Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Epiphany VI
February 13, 2011, 5:28 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle, February 13th 2011

If you wish, you can keep the commandments…

The wise man who wrote the Book of Ecclesiasticus lived a couple of centuries before our Lord, and was reflecting on the great treasure of Israel, the Torah. Torah does not exactly mean Law, although it is often translated like that. It means Teaching. It is not just Commandment, but a Way of Life which God has set before his people, a path for them to follow. Whether they choose to follow it or not is up to them.

St Paul, writing to his Corinthian converts twenty years or so after the Lord’s death, also spoke about the wisdom of God. He says that this is not just a matter of human cleverness, but in fact makes no sense to the clever people of this world. It goes against all human prudence. God becoming man, and that man being crucified: this is how God saves the world from its own folly.

In the Gospel, our Lord himself sets before us a way of life that often goes against our human instincts. He tells us that this is not an abolition of the old Law, the Teaching that he gave to Israel. Rather, it brings that teaching to its fulfilment. We are not asked to change the things we do in accordance with the Law, we are asked to change the Spirit in which we do them.

The fault which our Lord criticised in the Pharisees was that they concentrated on the superficial details of the Law, while missing its fundamental purpose. They treated it as an exam paper to be passed, rather than a map to show them the way. Don’t think the Pharisees were any different from us, or that this was a peculiarly Jewish problem. Christians can have just the same attitude today, thinking that God, for his own strange reasons, has given us an arbitrary set of rules, which he will then punish us for not keeping. No! He has outlined a way of life which if we follow it will bring us happiness and fulfilment, and if we neglect it will bring unhappiness and frustration.

Our Lord takes three examples to show what he means. The old commandment was “Thou shalt not kill.” Well and good, that hasn’t changed. But to fulfil it perfectly we have to tackle the anger and resentment which leads (sometimes) to murder. We have to positively seek reconciliation with those whom we have quarrelled with. To come before God with a heart full of bitterness is not right. In the very earliest form of the Mass, the Kiss of Peace came immediately before the Offertory precisely for this reason: the deacon standing by the Bishop’s throne would ask, “Does anyone have a grudge against another? Let no-one harbour bitterness! Do not give the kiss insincerely!” When, even today, the priest says at this point, “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” he is reminding us that this peace must extend to our neighbour as well.

Again, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” but this too has a positive counterpart. It has to do with love and fidelity within marriage, and a pure love for others that is not seeking to exploit, not seeking personal gratification. Such an attitude does not simply happen, we have to train ourselves in it. For Christians, marriage is a sacrament, a representation in human terms of the faithful love God has for humanity, that Christ has for the Church. The sacrament is not just something that happens on the wedding-day, it is a permanent reality making the lives of husband and wife holy. To offend against it (even in thought) is sacrilegious.

Thirdly, there is truth-telling. “Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain; thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” It is not just in the law-court, under oath, that we are called to give witness to the truth. We are called to be “truthful people” at all times, in the image of Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. He came not so much to issue commands, as to set an example. He did issue one command, of course: a new commandment, to love one another as he has loved us.

“If you wish,” says the wise man, “you can keep the commandments.” It is your choice. God has given us the opportunity for life or death, we can follow whichever way we prefer. “Whichever a man likes better will be given him.” The right way is not, of course, the easy way, the way human cleverness would suggest. It is the way of the Cross, the way that from a human view-point looks hopeless. It is the way of Jesus.



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