The invitation of Jesus for humanity to rethink our religious beliefs and practices is ongoing and renewable for every generation, and for each community, congregation, and person. As we grow, collectively and individually, we are expected to revise our understanding of the faith we profess.
We are not expected to discard our faith or to lead others to discard theirs, as Jesus explicitly stated in verse 19 of today’s Gospel reading:
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach [people] so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19 KJV).
The Holy Spirit leads us in our dynamic faith, not to break the commandments but to discover new meanings and ways of fulfilling the commandments as God’s purpose in giving them is more clearly revealed to us. St. Paul explains our continuing renewal toward sanctification and perfect love in his letter to the Corinthians:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became [an adult], I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:11-12 KJV).
Manuscript of the sermon preached on February 5, 2023, at Briensburg UMC [Audio Podcast]
5th Sunday after the Epiphany Bible Readings:
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
[Video of readings by Briensburg UMC lectors]
Jesus went around teaching in the synagogues and other gathering places all the principles outlined in his Sermon on the Mount. As he explained these principles, he expected everyone who claimed to believe in him to also begin implementing his teachings in their lives and relationships. He still does. Jesus still expects all of us who profess faith in Christ to learn daily how to apply those teachings to our constantly changing circumstances -- or as he so poignantly phrased it, ” to take up our crosses daily” (Luke 9:23).
On the night he gave himself up for us, Jesus promised to send the Holy Ghost to help us with several tasks, one of which is to “guide [us] into all truth.” This truth we are being guided into is not just a list of affirmations. This truth is an ever-increasing awareness of God’s love for all humanity out of which all of our affirmations flow and by which they are interpreted. Our faith may stay the same, but we are expected to change as new information and experiences change our understanding of faith.
Jesus used to say, “you have heard it said” followed by some familiar Bible quotation, and then he would say, “but I say unto” and then give his corrected view of what the quotation meant, in contrast with how everyone had come to interpret it. That happens several times even in the Sermon on the Mount. In giving the celebrated Great Commandment, Jesus elevated love for God and neighbor as the basis – the key -- for interpreting everything contained in the Bible. If one of our affirmations is that “Jesus [is] the author and finisher of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2 KJV) it stands to reason that Jesus’ interpretation of that faith is paramount. We are expected to grow into God’s vision for humanity as it becomes revealed to us by the Holy Ghost along our spiritual development toward the perfect love Christ calls us to.
One example of this rethinking religion is that in the Old Testament people were afraid of God and expected to be severely punished by God’s wrath. But in the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles revealed a different way of thinking as expressed by Jesus, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15 KJV). Now, because of that, we love to sing the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (Joseph M. Scriver), an idea that is still unthinkable to those who have never rethought their religious views of fear and retribution.
The apostles challenge us to rethink our spirituality.
Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:13 KJV)
Hear this same verse from the Revised Standard Version:
And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:13 RSV)
Paul wrote to the Gentiles at Corinth about being taught by the Spirit. Paul was very well versed in the Scriptures that had been handed down to his generation, but in this passage he emphasized not his book learning, even of the Bible, but as he wrote to them, “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2 KJV). Paul used the phrase “spiritual things with spiritual” – “comparing” them in the KJV and “interpreting” them in the RSV. All of Paul’s letters and those of the other apostles engage us spiritually, in a way that transports our thoughts to the heavenly realms without disengaging us from the earthly.
Jesus challenges us to rethink our roles as people of faith.
Let your light so shine before [people], that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16 KJV)
After the Beatitudes, Jesus told all the people who were gathered for the Sermon on the Mount that they were the “salt of the earth” and through them he tells us and all humanity the same thing. Although the translated words “salt” and “earth” have specific literal meanings, they were not used by Jesus in their literal sense, but as a metaphor for his love and respect toward his listeners, and by extension to us and to all who are drawn to his words. People are generally good (contrary to some religious tenets). Jesus sees and affirms this goodness, this imago dei, as foundational to God’s spiritual kingdom. People are essentially good, created that way by our Maker whose indelible image is the everlasting core of who we are. We each have roles to live out, our destiny so to speak, in the shaping of each other’s lives and of the heavenly kingdom we share with all Creation.
This is not just something we will become, this is who we are. Yes, we have our faults as well, but that sinful part of our nature will continue to dissipate as God’s goodness emerges.
We usually think of Jesus as the “Light of the World” but as Jesus continued this opening part of his sermon, he identified those who are listening (including us) as the light. Both are true. We could work with that metaphor to speculate about the source and strength of the light, but his intention was to help us realize that we each illuminate some facet of God’s own goodness and grace and glory.
This, too, is who we are now and will always be. Yes, we do have our dark moments, but as it says in the Berean Study Bible translation, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5 BSB)
Collectively, Jesus compared us to a “city set on a hill” whose light could not be hidden. Whatever good we are able to accomplish together multiplies the intensity of what God is doing through us in a way that “glorifies our Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5:16 KJV).
The Psalmist challenges us to rethink how we receive God’s Word.
Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness: he is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous. (Psalm 112:4 KJV)
In contrast the Revised Standard Version translates this verse:
They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. (Psalm 112:4 RSV)
In some translations, the words seem to indicate that the light rises on the upright, and God’s graciousness and compassion and righteousness are bestowed on them. In other translations, the words seem to indicate that it is the upright who arise, and whose goodness blesses the people around them.
The verse can be translated either way or both, like Luke 17:21. There Jesus said, according to the King James Version, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” and in the New Revised Standard Version as “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” and in the Revised Standard Version as “the kingdom of God is among you.” Which is correct? All of them! The kingdom of God is within us and among us and in the midst of us.
There have always been those who have tried to restrict and limit Bible translations to specific languages or translations or versions. While they make some good arguments for that, preventing God’s Word from being received in its broadest sense and in its richest terms is terribly oppressive. The languages and words themselves change in the way they are used and received. The theologies and doctrines arising from those translations become locked in and imposed on adherents to various groups. People are prevented from thinking freely and being able to discuss and learn from various viewpoints.
The prophets challenge us to rethink how we understand God’s commandments.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6 KJV)
The law of Moses prescribed fasting, feast days, sacrifices, and rituals. As with other religions, these have been rigidly enforced by some communities and less so by others. The prophets understood those rituals as pointing to spiritual counterparts. Paul wrote that “the law was our schoolmaster.” Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and other prophets spoke in the form of oracles as the mouthpiece of the Lord denouncing how people chose strict adherence to the religious laws and regulations instead of setting oppressed people free. Jesus reconciled the law and prophets through love. He too called attention on several occasions to how the hypocrites of his day sternly enforced their rigid and oppressive interpretations of the Bible on the most vulnerable of their society.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he did not come to condemn anyone but to save everyone. In his Sermon on the Mount, he affirmed that he did not come to destroy the law to but to fulfill it. The Bible is not intended to imprison us but to set us free. Jesus did not condemn religion, his own or anybody else’s, in all of his teachings. Instead, he revealed the goodness and light within all people and invited everyone to cultivate the very best in themselves and each other. His teachings challenge us to love one another as spiritual beings, made in the image of God.In the Name of Jesus, Amen.