Sermon preached at St. Augustine's Church, Wiesbaden on February 16, the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37, Psalm 119:1-8
Having elected a new church leadership, and awaiting the appointment of a new minister, wouldn’t it have been nice to have had readings this morning about new beginnings, about starting afresh? Something from Paul perhaps: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Or perhaps even one of those lovely images from Revelation: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21:2) But in our tradition the readings are not mine to choose, and rightly so. Just like with prayer, it seems that we often get what we need, rather than what we want. And I think these readings really are just what we need here right now, as they tell us that we have some unfinished business before we can truly start anew.
For a while now our Sunday Epistle has come from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was very diverse, it included Jews and pagans, rich and poor, men and women, slaves and free, philosophers and tradespeople, so it generated a greater diversity of opinions and problems for Paul than any other church. We have two long letters in our Canon, there were probably more. As Tony mentioned in his last sermon a few weeks ago, the community was divided into factions; people were taking sides. They were divided over their leaders, over how to deal with conflict, over moral issues, over the right way to worship, over the value of different spiritual gifts, and over some basic doctrine. In fact one of the few things they did not disagree on was their building – because they didn’t have one. At that time churches met in their members’ homes, sometimes outside, and occasionally even as guests in the synagogue if the head was sympathetic.
Over the course of his letter to the Corinthians – which we will only be looking out one more time in this season, next week, Paul deals with all these issues one by one. But here in the early chapters of his letter, he tells the Corinthians what in his opinion the basic problem is: they are not mature Christians because they have not grasped the nature of authentic community. I suspect they were surprised to hear this. They thought they were clever and intellectual and must therefore be very mature indeed. But as Paul makes clear, faith is not primarily about knowledge or wisdom, but about the heart. True and mature faith must show up, must be reflected in people’s lives. And what showed up in Corinth was a group of people driven by all too human impulses, who were focused on getting their own way, and who were either not attentive to how God’s Spirit was working in them or even actively resisting the Spirit’s work. Instead of acting as spiritual people, to use Paul’s term, they were behaving as people of the flesh, driven by human impulses.
Human impulses, and what they can lead to, are also Jesus’ theme in the section from the Sermon on the Mount we heard from this morning. These particular teachings have sometimes been seen as contradicting the Old Testament commands, because of the phrasing “you have heard” on the one, and “but I say” on the other hand. But if we look at what he actually says, then Jesus does not contradict or reject the Old Testament teaching; instead he deepens and intensifies it. His command is not just do not murder, but do not be angry, not just do not commit adultery, but do not show lustful intention, and not just, do not take God’s name in vain or bear false witness, but do not swear any oaths at all: just say what you will do and do it.
But let’s focus on the issue of anger – and leave lust and swearing for another day! This is a tough one for me too. I can get quite impatient at times, as my children would gladly tell you. I’m not good in traffic jams or queues, I have been known to get very angry with computer printers that keep on jamming, and I can get a more than a little upset about politicians who say things I do not agree with. In fact I may well have taken the Lord’s name in vain once or twice.
And last week at the AGM there was a lot of anger in this room too. It’s not something we can always avoid and there is such a thing as righteous anger too. But if we want to be a truly Christian community, the spiritual people Paul was referring to, and if we want to profess our faith with our lives as well as with our lips, then we cannot let anger stand. If we leave our anger to fester and grow then, just like a fire inside us, it may eventually become all that is left of us – it can take us over completely. It is not enough to just keep to the rule of not murdering someone, our intentions and our feelings matter to. To quote from another sermon I have read on this particular passage: “We can follow the rule and still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us.”
As Christians we are supposed to make love the center of our lives: the love of God and the love of the other. This is a practice - and practice is a word that indicates that we will not manage it without a lot of attempts – attempts that form our hearts and minds, so that both when we wrong and when we are wronged we seek reconciliation. What Jesus is telling us here, using some very drastic images – judgment, hell of fire, prison – is that when we damage our relationships with others, we also damage our relationship with God. We cannot love God if we do not love the other. That is why he tells his listeners that they must first be reconciled to one another, before they can offer God a gift at the altar.
This is still part of Jewish tradition today, especially at the great feast of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Tradition dictates that forgiveness can be sought from God only for transgressions of the laws between a person and God. For transgressions between people forgiveness must first be sought and obtained from the one who was offended, and then – and only then – from God. There must be no unfinished business with one another when we go to God in repentance to seek God’s forgiveness.
In some Jewish communities worshipers will walk around the synagogue during the service on the Day of Atonement, speaking with each other and asking forgiveness from each other for offenses committed during the past year. They are taking the service seriously and not treating it as an empty ritual or as a rule we can follow without the right intention and feelings – without our hearts.
For Christians, every Eucharist is a service of Atonement and reconciliation when we celebrate and commemorate Christ’s sacrifice for us. So let us take this service seriously too, or even more seriously than you normally do. When we come to the Prayers of the People in a moment, please take time to think of and pray for those you have hurt and for those who have hurt you, and ask God for the strength to forgive.
When we come to the Confession, repent sincerely. Remember that we confess not only that we have sinned against God, but also against others because we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. I will leave plenty of time between the invitation and the actual prayer of confession for us all to think about whom we have offended, insulted, or just not loved as we should do.
At the Peace let’s copy that Jewish practice I mentioned earlier. We walk around the church anyway at that time so seek out those you think you have hurt, or feel hurt by, to ask for and offer the peace of God which is forgiveness.
Then we will be ready for the feast of reconciliation, we will be ready to offer God the gift of ourselves and to receive Gods’ gift of new and unending life in God’s Son. As our catechism tells us: “What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist? It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people.”
Let us use our worship to start dealing with our unfinished business and ensuring, especially when we approach the altar, the Lord’s Table, that there is no anger between us and our neighbor. This will be an ongoing process, so the sooner we start, the better. Nor is it something we can manage without God’s help, without the strength and guidance of God’s Spirit in prayer and the spiritual food of Christ’s Body and Blood that we will soon share. As we prayed earlier in the Collect for the day: “in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, so give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed.”