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Jot and Tittle

Fred Nye, Sunday, February 5th, 2017

Nothing else in the whole Bible is more quoted, more studied and written about, than the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, seated on a mountain in Galilee, gives his own ‘take’ on the Law that was given to Moses on Mount  Sinai. Here Jesus gives us the definitive standard of behaviour, against which we should all measure our lives as Christians. And so the Sermon is recommended reading for penitents preparing to make their confession. And yet Jesus’ teaching isn’t so much a list of rules, as a description of the change of heart that comes from a loving relationship with God. It is about the transformation of souls.

But first we have to deal with a real difficulty. Jesus seems to speak of the Jewish law with a veneration that not even the Scribes and Pharisees could equal. And yet we know that Jesus often broke the rules that they held dear – he refused to be limited by the petty rituals that the Law prescribed, he healed the sick on the Sabbath, and he went to the cross condemned as a blasphemer and a law-breaker.

So what did Jesus mean when he told his followers to outdo the Scribes and Pharisees in righteousness? We can’t presume to know the whole answer – but we can get a bit closer if we take on board some of the other teaching that Jesus gave in his sermon. A couple of verses further on in Matthew chapter 5 Jesus says this: ‘It was said (in the Law) that whoever murders will be liable to judgement – but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister you will be liable to judgement’. Jesus goes beyond and behind the crime, the raw deed, to uncover the root cause; the anger, bitterness, jealousy and fear that can lie within our hearts. And there are several other examples of this disturbing, penetrating gaze in Jesus’ teaching. To fulfil the law, Jesus needs our hearts and minds. In other words he wants us to become holy, not by keeping a lot of new rules, but by surrendering our hearts to him, in and through his love.

I think we can see what Jesus was getting at when he talks about salt and light. In Bible times, salt was a symbol of purity and of purification: the glisteningly white product of sea and sun. How much the world needs the pure in heart; people who are beyond corruption, and who have the courage to ‘speak truth to power’. In an era of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ we must constantly defend truth and integrity because we know that in the end they will bring fulfilment and peace. And we must have the courage to speak out against lies and corruption, because we know something of the human misery and conflict that they can cause. At the same time, of course, salt isn’t just a symbol of purity - we all know that that it enriches and enlivens food and adds zest to eating. How much the world needs those who hunger and thirst for right to prevail; people whose concern is for the enrichment and happiness of the poor and the disadvantaged. And finally - in calling us to be ‘light’ Jesus ask us to be radiant with his light, the light of the world, and to be a beacon of hope in the darkness. Yes, all of this is a big ask, and certainly more demanding than just keeping the rules. But the potential of God’s love within us is huge, if only we would allow him to unlock it.

Perhaps we should also have another look at the Isaiah passage we had this morning, which Jesus would have known very well. Isaiah warns his hearers of the inadequacies and failings of the religious customs required by the Law: fasting, it seems, had become an occasion for self-interest and division. No, what God asks for, says Isaiah, is the fulfilling of the law – a complete change of heart that will see the oppressed go free and the hungry fed, that will see God’s people offering the hospitality of their own homes to the dispossessed. I only wish I could surrender my heart to those standards – perhaps the best I can do is to try to become the sort of person who would welcome them.

Fasting, worship and prayer – all are done to God’s glory. But what glorifies him even more is the transformation of our souls into His image: ‘changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place’. If worship doesn’t quite manage to do that for us, perhaps it is because God’s ambitions are greater than our own. Perhaps in this Eucharist, which is both the sign and the means of communion with Our Lord, we should let go of our failings, our divisions, our guilt at not keeping the rules, and allow ourselves to fall upwards into his love. Often without being aware of it we are constantly in that negative gravity, that transforming force-field of love every minute of our lives, even in our darkest moments. And In surrendering to it we can become salt and light, truth and hope, not just for the church, but for the world.  Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote in his diary, with some surprise – ‘I have been to church today, and am not depressed.’  Maybe all of us, whom Jesus calls to total transformation through his love, should expect just a little bit more.

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