When I became a pastor, one of the questions asked of me in the ordination rite was if, “I would minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry of the Gospel?” To which I answered, “Yes, I will, with the help of God.” This meant my call as a pastor was not to stay within the walls of the church or to remain in my study, but it was, in part, to go to the sick and dying, go to those who could not come to church on their own, to those who needed the gifts of Christ brought to them. It is easy for us to forget about those who cannot come here. Imagine the difficulty and the loneliness of being separated from the gifts of Christ; not being able to hear the Word, not being able to receive the Sacraments. See, I know how for most of you gathering every week around the Word and Sacraments of our Lord is crucial for the living of your life, for the maintenance of your faith. You need to be here and if you are not able to make it, you feel it.
Yet, while some are eager and thrilled to be in church on any given Sunday morning, there are those gathered in the house of God who are not so sure about it. There are some sitting in the pews who think they do not belong at all. Perhaps you are not sure what you are supposed to get out of it. Perhaps you look around and you assume you do not belong, that your faith is too small, too uncertain to make a big deal about being in church. There are some who are not even sure they believe, or exactly what it is they believe. There are doubts and uncertainties, mixed with a sense of obligation and duty. While there are those who claim the church is a wonderful community and life affirming family for them, there are others who just do not get it. They feel no connection. They feel they do not belong.
Perhaps you can see the distinction, or at least get a sense of it, when you look around the body of Christ in this place. There are those old faithful ones, those who never miss and would never miss a Sunday. Then there are those who show up only occasionally, those who do so unsure of even why they are here in the first place. And though you may be able to find the distinctions between those who sit in church, though you may even dare to make values judgments based on those distinctions, today we find out the field upon which we are all playing is level; absolutely levelled by the Word of God. For today the focus is on the Sermon on the Mount and we hear the hard and difficult words of Jesus, words that will not allow anyone to rise above another. What we find is how His admonitions and exhortations do not allow anyone, anyone at all, to rise above another.
The repeated phrase our Lord uses at the beginning of each section of His sermon is, “You have heard it said.” That is, you know the old Law, you know the command of God, you have heard it said what you should or should not do as a child of God, but what you have heard is only scratching the surface. Perhaps what you have heard is a command that suits your situation, a command tailored to give you the illusion of success and victory. Perhaps what you have heard is a watered-down Word, a word which does not really hold you accountable for your sin. Well, Jesus clears the air. “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder… But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his bother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). This law you thought you could keep, this seemingly doable command, where all you had to do was not kill another person now slips through your fingers. For it is not just the act of murder, but it is hatred. It is when you fail to help and care for your neighbor, when you turn your back on them. All of it makes you guilty of breaking the commandment of God.
But then Jesus moves on from talking about murder and hatred and taking your brother or sister in Christ to court and He turns our attention to lust and its effect on our lives. “You have heard that it was said,” He says, “‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). This commandment focuses not only on the sexual purity of one’s body but on their thoughts and desires as well. It is not enough for you to not cheat on your spouse or entice another person’s spouse to cheat with you. No, almost as if Jesus knows of the ultimate rise of pornography and general acceptance of promiscuity in our day, He explains this commandment considering your desire. To lust after another person is breaking the commandment.
So, having anger in your heart toward your neighbor is breaking the command of God. Jesus also said calling someone belittling names is breaking the commandment of God. Looking in lust after someone other than your spouse is breaking the commandment of God, but Jesus is not near being done here. He goes on to talk about divorce and the making of oaths. He addresses following through with what you say. “You have heard it said that you can divorce if you give the official documents, but I say that outside of infidelity you become an adulterer and so break the command of God… You have heard it said, ‘You shall not swear falsely,’ but I say do not swear at all,” just let your “no” be “no” and your “yes” be “yes.” You are not adding anything to it by swearing to God or on your mother’s grave or anything else. Your words ought to be enough all by themselves, and if they are not, you only have yourself to blame.
Yet, here you sit. Here you are. You know the draw of pornography. You know what it is to lust. You have experience in anger and distrust, in what it is like to feel contempt for another person. You know all too well what it is to deal with a divorce, to fail in duties of love and compassion and forgiveness. You have lied and gossiped and made your word less than it should be. You have scandalized the gifts of your God by your indifference and your persistent sin. There is no distinction in the House of God, no comparison between those who sit in this place today, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All are guilty, all have broken the commandments of God.
And just as you are all bound together in your sin, so you are also bound together in your inability to save yourselves. Whether you are the one who everyone else thinks has it all together or the one who is barely hanging on or the one who does not see how any of this is for them, none of you can overcome your sin and failure. For all your hope resides outside of your doing, outside of your reason or strength. Christ levels the playing field. He reduces everything to ashes with His Law. He kills all pride and arrogance. But it is here where there is no hiding from your sin, no running from your failure, that true hope and life begin.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Saint Paul wrote these words: “One will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). In your sin, in your helplessness, in your inability to save yourself, He saves you. He exchanges all that is His with all that is yours. He takes your sin and rebellion as His own and He goes to the cross for it all. In exchange, He gives you all that is His. His love, His forgiveness, His righteousness, His inclusion in eternal paradise, it is all given to you.
This is the hope and strength by which you live. You stand this day as the forgiven children of God. In His forgiveness you find fellowship, a place of belonging. As you go forth you can love others, you can have compassion on those who are hurting and alone, and you can forgive as you have been forgiven.