The Reverend Kathleen Killian
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
February 12 2023
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
Our gospel passage this morning is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; and so I’d like to ask—and it’s not a trick question—where was Jesus preaching his sermon? Yes, on a mountain! Matthew doesn't say which one, but to all those listening the setting would have evoked Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Law and the Ten Commandments from God. As if to underscore this connection, Jesus says repeats the refrain: you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times . . . but I say to you.
He had no doubt about the divine authority of the Hebrew scriptures, and has already assured the gathered multitude that he had not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill, and that not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
But neither was Jesus in doubt of his own words, that they too carried within them that same authorial and divine power of God. Jesus’ teachings expanded upon the law and commandments, and were a continuation or “further message” of what had been said to the ancients.
The Hebrew Scriptures assert that the law is not only to be outwardly observed but taken to heart (such as in our readings from the last couple of weeks, see Isaiah 58, and Micah 6). In today’s teaching, though in not so many words, Jesus emphasizes the human heart as the origin of our actions and reactions; for out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander, as he later teaches in Matthew’s gospel (15:19).
In an acerbic voice and with hyperbole, he diverts our attention from specific behaviors we must avoid to specific interior orientations we must cultivate. Though it may not seem obvious, on offer is a way of life that is truly life-giving and not only death-denying; on offer is kingdom consciousness.
In our gospel passage this morning, Jesus summons us to the radical ethic of kingdom consciousness by expanding upon four scriptural and law-based teachings. He begins with the commandant against murder—you shall not murder, and whoever does will be liable to judgment. But then he turns from the outward action to its interior root, and says: whoever is angry with his brother or sister, whoever insults them, refuses to reconcile and holds a grudge, then you also are liable to judgment.
This could be a little confusing because as attested to in the gospels, Jesus himself expressed anger and frustration (such as John 2:17, Mark 3:5). He felt sorrow and grief (see John 11:35), and the whole range of human emotions because he was himself fully human. Our natural feelings are not wrong. But any emotion, such an anger, can become problematic when it festers inside; when we get stuck in its reasoning or story; when it finds release in striking out at others or using them for our own self-satisfaction; when it causes us to rebel against God, as we sang in our gradual hymn (Episcopal hymnal 674): how can your pardon reach and bless the unforgiving heart that broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart?
For many if not most people anger doesn’t cause us to murder; in that sense the commandant not to murder is relatively easy to keep. And yet, as Jesus is getting at, how often do we undercut or execute others with anger, resentment and rage, and inflict “soul-killing violence” upon them with our thoughts, words, and even our silence? As Jesus insists, our outward actions and internal attitudes are intimately and vitally connected, and the word of God is not only to be outwardly observed but taken seriously to heart.
Are we not stopped in our tracks when Jesus says that we must be reconciled with our brother and sister before we approach the altar and offer our gifts to God? Practically speaking, is this possible? Even if so, are our hearts truly oriented and surrendered toward love?
Jesus then gets to the root of the commandment against adultery, by saying everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. He plainly tells us that thoughts can corrupt, corrode, and pollute, and that our interior actions have consequence. He rightfully teaches against the objectification of women, and that to debase any person or creation of God is immoral.
But what of tearing out a leering eye, and cutting off a sinful hand, and that it is better to do so lest the whole body is subject to hell? Here Jesus employs hyperbole, an exaggeration not meant to be taken literally, but meant to make an impact. In this case, it’s an exaggerated way of saying that one rotten apple spoils the whole lot; and that spiritual rot spreads beyond the physical into the heart and soul, thus landing us in hell. The idea of eternal damnation is beyond the scope of this sermon, but here I think we can understand “hell” not so much as a threat from Jesus but a challenge to our conscience.
Jesus goes on to admit to the permissibility of divorce but places limits on the grounds for divorce, specifically that of adultery. In his day women had few legal rights or recourse, and a divorced woman was often left homeless, penniless, and outcast. These laws and limits protected the woman from the whims, cruelty, and injustice of men, and as well protected the community and its interrelated communal life. Today, about half of all marriages end in divorce, and many of us here in the pews have been divorced, including myself. Marriage is a sacrament to be upheld and cherished in love, but not in fear or falsity. God knows this, and that sometimes divorce is the right answer, even outside of adultery, and that sometimes it’s not, despite adultery.
Finally, Jesus says we are to speak only truth; a simple yes or no will do; no spin, no BS, no equivocation; don’t say things that sound good but you don’t mean and won’t carry out; talk is slippery and cheap, and the tongue a conduit for the evil one.
Jesus’ kingdom consciousness exposes the “easy truces” we make. We laud ourselves for not actually committing murder but then stab someone in the back with gossip or lies. We pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery but then cheat on our spouses in other idolatrous relationships, such as with work or the internet, or any adulatory affair of our own creation. What easy truce might you have made in your own life?
All of our rather stringent teachings from Jesus today point to the reality that no-one has a purely private relationship with God; and that alienation and estrangement is not only personal but an obstacle to the building up of the beloved community that God is calling us to co-create. A community that is meant to live out Jesus’ radical way of radical new life. Paul tells us the same in our Epistle today, that we are God’s co-workers, saying: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
The growth that God so desires to give us is the flourishing of respect and dignity at every level of humanity and creation; lasting unions and peaceful loving relationships; reconciliation; a clear conscience; a calm heart; desire that is not disordered but integral and aligned with the sacredness of all life. Indeed, as the Deuteronimist says in our Old Testament, we are called by God to choose life. As Moses said: See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity, blessings and curse. Which will we choose? Though the answer may seems obvious, that of course we would choose life and blessing, the easy truces we make with ourselves often muddy the water of our conscience and clouds our choices. And so Jesus makes it clear what to choose, how to go about making that choice, and how to turn it into kingdom consciousness.
Is it hard work to be who Jesus calls us to be, and to do what Jesus calls us to do? I think there’s no doubt about it, that “we will labor unto glory, until heaven and earth on one.” On offer is kingdom consciousness; on offer is both freedom and challenge. Where is Jesus leading you in this teaching? Is there a part of your life that is especially touched by his invitation?
Lastly, it is always important to listen to what is not being said; and to remember that between the lines of our lessons today lies grace—God’s ever flowing grace ever flowing to his children—that all will be accomplished and drawn into the blessedness of divine glory. We aren’t in this alone; we have help—but only I can take a step towards the light; only you can do the same.
May we be so courageous and humble.