5th Sunday before Lent
Isaiah 58.1-12, Matt 5.13-20
“I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it,” says Jesus.
Five hundred years ago, Europe was in turmoil. All sorts of groups were breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and setting up new churches. Lutherans, Calvinists, Quakers, our own C of E and countless others. There was an explosion of ideas as people started reading the Bible for themselves and questioning what they had been taught. Which was great, except that alongside the new wisdom there was a whole lot of folly too.
One of the new groups that formed then is known to history as the Ranters. The Ranters had got very excited by Martin Luther’s central message, the message which kick-started the Reformation, the idea that we are saved by grace, by God’s own initiative, his decision, his love, rather than by anything we do – good works, prayer, ritual and so on. They got so excited by this that, frankly, they let it run away with them completely. If we are already saved by God, freed from our sins, home and dry, they said, then surely it doesn’t matter what we do or how we live. We don’t have to keep all sorts of rules to make God love us – he loves us and accepts us anyway. In fact, if we really trust him and believe in his love, they thought, then we ought to do whatever we like, however scandalous it is, just to show our faith in that love. The more outrageous your behaviour, the more you demonstrate your trust in God’s grace.
Church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch paints a wonderful picture of what happened next. “[They] expressed their God-given freedom,” he says, “by ecstatic blasphemy, joyous tobacco smoking and running naked down the street.” *
The Ranters never really caught on as a mass movement, which is probably just as well, but they weren’t the first group to think like this and they haven’t been the last. There have always been Christians who have believed that if God’s love is a gift, not something we can earn or deserve, then the logical follow-on is that it doesn’t matter what we do at all. If you like collecting long words, then you’ll want to know that this idea is called antinomianism – that’s one to drop into the conversation over Sunday lunch if you can. Antinomianism. “Nomos” means law in Greek. Christian faith isn’t about keeping laws, says the antinomian. God accepts us whatever we do, so we might as well do as we like…
Hmmm… Feeling sceptical…? You’re not alone. The problem is what that leads to. To “ecstatic blasphemy, joyous tobacco smoking and running naked down the street” it seems.
Balancing order and freedom, law and love, has always been a challenge for Christians, right from the start. In the Gospels the scribes and Pharisees are often portrayed as the bad guys, the ones who opposed Jesus. They were famous for their attachment to the Law of Moses. They insisted that people observe the minutiae of every commandment in the Scriptures. Jesus often clashed with them, challenging them in his words and deeds. He healed on the Sabbath and he ate with those who according to the law were unclean sinners. He seemed to the scribes and Pharisees to be playing fast and loose with the rules of their faith and they were scandalised. But this freedom to reinterpret and reevaluate the law was like water on dry ground to many who had been excluded from the synagogues and Temples. For the early Christians it was a message which was central to this new faith. Gentiles were welcome; there was space for those who had always been regarded as outsiders till now. But did this mean that those ancient commandments of God had no place in the church, that the law didn’t matter any more, that, as the Ranters thought, you could just do whatever you wanted now?
Not according to Matthew in the passage we heard from his Gospel this morning. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it,” says Jesus here. This passage is Matthew’s answer to the antinomians in the communities he wrote for. But he’s not just reasserting the old rules. What Matthew is doing here is trying to help his readers see them in a whole new light.
What does it mean to fulfil the law? It means that Jesus makes sense of it in a new way. In him people can see the commandments of God lived out in flesh and blood as day by day he shows what it means to love God and love your neighbour. Want to see what the law looks if you keep it perfectly, truly, in the way God intended it to be kept? Look at Jesus, is the message of the Gospels. There it is. Not a miserable narrow legalism, but a joyful, life-giving demonstration of how we are meant to be, the pattern of God’s desire for us. God turns words – the dry words of the law – into the living flesh of Christ, so we can’t miss seeing what holiness really looks like.
What Jesus does matters; through it he shows us God. And that means that what we do matters too. “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.” What’s the point of salt if it isn’t actually salty? Without the taste it is just white, gritty powder, no use to anyone. What’s the point of light if you can’t see it? It might as well not be there at all. It matters how we behave, because our behaviour makes a difference.
God doesn’t call us to do right so that we can be saved; he calls us to do right because the right things we do heal the world, bit by bit. Living ethically isn’t some sort of entrance exam to get us through the pearly gates when we die, it is the thing that makes a heaven of the world around us, not just for us, but for everyone.
Isaiah says the same thing in today’s Old Testament reading. God laments that “day by day my people seek me,…as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” But the problem is that they don’t practice righteousness, and that means that their prayers aren’t worth a hill of beans. They make no difference whatsoever. They can pray for heaven till they are blue in the face, they can come along to the Temple day and night, but if they don’t live what they pray for it will do no one any good. Heaven is what happens, says God, when the bonds of injustice are loosed, the oppressed are freed, the hungry fed and the homeless housed. Heaven is something you live, not something you win. And you live it by living God’s law of love, living the way God calls you to, with honesty, integrity, compassion and justice.
All of this might seem glaringly obvious I suppose, but sometimes it’s the obvious things which we miss most easily. The way we live shapes us and our society for good or ill. That’s why we need to take our moral judgements and actions seriously. The Ranters were wrong. Anything doesn’t go. Not because if we do wrong we might lose our salvation, but because if we do wrong, people suffer and instead of the world being set right it is bent even more out of shape.
I read a cautionary little tale in last week’s Church Times. “A British couple in their 70s, who have not been named, caused £23,000 of damage to a 19th-century chapel in Bavaria, after their satnav directed them into the building. They returned to Britain by train”
The question I’d like us to take away to ponder today is this. What is it that directs our course through the world, that steers our path? Is it that ticket to heaven, or the fear of hell? Is it the craving to look good in the eyes of others? Is it the desire to boost our own self-esteem? Is it a deep-seated habit of just doing what we’re told, obeying any voice of authority that sounds loud and clear, whether it is really healthy or sensible or not – and that includes blind obedience to the voice the Bible as if it were some spiritual satnav that could be followed unquestioningly, with no reference to the context it was written in or the very different priorities of our own age? If it is those things which motivate us we may, like that hapless British couple, find we have actually done more harm than good, causing damage that no amount of money can repair.
“I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it”, said Jesus. He lived out God’s law of love among the people of Galilee and Judea, the pattern for life which God had given as a gift and a blessing, not a burden to crush them. He showed them heaven growing in their ordinary lives as they were lit up by that love and he invites us to find his heavenly kingdom too, in us and around us, as we try to live with righteousness and justice.
* “Reformation: Europe's House Divided” p. 526