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Deanery Licensed Ministers: Sermons

Living the Difference

Sermon Preached at All Saints, Hanworth, 25/05/2008
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Proper 3
Readings: Leviticus 19:1-18, Matthew 5:38-48

The builder’s mate smirked as he nodded towards the icon of Christ the Saviour, which hung on the wall.
“A bit of a Jesus freak then, are you?” he asked.
“I don’t really know what that means”, she replied defensively. “I’m a Christian, yes.”
“You go to church and all that?” he responded.
“Yes, but it’s a bit more than that,” she said.
“Well, what then?” he wanted to know.
Rather embarrassed, she answered: “Well, I try to practice what it preaches, you know, live a good life, be kind, tolerant, work for justice, march for peace… try to make a difference.”
“Sounds too much like hard work to me,” he replied.
“Yes, sometimes… but I guess it’s about love really…”
“I thought you were talking about religion,” he queried.
“Same thing…” she replied.
“Oh,” he pondered.

Jesus made a difference wherever he went. He was different and he taught people to be different. He didn’t promote difference for its own sake, he did it because people had to change radically if they were to understand what it meant to be God’s people.

Throughout their history the people of Israel had been guided by the teachings of Moses. The Law could always be relied upon to provide the answer to any question concerning morals, behaviour, social norms and legislation.

This morning, for instance, we heard an extract from what is called the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus. This urges the people of Israel to “be holy, for the LORD your God is holy.” Holiness was much more than religious devotion to God expressed in worship, holiness was also about the way people treat one another. The Holiness Code includes instructions such as: Make provision for the poor and immigrant. Do not steal, do not deal falsely, do not lie. Do not defraud, do not make life difficult for the disabled. Be just, be impartial. Do not slander. Do not take vengeance, do not bear a grudge. Love your neighbour as yourself. Why? Because, we are repeatedly told, I am the LORD your God. This is what the God of Israel is like and this is what he calls his people to be like. How people relate to one another, and not just how they worship God, is a measure of their faithfulness to God.

But the Law, given by God, for Moses to interpret for the people, was meant not just as a list of instructions and restrictions. The Law was guidance, for protection and preparation for eventual salvation through the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would come when the time was right. The Law comprised a plan for a healthy and secure society in which justice could flourish, and in which the covenant between God and the Chosen People could find expression and blessing. Then in due course the Messiah would come and complete the covenant. The Messiah would be an anointed king of David’s dynasty who would establish the reign of God and save Israel from every threat.

Yet in spite of all that Jesus said and did, he did not fit the established model of the Messiah in the minds of intellectual and religious Judaism. To their way of thinking Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah because he changed the rules by which faithful Jews had lived for a millennium and a half.

It is in chapter five of Matthew, the Gospel written for a Jewish congregation, that he did it. Six times in this chapter Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” Each time he takes a Mosaic law and turns it on its head. For example: the law of retribution, lex talionis, is never to extract from a perpetrator more than their crime has taken from a victim, so we have one eye for one eye, one tooth for one tooth, no more, no less. This law, dating back to Hammurabi in the eighteenth century before Christ, aims to restrict unlimited revenge. But Jesus goes further than allowing equal retribution by commanding that we extract NO retribution at all. On the contrary, he says that we are to offer forgiveness and forfeit our dignity too!

He uses three examples to give illustrate the idea: To be struck on the right cheek, in that world, almost certainly meant to be hit with the back of the hand. That’s not just violence, it’s an insult. It implies that you are inferior, a slave or a child. Hitting back only perpetuates the violence. To offer your other cheek implies: hit me again, but this time as an equal. If you are being sued in a court of law with no way to win, then when your wealthy adversary wants to take your coat, give him your cloak too and walk away naked! Then all can see how the rich are fleecing the poor and reducing them to a state of shame. During the Roman military occupation a soldier had the right to force a civilian to carry his equipment for one mile. But no further – the law was quite strict on this. Don’t fume and plot your revenge, says Jesus, go a second mile and astonish the soldier by showing him that there is another way to be human.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus says something similar, very dramatically, six times. This is a new order of law, one which is unacceptable to the authorities (who are doing their best to hold the Jews together during this period of Roman occupation). This will make such a difference that it will change the world. It will create a new order of justice in which all the previous laws will be met, but in a different way. This is what Jesus meant by saying that he had come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it; he had come to revise it for a new Chosen People, a people who extend beyond the boundaries of Israel to encompass the entire world.

Not only did he teach difference, Jesus embodied difference. When people mocked him, he didn’t respond. When they challenged him, he told stories and parables that forced them to think differently. When they struck him, he took the pain. When the Romans forced him to carry their worst piece of equipment, he carried that cross to the place of his own execution. When they nailed him to that cross, he prayed for them. Jesus exemplified what he taught. He brought a new understanding of God, under whose rule the reign of law makes room for, and then gives way to, the reign of radical love. This is why Jesus changed everyone he met and why they found him so challenging and so dangerous.

And this is what he asks of us: to make a difference, if necessary by challenging society’s more misguided values, attitudes and behaviour. To be Christian is to be different and to teach difference by our example of generous love; and to demonstrate the joy that this can bring, because it allies us so closely with the God who showed us how to live in love. This is not just for effect, but because every single, different action of ours, like those of Jesus, begins to change the world into one more in keeping with the kingdom of God, that kingdom where radical love rules.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Jane Williams (Editor), Common Worship Living Word CD: Pentecost to 13 Sunday after Trinity 2008, Redemptorist Publications.
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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