1 Cor. 3: 1-9
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Matthew 5: 21-37
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
‘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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Many years ago my wife and I attended a charismatic prayer group of about two hundred people. In fact it was where she and I met for the first time, Ali as a worship leader and singer and me as a mere drummer. We married less than a year after we started going out, but not long after we returned from our honeymoon we began to recognise a disturbing new trend in the teaching at this group.
The leadership was a relatively youthful team, although they had a group of older people who offered them guidance, but what we began to recognise was a move towards what used to be called ‘heavy shepherding’, which is a way in which people are put under the control of a mentor who more-or-less tells them how to lead their lives.
Allied with this was a steadily more dogmatic approach to our faith with a sense of ‘don’t this, don’t do that and definitely don’t do the other’. Ali and I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable but we didn’t really know why. There was something so life-denying in what they were saying and doing, a new list of commandments seemed to be emerging where if you even appeared unhappy someone would tell you that was falling short because Jesus loved you so you had to be happy...
Eventually we could take it no more and, like quite a number of our friends, we left, disillusioned and hurt. Some I know never really spiritually recovered from it, and it has taken me a long while to be able to put into words what exactly was wrong, but I’m sharing this story because it has a great deal of bearing on what we read today in the Gospel and should actually shape our entire approach to scripture.
You see when we read those words of Jesus, they also actually seem terribly life-denying and harsh. Not only do you have to keep a lid on your actions, but if you even think the wrong thing the chances are you’ll burn in hell. This kind of reading is simply fuel for the fire of fundamentalists who seek to control your growth into life as Christians by inflicting fear on you. But is the way we read this really what Jesus was saying?
I want to suggest to you that he was actually being life-affirming, and it’ll be interesting to see whether I manage to convince you of that. You see if I preach the words to you as they stand, all they can do in any of us, if we have any degree of self-knowledge at all, is to bring about guilt and self-condemnation. Anger, lust and all the other things we do in our mind, yep I can tick all those boxes. What hope is there for us?
But what if Jesus is going deeper than the words of the Jewish Law, of Torah, in a way that doesn’t simply make it harder to keep, but actually makes it more positive? So let’s look at what he’s saying, beginning with the statement about anger. I was in a discussion group once when we began to talk about anger. One by one almost every one of us admitted that there were people we had encountered in our lives who we had wished dead because of what they had done to us. It was a refreshing degree of honesty.
Does that shock you, or are you honest enough to admit you have felt the same way at some point? You see that’s the endpoint of anger. In the less controlled that endpoint can be easily reached, particularly where we are fuelled by drink or drugs, but most of us will at some point have seen or experienced something so painful, so unjust, that we want retribution, and if it was bad enough we would want that person dead. That’s why we are warned about anger in our thoughts, because of the horrific endpoint.
You see anger, pent-up and indwelling, will change us. It will deny us life because all we can think of is how to get back at that person. Have you ever had those nights when you couldn’t sleep because of the way your mind keeps turning over the events again and again? Anger robs us of our humanity. It stunts us. And we can excuse it and call it righteous anger, or indignation about something that is unjust, but it still steals away our humanity.
It also robs us of our trust in God. Revenge is a way of saying to God, ‘I don’t trust you anymore.’ Deuteronomy 32:35-36 include these words from God, ‘I will take revenge. I will pay them back... the LORD will give justice to his people.’ If we act on our anger, then we are expressing that we don’t trust God to deal with the injustice we’ve been put through.
Now don’t get me wrong on this. If you are in a close relationship with someone who is causing you pain; physical, emotional or spiritual, letting go of your anger and forgiving them is one thing, but you may also have to walk away from that relationship for your own sake. But where there are incidents of injustice in our normal day to day life, where encounters have gone badly and we feel anger about it, those are the festering wounds that can steal our life from us.
And so Jesus paints a life-affirming picture of reconciliation, and this rang real bells with me. Many, many years ago, when I was in a youth group, there were two sisters. The older one was a year younger than me and the younger one was four years younger than me. When I was sixteen the younger one basically asked me for a date. Now she was only twelve, and I was four years older, and at that age it was a huge gap.
I didn’t really know what to say, so I basically lied, and said that I didn’t actually want to go out with anyone at that time. And of course that caught up with me when, only a couple of weeks later I arrived at the youth group with a new girlfriend. The young lady was heart-broken, and I was too stupid even to have realised what I’d done until someone tactfully pointed it out to me.
Nothing more was said for, maybe eighteen months, but then as a youth group we went to Spring Harvest which, if you’ve never heard of it, is a sort of charismatic teaching conference. At one of the evening sessions we had a reconciliation communion, and at that service we were invited to come and take a piece of bread, but not to eat it ourselves; we were to give it to someone we needed to forgive.
Lo and behold the older sister came up to me with a big beamy smile on her face and explained how angry she had been with me for hurting her little sister. We had a chat, she forgave me, I apologised profusely, we hugged and I left with a piece of bread, but more importantly, she left that encounter with her freedom restored. She had let go of her anger, and that is precisely what Jesus intended.
It was about a restoration of humanity. If we hadn’t gone through that it’s possible that even now, thirty years later, she might still be carrying that thorn in her side about what I did to her little sister by lying to her. Jesus’s words may seem harsher than the law, but they were about setting us free, not binding us up.
The same is true about the commands on lust and adultery. These are directed specifically to men in a culture in which women were legally treated as possessions. But Jesus was pushing through that and saying, ‘These woman are not objects to be desired or owned but equals to whom you should have real in-depth relationships.’ The crime of adultery in that culture was one man against another.
If a man committed adultery with another man’s wife, then his crime was not so much a sexual one as one of stealing another man’s possession. But Jesus went beyond that to say, ‘She is not a possession, she is an equal - a person with her own rights, gifts and abilities. You are not to lust after her as an object belonging to someone else.’ Once again he is telling us not to steal the humanity of another away from them.
And the oaths are all a part of the same argument. You swear an oath because you want to reinforce your honesty in a transaction. But in our God-given restored humanity we should be above and beyond that. Our honesty should be a given. We should be the kind of people who simply say yes or no, and because of who we are and our maturity in Christ, that will be sufficient.
If I say, ‘I swear on the Bible to do this’ I am basically saying, ‘Look, on my own I’m not honest enough to say I’ll do it. So I’ll add an extra something to make you believe me.’ But if we learn to live redeemed lives, then our yes and no will be sufficient because people will trust us.
These passages are entirely about truthfulness, love, honesty and faithfulness. They are about reconciliation and relationship. Our church culture at the moment can’t seem to get beyond, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that and don’t do the other’, all of which steal our humanity by adding one burden of guilt on to another. Jesus seeks to lift our burdens and restore our humanity.
So how about you? Is there a need for forgiveness and reconciliation in this church? Are there people in this family who you harbour anger against? How have you allowed that to subtract from your humanity, and what are you going to do about restoring it?
Let us pray.
Lord, your words sometimes seem harsh, yet are really so life-affirming. Where we have caused pain or been hurt, show us how we can make amends. Anoint our conversations with your love and prepare the way for our reconcilations.. Amen