The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s158e07 Palm Sunday 1/4/2007
'equality with God' Philippians 2.6
Here is the ultimate rebuttal to any concept that we have to become 'religious' - for St Paul tells us that Jesus spurned any equality with God but 'emptied himself .. and .. humbled himself'. Any identity that Jesus had with God he put aside; so we, who have been made children of God, members of Christ, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven in our baptism we too put these things aside, and humble ourselves to 'become' like every other human being. St Paul makes it quite plain; he does not pen these words to praise Jesus, but that we might imitate him: 'Let the same mind be in you ..'
Last week we read how St Paul himself came to regard all his own considerable religious qualifications as so much rubbish circumcision, heritage, tribe, sect, enthusiasm, even his law abiding.
So any concept that we are to become 'holier than thou' is quite the opposite direction that we should take. And for 'holier' we can substitute 'more orthodox', 'more spiritual', 'stronger faith', even 'I go to church not like others who lie in bed or mow the lawns on Sunday mornings'. In Anglican circles in times past it might have been: 'I go to the early service so I can fast before receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion not like those who go to the later service'. Perhaps it is not all that long ago :-)!
But what about those words of Jesus himself, recorded in Matthew: 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect'? Matthew 5.48. Surely Jesus' words take precedence over St Paul's! We can immediately discount Luke's recollection of these words of Jesus for he recalls Jesus' saying rather: 'Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful'. Luke 6.36. Clearly God has no interest in whether we are merciful toward the divine or not! Luke is clearly thinking about us being merciful towards our sisters and brothers, for whom our mercy (or not) means a great deal. We might think that Luke is watering down Jesus command for us to be perfect, recorded in Matthew that we are commanded to grasp at equality with God rather than shun it.
So let us look at the context of Jesus' words in Matthew to see what Jesus means by 'perfection'.
It follows a whole lot of examples prefaced by the words: 'You have heard that it was said ..' or an abbreviated form of this. To summarise the examples: We don't get angry with our brothers and sisters, we don't call them fools and we don't insult them. We are reconciled with our brother or sister if they have a legitimate complaint against us (being more important and urgent than making our offering to God), we come to terms quickly with our accuser on our way to court, we do not look lustfully at another person, we are to cut off those parts of our body that cause us to sin the eye that looks at another and sees only evil, the hand that only serves to take from others. We are not to divorce another without reason, not to swear to defraud another. We are to turn the other cheek, give our cloak, go the second mile, not refuse those who want to borrow, and love our enemy. These are all about our relationships with those around us. None of them are about our relationship with God.
I should add that terrorism is only anger towards a brother or sister writ large.
So perfection according to Matthew has nothing to do with our relationship with God in worship but on our relationship with those around us. This is the same message as the Pharisee and the publican in the synagogue. The Pharisee sees himself as so far superior to his fellow worshipper.
But the flip side of all this is that this is actually what God is like. God doesn't get angry with people, call them fools or insults them. God doesn't treat people well to gain benefit from them. God loves his (or her) enemies a remarkable statement if ever there was one.
Jesus came to show us God as God really is a God who is not interested in our devotion (towards heaven) but on our welfare and the welfare of all people. This second concern is a function of how we get on with our neighbours, our brothers and sisters.
It is this conception of God that so enraged those who were so devout, those who did indeed love 'God' with all their hearts and minds and strength enraged them enough to have Jesus killed. Their problem was that the god they worshipped wasn't God as God really is. It was their projection.
Today is Palm Sunday, and as we enter this final week of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, our response to the events of this week might be one of extra devotion, particularly on Good Friday, and of extra praise on Easter Day. There is nothing wrong with this devotion and this praise, but it cannot separate us off from others. Jesus did not die on the Cross for those alone who would follow him. Jesus died on the Cross for all people and this is meant to determine how we relate with everyone, no matter what their faith or lack thereof, no matter how they live their lives, no matter the colour of their skin or their gender for this is how God treats everyone.
So if we want to be equal to God in terms of our piety and religious devotion, we have got the entirely wrong picture of God. If we want to love others as widely as God loves then we've got the right message. If our message is to love others then it will not be welcomed by those who look down on others in the name of their god, just as it inspired murderous rage against Jesus.
At the moment there is lots of anger at the Episcopal Church of the United States who have ordained a person a bishop who is in a committed same gender relationship. The ones who are angry look down on gay and lesbian people as less than normal, less than children of God than they. I have to say that I take these words of St Paul to mean that these conservative persons need to put aside their anger and their 'equality with God' and become like their sisters and brothers.
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