Being the church

St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 7th February 2016

Readings – 1 Corinthians 6:1-11; Matthew 5:21-26

From a very early age I have been fascinated by etymology. That’s not to be confused with entomology which is the study of insects. I mean etymology – the study of the origin of words and phrases. That’s one reason why on the very rare occasions I watch Countdown I always enjoy what Suzie Dent says in Dictionary Corner and why I like to read her column in the Radio Times. She makes you think about so many everyday expressions or phrases that perhaps you’ve never really considered before. For example, in this week’s Radio Times she explains how a “purple patch” of good fortune comes from the idea of purple being the colour associated with abundance and wealth – and I, for one, find that sort of thing fascinating.

However, knowing the origin of words does far more that simply give us random information that may or may not interest us. Knowing the origin of a word helps us be clear what exactly it means and how we should use the term correctly. For example, take the word “church”. This is a word that nowadays has a wide variety of meanings. It can refer to a building – we sitting here today in the church of St Barnabas (St Michael’s). It can refer to an institution – we talk, or perhaps more accurately complain, a lot about the Church of England.

But what was the original meaning of the word “church”? Very simply this: a people belonging to the Lord. Think about that for a moment – a people belonging to the Lord. And if there’s nothing else you take away from today, I want you to remember this: we are gathered here today not as a group of people who share a hobby or a common idea – we are here because the Lord has called us. Why that is so important, I’ll explain towards the end of the sermon.

Now in 1814 a cricketer called Thomas Lord established the third of his grounds in St John’s Wood in London which soon began to known by his name. Over the past two hundred years Lord’s has become the home of English cricket. People talk about going to see a match at Lord’s and everyone knows what they mean.

Meanwhile in 33AD a carpenter called Jesus of Nazareth was nailed to a cross in a disused quarry just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Over the past two thousand years the Lcommunity that He founded through His death and resurrection has become the single most important influence in world history. That is why in every continent today people talk about going to church and to a lesser or greater extent folk know what we mean.

But let me put this to you – there is a world of difference between going to Lord’s to watch a cricket match and going to church to remember Jesus. You can go to Lord’s on your own, pay your money and worship at the spiritual home of cricket without talking to anybody. Your attendance is purely voluntary and whether you decide to go, really it’s up to you.

When you go to church, however, you are meeting with your brothers and sisters in Christ who also belong to the Lord. Your attendance is not voluntary. Simply being there is part of your act of loving service. Your presence matters because you belong to one another, and if you choose not to be there, there is a family member missing whose absence will affect everyone else.

It also follows that because we belong to each other in the Lord, how we behave towards one another is also critically important. And this, sadly, is where many churches so often go wrong. So often they appear, at least to outsiders, as a club and behave according to the unspoken rules of the club. There are places where members are expected to sit and positions only long-established members can fill, and woe betide the newcomer who gets in the way! Or else they behave as an institution where nothing can be done without following the proper traditions and change is the word that must never be mentioned.

We have already seen in Matthew chapter 4 how Jesus walked along the shore of Lake Galilee and called Andrew and Peter, and James and John to come follow Him. Quite rightly we talk about this passage about the way Jesus calls people in His service, to leave everything behind and to put their faith in Him. And that’s a perfectly right and true understanding of that reading.

But think a little more about what it meant for Andrew and Peter, James and John to follow Jesus. It didn’t simply mean that for the next three years they would live in close company with the most remarkable man who ever lived, the very Son of God. It also meant they would spend the next three years living in close company with one another, and we know from the gospels that wasn’t going to be easy! There was among the twelve apostles a tax collector and a terrorist, a traitor and a loudmouth. Part of learning to follow Jesus involved learning how together to be the people of God, and that’s the challenge that today we face more than ever as the church, as those who belong to the Lord and to each other.

So how do we learn how together to be the people of God? The simple answer is, by coming under the word of God. At least, I say it’s the simple answer. The reality is, there is a wrong and a right way of coming under the word of God, and sadly, it is all too easy to take the wrong way.

Take the Pharisees and teachers of the law who listened to Jesus. They knew what God’s word said. They studied intently and they made every effort to apply God’s word to every part of their lives. But where they went wrong is that they turned God’s word into the rules of a club or an institution. Instead of God’s word bringing light and life, it became a dead weight of tradition and woe betide the newcomers who tried to challenge what they said!

So where had the Pharisees and the teachers of the law gone wrong? Quite simply, in this – that although they knew the word of God, they had never given Jesus their heart. They could not and would not hear His call to follow Him. Instead of admitting their need of God, they remained committed to doing things their way, and they certainly didn’t want a carpenter from Nazareth pointing out their faults and failings.

Of course when we read the gospels it is so easy to criticise the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, but let me ask you this: where is your heart before God today? Have you come today with a willingness to come under the word of God? And a willingness to serve your brothers and sisters in Christ? Because if you have not, then really today’s passage will not make a lot of sense. It will be good moral teaching you may well try to follow, but it will not be the living word of God working in your heart through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To put today’s reading in context: we read back in chapter 5, verse 1 how Jesus went up on a mountainside, sat down and began to teach His disciples. What follows on from this verse in chapters 5 to 7 is probably the most influential religious teaching in history. Even people who know very little about the Christian faith will probably know about “hiding your lamp under a bushel” or “turning the other cheek” or “doing to others as you would have them do to you”. But what is often missed is the fact that before Jesus gives any detailed instruction, He challenges us about the attitude of our hearts.

So the Sermon on the Mount begins with an extraordinary collection of sayings commonly known as the Beatitudes. We’ve not got time to look at verses 1-12 in any detail now, but as we saw two weeks ago they are all about Jesus challenging us to live in humble, everyday dependence on the Lord. And that fits perfectly with what I’ve been saying so far about the church. We mustn’t just say we belong to the Lord. We must act as those belonging to the Lord, recognising our need of Him day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. That’s why He says in verse 3: Blessed are the poor in spirit. In verse 4: Blessed are those who mourn. In verse 5: Blessed are the meek. Such people are those who have heard Jesus’ call and know there is no more important thing than to follow Him.

Then moving on to verses 13-16 we find Jesus’ famous sayings about being salt and light. What are they all about? Very simply, about living lives which are so full of the Holy Spirit that Jesus can be seen in us and our Heavenly Father can be praised. That’s what Jesus is talking about when He mentions good deeds in verse 16. He is not referring to those acts such as the Pharisees performed which only drew attention to themselves. He is referring to those acts done from obedience and love to our Lord Jesus which reveal who we truly follow.

And just in case we haven’t still understood what Jesus is saying. He tells us in verse 20: unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. What does He mean by this? Quite simply, that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven you need to let Jesus make you right with God. If you think you can impress God by being self-righteous, then you need to think again. The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to give up everything and follow Jesus. And as we have seen that is not an individual challenge. It is challenge to recognise that following Jesus involves belonging to others and behaving towards them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Are you still with me? Whether you are or you are not, my Lent challenge this year is to meet as many with as many church folk as I can and to have a chat about how your walk with the Lord is going. I’d love to spend time with you, maybe going back over some of this teaching, how we keep on listening to the Lord in the midst of a busy day, discovering how we can better live under the word of God. And if you don’t volunteer, then don’t be surprised if I approach you. Because this is the basic stuff we need to get right if we are going to see the kingdom of God come about in our churches.

So it’s against all this background that finally we come to today’s passage. Verse 21: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. And if there were any Pharisees listening to Jesus at this point, I am sure they would have been nodding their head in agreement. They knew murder was wrong and they taught people not to murder. But as far as they were concerned, that was the end of the argument. If you didn’t literally have blood on your hands, you had kept the commandment.

But as we have seen, Jesus’ teaching here is about the attitude of the heart. We may live like brothers and sisters in Christ politely sharing the peace with one another, but if inside we secretly hate the person with whom we are shaking the hand, we are not only acting as hypocrites, we are also failing to treat him or her as someone for whom Christ died. So obeying the command not to murder is not just simply about taking about someone’s life. It’s about our attitude deep down, maybe an attitude no-one else knows about.

And there are three particular attitudes that Jesus wants to challenge here.

First of all, in verse 22, Don’t disrespect your fellow believer.

Now I realise that verse 22 can lead to all sorts of questions: But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement. What’s Jesus saying here? That it is never wrong to be angry? That our anger provokes somehow the wrath of God? Well, this is where we need to read on to the rest of the verse: Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

You see, there are two sorts of anger. There is a right and proper anger we ought to feel, such as when the name of Jesus is used as a swearword, or someone is treated as less than human. Our anger in that kind of situation is fully justified, and indeed it may well be our Christian duty to speak out.

But that’s not the sort of anger Jesus is talking about here. He is talking about the anger that leads us to insult the person, to call them names, even to swear at them. It’s the anger that doesn’t come from love, or a pure heart. It’s the anger that seeks to put the other person down. It’s what young people of today would call “dissing” and Jesus is telling us it is exactly the same attitude as murder. And that’s serious. But then again, Jesus never expected his teaching to be some kind of interesting theory. He meant it to be every day, to be practical, to affect directly how I treat you and you treat me. So as we approach Lent, perhaps all of us need to ask: where must I repent of my anger, and who should I say sorry to?

Secondly: Don’t disregard your fellow believer.

Verses 23-24: Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Think about those words for a moment. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you … then what? I know what my answer would be. I’d say I can deal with it later or it doesn’t really matter. Or maybe I’d try to justify my behaviour, and remember what kind of wrong he or she had done me. But Jesus doesn’t give us this option. Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Remember what I said right at the beginning: that we do not only belong to the Lord, we also belong to one another. The person sitting next to you or in front of you is a person for whom Jesus died. Jesus gave His very life in order to bring them into the kingdom, and if we try and worship with unconfessed sin, we are doing discredit to the very cross of Jesus Christ. That’s why we need to go. We need to take action. Not later. Not when it suits us. But now. Even in front of everyone else who might be worshipping alongside us. After all, the cost to us is nothing as to the price Jesus paid for us.

And so, thirdly it follows, don’t delay taking action.

Verses 25-26: Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

The problem with unconfessed sin is that it escalates. What may be a small wrong can quickly grow into a large grievance. With the passage of time that grievance turns into a grudge. Memories grow sour; relationships fester and then we wonder why no-one wants to join our church. I cannot stress highly enough how important it is that we keep short accounts with each other.

Jesus said in John 13:35: By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. He didn’t say “if you are nice to one another”, he said, “if you love one another”. That means getting down and getting dirty in the messy business of relationships. It means looking into our hearts and being willing to offer and receive forgiveness. It means coming back to the cross again and again not just individually but as the body of Christ in order to be renewed and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of my most precious books which influenced me deeply as a teenager was called “Fire in the Hills”. It told the story of the East African Revival in the 1920s which led to the most remarkable growth of the church throughout that continent. It didn’t start with a plan for mission, or an evangelistic event. It began by the Spirit moving in such a way that the church confessed their sins one to another. The teaching Jesus gave in this passage wasn’t a theory but a lived reality as brother came to brother asking for forgiveness, as people were convicted of their sin, as Jesus called those who were spiritually dead to new life.

I make no bones of the fact that is the revival I want to see in this church. Is that the revival you want? If so, then this morning let’s make a start…

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