We brought my father to church with us, this morning. Which, in some ways, is payback for the many years that he and my mother brought my sisters and I to church with them.
In fact, being part of the church has been a part of my life since before I can remember, which means that I have spent many years hearing and reading about the life and teachings of Jesus.
And yet, every time that I turn my attention to the Sermon on the Mount – which, it can be suggested, represents the core teachings of Jesus – I find myself challenged and even troubled, at how difficult these words are to live by.
In fact, if Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount does not make us uncomfortable, if his words do not make us squirm, we are not taking them very seriously.
The Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, sets before us some of the most challenging commands and invitations that are to be found anywhere in the Bible. They articulate an incredibly high – if not impossible – standard for holiness.
And today’s suggested passage, from Matthew 5: 13 – 20, is no exception.
The passage starts gently enough. Those who seek to follow Jesus are called to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”, to let their light shine, and to do so publicly and explicitly so that, as the text states, “they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
And we think to ourselves, great – sign me up!
Who would not want to take up this mantle of being known as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”?
There is nothing uncomfortable about such an invitation.
But then the passage continues. And it starts to get uncomfortable.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus said, and proceeded to explain that his presence, his teachings were not to be understood as some form of belief that rendered the law obsolete or the rules irrelevant.
To the contrary, he was setting a higher standard for his followers than what they had previously known. The Law and the prophets that Jesus was referring to already called people to a high standard of belief and conduct. But he wanted his followers to embrace a form of obedience that would be so all-encompassing that it would transform them from the inside out.
And this is where it starts to get uncomfortable.
Because what he was essentially suggesting was that holiness, obedience, faithfulness were no longer simply determined by one’s external actions, but rather by the purity and quality of their internal being as well as their external behaviour.
And – if we are all going to try to be honest for a moment – none of us measure up.
And we never will.
Consider, after all, some of the demanding challenges, the standards that Jesus was setting before his followers in subsequent portions of Matthew chapter 5.
They all knew, for example, that the law forbade killing. Thou shalt not kill. But, Jesus said, even if you have harboured anger towards another, or if you have called another person a fool, it is as if you have killed them.
And who among us can honestly say that we have never harboured anger, or considered, or even called someone else a fool, an idiot…or worse?
In the same way, they knew – as we all do – that committing adultery was contrary to the Law. But, Jesus said, if any of his followers ever looked at another person with lust, it was as if they had broken their vows.
Now, I am no mindreader, but I suspect that I might not be the only person in this room who may – at some point in my life – not have fully lived up to the high standard that is set in Jesus’ words.
And his demanding, challenging words just kept coming. He spoke about divorce and remarriage; about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile; about keeping one’s word and not needing to add anything to a simple yes or no in order to demonstrate integrity; about giving to everyone who begs, lending to anyone who asks for help, about cutting off our own hands or gouging out our own eyes if we do anything or see anything that would render us less than completely perfect.
And then, he spoke of love. Jesus’ followers knew – as we all do – that love is important. But if his followers truly wanted to obey him, their love was no longer only to be limited to those who were good and kind and loving towards them. Rather, they were to love their enemies, they were to love those who treated them badly, just as fully as they loved those who loved them.
And who among us can honestly say that we have always acted in loving ways towards those who do terrible things to us?
These are high standards – all of which were only amplified by Jesus’ words in verse 20 — “for I tell you,” he said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Suffice it to say that if any of us think that these words do not measure us and find us lacking; if these incredibly high standards do not make us uncomfortable, if they do not make us squirm; well, if any of you can honestly say that you have lived your life fully and completely in accordance with the standards articulated in the Sermon on the Mount… well, congratulations.
Congratulations, because your name is probably Jesus…and the sermon, this morning, is not intended for you.
But for the rest of us, well, let’s be honest and admit that we have not lived up to these standards. Which means that when Jesus stated that unless our behaviour exceeds the righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees demonstrated, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven – well, we might as well accept that we do not have much hope of getting there.
Because your name is not Jesus, nor is mine.
But therein, strangely, lies the good news in this passage, and in the Gospel.
Because, ultimately, the invitation to enter into the kingdom of God is not – and has never been — based on how perfectly we can measure up to these challenging and demanding standards.
These are the ideals to which Christ calls us, and it can be inspiring to realize that these amazing ideals are always worth striving towards, because they remind us of the potential that is set before us; the capacity for goodness that is ours as human beings; the standard for wholeness and for holiness that we can strive to achieve.
But in all our striving is towards such perfection, if we think that we either need to measure up to these standards or we should throw up our hands in frustration and give up, we have not fully comprehended the Gospel message.
Because the Gospel message is that our entry into that peaceable kingdom, our incorporation into that state of living, joyful, wondrous peace, is not about whether we can be good enough, or holy enough, or perfect enough, or obedient enough to get there on our own.
Rather, the Gospel message is that Jesus has lived the life that is described in the Sermon on the Mount, and that he simply invites each and every one of us to turn to him in trust and in faith, and realize that he has already done all that is necessary for our salvation, that he has accomplished for us what we cannot accomplish on our own.
The Gospel message is that we are loved, not because of what we have done, but in spite of what we have done. We are forgiven, not because we are perfect, but because we have sinned. We are saved, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but because a Saviour has come to us. We might not have not lived up to the high standards that are envisioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but Jesus has.
Which does not – and should never – lead us to a state of spiritual complacency, but rather to a state of spiritual renewal. We still are invited to strive towards the ideals that are set before us in the Sermon on the Mount, and that were lived in the life of Jesus.
But no longer do we need to focus on how far we are from this standard; instead, we are called to keep our eyes on Christ, and accept that our mistakes, our sins, our failures to achieve that high standard are already covered by his forgiveness, his grace, his love. It is his holiness that stands in for our failures, his life that sets the high standards for holiness, his love that saves us.
There are so many ways that the Church, over the centuries, has tried to articulate this central tenet of the Gospel message. Some have spoken about it in terms of Christ paying the ransom for our sins; some have spoken in grand theological constructs such as substitutionary atonement; some have spoken of Christ as mediator, as intercessor, as vicarious sacrifice – all of which are attempts to explain this idea that Christ achieved, on our behalf, the high standard for holiness that ushers us into the kingdom of God.
But, for me, perhaps the most touching and memorable explanations is found in a book called Travelling Mercies, written by the wonderful American author, Annie Lamott, about her sometimes raw and often moving journey towards faith. After a long and often depressing struggle, she finally finds herself calling a new minister at a church in her neighbourhood. She did not really know the minister, but went to see him anyways. She writes that she could tell,
…that he was really listening, that he could hear what I was saying, and so I let it all tumble out — the X-rated motels, my father’s death, a hint that maybe every so often I drank too much.
I don’t remember much of his response, except that when I said I didn’t think God could love me, he said, “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.” …
He was about the first Christian I ever met whom I could stand to be in the same room with. Most Christians seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you weren’t. [He] said it bothered him too, but you had to listen to what was underneath their words. What did it mean to be saved, I asked, although I knew the word smacked of Elmer Gantry for both of us.
“You don’t need to think about this,” he said.
“Just tell me.”
“I guess it’s like discovering you’re on the shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and maybe not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, ‘I’ll take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again.”
And so, when it comes to trying to live according to the high standards for holiness that the ancient Sermon on the Mount sets before us, maybe it best simply to accept that these standards are always worth striving towards even though we have not, and we never will, be as completely perfect as we are called to be.
But the good news is that the One who has achieved this amazing standard for holiness is the One who calls to us to get up, get off the shelf, and live again.
And for that, all that we can say is, thanks be to God.