How we live our lives matters greatly. It is important because what we do helps to form our moral character, how we know to do the right thing. Human beings are creatures of habit. The more we do things, the more they become second nature. We become what we think or do often. There’s no point in just having the appearance of someone good. Outward conformity isn’t what God wants of us. Quite the opposite! We need to bear in mind God’s word to Samuel,‘for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1Samuel 16:7 [ESV])
So how do we live the life God wants us to live? The simple answer is by trying, failing, and keeping on trying. The Christian faith has at its centre Love and Forgiveness. God shows these to us in Jesus Christ, and we have to show them to one another. The Church, you and I, all of us, are called to love and forgive each other, as we will fail. And we will fail often. We can’t earn our way to Heaven through what we do, Jesus has paved the way for us through His Death and Resurrection. We can, however, try to live out our faith in our lives, loving and forgiving each other when we fall short.Not being judgemental and overcritical. Then we can be built up in love, together, as a community reconciled to God and each other. It sounds simple and straightforward, but in practice it is really difficult. This is why we have to keep trying, allowing God transform us more and more into his likeness, through His Grace.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is uncompromising when dealing with the hypocrisy of the Scribes and the Pharisees: their religion is a façade, a sham, something done for show, for outward appearance, whereas we know, from the teaching of the prophets onward, that God looks at what is truly in our heart. If our motives are suspect then, we’re in trouble. The point is simple: what we do affects who and what we are, hence the need for the people of Israel to observe the statutes and ordinances without any additions or subtractions.
Likewise, the advice of the Letter of James is that people should in all gentleness and humility both listen to the word of God and do what it says, so that their thoughts and words and actions proclaim the truth that Christ died to save them from their sins and rose again that they might have new life in Him.
Rather than the pharisaic obsession with exterior cleanliness (and the letter of the Law) Our Lord and Saviour is concerned with the cleanliness of people’s souls, as it is from within, from the human heart, that sinfulness can spring. His point is a simple one: we become what we do, and thus the formation of a moral character is important, and can only be brought about by doing the right things.
The problem is that, despite our best intentions, we will fail in our endeavours. So what do we do? Is it simply a case that having tried and failed we are written off, cast aside and prepared for hell and damnation? By no means! Just as in the Gospel Jesus commands his followers to keep forgiving those who sin; our lives should be ones where we are continually seeking God’s forgiveness and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that slowly and surely, as part of a gradual process, as people forgiven and forgiving, we try day by day to live out our faith in our lives. It is something which affects us all, each and every one of us, and it is only when we can live it out in our lives that our proclamation of the Kingdom can look authentic rather than running the risk of being accused of hypocrisy.
So, we seek forgiveness and forgive others, by being close to God in prayer, in reading the Bible, and in the sacraments of the Church, and in the love and service which we have for each other as a Christian community. A Christian community which recognises that we fail but also that together we can be something greater and more wonderful than we would be if we are apart.
In recent years as a reaction to the frantic pace of modern life people are re-discovering slowness. There is a slow food movement even slow television. We are encouraged to be mindful and meditate. These are good things, an antidote to the modern obsession with instant results and gratification.
This is the work of a lifetime, a work of slow progress, and frustrating setbacks. It is not easy. To succeed we need to rely upon God to be at work in us throughout our lives. The French Jesuit priest and poet, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote :
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
[Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.]
Through the love of God being poured into our hearts, and through that love forming who we are and what we do, that self-giving sacrificial love shown to us by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in his dying for us, so that we might live in Him, let us be attentive to the Word of God, the Word made flesh, and not simply listen but also act –- relying not upon our own strength but upon the love and mercy of God, seeking His forgiveness, to do His Will.
When we are formed by God together then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. We proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, through forgiveness and sacrificial love, rather than by being bitter and judgemental and blind to our own faults: like the scribes and Pharisees: eager to point out the sins of others and yet blind to their own faults, failures and shortcomings. Instead, clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God’s love and mercy, let us come to Him, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, to be healed and restored by him, so that we can live lives which speak of the power of his kingdom so that the world may believe and give glory to 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