People nowadays can often have a rather negative view of the Old Testament. This is a terrible shame. They think the God of the Old Testament is angry, and nasty, and horrible. The New Testament, on the other hand, is all about how God loves us, and it has a much more sympathetic picture of the deity. The first position is entirely wrong, it represents a misunderstanding of who God is, and how God acts. Thus Jesus is completely right when He says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’(Mt 5:17 ESV). Christ does not abolish the Law or the Prophets. The prophets speak of Him, they foretell a coming Messiah, He fulfils their prophecies.
Our first reading this morning from Eccesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, presents us with a number of alternatives. We are free to choose. Do we want to keep God’s commandments and act faithfully? We can choose between fire and water, life and death. God does not force us to choose one or the other, but one is clearly good, and the other bad. The problem is that we often choose the wrong one. This is what sin is: choosing the wrong thing. God does not tell us to be ungodly, or give us permission to sin, and yet WE do. This is why forgiveness of sin is such a big deal: we all need it regularly. Also, holiness of life matters: God wants us to flourish, and we flourish by trying to live holy lives in accordance with God’s will.
In the Gospel this morning Jesus expects a lot from us. Jesus does not abolish the Law of Moses, quite the opposite. He makes it a lot stricter. ‘Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Mt 5:19-20 ESV) The point is that we are free to choose. We can choose to do the right thing, if we listen to God, if we read Holy Scripture, if we pray, if we trust God to guide us. It is possible: Jesus spends His entire life giving us the example of how to live as humans, made in God’s image. It is possible, but it is difficult, and we will fail, especially if we trust in our own strength alone. As Christians we believe that God is loving and merciful, that our sins are forgiven, if we repent, and turn away from our sins, and ask for God’s forgiveness. Indeed sin is such a big deal that Jesus dies to take away our sins. God dies for us, for you and me, hands Himself over willingly to suffer and die on our behalf. This why we regularly celebrate the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, because Jesus took bread and wine, blessed them, broke the bread, and gave them to His disciples saying, ‘This is My Body … This is My Blood’ and to them to do this. So we do. So that we might feed on the most precious food and drink there is, to heal our wounded souls and bodies, to have a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet prepared for us, to strengthen us to live the life of faith. Without it we cannot live, without God’s help we will fail, so we need it, and we need to trust in God to help us to do His will, and walk in His way.
We can do this because of what God in Christ has done for us. The Cross is the place where the world, the flesh, and the devil are conquered. Here, sin which separates us from God and each other is dealt with. Because of what God has done in Christ we are able to make the choice to try to be righteous. We can do this if we rely upon God. The failure of the Scribes and Pharisees is that they rely upon the Law and their human strength and will. Jesus expects perfection from His disciples because they are following His example, and trusting God to be at work in them.
The Eucharist is a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet: something God has in store for us, or as St Paul says, quoting the prophet Isaiah (64:4), ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1Cor 2:9 ESV). Heaven is our true home, and its glory is beyond our understanding. Enfolded in the love of God, we may spend eternity worshipping the God who loves us and who made us. This is why the Lord of Glory died: to give us the hope of heaven. This is what we are preparing for here and now.
Jesus makes demands of us because following Him is not easy: it is demanding, and it comes with a cost. Thus, the church is to be a place of reconciliation, where sins are forgiven, where wounds are healed. It is hard to be reconciled to someone. We have to recognise our own failures and shortcomings, and seek forgiveness ourselves. It is a difficult and costly process, which sees us stripped of pride, humble and reliant upon God as the only one who can heal us. We are powerless, and have to rely on One whose Love and Generosity can do in us what we cannot. We can forgive because we are forgiven, we can love because we are loved.
Jesus expects much of us, because that is what the Christian life is: difficult, and demanding. Much is asked of us, in how we live our lives. We are to be in the world, but not of the world, living differently. As Christians, if we are to be salt and light then we need to live lives which make people think, ‘They’re not like us’ ‘They don’t do what we do’. We can choose life or death. We have through Christ the possibility of eternal life with God. May we choose wisely, and live as an example to others so that all creation may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen