One of the drawbacks to being a preacher is that most of the sermons I get to hear are ones I preach. It is not that my sermons are so bad; but when I preach, I usually have a pretty good idea what the preacher is going to say before he speaks.
The power of preaching is hearing truth we already know articulated in another voice.
Yesterday, I was fortunate to hear a sermon that spoke truth I know deep in my being. The preacher was Ernest Morrow. His sermon was based on Matthew 5: 38-48 and c. He has permitted me to print excerpts from his words here.
It would be better if you could hear these words articulated in a human voice. But, in the absence of being able to gather as part of yesterday’s worship, it is better to read them than to miss the truth that resonates in these words.
There is a critical decision that each of us needs to make as we travel on our spiritual journey. It is a decision that changes everything. And it is a decision that we need to make over and over whenever we pick up the Bible.
“Is God about rules or is God about relationship?”
Is the Good News of Jesus Christ primarily a set of ethical guidelines concerned with developing nice, well mannered individuals and communities or is it about something else? Something like helping us wake up to the truth of our hearts united in the flame of God and then allowing the illusion of our separation to be burned away.
We have a long legacy of seeing the Gospel as rules rather than relationship. When people who aren’t associated with Christianity find out what I do one of the first things they often say is: “I don’t need to go to church to be a good person.” And you know what? I think they’re right.
But why are they saying that? Why is there the feeling that there is some argument out there that says you need to go to church, believe in God, accept Jesus, in order to be good? Why is it when Christians say “God” what often comes across is nothing more than the stern voices of our parents that we absorbed as children. So often we seem stuck in a rule-based consciousness of a parental God where if we do our chores we get a cookie. If we follow the rules then we get to go to heaven.
Today we heard part of the Sermon on the Mount, the most famous of Jesus’ teachings. And we have to decide, is Jesus teaching about rules or is Jesus teaching us about relationship? Because where we end up is a product of how we get there and rules get us one place and relationship takes us someplace else. Are the things Jesus says here rules for moral behaviour or are they a call to relationship? Today we also read Leviticus, that book of laws in the Hebrew scripture. Once again, is this about rules or about relationship? They look like rules don’t they? But, in fact, I am convinced that both these passages have something surprising in common: they are about relationship far more than they are about rules.
This is not necessarily easy to see at a surface level so let’s go into the text a bit. The last verse we heard today from Matthew was this: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Ah perfection. It is such a wonderful rule based word that we use to define achievement and morality. You can get a perfect score on a math test, you can be the perfect little angel, you can perfect a recipe. But here the translation from the Greek reveals how insidious this rule-based understanding of religion has become. The word that is translated as perfect is teleios which actually means whole. Not perfect, but whole, complete. The root of the word “whole” is where we get the term “holy”. Listen to the first verse of Leviticus 19: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” That’s what frames the Law, this call to holiness, to wholeness. You will be whole, because I the Lord your God am wholeness. And, in fact, Matthew’s Greek says the exact same thing. It has been translated to sound like a command: “Be perfect” but that is not what the original says. It actually echoes Leviticus: “You will be whole, just as your heavenly father is whole.”
The point of religion, the Jewish Torah as well as the revelation of Jesus, is that we are not called to be perfect followers of rules…we are called into a relationship of wholeness.
Wholeness is a word about relationships. It describes when all the parts of one thing are together and not separated. We are whole when we are in relationship with all of everything or to use a short form, God. And God’s wholeness is not really in question. The wholeness is already here, the Kingdom is at hand, now how do we learn to see that?
Jesus comes to lead us into relationship with the source of all wholeness. “You shall be whole, therefore, as your heavenly father is whole.” But we keep trying to follow rules: to “get” or to “earn” or to “find” wholeness and you know what? As Freddy Fender says, you can’t get here from there. You cannot follow rules and end up in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is fundamentally a different kind of consciousness.
Here’s a way of thinking about this. Say I own a house and I am out shopping. I decide I would like to go home and so I go back to my house and knock on the door. Nobody answers. I knock again. Nobody answers. I wonder why I can’t get in to my house. I try all the secret knocks I can think of, I start singing to the house, I promise I will never leave it alone again and to always make my bed, I put on my new shirt and tie from my shopping trip and comb my hair, I perform a sacrifice my groceries on the front step…But no matter what I try nobody let’s me in. I have chosen the consciousness in which I am separate from my home and so I can’t get in. But the keys are in my pocket. Jesus is trying to get us to remember the keys to our home of wholeness are already ours. And he knows that rules just reinforce the illusion of separation.
The Sermon on the Mount is not a prescription it is a painting. Jesus is not giving us rules to follow he is inviting us into a new way of seeing. Jesus is inviting us into the consciousness of Christ, a consciousness that sees that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, a consciousness where we are brought into relationship with God’s wholeness.
But if that’s what Jesus is doing why doesn’t he just say that? Why is the Bible so darn obscure all the time. Aha! Isn’t that a great question. Why doesn’t he just tell us what he’s up to and what we need to do to find this consciousness? There we go again. We want rules, we want a road map, and Jesus knows that if he gives us one we will never actually find the wholeness for which our hearts are longing. We will knock on the door of our own house until we die.
Jesus is giving us a vision he knows we cannot attain with our old consciousness. And he uses our addiction to rules to destroy itself. Just try to love your enemies in the same way you wash your hands and come to the dinner table on time. You can’t do it because they are two different kinds of consciousness. It is like knocking on the door of your own house. Nobody is going to answer. But the vision of the Kingdom that Jesus gives to us in the Sermon on the Mount tugs at our hearts. We can’t give up but we are too exhausted to go on. As we slump against the door, finally convinced that nothing we can do will open it, the keys slide out of our pocket and onto the ground in front of us.
The master allows the disciples to break down our old consciousness by ourselves and when we are tired of the impossible task of getting there from here then we are ready to listen. This happens over and over again in our lives and in this process God is drawing us bit by bit into relationship with the wholeness that is God, a wholeness that already exists. Jesus does not teach by telling us what to do, he teaches by pulling the supports out from what we thought we knew and letting our old consciousness come crashing down. And in the space that’s left the fresh breeze of truth to blows through; it is the breath of the Holy Spirit of God. The space allows for a new relationship to be fulfilled in our hearts. It’s about relationship rather than rules.