When Heston told me I was going to preach on Matthew chapter 5 I was excited, because there’s so much in there. But then I read it, and I was a little bit terrified, because there is so much in there, and a lot of it is really challenging! But, as Heston said last week, today I’m going to focus on one aspect of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the idea of committing to live by a rule of life. That’s what Jesus is setting out in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, he’s laying out the rules for his followers. So while we’re thinking these few months at All Hallows about commitment, I’m going to share some of my thoughts about living by the rules that Jesus calls us to follow, and on making a conscious commitment to a set of rules in order to live in the most Christ-like way we can. It’s a really scary challenge!! But I’ve come to the conclusion that it can be really helpful and life-giving too.
So, as Heston explained last week, by this point in Matthew’s gospel Jesus has just spent 40 days in the desert preparing himself for ministry, being tested as Israel were tested, and doing a far better job than they did of resisting the temptations he encountered there. And now, he’s ready to start his ministry; the last thing we hear in chapter 4 is this phrase ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people.’ So everything from here until that’s repeated in chapter nine goes together as his demonstration of how we should live as followers of Jesus, a how-to guide for his disciples so that they can take on his work. He starts here by laying out the rules, and then goes on later to demonstrate his way of life, by healing people and working miracles. He goes through the laws one by one: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not divorce, keep to your oaths, and then he takes each one a step further and explains that it’s not enough just to keep these rules, but we are not even to be angry with our neighbour, or to make any oaths more than saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
To me this seemed at first like a really strange way of doing things. A huge part of Jesus’ mission during his life was to challenge the legalistic and hierarchic systems of the Jewish religion by doing things like performing miracles on the Sabbath and spending time with those pronounced unclean by the religious leaders at the time. It seems like the most important thing for Jesus is to love everyone, and sometimes even to deliberately break the rules in order to live out that love, to challenge the authorities and to give to us a radical new way of living our lives which undermines everything the Jewish people thought was important about the laws. So why does he start his handbook for discipleship by affirming that he has come ‘not to abolish the Laws but to fulfil them’ and, even more challenging, that ‘anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’? It’s pretty scary stuff!
At first it seems like this laying down of the law isn’t very compatible with Jesus’ promise of freedom from oppression, to give us life in all its fullness. For me when I started to think about committing to a rule of life, it sounded like a limit on my freedom, like a huge burden that would hold me back from enjoying life as much as I could. It also can feel like an impossible standard that we can never live up to, like something that will be used as a measure for how acceptable we are to God – the opposite of the affirming message that we are all acceptable and loved no matter what we do. Why would the Jesus who promises us freedom and forgiveness and unconditional love want us to be held back by a strict set of rules?
During my reflecting I was trying to think of times when I’ve tried to give myself a rule of life before, and the only kind of rule of life I’ve ever formally taken on in any way is making new years resolutions each year – I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to keep up a new years resolution longer than a few weeks. It’s only the seventeenth of January, and I can’t even remember what mine were for this year – which leaves me wondering how I’m ever meant to be able to keep to this strict set of rules for the rest of my life? The new years resolutions I’ve set myself before are also usually pretty boring – they mainly involve cutting back on all the indulgences I’ve enjoyed over Christmas, or keeping my room tidy, or working harder, none of which are particularly exciting or liberating good news. But when I think of living life in the way Jesus wants me to, it’s the complete opposite of boring! It involves loving recklessly, and transforming the world, and being completely and utterly free. So how do we square these images of living life by the rules Jesus calls us to follow and embracing the freedom and fullness of life which Jesus promises as a result of following him and being his disciple?
Well, one of the most important things I learned studying philosophy was that definitions are very important. Don’t worry, it’s not as boring as it sounds; in working through this challenge a distinction came to mind that I’d heard explained to me in a philosophy classroom between freedom to and freedom from. Sometimes in accepting things which limit our freedom to live our lives in exactly the way we always choose, we actually gain freedom from things which might hold us back from having the true fullness of life which Jesus talks about. We are freed from living according to our selfish whims and passing desires, freed from the things which separate us from a Godly life – freed, in other words, from our sins; so that we can make a conscious choice to live in the way we wish to – in the way that Jesus teaches us. We are freed from what I’ve heard called the ‘tyranny of choice’. Have you ever stood in a supermarket without a shopping list and looked at aisle after aisle and shelf after shelf of choices to make, and been so overwhelmed you don’t know what to choose, or what you want, or even what you went in for in the first place? That’s the tyranny of choice, and it’s how our lives can get if we don’t limit ourselves to making choices which fit in with the way we want to live. It’s only by these limits that we allow ourselves to flourish and to live out the life Jesus wants for us. So it might be useful sometimes to make for ourselves a “shopping list” of rules which allow us to pick out the things in our lives which are life-giving and Jesus-shaped, and to leave everything else behind us.
And thanks to Jesus these rules aren’t just laid down for us to follow blindly or for us to be held to them legalistically. Jesus came to teach us the heart of these rules. When he says things in this chapter like ‘You have heard it said do not murder but I tell you anyone who is angry will be subject to judgement’ he is not giving us a stricter law to follow, and burdening us with further demands – he is actually teaching us about the wider spirit in which the law is meant. He wants us to be freed from following the legalistic laws of the Jewish culture at the time down to the letter, and in order to do that he has to teach us the place of love which these rules come from so that we can freely follow them without being held to them through fear. That’s what I believe he means when he says ‘I have not come to abolish the laws but to fulfil them’; he has come to write the laws on our hearts, so that they no longer have to be forced upon us by a disciplinarian God.
So that’s why Jesus starts his ministry in this chapter of the gospel of Matthew by laying out the rules in the Sermon on the Mount. He needs to teach us how to choose a life of love, and a life of commitment to following him, before we can be freed from our sins to live out that life by doing good works among people just like he did.
And thankfully we’re not left to our own devices in this challenging task! The difference between taking on new years resolutions and taking on Jesus’ way of life is his promise to us through the cross is that God will be with us every step of the way, when we succeed and when we fail. When we feel like giving up because it’s too hard and we can’t get it right, Jesus reminds us that we don’t have to bear the burden of our sins, of the things which hold us back from living life in his way. We are constantly renewed, and constantly given chance after chance to choose Jesus’ way of life, to choose to live by the rules he calls us to follow.
So over the next few weeks, while we’re thinking about committing ourselves to God and to each other, we can be thinking about what a rule of life might look like in our lives. Jesus is teaching us the spirit of love that we’re called to live out – and now we have to ask ourselves how we can shape and reshape our lives to better embody that love to the world. What rules might we set for ourselves which allow us to choose to live by God’s love every day? Adopting them in some formal way can be really life-giving and freeing. And throughout that process of becoming more Christ-like, we must remember God’s commitment to us, that we never have to give up on becoming the people that God made us to be.