Sunday, July 29, 2012

Going The Extra Mile in a Don't Get Mad Get Even World. (Matthew 5:38-42) It's life Jim but not as we know it part 7

At the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr, Dr Benjamin May spoke of the way King had lived out the teaching of Jesus in the passage we had read out to us today...he said “ If anyone knew the meaning of suffering it was King, house bombed, living day to day for thirteen years under constant threats of death, maliciously accused of being a communist, falsely accused of being insincere; stabbed by a member of his own race, slugged in a hotel lobby, jailed over twenty times, occasionally hurt because friends betrayed him- and yet this man had no rancour in his soul, no revenge in his mind, and he went up and down this world preaching nonviolence and the redemptive power of Love.’   

We are working our way through Jesus sermon on the mount. After Jesus great revolution of grace in the beatitudes, Jesus has called his ragtag group of followers to be salt and light in the world. They were to have righteousness greater than the Pharisees and teachers of the law one that reflected Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and prophets. Jesus had given us a series of case studies to show how people in the kingdom of God were to live out this radical new life they had received in Christ. He showed how we were to be bridge builders  not grave diggers, dealing with anger. That we ere to have an unadulterated passion in a sex saturated world, treating each other as brothers and sisters in Christ not as objects of sexual desire. That we were to value marriage in a throw away society. That we were to have a courageous integrity in a world of hype and insincerity.

This week and next we are coming to what many consider the highest point of the Sermon on the Mount.  Teaching that John Stott says is both the most admired and most resented; namely the attitude of total love which Christ calls us to have for those who are evil and are our enemies. Calling us not to retaliate or seek retribution, rather we are to go the extra mile in a gotta get even world, and to actively love our enemies, which we will look at next week.  They are teaching from Jesus Sermon on the Mount that have had the most influence in our world today, forming the basis of nonviolence movements of Ghandi and martin Luther King Jr and others,  and in our fractured and conflict riddled world are the most needed, on a personal, communal and societal level. People in the kingdom of God in response to God’s great grace shown in Jesus Christ are to live in a way that seeks the highest good for all people, even those who actively oppose us, oppress us and seek to do us harm.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’

This is probably one of the most miss quoted passages in scripture, one that is commonly misused as it was by the people in Jesus day. It also is an underlying principle in the legal system today. It is used in several places in the Mosiac Law like in Exodus 22:21-25, where it is designed to limit the extent of revenge and retribution people are to seek, in the case of exodus if two people are fighting and a third person gets injured. It was to stop such things as blood feuds escalating, to killings of whole families and generations of animosity, over what might be an injury,  and part of the system of taking that out of the hands of the individual and clan and putting seeking appropriate restitution in the hands of the legal system. In a modern vernacular it was designed to insure the punishment fitted the crime. In the ancient near east this meant limiting the retribution, not like its use today seems to be people concerned that sentences are too short. Very early on it changed from being an exact physical match of wound for wound to be about what we would call appropriate compensation, blood money or in our legal language compensation and damages.

By Jesus day and into our own, it has come to mean exactly the opposite; it had come to be a catch cry that you needed to take personal revenge. Micheal Wilkins in his commentary on the passage says that this is because under roman occupation the ordinary person lost their access to just courts, particularly when it came to the extortion of taxes, being treated as inferior and oppressive regulations and economic hardship.  It fell back into the hands of the person.  Even today in many places round the world, blood feuds and exacting revenge is a way of life and we are happy with the idea of got to get even.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is in the bible not to say take revenge but to limit retribution, to be about justice. Jesus then flips it on its head, to say that in the kingdom of heaven we are to live in a totally different way.

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.

This is a hard passage to understand and the NIV does not do a good job of translating it. It does it literally but the meaning is not clear.  The Bible says we are to resist the evil one meaning Satan and he will flee from us and it does not condone simply letting evil people have their way, in fact it says that all evil men need  to flourish is that good people do…nothing.  Rather as the New English Bible puts it ‘it says do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.” As NT wright comments “Jesus offers a better way forward, better to have no vengeance at all, but rather a creative way forwards, reflecting the astonishingly patient love of God himself.’ It is not that retribution and justice for wrongs are ignored but rather the right place for them are the law courts and as Paul says in the passage from Romans we had read out, in God’s hands, God is the ultimate impartial judge, who can be trusted with ultimate vindication and justice. We don’t need to take such things in our hands they are in God’s.

Now historically this passage has been used in many different ways and it would be hard to get our heads around it. Does it mean when someone is assaulting you or in the face of rape you don’t fight back, you don’t resist, that reeks of evil to me. Does it mean if someone robs your house you don’t hand them over to the police? Does it mean we don’t step into break up fights or assaults?  Are we simply to be a door mat? Well Jesus isn’t trying to give us another rule for life, but rather to show us an underlying way to live and fortunately he gives us a series of almost cartoon like situations to stimulate our thinking on what it means.

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

This is not referring primarily to an assault, but rather to an insult. In a predominantly right handed world to slap someone on the right cheek means to give them a back hand. Even in the Middle East today to such a thing was a grieve insult, not primarily a physical assault. It was to teat one with contempt and as an inferior as you would a salve. Jesus says don’t react, don’t hit back, but don’t just simply take it either, rather turn the other cheek, rather say Insult me again but this time as an equal.

Again let me emphasis that’s not simply a new law to live by rather the way we react in those situations is a direct result of experiencing the revolution of God’s grace articulated in the beatitudes, freely available through Christ. Mark Woodly sums it up like this
” No sorry you can’t bring me down, my Lord just called me salt of the earth and light of the world. I am blessed beyond measure I don’t need to play this little game of trading insults, let me give you a taste of new life in the Kingdom of God, strike me on the other check, my Father’s love is broad and generous. He never gets petty or mean spirited ; instead he just keeps sharing compassion even to evil people”.

And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

In the Jewish legal system the shirt off your back was the limit to which someone could sue you for, people except the very rich,  only had two garments, an inner and an outer one and most, specifically the poor would have used their outer garment to sleep on, you were legally not allowed to their outer garment or if you did as guarantee of a loan it had to be returned at night. In the book of Amos one of the things the prophet points about the corrupt nature of Israel’s prosperity is that it was at the expense of the poor, how could God enjoy the festivals and praise parties of his people when those that gathered sat on cloaks taken from the poor.  But here Jesus says to settle grievances don’t stop at the legal requirement, we have been lavished with God’s grace, he has paid the price for our sin, be lavish in how you return that grace, on how you seek reconciliation. NT Wright also points to the fact that by doing this in a society that exploits the poor, even by using legal avenues we are making a prophetic statement. “in a world where people only have two garments and someone sues you for the shirt off your back’ He says “shame them with your impoverished nakedness. “

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

Going the extra mile is probably one of the most widely used quotes from the Sermon on the Mount. We use it to talk of being prepared to give more than is expected. In Roman occupied territories the roman soldier could demand a civilian to carry his baggage for a mile. It was a sign again of superiority, that people under roman rule unless a citizen was really nothing more than a slave.  It was a much resented drudgery. The reaction to people to such harsh treatment was hostile. But Jesus again flips it on his head by making an act of cheerful loving service, go the extra mile he says. Firstly you can imagine soldiers getting a bit worried as it were breaking heir laws. But secondly it stopped it being a demand and rather it became a gracious act. In the Kingdom of Heaven greatness comes through servant hood not power and prestige. Again Mark Woodly says it’s a demonstration of God’s grace…
“let’s walk that extra mile, let me give you a taste of my Father’s grace, and as we walk I’ll tell you about what it looks like to live in the glorious liberty of the Kingdom of Heaven’. 

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

John Stott tells the story of an oxford student who became bankrupt, because he always gave money to beggars on the streets of that university town, they were alcoholics who preyed on kind hearted students, his kindness in the end destroyed him and only contributed to the destruction of those he gave money to. We do need to be wise in how we give to the poor and Jesus is not saying we should be taken for a fool. Rather as Christians according to DA Carson “we should not tolerate the tight fisted, penny pinching attitude which is the financial counter part of the legalistic understanding of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. To quote Shakespeare’s merchant of Venice we should not be about making sure we get our Pound of flesh. Rather just as we have received god’s bountiful grace we should be generous in the way we treat others. When I worked at the bank I had an interesting conversation with my manger, he suggested it would be a good thing for a Christian to be in the banking system, it would be a prestigious occupation for a church member.  My reply was that I was finding it hard to be part of an institution that would lend money to people to buy boats and batches and was advertising the fact but had very strict regulations about lending to people struggling to start a business or a poor family trying to  get a first home.

Of course Jesus is the ultimate example of living this out, to the extent that he prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him.  And these four snippets of first century life are designed to help us to think about how these things apply to our everyday life.. In 2 Corinthians 2: 21-33 Paul lists all the suffering he had been through, stoning’s, whippings beatings, plots to have him killed, wrongful imprisonment, shipwrecks, all that he was able to face in the power of Christ, it would have given him chance to reflect on Jesus teaching on the Sermon on the Mount and in the passage from Romans 12 we had read out today Paul is able to capture the essence of what Jesus teaching is about when he says… do not be overcome be evil but rather overcome evil with good.

 Michael Lapsley is a New Zealander who went to live in South Africa when he was six, he is an Anglican minister and he had worked for many years on reconciliation amongst the various people groups in his adopted homeland. In 1990 almost like a reward for his work, he opened a letter which exploded in his face, it was a bomb. It blew off his hands, made him loose an eye and deafened him, shattering his eardrums. Lapsleys chose to respond in a Christ like manner to show the Fathers “warm, generous and broad mercy”. He founded the Institute for Healing Memories in South Africa, helping thousands from all races and backgrounds to come together and heal the wounds of violence and separation.”  A great example to us of how following Jesus teaching makes us slat of the earth and the light of the world.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Having our Heart In Our Mouth: Courageous Integrity in a World of Hype and Insincerity (Matthew 5:33-37) It's Life Jim But Not As We Know It Part 6

The 1990 Movie ‘Crazy People’ is billed as ‘a comedy about truth in advertising’ its premise is that you’ve got to be crazy to want to be honest in the advertising business. It tells the story an advertising executive burns out and checks into a mental hospital to recover and as he is under pressure to still work invites his fellow inmates to come up with ad’s for various consumer items. Unrestrained by slick thought processes they come up with ad’s based on truth.

The one that was most remembered from the film was  for Volvo’s going against the trend of using sex to sell cars it simply says “Buy Volvo’s…they’re boxy… but they’re good.” Another one was for a cigarette brand and said “cancer probably, but taste definitely.”  Despite initial resistance of course they take off and it becomes a  phenomenon. Sadly of course that’s Hollywood right, we know that people will embellish things and stretch the truth… to sell us things.   In fact we need to be protected against false advertising and there are very strict legal guidelines over what is and isn’t false advertising…. And in my humble opinion the boundaries are pushed all the time

We also live in a world at a personal level where people struggle with truth telling, being honest… and like in Jesus day they will resort to employing all sorts of oaths and flowery language and yes even religious language to sound like they can be trusted. In Jesus teaching on the Sermon on the Mount he says that people in the kingdom of God are to live a different way… They are to be honest and trustworthy… those of us who follow Jesus are to live with our ‘hearts in our mouth’ not because they are nervous but because we have a courageous integrity in a world of hype and insincerity. It's part of a series of case studies  where Jesus explores how we are to live as Salt and Light. Showing how he has come to fulfill the law.

3 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’

 Jesus isn’t referring to one statute in the Mosaic Law but is covering a series of sections in the law of Moses to do with making vows and swearing oaths. Honesty and integrity, constancy between our words and our actions, is at the heart of the Mosaic Law. Israel’s God is faithful and keeps his covenant and  his word can be trusted, as God’s people they and we should reflect this. The fourth commandment is thou shall not bearing false witness against a neighbour.  A community cannot live and function if it not based on honesty. There is no community without the ability to trust one another. The second commandment is also important here, ‘do not take the Lord’s name in vain’… I don’t know about you but I’ve always grown up with this being mainly about using God’s name as an expletive, and there is an element to this… but in Israel it was also very much that if you invoked the Lord’s name when making a vow and didn’t keep it that you were using the Lord’s name in vain.

The religious people of Jesus day in an attempt to make these commandments observable had changed the focus from personal integrity to focus on what is a binding formula and what isn’t.  They were more interested in the fine print and loop holes than in fine intent. They focused on the structure of the words used not the state of the heart behind them. They were firm that if you made a false vow, in the Lord’s name that that was wrong. But if it didn’t relate to God’s name it wasn’t  binding, this is where Jesus begins to challenge what they were doing.

34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.

Jesus shows that this splitting of hairs over what is and isn’t binding is futile. He says it’s not just God’s name that you need to worry about because whatever you swear by can be taken back to relate to God. In Isaiah 66V1 the prophet talks of heaven being God’s throne and the earth his foot stool. Jerusalem was the City that was set aside for the worship of God. In fact Jerusalem is a good example of how far the scribes and Pharisees had got in their discussion of what was binding, as some argued it was not binding if you swore by Jerusalem only if you turned to Jerusalem and swore towards it then it mattered. I don’t want to get down to the childish level of the old pinky swear and figures crossed behind your back, but it was getting that way.

And if it was even by your own head or your own life, what good is that says Jesus because let’s face it, we have no control over what colour our hair is, despite what the ad’s tell us even the best hair dyes grow out…right?    Our lives and times are ultimately  in God’s hands. It’s ridiculous says Jesus because when you think about it, it all relates back to God. In the list of woes against the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23 Jesus  picks up this theme again and looks at some of the other knit picking over what was and wasn’t a binding oath and says Guy’s you’ve missed the point its about a heart attitude.

37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Like with the other case studies we’ve been looking at in Matthew 5 Jesus now turns to look at what is at the heart of the matter. Just like anger was the problem behind murder and  we needed to be bridge builders rather thangrave diggers, and lust was the problem behind adultery and Jesus followers were to have an adulterated passion in a sex saturated society, treating each other primarily as objects of God’s love and subjects of God’s  Kingdom rather as mere objects subjected to sexual desire. Now Jesus says it’s not about the words you say but the heart attitude behind it. It’s about having an honesty and integrity that comes from the heart. That comes from a transformed life.

 Be the kind of people says Jesus who when you say yes people know you mean yes and when you say no they know you mean no. We might be more used to the saying ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say’… You can have all sorts of language to try and make you sound honest and trustworthy, but unless you are its window dressing. It’s like a flash exterior over a rotting framework… And says Jesus lies come from the evil one.

Historically one of the outworking’s of this passage has been that various Christian groups mainly Anabaptist and Quakers have seen it as a prohibition against swearing any kind of public oath. So they have refused public office and refused to swear in in court cases or make affidavits. While you can admire their desire to be obedient to Jesus teaching, it’s not the thrust of the passage. In Genesis 9 we find God actually makes a vow, not to flood the world again and he makes that vow on his own name. Not to show us he is trustworthy but to help our own unbelief. At Jesus trial before the Sanhedrin Jesus is put on oath to say whether or not he is the messiah, Jesus answers truthfully.   Again the passage points to the underlying attitude we should have that we should be peoples who word can be trusted.

The other area it has historically had an impact is in Christian liturgy. It is why churches do not have oaths as part of their services. At Baptisms and weddings people are simply invited to respond ‘I do’ to the vows they are being asked to make. As N T Wright points out Jesus teaching on qoaths here is significant as follows on from his teaching on divorce, where Jesus says we need to value marraige in a throw away society. In one place in the baptismal liturgy when Parents are asked if they will bring up their children with all the benefits of a Christian house or home the response is we will with God as our helper’, not because it is an oath but rather with the acknowledgement that we need God’s help in bringing up a child and only God has our future in his hands.

At work there is the challenge of being people whose word can be trusted. A friend of mine tells the story of the impact he was able to have at work simply by keeping confidences, and not participating in the office gossip that was riff in his work place. He said that people would come to him when they needed help because they knew he could be trusted. Another friend talked to me of always checking his bosses billing so that people were not over charged when he worked on their cars. I guess there are real challenges for people in sales to be both loyal to their products but also truthful about their capabilities as well. For Students there is the challenge of honesty as well particularly with the pressure to do well.  At University a couple of years ago to have to hand in my assignments electronically through a program called ‘turnitin’ that searches the script of what is written to check for plagiarism. I was also relieved when the programme didn’t pick up anything in my assignments, all the hours of scrupulously attributing ideas and quotes paid off.

Eugene Peterson picks up the fact that we are very good at using religious words almost as throw away lines, ways of finishing a conversation rather than as an expression of Christian care. In the message he paraphrases Jesus teaching like this… “And don't say anything you don't mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, 'I'll pray for you,' and never doing it, or saying, 'God be with you,' and not meaning it. You don't make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say 'yes' and 'no.' When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.’

I think it’s important to note that in Jesus Sermon here we can say ‘No’. Can I say that that is quite liberating. In Christian circles there are people who feel they always have to say yes to requests for help and doing things.

The reality is we don’t if we are asked to do something in the church it is a welcome mat to ministry not a invitation to simply be a door mat.  In the Kingdom of God we are about servanthood, we value service, it’s not about servitude that devalues people’s ministry and gifts of time and work and turns them into duty and drudgery.  In keeping with Jesus teaching of over spiritualising our language, we can do that with our ‘no’s as well.  Someone from another church came to see how we ran a Community Christmas dinner at St John’s in Rotorua. She spent the time checking out what was going on and when she asked if there was anything she could do to help, was invited to help do the dishes, to which she replied… no thanks, that’s not my gifting.

An old missionary told me about being involved in revivals in East Africa, and that the African Christians talking about the importance of living in a house without a roof and with no walls.  They believed to live the Christian life was to be transparent, hiding nothing away from God or from each other.  To be honest about everything, confessing their sins and faults, they wanted to have that level of integrity, so that the words they spoke to God and to each other were real and true. Now when he told me this I have to admit that the title of book I had read at Bible college came to mind… the trauma of transparency’. But the open roof and open walls illustrates what Jesus is saying about the integrity behind our words.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Valuing marraige in a throw away society.. Jesus teaching on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:31-32)... It's life Jim But Not AS We Know It... Part 5

 As I was wrestling with the passage from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus teaching on divorce I was very appreciative of two pieces of wisdom. The first from RVG Tasker… That ‘this passage about divorce is so difficult, and there have been so many diverse interpretations given by individual scholars and different sections of the Christian church, that a commentator may well feel reluctant to express an opinion at all about it, lest they should be guilty of adding to the confusion”… but then with all humility Tasker courageously putting forth some reflections knowing that it won’t be acceptable to everyone. The second is the pastoral compassion of NT Wright acknowledging friends colleges and family who wrestle with this passage concluding that  ‘this is clearly a painful and pressing issue for many people and effects many churches round the world.” What does Jesus mean? How does his teaching apply in our world? How do we live as salt and light… How do follows of Jesus live differently, how do we value marriage in a throwaway society, Where even relationships seem to be disposable.

It has been said ‘anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’

Here Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and we see that Jesus has moved from the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments to dealing with a permission in the mosaic law. Deuteronomy 4 deals with a specific situation, of one man divorcing his wife for sexual misconduct, the law made it clear that he simply couldn’t abandon her, but rather had to do things right, so that she was legally able to marry another, Which is what happens in Deuteronomy 24, the second marriage goes sour as well, the law finishes by stating that the first man cannot then remarry his ex-wife?  

It’s a piece of case law, the Deuteronomy passage is dealing with is the sad situation where such relationship don’t last. It was obvious that there was divorce and remarriage happening. In Jesus day the passage was being used as the basis for a discussion over what constituted grounds for divorce. There were two main groupings in Jewish rabbinical teaching. The school of Hillel had a very liberal interpretation of what the passage meant by something shameful, they said that it covered any offence that a women may commit. It became almost open slather. In the memoirs  of the Jewish historian  Josephus we get a taste of what it was like where he writes in a way we are used to in our twenty first century western world “ At this time I sent away my wife, being displeased with her behaviour… then I took as wife a women from Crete”.  The other school following rabbi shammai maintained a strict interpretation of this law, that it was only for sexual misconduct, adultery or sexual misconduct before the marriage. In fact it was seen as being a given that you would divorce your wife for that. Joseph’s conundrum when he discovered Mary was pregnant was not weather to divorce her , but to do it privately or publicly, remembering that such offences were punishable by death. As a righteous and merciful man his problem is solved by the appearance of an angel who explains that this is the LORD at work.

The book of Hosea in the Old Testament also has some bearing on how God considers divorce. Hosea marries a prostitute and while she continues to be unfaithful to him, God calls Hosea to continue loving her and being reconciled to her... even redeeming her out of slavery. This shows God's commitment to his own covenant relationship with unfaithful Israel.

Jesus then responds to that

“But I tell you anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries divorced women commits adultery”.

Firstly, Jesus is clearly saying he is against the liberal application of the Deuteronomy clause. We are fortunate that we have a longer section of Jesus teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12. Jesus was asked to comment on what the Deuteronomy 24 clause meant , he was invited to take sides in the debate of the his age over divorce, and once again Jesus isn’t drawn into taking sides but rather correctly interprets the scripture. He does two things… he says the key passage from the Law when it comes to marriage is not the passage in Deuteronomy but rather the passage from Genesis where God’s purpose for human sexuality and marriage is that and women will leave their family’s and cleave to one another, that the two will become one flesh. God’s intention is for life long loving mutual faithful relationships between man and wife. Jesus finishes this with words that we are used to from traditional wedding language ‘therefore what God has joined together let no one separate’.

Secondly In that passage Jesus says that the divorce clauses are in the Mosaic Law because of the hardness of man’s hearts. It was only the male prerogative to divorce a wife. In the modern context it would be just as apt to say the hardness of the human heart. Sadly the focus of the rabbi’s was fixed on this legislation not the purpose of marriage. Jesus says yes adultery is grounds for such a divorce, but again these relationships are not to be thrown away cheaply.

It’s interesting that in response to Jesus affirmation of the seriousness of marriage, that his disciples ask if it’s better not to get married? In our society, that may be taken as asking if it’s better to simply cohabitate. Jesus response is that marriage is not for everyone, there are those for whom staying single is an option from inclination or as a commitment to the kingdom of God. The teaching is for those who can accept it.  And I don't like the teaching of some churches that denegrates singles by saying...'don't worry God has a partner for you" that's not the scriptural understanding of singleness and marraige. We need to rediscover and value singleness and learn how to make a community where singles are catered for... not by just providing a dating service either.

Coming back to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is clear that in divorcing women simply for any reason, even when you go through the right process, when you do all the legal stuff, which does allow for remarriage, you are victimising them, they are open to the accusation of being an adulterer, and in such cases, says Jesus it throws any marriage after that into doubt as well.

NB Stonehouse’s paraphrase I think sums this up well

 “you’ve heard of the appeal of Jewish teachers to Deuteronomy 24 in the interest of substantiating a policy which permits husbands freely at their own pleasure to divorce their wives-simply providing them with a duly attested document of the transaction… But I say to You, Jesus continued, that such irresponsible behaviour on the part of a husband will lead him and his wife and the second partners into unions which are not marriage but adultery.”

How does that connect with where we are at in our world today?

Firstly, we do have some more equitable divorce laws in our society. The sad reality is that we live in a broken world, and marriages are going to sadly end. There is a better treatment of women, I think you can see Jesus concern for women come out of the way in which his Objection to the more liberal laws about divorce are couched in the way it mistreats women.  While in other gospel parallels to this passage Jesus does not give any grounds for divorce here there is the possibility and we do work through those issues in our world today. However we need to realise that divorce goes contra to Jesus teaching on the Kingdom of God where we are to be people who are about reconciliation and love. We should always view divorce with sadness.

Secondly, in the past Jesus teaching has been almost the basis of a new legalism. A stigmatisation of divorced people and those who have remarried, which is not healthy nor does it reflect the graciousness of the gospel. We only have to look back to the beatitudes to Jesus invitation to the broken, the spiritually poor to see that all are welcomed to the Kingdom.  We need to sadly acknowledge that some time marriages will end and be gracious, loving and supportive of people through the process and in subsequent remarriages. Again let me point out that divorce actually does imply the possibility of remarriage.  

But it also says that divorce is not the norm in the Kingdom of God, We are called to live in a different way. The bible reading we had from Ephesians, (Ephesians 5:21-33)which has often been misused, shows this, it takes the roman household code, of husbands keeping their households in line and turns it on its head to show marriage and relationships in the family are about mutual love, reflecting God’s love and grace in Christ, they are about mutual submission...not power. The same principle is even more applicable in our western understanding of marriage as an equal partnership. In fact this is a greater understanding of the Ephesians passage than those who would try and propagate the husband as head of the household that is the roman household code, a social context, not what the Bible teaches.

NT Wright says that the placement of Jesus teaching between his teaching on adultery and vows is significant. He says “it may be stating the obvious to point out that if people knew how to control their bodily lusts on the one hand and were committed to complete integrity and truth telling on the other, there would be fewer divorces. Such things as lust and lies can “grow up and choke the fragile and beautiful plant of marriage.”

Finally, Jesus teaching calls us to value marriage in a throwaway society. Sadly the divorce statistics for Christians is almost as high as the rest of society.  We are flawed and broken people. It's easy to say we value marriage...but it calls for some very practical outworking’s.

We need to be active before people get married. I always take couples through pre marriage concealing before I will take their wedding.  One man told Kris on the phone when he rang up to get me to do a wedding and when Kris advised him that I took couples through some counselling, said he didn’t think he needed that because this was going to be his third marriage and he thought he had it sorted by now. To which Kris replied that she thought that was a good reason to get as much counselling as possible to make sure it worked this time. Marriage is a serious thing, it’s not to be entered into lightly.

A good marriage needs to be cultivated.  I tell couples when they come to see me, and it’s in my wedding sermon as well, that the best metaphor I’ve ever heard for marriage is that it is work, and the only better metaphor that I’ve herd is that it is hard work.  It may not be very romantic but it is apt and I heard it from one of the top Christian marriage councillors in New Zealand. We need to work on marriages to make them work…  To help that Later this year I want to run the Alpha marriage course here at St Peter’s.  It a six week course where you take time to sit and talk, not in a group session, but with your spouse, and work at your marriage. It’s not an admission that there are problems; rather it’s designed to make good marriages better.  Kris and I did it after we’d married for twenty years, and it was very practical and helped. We even have regular dates together again now....and I tell people who want me to do something on that date and time... "I'm sorry I can't do it...I've got a hot date".

When there is trouble, and lets face it no one is perfect, we need to ask for help. I went and listened to New Testament scholar Darrell Bock last week, and found one of his comments very useful. He said one of the sad things was that in many cases people will not come looking for help in marriages until it’s too late. The relationship is in such a mess that divorce seems the only option. Pride, embarrassment, denial, don’t let them stop you from dealing with stuff before it gets out of hand. My main conflict resolution style is avoidance. I’m good at it, but as I have to remind myself, if we keep sweeping things under the carpet, the only thing that will happen is that eventually you’ll trip over the lump. We don't end up being that big lump.

Weddings and fairy tales are synonymous in our society. The dress, the quaint church or panorama of the beach or garden, the ride off into the sunset, the couple entwined in a tender and passion kiss,  and those words…’and they lived happily ever after’…then it’s the end of the story, we close the book, the credits roll and the lights come up in the cinema, or there is the intrusive blare of commercials. We need to realise that the romance and the work does not all go into the day, but into the everyday life together. That’s often the best part, dealing with troubles together, living with each other’s expectations, faults, dealing with issues of having and raising kids or not having a family, financial issues, life changing and seeing our love for one another grow deeper and stronger than at the start.

On my facebook recently was this cartoon that said ‘pixar managed to do a more romantic love story in  a 8 minute montage with no dialogue than the whole four books and four movies of the twilight saga. So let me finish today with this wonderful celebration of love and marriage from the Disney Pixar movie up. I know its Disney, but it is a great example of a lifelong romance and love story.  It appears at the beginning of the movie not the end because ‘Up is about the fact that there is life after such a good marriage ends in death.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Having A Unadulterated Passion In A Sex Saturated Society (matthew 5:27-30... It's Life Jim But Not As We Know It... Part 4)

In the book scarlet fields: the combat memoirs of a world war one medal of honour hero, John Barkley gives vivid descriptions of being billeted in French villages and the only young men he sees were minus a limb or blind. There are places round the world today that sadly resemble that. Again as a result of war; men women and children maimed by landmines, or as  I have read recently about  places in Africa where arms and legs are cut off by insurgents to stop men in the villages they attack being able to launch reprisals. It’s barbaric and a crime against humanity.  Jesus is not saying in his teaching about adultery and lust that the kingdom of God should be like those places that the Kingdom should be filled with people who have inflicted such heinous wounds and mutilations on themselves. Using the very over the top graphic language of amputation Jesus calls his disciples to have an unadulterated passion in a sex saturated society the way to achieve that is “not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial”. John Stott wonders if there has ever been a generation in which this teaching of Jesus was more needed or more obviously applicable than our own. How do we deal with it before it causes some real damage in our community.

Last week we looked at a series of case studies Jesus used to show how he had come to fulfill the law and the prophets ( see Jesus,The Law and Us) and how we as his disciples are to live a life of light and salt. We saw  how thou shall not murder wasn’t just a prohibition against the ultimate outworking of anger towards someone else, but rather a call to deal with the danger and damage that anger could do to people.  We saw that Jesus called us to be people who would be about reconciliation, buildingbridges not digging graves. This week Jesus turns to that most basic of human relationships, that between men and women and Jesus tells us God’s real intentions for relationships between the sexes, is respect and fidelity, it’s not all about sex.

You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’

In scripture sexual relationships in marriage are honoured and respected as beautiful. In the genesis creation story we see that God created human beings male and female, the purpose for marriage is that a man and women will leave their existing family networks and form their own unit. That the two will become one flesh. God’s ideal for sexual relationships is within the confines of a loving, mutual, committed relationship.  It’s the leaves and cleaves language some of us will know from the use of genesis passage at weddings. It is a relationship that needs the protection of the law like the seventh commandment and the ten against coveting a neighbour’s wife.

 In fact the bible and God seem to have got the wrap of being anti-sex, that’s not the case. Let’s face it God came up with the idea. The bible also shows clear understandings of God’s ideal for us using that gift, it also gives us so many examples of humanities struggles and failures to uphold those ideal. Many Christian’s are surprised that the Song of Solomon is in the bible, because it is a book of raunchy ancient near eastern erotic love poetry. It celebrates the love and desire between a bride and groom. Now some of the metaphors haven’t stood the test of time, Kris probably wouldn’t find it romantic if I said to her she had a neck like a strong ivory tower that shield were hung off, her  nose is like the tower of Lebanon pointing towards Damascus, and her hair was like a flock of goats descending from Mt Gilead. But it celebrates the passion a wife and husband have for each other.

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Just like with murder and anger Jesus moves on to challenge the underlying attitude in our heart. The Pharisees and scribes were happy with the prohibition about action, what was the limit, but Jesus wants to deal with treating people as objects of lust. It was not simply a narrow definition of sexual sin that left a very broad definition of sexual purity, says Jesus but that we have a different attitude.  Jesus is not wanting to quibble about how far is to far what constitutes inappropriate sexual relationships, what’s the tipping point. Jesus is not wanting to get down to the ‘it depends what the meaning of the world is ‘is’ that we had from Bill Clinton in answer to a question about having sexual relationships with Monica Lewinski, Jesus is saying ‘don’t go there in the first place’. In the kingdom of God we treat people with respect and honour we don’t objectify them, we don’t allow lust to take root. We treat each other first and foremost as brothers and sister in Christ as fellow objects of God’s love and grace not of sexual desire.

Once again it does not mean we are to be a passionless people. But to have an adulterated passion.

In a kind of it depends what the meaning of is ‘is’ moment we do need to wrestle with what Jesus means by the word Look. AS Mark Woodly puts it “Jesus isn’t talking about an appreciative glance at feminine beauty or masculine attractiveness, since lust is an equal opportunity sin rather it has the sense of staring’. Let face it we are designed to be attracted to people. But look has the idea of leering, objectify that person and allow sexual fantasy to take root in our hearts, it’s like possessing the other person. Like inappropriate anger leads to damaging behaviour, the process is the same here. Martin Luther sums it up like this “ If we are not careful the heart goes after the eyes, so that lust and desire are added, which I ought to have for my wife alone”.

One of our problems of course is that this goes so counter to our culture. We live in a sex saturated society. We are bombarded by sexual images and messages. Pornography is available on the Internet. We see portrayals of weak men and women in TV’s and movies, who succumb to temptation, we have a romanticised ethic that if its love it’s OK. Let’s face it Sex sells… it sells music… it sells cars… it sells just about everything... even generators!

 How does Jesus then suggest we live out this radical different way of life in such a society, how can we have an unadulterated passion in a sex saturated world?

So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Firstly, I think it’s helpful to see what Jesus isn’t saying.

Obviously, Jesus isn’t saying that amputation and blinding are the way that people who deal with issues of lust should handle things. That’s definitely not the sort of cleave Genesis has in mind In Matthew 18 Jesus applies this amputation metaphor expanding to the feet as well, to all types of temptation not just lust and sexual temptation, So  it would probably leave us people in the Kingdom of God, without a leg to stand on.

 Jesus is not talking about the imposition of some external factors or prohibitions to curb the problem of adultery and maintain sexual purity.

Martin Luther says the answer was not the strict separation of men and women in the Kingdom of God, mainly the cloistering of nuns and monks separately. The reality is it didn’t deal with the underlying problem. He argued such separation was not God’s will, if the answer to lust and anger was separation we wouldn’t need the 10 commandments. In the Kingdom of God we have to work out how to live together, in a way that reflects God’s grace. We need each other male and female, to be the body of Christ.

Another approach has been the imposition of strict rules and restrictions… on women mainly, like with the Islamic fundamentalist burkha, or veil. I love this cartoon on the screen behind me because I think it picks up something of the problem, whatever is or isn’t on the outside it covers up where the main problem lies. In people’s hearts and minds. It’s not about fashion, I guess Victorian society showed that covering up was simply a layer of civility over the underlying issue.

Modern Sex education seems to have the approach that these desires and urges we have are good and natural, and that’s a good approach, But can’t be controlled, they simply teach teens to make wise choices and to protect themselves and limit the negative effects. If they took the same approach to anger management it would mean issuing boxing gloves and saying you’ll now when the time is right for you.

But Jesus is consistent. Jesus approach is that it calls for self-discipline. That the follower of Jesus should work on their own hearts and attitudes. That it is a matter of self-responsibility.  Note it’s not the imposition of that on others… Christians have been accused of that down through history.  it’s a changing of one’s heart. It’s like this says Jesus … if you are tempted… don’t look… king David is the great negative example here. Bathsheba was bathing on the roof, Jesus advice would be don’t look, don’t linger and let that sexual desire grow. places. In the Book of Job, when his friends come and supposedly comfort him by saying you must have done something really wrong for all this calamity to befall you, Job defends himself by saying he has made a vow not to look on women who are not his wife in a lustful manner or to harbour such thoughts in his heart. Jesus says like with anger don’t let this get a root in your life Don’t  let your eyes draw you in, Don’t look, Don’t do certain things, Don’t go certain places. It’s not repression of sexual urges, but openly acknowledging them and choosing to favour a different vision and work at self-discipline.

Some might see hellfire and brimstone, attempting to manipulate and control people with fear in Jesus saying it’s better to lose and eye or a hand rather that end up on the fires of hell. But first remember that the word for hell here comes from Gehenna the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem and Jesus is saying that we don’t want to end up throwing good marriages and right relationship and a community where people are treated with respect and valued as whole people rather than as simply sex objects, on the scrap heap because of this other rubbish behaviour.

 In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul uses a metaphor for the Christian life that will fill our news reports and TV screens over the next month… he says that he is prepared to discipline his body and behaviour like an athlete so he can run in such a way as to win the prize. An athlete will fore go the temptations of sleep in’s, fast food, they will discipline themselves to win a prize and Paul says he chooses to live his life in a way that reflects the prize of knowing and being known by Christ. That’s the underlying motivation. Both those things the rubbish heap and knowing Christ have eternal elements.

I think this wonderful image does a good job of summing up Jesus teaching. The time to deal with lust is not when we’re out of control and crashing, it’s too late then, rather it’s when we are initially distracted… keep your eyes on the way says Jesus.

The kingdom of God is a place where men and women are valued equally and right relationships are to be maintained. Where both marriages are supported and encouraged and singe people are honoured as well, not just with the Pentecostal “god’s got a partner for you, but finding their need for community met…To achieve that we are to have a right attitude to sex and sexual desires and actions. NT Wright sums up his commentary on this passage by saying that it’s like a rose bush that in order to be a plant that produces a beautiful and strong flower, other buds need to be pruned, cut away to achieve a greater good.