TRINITY VI – Dominus fortitudo
Introit: (Ps. 28) The Lord is the strength of his people, and the defence of salvation to his anointed ones: O Lord, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance: O feed them and set them up for ever. Ps. Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my strength, be not silent unto me: Lest, if thou make as though thou hearest not, I become like them that go down into the pit. Glory be … The Lord is the strength …
Collect: O God, who hast prepared for them that love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding: Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: And Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone. And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the Name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. And he said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us (for it is a stiffnecked people); and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance. And the Lord said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among whom thou art shall see the work of the Lord: for it is a fearful thing that I will do with thee. (Exodus 34.4-10)
Gradual: (Ps. 90) Turn thee again, O Lord, at the last, and be gracious unto thy servants. V. Lord, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another.
Epistle: Brethren: So many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6.3-11)
Alleluia. In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, let me never be put to confusion: but rid me and deliver me in thy righteousness: bow down thine ear to me; make haste to deliver me. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: 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. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca [i.e., worthless or empty one], shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (St Matthew 5.20-26)
“For as by one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience many were made sinners,
so by the obedience of one [Jesus] shall many be made righteous.” (Rom 5.19)
Salvation in Christ is more than just the proverbial “fire insurance”—it involves a change in lifestyle that leaves the old human nature dead and gives birth to a “new creation”—an entirely re-created person, who finds his life in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. In fact, as the Epistle of St James teaches, faith without the evidence of a new life is not real faith at all. In today’s Epistle reading St Paul uses the imagery of death and rebirth through Baptism to explain how we are made partakers of this regenerate condition. Would a dead man raised to life again crawl back into his casket and ask to be put back in the ground? To continue in sin would be like a freed slave returning to a life of bondage. Thus, Paul continues (vv. 12-14), “Let not sin reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members unto sin as instruments of unrighteousness: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall have no dominion over you, for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”
Of course, God’s grace does not make us instantly holy. Sanctification is a life-long process, gradually drawing us further away from sin as the Holy Spirit works in our lives. But the underlying question St Paul poses is: Are we actually walking away from the tomb of sin and death, or are we content just to sit in the doorway with one foot in God’s Kingdom and the other still in the kingdom of the world? We cannot enter into the new life Christ offers until we set our hearts on Him and begin walking away from the tomb with both feet. In the Gospel Jesus warns us that God looks not just at our outward actions, but into our hearts, examining our thoughts, attitudes, and motives.
Our Gospel today comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord began His sermon with what we call the Beatitudes, and then tells the crowds that they are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It all sounds quite rosy and idyllic. But then He begins to put a finer point on things. In verse 20, where today’s Gospel begins, He declares: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What? Everyone knew that the Pharisees were the most “righteous” people around. They lived their whole lives, right down to the smallest detail, as closely as possible in accordance with the Law—and not just the Ten Commandments, but all the minutiae of the Oral Law. That, they believed, was how the Messianic Kingdom would come: when all Israel came to live this way. The problem, of course, was that it was impossible for any human being to do so. And yet here was Jesus, talking to common people and telling them: If you want to see the Kingdom, you have to do better even than the Pharisees! Well, maybe He didn’t exactly mean what it sounded like He was saying … But then He continues, indicating that this was indeed precisely what He meant—“You have heard that it was said in ancient time, Thou shalt not commit murder; and whoever commits murder will be liable to the judgement. But I say to you, that anyone who harbours anger against his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the Council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ (cf. Ps. 14.1: “The fool hath said in his heart: there is no God;” thereby implying that he is an infidel), will be liable to the fires of Gehenna.” No, His message seems pretty clear—the righteousness of the Pharisees doesn’t go far enough. So what hope is there for the rest of us? Nobody can be more righteous than the Pharisees, can they? And that is precisely the point: Nobody can be that righteous. As Isaiah said: “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Is 64.6) No, nobody is that righteous—except Christ Himself.
But let us step back for a moment, and ask: Why did Jesus go up on a mountain to teach His disciples? Many would answer that it was because it provided a natural amphitheatre so the crowds could hear Him better. And that is probably true, but there is more to it than that. There is also a deeper symbolic significance. Remember, the Lord gave the Law to Israel on Mount Sinai. Moses went up the mountain and received the Law directly from God. So now again the Lord, Jesus, is giving the people the divine Law from the mountain. And it is not a new Law that He gives—He simply teaches that there is a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. He begins by saying, “the ancient commandment says, thou shalt not kill … But I say to you …” Then He goes on to talk about anger and hatred. Now you and I are hopefully not inclined to walk down the street with a gun and commit murder. Some of us won’t even kill a mouse or squash a bug. But we should not delude ourselves that we are good and righteous and justified, simply because we are keeping literally to the Ten Commandments. So we haven’t killed anybody this week? We have not robbed any banks, or committed adultery, or worshipped idols? Bravo! Good for us. But that is just the letter of the law. Our Lord is saying that, in the Kingdom of God, there is to be a far different approach to the Law. The scribes and Pharisees kept the externals of the laws literally and meticulously: no more, and no less. But Jesus says that righteousness goes far deeper than just obeying the rules. We commit sin and offend God not only by the act, but even by the thought, or the desire to act. We can destroy people with our words, assassinate their character, and kill them in our hearts. This is the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and we see this distinction made over and over in the Scriptures. St John, for example, in his first epistle, says that if you speak ill of your neighbour you are guilty of murder (I Jn 3.15).
We all struggle with anger from time to time. Simply stopping short of murder is not enough. The way of the Kingdom is reconciliation. This contrasts not just with the righteousness of the Pharisees, but with the general attitude of the whole human race. The Pharisees tried to live their lives as if they were perpetually in the presence of God. Yet it would never have occurred to them that, to come into the Temple before the presence of our holy God, seeking reconciliation—which was the purpose of the sacrifices—while at the same time being angry or at odds with a neighbour, made a mockery of the sacrifice and effectively nullified it. Our duty of love and consideration toward our neighbour is our duty toward God. As St John says in another passage (I Jn 4.20), “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and yet hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” In other words, don’t even try to pretend that you are a good person and love God while you bear grudges and animosity toward someone else. Similarly, Our Lord teaches that, before we try to come before God and act all pious and religious, we had best straighten out our affairs with the people around us. Unless you are better than the best at keeping the Law, unless you are perfect, you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven. So, getting into heaven is impossible, at least by our own efforts. But this is where God’s grace comes into play. We cannot do it, so Christ does it for us.
These days, everyone is angry about something, and probably many things at the same time. Outrage is the latest virtue. And it feels so good, doesn’t it? But then, have you ever acted out of anger and then looked back positively upon it? The riot might temporarily satisfy your anger, but in the morning, someone has a big mess to clean up. So, what’s so bad about anger, about holding on to our grudges and resentments? After all, it’s just feelings, isn’t it? It doesn’t hurt anybody … except that it does! Indeed, it hurts everybody. The problem with anger is that if it is not dealt with, if it is not relieved by forgiveness and reconciliation, if it is not confessed to God so that it can be taken away and cleansed by the cross of Christ, it stays with us and will ultimately destroy us. We brood over it, replaying the incident in our minds like a video loop, with ever greater emphasis on its gravity and injustice, allowing the anger to fill our hearts and minds and souls—letting it build and grow in a way that poisons our lives and our relationships. As our anger simmers, our remembrance and assessment of the offence is gradually distorted. We begin to bring our accusations against the offender in the court of our minds, where we hold a secret trial in which we both prosecute and pass judgement upon the miscreant and their supposed motives and intentions. And the more we stew over it, the angrier we become. Then we remember all the other offences that we have suffered at the hand of that person, as well as all the other people who have hurt us. And this fuels our anger even more. We maintain that we are in the right; that we are justified in our anger and judgement of them. And before we know it, the anger leads to bitterness and resentment, which in turn, leads to outrage, hatred, and lust for revenge. But we don’t (usually) attack them physically. We do so verbally, emotionally, and spiritually. We talk to others about them to bring them to our side so that they will join us in condemning them. We destroy their reputation. We reject them in our hearts, avoid and shun them, and treat them as being dead to us. This is spiritual murder. And by cutting ourselves off from our brothers and sisters, we cut ourselves off from Christ, as well. And that is spiritual suicide. We end up stewing in our own poison, in a hell of our own making. We take the position of the scribes and the Pharisees, following their righteousness. And “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Thus, Jesus emphasizes the importance of reconciling with the person who has done us wrong, or whom we have wronged. If we refuse to make amends, we risk imprisonment, whether that be a literal prison or a state of living with the dark cloud of anger and resentment overshadowing all we do. Reconciliation is the sign that disciples belong to Jesus, and the refusal to be reconciled is a rejection of the forgiveness and reconciliation that Christ has come to offer. The words, “I just can’t forgive” or “I won’t forgive,” are deadly and frightening words. There is nothing more crucial to our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing than forgiveness and reconciliation. And we may even have to die a little bit in order to achieve it. But holding on to our anger is a poison that will only grow and lead us farther away from God’s forgiveness, from the reconciliation of sinners to the Father, the reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ, and toward a life worse than death itself.
“Come to terms quickly with your adversary (opponent-at-law) while you are with him in the way.” Who is our “adversary”? Usually that would refer to the devil (“Satan” is Aramaic for “adversary”). But that would not make good sense in this context. St Paul says in Romans that “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” (Rom 8.7; cf. James 4.4) Thus, in this instance, Our Lord is saying that, if we are bearing hateful thoughts or otherwise harbouring sin in our hearts, we make God our adversary. And He is the One who, unless we repent, fall upon His grace and mercy, and amend our lives, will deliver you to the officer who will throw you into prison, from which there is no escape until you have paid the last cent. That prison has traditionally been interpreted as referring to Purgatory. But with Christ as our Advocate, we can approach the judgement seat, “Knowing this, that our old man (i.e., our sinful human nature) is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” St Paul goes on to say in the continuation of this passage from Romans (vv. 12-14), “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”
Every aspect of our lives should be a gift, offered in service to God. This is what St Paul says in Romans 12: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (i.e., a willing and intelligent act of worship). And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” We cannot offer something to God if we are withholding something from our brother, and what we give to our brother, we are giving to God. Thus, if we bear anger or hatred or apathy toward our neighbour, we are bearing that anger and hatred and apathy toward God—a sobering realisation. So, Jesus says, “leave your offering there before the altar; go and reconcile with your brother. Then your offering will be pleasing and effectual before God.”
Our Lord’s message in this Gospel lesson focusses not on merely acting in ways that “technically” follow the rules, but on a new way of seeing the Law. He is showing us that relating to one another in ways that reflect the love and grace of God moves us beyond the old way of living. He offers us a new and better way. He does not want us just to “follow the rules,” but to consider the state of our hearts and minds and souls. This new way brings reconciliation with God and with all of His creation, affording us a glimpse of His Kingdom right here and right now. If we are filled with the love of God, then the Law will take care of itself. We forgive others as God has forgiven us. True reconciliation comes about when we respond to others based on God’s love and not just our feelings. When we engage with one another in this spirit of love and grace, it leads to wholeness in all our relationships. We restore and bring healing to the brokenness that we experience with one another. We see one another through the lens of God’s love and mercy.
The Sermon on the Mount sets forth no new laws; it simply presents the truth of God’s ancient and eternal Law with greater clarity, and from a different perspective—not only external acts, but internal attitudes. Jesus is showing us that it is impossible to measure up to God’s Law on our own or fulfil it by our own efforts. But Christ is the perfect fulfilment of the Law, and He is our Righteousness. Through Baptism we have been united to Him, we have put on Christ like a garment, and have been clothed in His righteousness. Our old human self has been put to death with Him on the cross, and we have been raised from the dead with Him. As our sins have been forgiven, so likewise we must forgive others, as we walk with Our Lord “in newness of life.”
“For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (I Samuel 16.7)
Collect: O Almighty Lord and everlasting God, vouchsafe, we beseech thee: to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, our thoughts, words, and deeds, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that through thy most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in body and soul; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.