises it. We see it from the very beginning, the first murder that separated two brothers: “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). Why? Because first, “Cain was very angry, and his face fell,” and he refused to keep that anger under control as the LORD told him (Genesis 4:5f.). “We should not be like Cain, who was of the Evil One and murdered his own brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous” (1 John 3:12).

So Jesus gives a new, deeper instruction on his own authority: “Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. Whoever says 'Raca'” – the word means 'empty-head,' 'dimwit,' 'numbskull' – “will be liable to the council. Whoever says, 'Fool!' – this word is worse than Raca, this word, more, means reprobate, unsaved, outside the kingdom – “whoever says 'Fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). 

Jesus is not kidding around. God will judge a murderous heart with all its fruits, even if the actual murder is never acted out with the hands. Any of these offenses, especially against a fellow believer, a 'brother,' are serious. They come from the same place as murder and are crimes in God's sight just like it. His disciple makes it plainly clear: “Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:14-15).

But maybe you're thinking, “Whoa, slow down here. Is all anger bad? I mean, didn't Jesus get angry?” You're right. By one count, there are as many as fifteen different scenes in the Gospels that show Jesus as angry. And certainly he got angry with the Pharisees, and even used the harsh language, calling them fools. (When Jesus or Paul calls the disciples or the Galatians 'foolish,' they're using a different word that means 'thoughtless; but Jesus does use the word moroi for the Pharisees, because it fits.) Does that mean we should be angry? 

The real question is, what kind of anger? Jesus was angry and strict with the Pharisees at times. But Jesus' anger was never the sort of anger that even could have led to murder. Jesus' anger was never sinful anger. Whenever he was angry, he was the only one angry, which tells us he wasn't motivated the way most people are – Jesus' anger was more like super-heated, vocalized grief. He passionately opposed their sins, not for his sake – it was never about a personal offense – but always for their sake, and for the sake of those the Pharisees might harm or mislead. 

His anger was not something selfish; it was selfless. His anger was not something rash; it was patient, because Jesus as God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). His anger was not unreasonable; it was thoughtful and targeted. His anger was not something enduring; it was perfectly measured. And his anger was not hateful or violent; it was peaceful and loving, to the point that his ultimate expression of anger toward the Pharisees' sin and their very real foolishness was not to kill them but to die for them, to subject himself to their murderous anger and to the very wrath of God against their anger. That's what Jesus' anger looked like.

Our anger is so rarely like Jesus' anger. Because our anger is usually not godly anger, not righteous anger. Our anger is natural anger, personal anger, cultivated anger. It's unavoidable to experience anger; those first flashes of anger are a perfectly natural human emotion. And that's the way it should be, because sometimes anger is the right reaction, if it's godly anger and kept under the Spirit's control. 

But more often than not, we let our anger get the best of us, or we're angry for the wrong reasons. And in those cases, our anger can turn into the kind of wrath Jesus warns us can lead to so much trouble – the kind of anger that would be murder, if not nipped in the bud. This kind of anger is enduring, continual; it keeps bubbling beneath the surface. And this kind of anger is destructive – it wants to be vented, it wants revenge, it wants to tear down and destroy. 

And our fallen nature has a knack for taking natural anger, or even godly anger, and perverting it into wrath, by filling it with personal motives and stoking its flames. “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. … Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31-32).

So what is there to do? I mean, it's one thing to warn us about the dangers of anger. But actually to get rid of anger – that's a whole 'nother story, isn't it? How can we be angry and not sin, in the case of godly anger or righteous anger? How can we put all bitterness and wrath and anger away from ourselves, in every other case? 

I think there is a way to do it, though. I believe the gospel offers us a cure for the sort of anger Jesus warns us leads to hell and misery. And as best as I understand it, there are six major steps.

First of all, the Christian cure to murderous anger has to begin in the Holy Spirit. There's no other way. If we want to get deeper than the letter of the Law, if we want to outrun the Law, if we want to get to the heart of the problem, we can't do it effectively in the power of our flesh. We just don't have it in us. That's what the story of Israel shows. We must be born again through the Spirit. And not just that, we have to be practically open to the Spirit. We have to be actively relying on the Spirit.

The second step is to admit our anger. If we can't identify when we're angry, then we won't be able to deal with it, will we? So we have to admit it. We have to own up to it. We have to look at ourselves and say, “Yes, this reaction is anger. Yes, this is contempt.” Admit it. Tell the truth, even if just to yourself. That's the only place to start. There can't be any resolution without confession. Admit your anger.

The third step is to reflect on the root. Ask yourself: “Why am I angry? And how does my soul get from there to being angry?” Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, once said, “What makes you angry is not what's happened to you, but what you tell yourself about what's happened to you.” Say you're angry because you're running late and stuck in heavy traffic. Take a deep breath and think about it: then you're really angry because you expected to be at your destination at a certain time; you see that expectation as being unmet; and you fear the consequences – maybe you fear looking bad, maybe you fear the loss of productivity; and you have the belief that it's important for you not to look bad, for you to be productive. 

Or, let's say you're angry because someone antagonizes you – calls you names, insults you, pulls power-plays against you. Perhaps you're really angry because you feel disrespected, and you fear losing face; perhaps you're really angry because you feel victimized and you have the belief that you should be respected and that the world should be fair. Like James said, “You desire and do not have, so you murder” (James 4:2). That's where it comes from – our expectations and fears, our unfulfilled desires viewed with a worldly eye.

The fourth step is to adopt kingdom vision. If our anger is usually stimulated by the stories we tell ourselves about what happens to us, if our anger has a lot to do with our unmet expectations and fears, then the antidote to a bad story is a better story. Maybe you're angry because you fear looking bad. Remind yourself that God is your Father; that he made you in his image; that he loves you; that his love for you, his opinion of you, doesn't depend on how good you look. 

Maybe you're angry because you fear that if you aren't productive, you'll fall short, or necessary things won't get accomplished and your corner of the world will be worse off as a result. Remind yourself that God values who you are above what you do; that he's already pleased with you in Christ; and that he's in charge of the world and can take care of it with or without you. Remind yourself that you are never alone; that Jesus is in control, so you don't have to be; that he will overcome any mistakes you make; that he gets the last world, not the unfairnesses of life; and that he accepts you as you are and patiently walks with you to become more like he is.

The fifth step – really, every step – is to pray through it. All this admission, all this reflection, all this transformation – it happens best through prayer. Pray for God to take your anger away. Pray for God to cure its causes. Pray for God to heal you of its roots. Pray for God to convince you of his better truth. And friends, if you're angry at someone, the best cure for it is to pray for them. 

It's hard, I know. I mean, maybe it's easy to ask God to change them. It's harder to take someone you're angry at, someone you're furious with, and ask God to bless them, ask God to be kind to them and gracious to them. That is hard. But we were given the Spirit to do hard things. And I'll challenge you: if there's someone who's crossed your mind while I've been preaching this morning, somebody you're angry with or somebody who's angry with you, I'd challenge you to try this. Really try praying for them, the way you'd pray for your best friend. You may find that that's what it takes for God to set you free.

And the sixth step is to actually practice anger's opposite. That's the giant leap forward Jesus offers us here in this passage. To beat anger, be proactive in seeking reconciliation. If you're angry with your boss, your co-worker, your friend, your neighbor – own up to it and overcome it with acts of kindness. Be the answer to your own prayer for God to bless them.

But Jesus doesn't leave it there, does he? Jesus actually gives us illustrations that go beyond the sixth step. It's good to cure ourselves of sinful anger. But if it's good for us to cure our sinful anger, it's good for us to cure their anger, too – the anger we cause in other people. Cain asked if he was his brother's keeper. And the answer is yes. Yes, we are our brothers' and sisters' and neighbors' keepers – we are responsible for one another. I know that goes against a culture that says every man for himself. I know it undercuts the pride that tells us we aren't responsible for anybody else's burdens or problems. But Jesus tells us otherwise.

In fact, Jesus tells us two radical stories about how far we should go to conquer anger in others, to guard and protect them from sliding down this terribly slope on our account. First, he tells the crowd to imagine this: you've gone to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God, and you've brought a sacrifice to the altar as a gift for God. But at that moment, you remember that someone – specifically, your brother, as in, a fellow follower of Jesus – has a grievance against you, a real reason to be angry with you (Matthew 5:23). What should you do? Jesus tells us: “Leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24).

That must have shocked everybody who heard Jesus say it, for at least two reasons. First of all, worship at the temple was only supposed to be interrupted in an emergency – pretty much, a life or death situation. And so Jesus is telling us that our relationships with one another as his people are that serious – this is life or death, this matters that much – it matters more to God than our sacrifices, our worship songs, or this sermon. 

And second, the crowd here knows that Jesus doesn't just mean somebody down the road. He's preaching this message in Galilee, which was about eighty miles from Jerusalem. And odds are, if anybody listening to Jesus ends up in this situation, the brother in question is a fellow Galilean. So Jesus is saying, leave the animal there, tied up at the altar; walk eighty miles back to Galilee; deal with the problem, be proactive in reconciliation; and then you can walk eighty miles to Jerusalem again to finish the sacrifice.

But Jesus knows the Law, and the Law always put confession and restitution before sacrifice (Leviticus 6:1-7; Numbers 5:5-8). So must we. Even the rabbis agreed that worship was pointless if tainted by unreconciled relationships and unrepented sin; they said that atoning sacrifice only covered sin between two Israelites, two members of God's people, if they restored good will between them through confession and restitution. 

If you know that another believer has cause to be angry with you – if you realize you've done wrong to someone and given them a reason to be angry, a reason to risk going down this path – then it's more important for you to deal with it than for you to be here right now. Don't waste time.

But Jesus tells one more story. “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25-26). It's an especially meaningful story this Sunday, since unless our church vandal changes his plea to guilty, Wilmer and I will be testifying in court two days from now. 

But the reason Jesus tells this story is that we aren't just responsible for fellow believers. Even our enemies, when they have a legitimate grudge, are our problem. And Jesus reminds us that there are practical consequences. If we're too bitter and stubborn to try conciliating our enemies, too bitter and stubborn to admit we've done wrong and try to fix it, then we'll pay the price. And he already hinted at the ultimate price we might pay. So come to terms quickly, he says. Doesn't necessarily mean make a friend – though Jesus sure isn't against that. But even your enemy, even the person who brings you up on charges – come to terms, try to cure them of their anger as much as it's within your power. Show care even for your accuser.

Jesus has a pretty radical vision. I felt pretty challenged as I read and re-read his words in preparation for this morning's message. And if you aren't feeling convicted this morning, either I got in the way of God's word for you, or you're perfect, or you may want to take a closer look at yourself. But the point of Jesus' message isn't just to give each isolated individual some advice on how to take care of his or her individual soul. Soul-care is important, but Jesus is outlining his plan for all Israel, for his whole community of believers. He's trying to shape their life together, trying to form them – form us – into the right kind of people, the right kind of church.

So let me ask you: what would a church look like if they lived like this? If they went to such lengths to guard against anger or contempt; if they looked at one another as brothers and sisters, if they bent over backwards to avoid anger, if they viewed all people as made in God's image and worth protecting, if they really embodied the gospel of love and dignity and reconciliation. 

Actually, I think one of the healthiest things about our church is that we've made a true commitment to doing this, at least in our life together. Sadly, most congregations aren't quite there. But maybe you have grievances or broken relationships outside this fellowship – and certainly, there are people who have absented themselves from our church because of nursing a grudge two or three decades old. That's a tragedy. That's exactly the sort of fractured fellowship Jesus was trying to prevent. 

What would it look like if we lived this out more fully? A window on the kingdom of God, I think. May the Lord preserve us from anger, may the Lord bring us together, may the Lord make us a people of peace in heart, head, and hands. Amen.

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