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July 18, 2004

Sunday sermon, anyone?

Today I had the privilege of taking Matins and then assisting at the Said Mass, being Deacon at the Parish Eucharist, and Sub Deacon at the Sung Eucharist where I was also the Preacher.

The readings were interesting and the sermon slot at this service is necessarily short - 10 minutes target - quite a challenge. If you have a mind to read the notes I prepared for it, they are in the extended post below.

Peace and grace be with you all.

“Jesus said unto his disciples, Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of heaven.”

How does one connect up the reading from the Epistle to the Romans, to this quote from the Gospel of St Matthew? How, indeed, does this Passage from our Gospel this morning connect up with the sentiments expressed in the Collect? What does any of it have to do with anger, contempt for others, or debts between us?

What we tend to forget is that these readings were expected to be heard with the lessons from Morning Prayer still ringing in our ears! Yes, by my reckoning and the BCP Lectionary, you should have sat through 2 Samuel Chapter 1 and Acts Chapter 21 verses 1 to 17 first, before attending the communion - and even then you would have had difficulty seeing the link. Mind you, you would probably have had to endure a sermon of about an hour during Matins and we would not have had a sermon here - maybe. So what do we find if we read the Matins lessons? In the first we would have heard of the death of Saul and then David’s execution of the man who slew him. In the second, we would have heard of Paul’s reconciliation with James and the community in Jerusalem.

Significantly, the Jerusalem congregation was still keeping the full Jewish observances, and reading a bit further in Acts you will find that Paul, in an act of reconciliation with his fellow Jews and with the sensitivities of the Jerusalem Church, undergoes the full Jewish purification ceremony. So, is this what today’s Gospel is all about? I would suggest not. Salvation does not come to us from our works or our observances of the law or the ritual or the traditions of this sect or that, it comes from God through the offices of His Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. As the letter to the Romans tells us, in baptism we are baptized into his death, we are buried with Him, and we rise to life in Him. But it is not, of course, quite as simple, is it?

Well, perhaps it is, but it does take a commitment on our part.

A few weeks ago, I shared a conversation with a group of good friends, some of them present this morning. During our discussion, we pondered on whether or not it is possible, once you are baptized and confirmed, to cease to be a Christian. We came to the conclusion that it is; that by a conscious act of putting aside ones membership of congregation, church, or beliefs you can cease to be a Christian. God gives us that freedom, He has given us the power to choose between being one with Him, or to leave His company. Importantly, He does not shut the door to our return - but it is your decision and your actions which open or close that door.

Today’s Gospel seems to suggest, at one level, that we need to develop the zealous observance of the Pharisees - but then there is a problem, because the Scribes, while observing the law, didn’t do so in the same way and in fact argued that there was no afterlife, in complete contradiction of the Pharisaic doctrine. So what does he mean? This passage is in fact saying that we need to observe their steadfastness in belief, we need to practice that which we are taught. Hence, the injunction not to come in anger to meet an acquaintance, no matter how irritating or difficult. We are not to treat people with contempt - God doesn’t and neither should we! We are to treat each other with respect and courtesy, just as God offers us forgiveness and mercy in our foolishness.
Augustine of Hippo is reputed to have told a newly converted and extremely zealous noble woman who asked what she should do to be sure of entry into the Kingdom of heaven; “Love God with all your heart and all your being. And do as you please!”

A good instruction, even though it appears to be flippant. The simple fact is that if you are committed to loving God, you simply cannot do any of the things we are told not to in today’s Gospel. You cannot truly love God and do anything evil. Here, I believe, lies the key to today’s passage. If we are to call ourselves Christians we must be recognizable by the way we conduct our lives, the way we interact with the world and with the people we encounter. You should not have to tell anyone “I am a Christian”; it should be self-evident.

So, can one be Baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ, and not be a Christian? The answer must be yes, but it does not mean that God cannot still love that person and hope for their return.
“Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of heaven.”
In a few minutes we will begin the Eucharistic prayers; as part of the preparation for that act of worship and fellowship, we should be considering how we show our faith and our membership of Christ’s body to the world. If we partake of the bread of fellowship in the Body of Christ and the Cup of Salvation in the Blood of Christ, we should also be identifiable by our actions, attitudes, and lifestyles as Christians. Elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel we read:
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
We should take care to understand that we are not called to be pedantic, we are not called to be restrictive or to impose a particular pattern or style upon each other, but to love God with all our hearts and all our being. We are called to out-Pharisee the Pharisee, to out-Scribe the Scribe in the way we live our faith and show God’s love and compassion to all the world. That is the call, to practice in our daily lives that which we proclaim in Church and in our worship. It was that which the Scribes and the Pharisees failed to do, and it was that which our Lord condemned in them.

It may surprise you to know that this passage comes from the centre of the sermon on the Mount. It helps to read it in that context and to ponder on the whole, rather than a part.
So, are we all Christians? I would hope so, and I would pray that it is apparent to all who know us.


Posted by The Gray Monk at July 18, 2004 08:24 PM