Epiphany is about who Jesus is, but this text for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany can lead us astray. We can find ourselves talking about us more than about Him. You know: am I carrying grudges? How do I deal with lust? Can or can't I take this oath? Do you really think that is the point of Jesus' sermon? I don't; I think Jesus is speaking of utopia.
Don't think so? Well what would be a place where grudges are not carried but reconciliation carries the day? I've told you before the history of the Pax Domini. Where I say, "The peace of the Lord be with you always," in some places of the early church the pastor would kiss a crucifix and hand it to the deacon who would kiss it and pass it to the congregation. It would travel from person to person. If you had a problem with someone in the congregation, you wouldn't kiss it. The crucifix would stop. The pastor would go into the congregation and find out the problem. The service wouldn't continue until the fighting parties were reconciled.
Can you imagine such a place as this? A place where people couldn't bear to stay mad at each other. A place where people wouldn't nurse grudges so as to keep them alive at all costs. A place Sly and the Family Stone sang about where ordinary people cherished getting along with each other more than they did their pride, their feelings, their opinions.
Such a place would be utopia, and so would a place where marriage is cherished above all else. Rather than sin against marriage a person would be willing to lose an eye or a hand. Any form of breaking a marriage vow would be seen as adultery. So husbands and wives would each love and honor one another at all costs. They'd put up with each other's annoying traits. They wouldn't lust after someone better or different. Better the worst marriage than be an adulterer. Each couple would have as their goal to live out their marriage in the one flesh union God had made them.
Can't you hear the birds chirping? Can't you see the sun drenched streets and smartly manicured lawn? I can. What but a utopia would be a place where yes means yes and no means no? How much disappointment is caused by people who say one thing when they really mean another? If a person said "yes" they would do this or do that, then that's what they did. If they said "no" they wouldn't do something, they didn't turn around and do it. People saw no need to cloak their words with sacred things. Their yes and no were sacred in themselves.
Wouldn't you want to live here? Who wouldn't want to live on the Ponderosa? Who wouldn't want to live in Ozzie and Harriet's House or in Mister Roger's Neighborhood? Who wouldn't want to live in utopia? But which of us can?
Did you see how downright impossible Jesus makes this place? Do you think you can be reconciled with everybody who will ever have a grudge against you, just by going to them? St. Paul didn't. St. Paul said, "As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Haven't you ever gone to someone to try to work out the problem between you and they steadfastly maintain there is no problem? Paul and Barnabas parted company for the second missionary journey because they couldn't workout their disagreement over whether to take Mark.
I don't see how I can move into the utopia Jesus speaks of. O I could move in, but anger at my brother would quickly get me bounced, but probably no sooner than lust. And did you catch the completely unrealistic way Jesus has for dealing with lust? How does gouging out my eye or cutting off my hand help? Jesus Himself says that adultery is a matter of the heart. How does anything I do to my body address that?
And finally how could I live in place where yes and no were sacred words? Wouldn't people do to me what the Corinthians did to Paul? When he didn't come when he said, they accused him of this very thing. Listen as Paul defends himself: "Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both Yes, yes' and No, no?' But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not Yes' and No.'" Do you see what happens when you take these words from Jesus as instruction about how to make a utopia? It sounds like a utopia, but it quickly becomes unbearable.
Jesus isn't directing us to a utopia. Utopia is a word made up by Sir Thomas More in the 16th century. It comes from two Greek words "no" and "place." So a utopia is no place. Jesus is not directing us to a place that doesn't exist but to a Person who does. In keeping with Epiphany He is directing us to Himself. When you read Matthew, you can't read the Sermon on the Mount separately from the rest of the Gospel. What you know will happen to Jesus later has to be kept in mind now. The first hearers of Matthew had that "a-hah" moment in the end, but we who've been to the end many times have to keep it mind from the beginning.
Who in Matthew doesn't carry grudges even against His betrayer? Who calls Judas "friend" even as He is being betrayed by him? Yet who's handed over to the Sanhedrin, who's taken to the judge, and who's abandoned by God in hell? Don't you see? How the first hearers of Matthew could get off track when they hear about not being angry, not carrying grudges, and about reconciling? They could think Jesus was instructing them how they could live, but then they see the Jesus who did live that way go the very way He warned them about going: Sandrine, Pilate, and forsaken by God.
And as much as they would hear Jesus words about adultery, marriage, lusting and divorce and think, "Yes, Jesus that's the way, I want to live." When they hear Jesus say in Matthew 15 that out of the fallen heart flows an endless stream of immorality, lust, and sin, they know they can't. And then when they hear the disciples themselves say in Matthew 19, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry," they lose all hope of getting to the utopia they imagined Jesus was pointing them to.
But how different things look when they get to the Passion. There they see Jesus suffering like they know they should. Rather than any part of their body being gouged out or cut off in payment for their sins, they see Jesus' whole body being given over to judgment, punishment, and hell. Although guilty of no sin in heart or life, Jesus doesn't protest His innocence. And since the cup of suffering due for sexual sins has to be drank, Jesus drinks it.
When they hear Jesus saying yes and no are to be sacred in themselves, sure they want to live that way. But we saw if you think Jesus is giving absolute directions for living, you end up accusing St. Paul that he is breaking Jesus' directive. It's interesting that when Paul defends himself against this charge he uses Jesus to do it. Listen: "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us was not Yes' and No,' but in Him it has always been Yes.' For no matter how many promises God has made, they are Yes' in Christ."
God's promises to sinners are always "yes," because He spoke the divine "no" to Jesus. Although Jesus never broke a promise, never broke His word, He was treated as a liar and as belonging to the evil one. They called Him Beelzebub. They said by the power of Satan He did miracles. Jesus who was God's thundering "yes" to sinful, fallen, lost man was treated as God's no."
I saw a science fiction show the other day set in a post-epidemic world. There had been a complete breakdown of society. One young man dedicates his life to keeping a public library open, but here's the catch. The man is illiterate. The books are closed to him, but he sacrifices and suffers so others can use them. And so Jesus. He sacrificed; He suffered; He went through hell to keep paradise open for you not Him. Jesus doesn't direct us to create a utopia by following His commands, but calls us to enter paradise through His perfect life and holy suffering.
In Jesus, we find our relationships different. How? Does He change the people around us? Does He take away our reasons to be angry? No, He changes us. From the water that flowed from His side, He fills the baptismal font and then applies this Sacred Water to us and rebirths us to everlasting life. It's not that we enter a utopia where no one is ever mad at another person. No we enter Jesus' wounded side through the font and come out reborn. A new person, a new creature created after Christ Jesus in true righteousness and holiness sees the world around him differently.
Like the illiterate librarian, Jesus doesn't preserve marriage for His sake but ours. In this sinful world which is at war with marriage on many different fonts, Jesus preserves ours. How? By getting us to follow these rules, these principles? No by forgiving us. See what a big change came over Peter when Jesus forgives him three times on the beach? In Absolution Jesus lays His nail pierced hands on your head and forgives you. In Absolution He invites you to crawl into His wounded side and find that cleft in the Rock of ages. Life, you, your spouse, and marriage look different from this vantage point.
And no we can't make a utopia by yes's and no's. We will only make a mess if we try. Jesus comes from His throne in heaven to His footstool here on earth, this altar, and seals every one of God's promises to you with His Body and Blood. Focus not on what vows and promises you have made to God; let His vows and promises to you ring in your ears. Yes, you are His brother or sister; No, He will never leave you or forsake you.
Jesus doesn't direct us to a utopia of our own making for that is truly no place. He does direct us to a eutopia spelled e-u-t-o-p-i-a. This word is derived from the Greek word for good and place. The Good Place Jesus directs us to is His Person. The portals, the openings to this Good Place, are that Font, these Words, and this Bread and Wine. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (20110213); Matthew 5: 21-37