Sunday 9 February 2020 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
(Isaiah 58.1-9a 1 Corinthians 2.1-12) Matthew 5.13-20
Are you a good person or a bad person? Immediately you may object to such a crude division. Isn’t the truth more complicated?
What about a spectrum from good to evil, perhaps using the stereotypes of Mother Theresa at level ten and Hitler at zero? What’s your level?
Again you may baulk, and you would be right to do so, and today’s Gospel would support you.
It’s what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is sitting down on the summit teaching his disciples. And he looks them in the eye and says, ‘You are the salt of the earth’. Just imagine them all hearing that and sitting up a bit straighter, chests out, hanging on every word. We are the good ones.
And Jesus goes on to say, ‘You are the light of the world’. Here we are on top of this mountain. You are like beacons illuminating all the people below. Go and shine. Show everyone how good you are and they will praise God.
How affirming is that? And if you call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus, you can hear those words today as if they are being spoken to you. You are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world. If humanity is divided into good people and bad people, it’s pretty clear which category we are in.
Or is it? The second part of what we heard is all about the law. The traditionalists will have been watching Jesus carefully. Here is a new teacher and he’s drawing quite a following. Is he undermining the bedrock of our nation? Is he replacing the Law and the Prophets with some modern attractive teaching?
Far from it, says Jesus. I’ve not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. In fact, you know that standard set by your teachers and religious leaders? That set of rules which by which you can make sure you stay in the ‘good’ category? It’s nowhere near sufficient. The pass mark that the Pharisees give you won’t get you anywhere near the door into the kingdom of heaven.
If we’d read on we’d have heard Jesus give particular examples of this. Do not murder? That’s not enough. Speak just one word to your brother that suggests he is worthless and your soul is in the same danger as if you had killed him.
Do not commit adultery? That’s not enough. One lustful look and you’ve committed adultery in your heart.
An eye for an eye? That’s too much. Don’t resist anyone who strikes you. Turn the other cheek. If someone steals your jacket, give them your cloak as well.
Love your neighbour? Of course. But love your enemy also. Love everyone who hates you and persecutes you. And pray for them.
And to cap it all, Jesus says, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
The net effect is to set a standard which none of the disciples could ever hope to attain. One minute they are the salt of the earth, the next they are failures, excluded from the kingdom. Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus even calls his disciples ‘evil’.
How do we make sense of this? Isn’t Jesus contradicting himself?
Think about the windows in this church, in particular the window over the north door, dedicated to the memory of Albert Stanley Bourne. It’s usually called the creation window. Early last week a beer bottle smashed a hole in it, destroying one of the zebras.
Incidentally, the comments on Facebook about this made very clear that many hold the view that the world is divided into good people and bad people, and that the perpetrator was one of the latter. I had to delete some comments which gave an opinion on what should be done to them.
But at the time it was smashed that window would have looked dull and uninteresting. I’m not excusing the vandalism, by the way. I’m just saying how it appeared. There were no lights on in church, and the floodlight on that corner is out of order. None of the windows have any glory of their own. Their beauty and wonder is all down to the light. The point of the windows is to be a medium for light, not to be anything in themselves.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is giving us a vision of something different from achieving a standard of goodness, or ticking a list of rules. It’s more about holiness than goodness. And holiness is about making God visible. It’s about being transparent to the divine.
An example of goodness without much holiness is when someone is that kind of person who is correct, busy, disciplined, but slightly martyred. A manner that makes other people feel guilty and chastened, and draws attention to themselves and their works of charity.
Holiness, on the other hand, is good to be around. It’s not about drawing attention to yourself. It’s about the joy and love of God coming through. It makes people feel better, more encouraged and lifted in spirits. And most significantly, it can be present in people who are flawed in all kinds of ways.
The creation window is a glorious window and it’s a broken window. Both at the same time.
You are the light of the world, the salt of the earth. And you are a sinner, without any contradiction.
All the great saints had deep flaws. It’s not that the flaws don’t matter, but it can still be possible for light to come through.
Take this example of a woman from my previous parishes who died while I was there. She was a lovely, generous, caring person. And she was an alcoholic who could be verbally abusive. One week she would be around church, reading the lesson, quietly getting stuck in wherever help was needed. Another week she’d be found in a ditch down one of the lanes.
She was a saint, and she was a sinner. And I was always proud of the way the church accepted her and loved her. When she died, a ciborium was dedicated to her memory.
There’s nothing like the good news of Jesus Christ. It tells us that if we are to shine it can only because of a gift from beyond ourselves, the light of God made visible through us. It’s not about us ticking a list of achievements, it’s about us standing in the right place, baptised into Christ himself.
And it tells us we can be completely honest about ourselves, and look on ourselves and others with compassion. We’re not competing to reach a standard and occasionally failing. Our problem of sin is more fundamental.
Centuries ago St Augustine of Hippo had an argument about this. His opponents thought sin was all about consciously bad choices. Get those rules ticked correctly and you’ll be ok. Augustine knew the problem ran much deeper – more like alcoholism actually. We know there are desires and motives deep down that are not what they should be and we know we can’t put that right just by an effort of will.
That’s ok. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. That’s how the Sermon on the Mount begins. We come to God, knowing that we diseased in our souls in all kinds of ways, and we can be honest about that. And we come knowing that we don’t need to prove anything. We’re not asked to bring here some evidence of our goodness.
Today’s collect printed on the notice sheet shows that Augustine won the argument, as far as the Church of England is concerned: Almighty God, who alone can bring order to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity: give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.
We are sinners in need, not of willpower, but of grace. And we are saints through whom God’s joy can be shown. It’s not about being good or bad. It’s about being open to God. You are a beautiful window, albeit with cracks and holes. Keep putting yourself in the light, and everything else will follow.