Sunday, February 20, 2011

Building the Kingdom of God

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)
Leviticus 19.1-2,9-18; Psalm 119.3340; 1 Corinthians 3.10-11,16-23; Matthew 5.38-48
Sunday, February 20, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

We live in a society that is founded upon law. There is the underlying assumption that if people follow the law, society will run pretty smoothly. And most of us are willing to follow the law, even if we may not totally agree with some of them, like the “suggestion” that we drive 65 on the freeway, because we know that it is for the common good. So, from this perspective, most of us probably don’t have a problem with the selection we had from Leviticus. We’d probably agree with God’s commandments that we not steal or deal falsely with or defraud others; that we should not render unjust judgment; that we should not hate our kin; that we should not take revenge or hold a grudge. Breaking any of these laws, particularly on a large scale, could lead to a damaging of relationship, in a deterioration of the proper ordering of society, and just general unpleasantness for all of us.

The language used in our lesson from Leviticus gives us an indication as to the purpose for the law in general. God tells Moses to tell the people, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The law serves as the guide to this holiness that God desires for us all. The law is to prepare the people to be signs and instruments of God’s grace. And while the recitation of the law contains the constant refrain, “I am the Lord,” the implication is not that we should obey these laws because God said so. Rather, we are in covenant with God, and part of that covenant is that God gave the law as a means of caring for us, of guiding us to the holiness that he desires for all of us. The law is not an appeal to God’s authority, but rather is an expression of God’s affection. In short, the law is about relationship. The specifics speak of how we engage in relationship with our neighbors, with the poor, with employees. And the presentation of the law speaks to the covenantal theology inherent in the refrain of “I am the Lord” – the relationship God seeks to have with us, and that we should seek to have with one another.

This being the case, I think it’s safe to assume that we are all fairly comfortable with the law as presented thus far. But then we get to the Gospel. And that’s where things start to get a little uncomfortable. Jesus takes the law handed down from God to Moses to the people, and kicks it up a notch or two, or five. The law allows for justifiable retribution – “an eye for an eye.” But Jesus says forget that. Instead we are not to resist those who do evil to us. If someone strikes us, we are to turn the other cheek. If they take our coat, we are to give our cloak as well. Where’s the justice in that? And then he reminds that the law tells us that we are to love our neighbor and hate our enemy. But Jesus says forget that, too. Instead we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It’s hard enough to love our neighbors sometimes. How are we expected to love our enemies? And as if all that isn’t difficult enough, Jesus tops it all off by telling us to “be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Right.

It’s no wonder many people have problems with this text. So much so that we often try to come up with obscure or convoluted arguments to explain away what Jesus was commanding or to demonstrate how this new interpretation of the law doesn’t really apply to us. That, or we try to twist Jesus’ words into some sort of spiritual admonitions that really don’t have anything to do with the way we actually live our lives. So, at the risk of being accused of attempting to explain away what Jesus was talking about, I will say that I think the key lies in the distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Of course Jesus knows that we are not always going to be able to love our enemies or even pray for them. Of course Jesus does not expect us to be doormats and let people walk all over us, abusing us while we do nothing, taking the very shirt off our backs without us putting up a fight. And of course Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect in everything we do. We’re human and we’re going to make mistakes occasionally, no matter how hard we try.

I think the key to what Jesus is really getting at goes back to the fact that the law speaks to our relationship with others, and particularly speaks to the relationship we have with God and that God seeks to have with us. The way the law is laid out in Leviticus sends the distinct message that these laws are to be obeyed. The way Jesus lays them out in Matthew, the way he expounds upon them, says that the law is not merely something to be obeyed, but now is something that leads to transformation. Earlier in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5.17). And that fulfillment comes in the form of transformation – transformation of our understanding of the law and transformation of ourselves. Jesus is calling is to step outside ourselves and allow ourselves to be transformed in who we are and in how we approach the world.

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus may seem to focus on our feelings toward our enemies and how we deal with those who may harm or take advantage of us. But loving our enemies is not about how we feel toward those who hurt us – whether we like them or not – but rather about how we act toward them, how we react to them. It’s not about how we obey the law, but rather about how we live the law, how we live the intent of the law. Jesus shows us time and again that the Christian response to life – and the response to the law is no exception – is and must be abnormal and counter-cultural.

In his admonitions to us today, in his reinterpreting the law, Jesus is calling for our transformation in how we approach life in general, and how we approach relationship with our fellow human beings in particular. He is calling for us to love as God loves – with that unbounded, unconditional love that God shows toward us. And that’s what Jesus means when he calls on us to be perfect as God is perfect. This perfection is not about always getting things right, but is more about loving as God loves – the prefect love that is God. And Jesus is the sign and the proof of that love. God gives his love extravagantly, indiscriminately. We are the recipients of that love and are called to bear witness to that love. How then can we not at least try to love extravagantly and indiscriminately, as God does?

In today’s statements, Jesus recognizes that we cannot do this on our own, out of our own resources, out of sheer determination. Jesus prefaces his reinterpretation of the law with “but I say to you.” In this, he is not just redefining the law, but is also providing an example. Again, “I have come not to abolish [the law] but to fulfill [it].” With the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, the law is no longer just words written in Scripture. He shows us how to truly live the law, to make it the foundation of our faith in action. And in this, Jesus sets forth God’s vision for the world – the blueprint we are to follow to achieve the kind of world God intends – a blueprint that starts with the law, which becomes transformed through Jesus Christ so that we are asked not just to obey it, but to be transformed by it to the point of loving as God loves.

When we look at the ideal of the Kingdom of God as expressed through Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson, and compare that with where we and the world are today, at times it seems as if we are worlds apart, as if we’ll never get there, never achieve the ideal. But we must have faith that it will indeed happen. This is what I hear in Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. In today’s passage, he uses language of construction, of a work in progress, of the importance of a solid foundation, of faithfully following the blueprint that God has laid out, to complete the task at hand.

When I look at where we are and how distant it seems we are from the Kingdom, Paul’s imagery reminds me of my visit to Shrewsbury Abbey in England. The Benedictine monastery founded in Shrewsbury in 1083 no longer exists, disbanded and essentially destroyed during the Dissolution under Henry VIII. But the original chapel remains and is now a parish church. When the chapel was originally started in the late 11th century, they started building the chancel area where the altar would be. And to expedite construction, they also started building from the opposite end where the narthex would be. The intent was to have the two parts of the church meet in the middle, forming the completed whole – completing the vision of what the church would be. While it took several hundred years to complete, the two halves of the church were eventually completed and joined together. The interesting thing to me as an engineer was that when the two halves met, they were only off by something like a sixteenth of an inch – a virtual miracle given the lack of our modern engineering techniques. The differential was so small that from the floor looking up at the point where the two portions of the arched ceiling meet, there is no discernible deviation. And the most important thing is that minute deviation was so insignificant that it did not disrupt the structural integrity of the whole.

God has been working on building the Kingdom from his side. We the Church have been working on building the Kingdom of God from our side. While coming at it from different sides, the entire Kingdom is based on a single blueprint, God’s law, and on the foundation of Jesus Christ. And in the fullness of time, God’s part and our part will come together. Our work will have aligned with God’s purposes. Given the fact that we are merely human, the two halves may not meet exactly. There may be a sixteen of an inch difference. But I have to believe that if we are faithful to the blueprint we have been provided, if we follow the law first given by God, then adjusted to the new understanding as presented by Jesus, the differential will be so insignificant, that it will not be noticeable and not disrupt the structural integrity of the whole.

The foundation of the Kingdom is Jesus Christ. The blueprint is God’s law – not the letter as presented by Moses, but the intent as laid out by Jesus. And each and every one of us is a building block. If we are true to the blueprint, we will all fit into our place, each being integral to the building of the Kingdom – each being transformed by the love of God, and sharing that love with others, extravagantly, indiscriminately, and unconditionally. For that is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

No comments: