This week I heard this section of the Sermon on the Mount described as Jesus doing a cannonball plunge into the pool of scripture, law, and tradition. And I think that is an apt metaphor. Nearly every public pool I have ever been to has had rules against doing cannonballs. They make too big a splash, getting wet those lounging on the edge of the pool, creating waves that disrupt the weaker swimmers, and generally just annoying everyone around. While Jesus was never one to dip his toe into the water before easing himself in when it came to interpreting God and God’s laws – what we heard today was not just a dive into the deep end. Rather it was a dramatic plunge that upset everything in and around the pool.
Today we are once again with the crowds listening to Jesus’ first great discourse, his first public sermon and teaching. The Sermon on the Mount is a complex and radical approach to teaching about God and God’s Kingdom. And, today’s portion of that sermon, which is still very much just the beginning, makes it clear that Jesus has not come to simply repeat what others have already said. But, as I hope to make clear, he also didn’t just want to upset everything or tell people what they had been told about God and God’s laws was wrong. Instead, he came to make God’s ways and promise for humanity real for everyone. In a sense, he was hoping to get everyone lounging on the side of God’s Kingdom to jump in with him, and make some waves.
In the verses that immediately precede today’s, Jesus had said two very important things: first that he had come to fulfill the laws, not abolish them. Second, that his followers were to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees whose job it was to enforce the religious laws of that time. But, after what we heard today, it can seem like Jesus immediately reversed himself. That in fact he came to abolish the laws and was teaching others to disregard them. Which would in turn make his followers less righteous. It’s never easy with Jesus, I admit. But, at least it provides me with some job security trying to help you understand all of this!
There is a pattern to this part of Jesus’ sermon, and it goes like this: He says, “you have heard it said,” and then he quotes the religious laws of his time. Then he immediately says, “but I say to you,” and seems to change or even upend the laws. Those laws, if you remember, that he said he came to fulfill and not abolish. Let’s hear it again: “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder, and those who murder are liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, if you are angry you are liable to judgment. And if you are insulting you are liable to judgment.” Going on he said, “you have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery.” And on and on he goes. Quoting the laws of the Torah that he knew so well and either changing them so they are not familiar anymore, or perhaps creating an impossible standard for people. But I don’t think that is what he was doing. Instead, I think he was reminding his followers that the laws of people and the laws of God are two very different things.
It can seem that what Jesus is teaching about is murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing falsely. But I think he was teaching about relationships. He was teaching about what it means to be in relationship with the people around us. Murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing falsely are, fundamentally, about how we value the people in our lives and honor their humanity. The law, he is saying, was never intended to be the goal. It was intended to be a means of establishing, nurturing, and protecting relationship. The laws of humanity were created, rightly, to order our lives and how we interact with one another. But, the law is the start, the base, the bear minimum. But as people of God we are to do more than the bear minimum, Jesus is saying.
Most of us have probably never murdered another person. But have our anger, insults, or name-calling left another dead to us so that they are no longer a part of our world? We may not be in an adulterous affair but have our thoughts, fantasies, or the way we see and perceive another objectified and depersonalized them? This is about more than sexuality. It happens every time we dehumanize and strip another of life making them a thing to be used. Maybe we’ve never been divorced or if we have there were good reasons and it was necessary, but there’s a deeper question. Have we treated another as disposable, here today gone tomorrow, as if we had no need of them and they had no inherent value?
Obedience to God’s law, Jesus says, is more than just keeping the rules. It is, ultimately, keeping the relationship. That is a choice each one of us makes every moment of every day. That choice comes from deep within us. It is the choice between life and death. None of us ever really lives an individual life isolated from others. We’re not choosing life or death only for ourselves but for each other, for our neighbors, for our enemies, for the stranger on the street, and for the anonymous faces across the world. If we choose life for another so have we chosen life for ourselves and if we choose death for another so have we chosen death for ourselves. Every time we choose life, every time we keep the relationship, we are participating in the life of God. We are exhibiting the divine attributes. We are making God present in this world through our life and humanity. The reason we can do this with each other is because God first does it with us. Just as Jesus started his Sermon on the Mount by blessing each person there, God starts God’s relationship with us with blessing and life.
Jesus did not come to abolish the law, he came to fulfill it. To internalize it. To intensify it. To make it real for everyone. To say to us – as people of God we are not simply to just do the bear minimum as set forth by the basic laws of humanity. We are to do more. To choose life and love in how we interact with one another. To see in the faces of our neighbors and strangers the face of God. Jesus said to the people, ‘quit lounging on the side of the pool thinking you have done everything that is necessary, but instead jump into the deep end with me and make it real.’
I am not sure there has ever been a better time to be reminded of this than now. Humanity, it seems to me, needs to jump into the pool of God’s Kingdom and remember that relationships are the goal. Our world is so fractured. Our relationships with one another too often feel like shouting matches. We look at our neighbor, make a quick judgment about who they are based on what they look like, or the political lawn sign that have set out, and decide they are not worth our time or love. We read the headlines and shut down, because we just can’t take it anymore. We are running full steam into an election year, and rather than celebrating our democracy, we are drawing lines in the sand.
And, obeying the law, is simply not enough. As people of God we are called to internalize and intensify what it means to follow God’s law. And, what is that law, you ask? Jesus was asked that question as well. The greatest commandment, the most important law, Jesus taught is to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. And the second, just as important, Jesus taught, is to love your neighbor as yourself. Everything must begin from there. Just as Jesus started his ministry by blessing those around him, we are called to start our relationships with everyone we encounter with blessing. With love. With life.
Because, we do have that choice. We have a choice about how we are going to interact with those around us, how we are going to honor relationships, every second of every day. As I said, no one lives a truly isolated life. We are all connected to one another in and through God. And we have a choice to make in every single interaction. Do we choose to see that person as a beloved child of God, as someone created in the image of God? Do we choose life for ourselves and the other? Or do we choose, instead, to simply do the bear minimum, to obey the law as set forth by humanity, and not go deeper by following the law of God? This is a choice we need to make over and over again. In some interactions, we will do a great job. We will dive into the Kingdom of God just like Jesus and the effects will create waves of love and life. And, there will be plenty of times, when we simply do the basics, and nothing more. Nothing that honors the true humanity of the person in front of us. Nothing that creates relationship. We will be confronted with the choice over and over again.
Jesus says, choose love. Choose life. Choose relationship. Choose God. This is a lesson our world needs more than ever. Because too often, death and hate and evil are chosen instead. And as we weep, God weeps. God mourns alongside us. But, God does not give up hope. God knows us, knows humanity, in our truest ways. And God knows that we can always do more. Jesus knew that. That’s why he intensified and called on people to internalize what it means to follow the law of God. He knew, just as God knows, what we are capable of. His Sermon on the Mount was not simply a call to make real the Kingdom of God. It was also a promise that the Kingdom of God will be made real by us. That is a promise that has been and will continue to be fulfilled. That is a promise given to us by Jesus Christ, God in flesh, God walking amongst us, God understanding just want it means to be human and the struggles and choices we are called to make every moment of every day. It is a promise by God and therefore it is one that we can achieve. Jesus taught that not just can we do better and more, but that we are capable of doing better. Doing more. That we have it within us.
The next person we meet will set before us a choice. Here at church, in our family, at work, at school, running our errands, or any one of a thousand other places. The choice will be there. Let’s not leave here today not knowing what we will choose. The choice does not depend on the person or the circumstances. It depends on us. Let’s choose life, let’s keep the relationship. Let’s not stop choosing and keeping so that wherever we go, whoever we are with, whatever we are doing there is nothing but life, love, and God. This choice and promise is a gift from God. Hallelujah and amen.