Sunday, February 5, 2023

Phil Kniss: What goes around comes around...unless...

Jesus reveals right relationships
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 37:16-18; Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29; Revelation 22:16-17

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

Today’s sermon, boiled down, is about “being right with God.”
Now, that phrase means different things to different people.
How you think about God,
and about yourself in relation to God,
determines what it means.

But even if “being right with God” won’t register the same way
for everyone here,
I do think if you identify yourself as a person of faith,
you will value “being right with God,”
however you conceive of God.

This is Matthew’s concern as well.
In fact, all through the book,
Matthew’s primary agenda seems to be
for his readers to “be right with God,”
for us to keep clear and unclogged and uncorrupted
the connection between our lives on this earth,
and our life with God,
as citizens of God’s realm.

There’s another key phrase: God’s realm, or as Matthew puts it,
the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of heaven,”
is that sphere in which God’s rule is recognized and respected.

First, let’s review where and when Matthew’s Gospel emerged.
As I mentioned in my introduction to this series,
the most likely social, political, and geographical context
where this particular Gospel emerged,
was sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.,
somewhere around Antioch of Syria,
300 miles north of Jerusalem.
I reminded us that the siege of Jerusalem by Caesar’s army,
not only resulted in the temple and palace
and other key buildings being reduced to rubble,
but over 1 million Jewish people dying in that mass murder.

We must remember Matthew is writing, most likely,
to a fairly new Jewish Christian community in Antioch,
a few short years after this unspeakable trauma.
Matthew’s audience was only a few hundred miles from ground zero,
living in the heart of the Roman Empire,
surrounded by Gentiles who were loyal to the same Caesar
who just committed genocide against their people.

Every member of the Christian community in Antioch,
and every member of the local Jewish synagogue,
would have been on high alert,
would have been grieving the loss of relatives in Jerusalem,
loss of a place to go home for Passover
and other important festivals.
These were wounded and traumatized people,
who also were becoming more distant from each other.

The Jews in Antioch who believed in Messiah Jesus,
and those who didn’t,
had very different understandings of what it meant
to be “right with God.”
They had very different understandings of what the phrase,
“Kingdom of God” meant.

It created a gulf that ultimately would not be bridged.
And followers of Jesus were separated from their synagogue.
Acts chapter 11, v. 26, even tells us that it was in Antioch
that the disciples first were called “Christians.”
That separation, that schism was so profound,
they were given a new name,
a new identity distinct from their Jewish cousins.

It’s a sad chapter, the Jewish-Christian schism,
a rather long and complicated chapter,
and one we can’t really undo 2,000 years later.
But my point today is not to evaluate that schism.
It is to say we can’t fully understand Matthew,
without naming those conflict dynamics that were
front and center for the people first reading this Gospel.

So, does all that color our reading of today’s text?
It should.

Here, Matthew has Jesus saying,
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.
You’ll receive the same judgment you give.
Whatever you deal out will be dealt to you.
(What goes around comes around.)
Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye,
but don’t notice the log in your own eye?”

There must have been a lot of judging going on
among the Christians of Antioch.
Judging the leaders of the local synagogue who ousted them,
judging the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem,
judging their Roman neighbors who were part of the system
that was crushing them,
judging even new Gentile believers in Jesus
joining their community.
Right there in Antioch,
multiple cultural, ethnic, and religious frameworks
were colliding with each other.
This was true inside the church.
It was true between the church and their community.

Does this sound like familiar territory for the church today?
Conflict with prevailing cultural values.
Conflict with other religious frameworks
held right inside our own church bodies,
by people we call sisters and brothers.

As an example, our Virginia Mennonite Conference
did some sober self-reflection yesterday
in our delegate session in DC.
And thanks for your prayers for us, by the way.
We ended with a ritual of lament.
And every delegate and pastor went home with one of these
broken pottery shards as a grim reminder
of the current state of the church,
yet as a prayer for hope that God
might create a new vessel from these shards.
Maybe we aren’t that far from Antioch.
What goes around comes around.

Well, here is the heart of Matthew’s message:
If you want to be “right with God” . . .
If you want to be part of the kingdom of heaven . . .
Pay attention to your relationships with your human family.
There is a direct line
that connects your relationships with other humans beings,
and your relationship with the God who loves them all.
What clogs up your relationship with a neighbor,
will clog up your communion with God.
What goes around comes around.

That message is repeated all through Matthew,
and nowhere more often and more repeatedly,
than in the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7.
“Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye,
but don’t notice the log in your own eye?”
It’s one of the classic questions of Jesus.

In the face of so much conflict in the wider culture and the church,
so much political polarization,
theological difference, and
moral and ethical divides . . .
it is only human nature to try to deal with that
by shoring up our in-group identity,
by surrounding ourselves with people like us,
by turning up the volume on judging others,
even our neighbors and members of our faith family.

As we draw into our tight circle those who are like us,
and create distance from those who are not,
we create a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Our own way of thinking is reinforced.
It is even easier to find fault with those who challenge us.
And the more we amplify “us and them,”
the more likely we get entrenched in our own thinking,
and unwilling to be challenged.

Being “birds of a feather” and “flocking together”
is normal human nature.
It’s not wrong.
But it is not virtuous, either.

Now, let’s be clear about this judging bit.
Jesus wants us to be discerning.
Jesus does not encourage lazy thinking.
Not every framework is morally equal.
In this same sermon, Jesus tells us to discern right and wrong.
“Beware of false prophets,” Jesus says.
“You will know them by their fruits.
Grapes don’t grow on thorn bushes.
And figs don’t grow on thistles.”

But there is a difference between discerning and judging.
To discern is to perceive a difference, take note of it,
and exercise caution in how we live,
trusting God with the consequences.

To judge is to take over God’s job,
be judge and jury and carry out the punishment.
Jesus does not ask us to cut ourselves off
from those who offend us.
Jesus asks us to be wise and discerning.
And that starts with self-discernment.
It’s an act of great humility, and great courage,
to look carefully within,
and see the log (or splinter) in our own eyes.
If we can’t see them,
it’s certainly not for lack of them being there.
I assure you, they are there.

So, you still want to be “right with God?”
Matthew inquires of us.
Well, get ready. There’s more.
It goes beyond just not judging
those who look at things differently than we do.
That’s the easy part.

Earlier in the sermon Jesus brought home a point
much harder to hear.
So hard that many Christians today
find convenient work-arounds
to avoid the demand altogether.

Turns out our relationship with God
also depends on how we relate to our enemies.

We jumped over these verses in the lectionary,
so let me just read a few excerpts of Matthew 5.
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you that you must not oppose
those who want to hurt you.
If people slap you on your right cheek,
you must turn the left cheek to them as well.
When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt,
let them have your coat too.”

“You have heard that it was said,
You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who harass you
so that you will be acting
as children of your Father who is in heaven.
If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?
If you greet only your brothers and sisters,
what more are you doing than others?”

Human relationships that rely on equality and reciprocity,
are natural.
They are not wrong.
But neither are they virtuous.
It’s simply what everyone does, without trying.

“But do you want to live like children of my family,”
God asks us, through Matthew.
“Then love your enemies.”
“Show goodwill to those who oppose you and persecute you.”

In the human realm,
natural consequences rule the day.
But in God’s realm, the kingdom of heaven, we are called
to turn the other cheek,
to go the extra mile,
to love our enemies.
Doing so breaks the cycle of “normal.”
It throws our opponents off-balance,
because they were assuming a certain kind of response from us,
and got something they weren’t prepared for.
It gives space for God to enter and create something new.
A new pot from broken shards, maybe.
And God redeems what was meant for evil,
and transforms it into a blessing for the kingdom.

Don’t know about you,
but I want to be part of that work of divine redemption.
I want to be that kind of “right with God.”
I want to live within that realm of God.
Let us look to Jesus for help, for strength, for courage.

—Phil Kniss, February 5, 2023

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

No comments:

Post a Comment