Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
Among my school-time memories was the sense of never quite being up to speed.
Try as I might, it was never enough, and it was only during my later teens that I actually found my school subjects interesting and was moved to do the solid work that the courses required. Almost all that went before was a slog, and a pretty unrewarding one at that.
In a way, the same also applies to our lives before God, only He is far more forgiving and while He does not enjoy the sight of our failings, He is willing to forgive and to give hope and to inspire us to try again.
This is a far call from the teachers and coaches of a much earlier generation for whom minute control and sarcastic criticism were perks of the job, even part of the salary.
But the message from our readings is if anything more exacting. For ancient Israel, the law was there to regulate the nature and quality of relationships within the community, which was tribal in character and so all members of the nation were at least nominally blood-relations with one another.
So the strictures on not abusing or exploiting their cousins were the exhortations of family life, but given the force of law and seen less as legalism and more as the quality of relations within a nation of kinsfolk.
It is not that there was a bias towards the poor, so much as ban on any bias against the poor, including the widow, orphan and foreigner.
False judgment and weighted scales were forbidden to all, regardless of standing or need.
But above all this was a community bound by a common memory of deliverance, of the mighty hand of God who had rescued them and who desired that they live as a holy people before Him.
Jesus took the whole matter of personal discipleship and holiness into a completely new sphere. It was no longer just the external actions but the inward spirit and motivation that mattered. What a person was would direct his or her thoughts, and their thoughts would lead to actions, and all would determine the quality of their relationships.
So holiness before God had to extend to the holiness of personal relationships and dealings – and all had to be beyond reproach.
Even resentment and sullen compliance would be sinful; even reluctant duty and grudging charity would be at fault. Holiness in the sight of God had to reside in the most intimate aspects of life. Even the way disciples handled their memories mattered.
But more than that, whatever was done had to be done with a full and willing heart – and that included forgiving enemies, refusing to take offense, giving generously, accepting, trusting and loving the rejected, the unlovely and the unfashionable.
In our own time, the deserving poor already have their advocates: single parent families, the chronically sick, the unemployed, the elderly.
But what about unemployed bankers – or the sexually deviant – or drug dealers – or the grossly obese – or those for whom regular, disciplined work is not just another country but another planet: will we have the same will to love and serve these for whom there is no supporting lobby?
For Jesus, the self that demands, that has to be fed and humoured and flattered, the self that is an anarchic bundle of emotions beyond reason or appeal – and it is there in all parts of society, regardless of standing or public approval – this is the self that has to be not just brought under control but has to be brought to the cross and crucified with Jesus.
If this is just too heavy-going, Paul has something more to offer. His letter to the troubled and troublesome church in Corinth makes an urgent and pressing point.
It is that the people of the church are not just atomized and random bundles of contradictions. Rather they carry within themselves and among them as a whole the image of the living God.
They are already bought by the blood of Jesus and they are being built into a temple to be indwelt by God Himself.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who does not cease, night or day, to cultivate within and among them the fruit of the Garden of Eden.
He will not rest until the church has the beauty and the fullness of that garden. The trials and temptations and awkwardness of the life of the church are all opportunities for that cultivation and for the pruning and the fertilizing and the replanting work to proceed.
Jesus did not preach the Sermon on the Mount to discourage His disciples, but rather to let them see the scale of the work of discipleship before them.
Equally, He did not set before them standards of life that they could achieve by supreme efforts of self-directed work or effort. These would be works of the human heart, and would be cold, hard and judgmental. He did so in order that they may comprehend their need for the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit among them, and that they may eagerly desire Him to do His work within them.
For us these things are impossible, but for God all things are possible. That is why we are bound to seek the release of the Spirit into the deepest parts of our lives, and then to seek to be refilled as often as we are refilled with food and water.
It is not a spirit of condemnation or fear that leads us but the Spirit of God in whom we cry: Abba! Dad! He knows our needs before we express them, but He needs us to express them as a way of showing and living in our dependence on Him.
For this is where the self has to give way before the Glory of God: but we still have to be willing to let that self stand aside.