Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary in India during the middle of the 20th century. When he returned to the United Kingdom after a lifetime of missionary service in Asia, he was confronted with the reality that his homeland was now less Christian than it was when he had left to serve on the “mission field.” Newbiggin realized that the Western world was now just as much a mission field as the regions in which he had served as a missionary. His writing and speaking in his later years urged Western Christians to rediscover the power of the Gospel to capture the hearts of women and men. He pushed the Church to recognize the crucial role that its witness as the people of God served in engaging Westerners with the Gospel:
How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power, which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.
Newbigin’s story and his words are crucial for engaging our biblical text. Matt 5:21-37 is drawn from the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The words of our Scripture lesson are difficult ones. Through the centuries, their force have been muted by reading our text as an unachievable ideal to which Christ followers are to aspire or as an “interim ethic” only valid during the period of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But what if we are to read Jesus’ words as a portrait of what a witnessing community is supposed to look like? What if we ordered our lives together as the people of God in ways that brought Jesus’ teaching to fruition? What message would such a lifestyle send to watching world about the power of the Gospel?
Rooted In Love
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will distill God’s law into two related dictums: Love God and love neighbor. These principles must underlie our engagement of our text lest we become so focused on self that we forget that the purpose of the commands is to shape God’s people into a profound witnessing community to the world.
At the core of Jesus’ teaching is love. Our text is part of a larger segment of Jesus’ teaching: 5:17-48. Jesus’ instructions reach their climax in 5:43-48 where Jesus ends by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” The example of perfect love that Jesus provides is the observation that God provides sunlight and rain to both the righteous and unrighteous. God does not discriminate in his love. We must not either. What does a community look like that truly embodies a love for neighbor? What would it mean for our community of faith to be known by love? Jesus unpacks some of the details in our Scripture lesson.
In Matt 5:21-37, Jesus teaches on issues of forgiveness/reconciliation, genuine relationships between men and women, marriage, and solemn promises. In each case, Jesus paints a picture of what true community in God’s kingdom is supposed to entail in contrast to attempting merely to keep the letter of the law.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation (5:21-26)
The law teaches that one should not commit murder. There is nothing particularly pious or impressive about this commandment as most if not all human societies espouse this value. It is clearly a minimum standard for human communities. Duke ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas has a poster on his office door with a provocative slogan from the Mennonite Central Committee that reads: “A modest proposal for peace: Let the Christians of the world resolve to stop killing each other.” Clearly the killing of others is not a Christian virtue, but communities that truly embody the kingdom do not stop at the abolition of murder. Jesus extends the commandment about murder to all ruptures of relationships between people caused by anger or tensions. In fact, in communities shaped by the ethics of Jesus, it is more important to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation than it is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God.
Communities that embody love refuse to fracture due to a lack of forgiveness. They assume that the one who causes the division will begin the work of reconciliation rather than the victim. What a remarkable community that would be where members love each other enough to sense when they have caused tension or a broken relationship and then act to mend it. Mother Teresa advice to families echoes Jesus’ words: “We must make our homes centers of compassion and forgive endlessly.”
Genuine Relationships between Men and Women (5:27-30)
The battle between men and women for power has raged since humanity’s expulsion from Eden. In the realm of sexuality, the modern Western world has found itself in endless cycles of innuendo and lust in its marketing, clothing, entertainment, and interpersonal relationships. Sex is everywhere.
Jesus’ words about adultery and lust in one’s mind have driven devout followers to extreme ascetic practices to avoid sexual sin. But at its heart, Jesus is attempting to say something profoundly beautiful about the possibilities of relationships between men and women in communities that practice the kingdom ethic of love. Our communities are to be less about serving as sexual watchdogs and more about promoting healthy relationships of mutual brotherly and sisterly love between its members.
A community of God’s dreams is one in which men and women can mix without worrying about being turned into the object of another’s lust. Our communities must become safe places for people who have been broken sexually to come for healing and hope. They must be places where the both the beautiful and the scorned can interact and serve together and where young men and women can learn of their value and worth apart from their sex appeal or lack thereof.
Marriage and Divorce (Matt 5:31-32)
Marriage has fallen on hard times in our world. Lifelong partnerships seem to be less and less common. More and more of our members have experienced the pain of divorce in their own relationships, in those of their parents, or in those of close friends. Jesus is not teaching on divorce to heap guilt on those who have suffered through a divorce. Instead, he is lifting up healthy, committed marriages as a grounding point for communities of faith. A community of God’s dreams supports families and offers love and support to those broken by fractured relationships.
Solemn Promises (5:33-37)
Communities are forged on relationships of trust where members keep their word and fulfill their promises. Jesus is not speaking against oaths, but rather is affirming the necessity of truthfulness and faithfulness as the glue that holds a community of love together. Jesus’ alternative to our litigious society is one in which each person’s “yes” really means “yes” and a person’s “no” really means “no.” Humanity craves authenticity in relationships and business transactions. There is no need for legalese or small print disclaimers in a community of God’s dreams.
It’s a high calling to embody the ethics of the kingdom in our communities. But the alternative is a muted witness. Have you ever craved the juicy, mouth-watering cheeseburger that you encounter during commercial breaks while watching your favorite television program? How many times have you gotten in your car the next day to visit the restaurant and ended up disappointed? Instead of the fresh, delicious sandwich in the commercial, you receive a dry burger on a stale bun with toppings that have long lost their appeal. Instead of happy, enthusiastic and helpful servers, rude and disinterested employees greet you. Instead of a pristine dining room, you are unable to find a clean table. These impressions tend to stick with you for a long time. You are less and less inclined to make a return visit. Future commercials cause you to scoff rather than tempt you to eat fast food. Likewise, it is crucial for our communities of faith to embody substance and vitality as a convincing and credible witness to the world around us. Jesus’ words call us to imagine anew what the people of God are called to be and become.
Communities shaped by Jesus’ teaching are the hope of the world. They exist to embody for the world a different type of world. What would it look like if we committed to becoming a community of God’s dreams? What would stay the same here? What would change? What if following Jesus the Messiah were the only means of truly embodying all that God desires for us to be?