excerpt of sermon, Matthew 5:21-26
I work a lot with teens. I’ve been working with teenagers for the past 11 years at camps, at schools, in clinics, on street corners, and at churches. I love working with teenagers because they are genuine and honest. They don’t have the filter that many adults have developed over the years that allow us say the right things, do the right things, and act a certain way. Teenagers are raw, and they approach their faith lives the same way. So I wasn’t surprised this past weekend on a mission retreat just outside of Tampa, when we discussed why it’s important to serve our communities. For a while, everyone was predictably quiet, as groups take on that herd instinct of not wanting to be singled out right away:). And then, little by little, in that simple room overlooking the cedars and God’s creation, each would respond; many of them with the obvious responses would come out: we’re called to help others, to make this world a better place. And then I was pleased to hear a comment from one of our students on why they serve: ‘I serve because Jesus calls us to serve.’
Last weekend, the connection was beginning to be made between identity as followers of Christ, and the heart.
Reading from the Book of Acts, and the Gospel of Matthew, we are presented with some great insights into the behavior and expectations of Jesus, and the early followers of Christ. Now, I am not here to tell you the ‘one way’ to live your life as a Christian. It is evident that many followers of Christ have lived faithfully, and have demonstrated such faith in different and creative ways. However, I would like for us to delve deeper into the words of our Epistle and Gospel texts this evening.
In Matthew’s text, Jesus was speaking from experience. When he was sharing these teachings of the Law with his followers, he was also commenting on how often he witnessed brokenness within the following of the law that was meant to direct one’s life towards God. Yes, the law itself is worth following, but Jesus alluded to another dimension of one’s life in accordance with the Law.
Today we can easily agree that we are called not to murder one another. Without turning this service into an ethics class, this is a pretty clear and practical teaching. But as we read earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was not as concerned with behavior, such as rituals, cleanliness, or even religion for that matter. But more important to Jesus, he was concerned with the ‘heart’ of his followers. And this, also, I believe, was being taught from experience. The beatitudes that are found at the opening of chapter 5 illuminate this philosophy as he exalted not the powerful of the world who have accomplished great feats, the but the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the merciful.
And so we see this focus on the heart being taught throughout this series of teachings in Matthew 5, as he shares with us that our intentions with one another are just as, if not more, important than how we go about ‘being Christian’.
Yes, we can say all the right things, show up for church every Sunday, and maybe even during the week for a Bible study. We can fast. We can give money to the poor. We can do all of these things, but if our hearts are not set on God, and with one another, if we do not have the intention of love, then we simply are ‘not getting it,’ and we are in need of reconciliation.
And so as we think about our Scripture theme for this year with the Book of Acts, we are compelled to keep our hearts on the forefront of our minds, as we read of how the early followers of Christ lived with one another. Life was not perfect. We know of the persecution, the rumors, the ostracizing that took place with early Christians. And yet Luke chooses to put all of that aside as he shares with us a lifestyle that exudes a community of loving hearts, as they prayed together, ate together, shared possessions, studied together, and praised God for the life given to them.
As Jesus shares with us in his teachings on the Law, and Luke shares with us in his accounting of the Early Church, it’s a matter of the heart, and of love.
Just this week we celebrated the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. I think Dr. King ‘got’ Jesus. In an article in 1958, Dr. King wrote about the role of the heart, and of love, what he calls ‘agape’ love, as it related towards the struggle for civil rights in the US. He writes,
‘Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community. It doesn’t stop at the first mile,but it goes the second mile to restore community. It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community’.
Tonight, we are called to seek out this love. We are called to be fed by this love. We are called to live our lives as individuals, as churches, as denominations…and as Christians with this love.
So I ask you to once again examine your heart. Listen to it beating. Feel the hurt that it has encountered after all of these years. And let us open our hearts this evening to allow Christ to enter into our hearts, and rule in our lives through love.
This is the love that will bind us in times of trouble. This is the love that will help feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and find work for the unemployed. This is the love that will unite us under Christ, as we walk together, live together, and pray together, sharing the Good News of God’s love for the world.