Epiphany 6. Sermon preached by Chaplain Janet Spence. 12th February 2023

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  Amen.

In his book, Mere Christianity, CS Lewis writes: ‘God is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.’

Hold that image in your mind this morning, allow it to be the background music to what I’m saying.

‘God is not a static thing, but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life … a kind of dance.’

In Deuteronomy a message rings out – Choose life, that you may live. How we might choose life is set out for us, almost like it’s a simple choice.

Love God, walk in God’s ways, obey God’s commandments.  The person who does this, we read, will prosper and be blessed.

Alternatively turn one’s heart away from God, allow something other than God to become most important in life.  The person who does this will not prosper but be deadened.

Which opens up questions …

What does loving God look like?

What are God’s commandments?

How do I know that I am following them?

Throughout history people have created rules that give us clear definitive boundaries between what is acceptable, and what is not. And of course, across different times and cultures, what is acceptable and what is not is interpreted in different and contradictory ways. Because life is never as simple as we might want to try and make it.

It’s into this perennial problem that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s gospel today.

I think we have a propensity to understand God’s commandments about loving God and choosing life as a kind of rule book.  That’s ok for most of us if that rule book is composed of rules such as ‘You shall not murder’ – if this is the demand of the law then for most of us we’ll be all right!

But here Jesus seems to be calling us to recalibrate our moral compass.

Immediately before today’s reading Jesus states explicitly that he has come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it.

He uses a rhetorical technique … naming an accepted rule ‘You have heard it said …’  and through his repeated phrase ‘but I say to you …’ he supplants the accepted rule with far more rigorous and demanding requirements that seem almost ludicrous if we read them as we might a rule book.

So, we read that being angry with our sister or brother will, on a par with murder, bring us to judgement; that if we call someone a fool, we will be liable to the fires of hell.

It feels a bit harsh doesn’t it? Who among us hasn’t felt angry or judgemental towards others or ourselves?  What could be more human.  If we interpret Jesus’ words as laws, as rules never to be broken, then this is a burden too heavy for any of us to carry.

But that isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor has it ever been God’s way of relating to humanity.

Instead of being people who live by a rule book Jesus calls us to live according to the spirit of the commandments; to love God, and to love our neighbour.

It is interesting to realise that all the scenarios Jesus describes – being angry with others, lusting after others, marital breakdown, promising that which is beyond our control – all these have the potential to lead to relationship breakdown.

How I live impacts others’ ability to live. So, I carry responsibility for the wellbeing of others.  Loving God means that my primary occupation in life, running through ALL aspects of my life, is to build and maintain good relationships with others, working for reconciliation where relationship is damaged.

In response I say ‘Thank God’.  I would rather live in pursuit and in hope of reconciliation than seeking personal unattainable perfection where being angry will cast me into hell.

But, at the same time I know that what Jesus IS asking of me is hard personal work:

  • being honest with myself,
  • being humble enough to recognise MY role in places and times of relationship breakdown,
  • having the courage and tenacity to work tirelessly for reconciliation (including the damaged relationship between humanity and creation).

Jesus is saying, look to yourselves, know yourselves, consider how you live and the impact this has on others, and work to be in good relationship with the other.  Jesus is saying that God’s commandments are so much more than human law books … God’s commandments are written in our hearts.

In a moment, Charlotte will be baptised.  She is already, of course, loved entirely by God, but in this act of baptism her parents and Godparents commit to turning to Christ, to helping Charlotte to grow in her knowledge and love of God.

She will be made new and sealed by the Holy Spirit living within her, guiding, protecting and bringing her into freedom; shining through her to bring joy to the world.

God’s commandments are written in our very beings. They are dynamic, pulsing through us, bringing life, calling us to dance with God. And in baptism we enter into the beautiful lifelong dance with God.

Dance partners can sometimes be a bit out of step, the rhythm is lost, they seem to be working against one another rather than in harmony. We can become too focused on the steps rather than the dance … or in relation to today’s readings, we focus on the Law rather than the commandment written on our hearts.

God desires is to dance with us, to take us by surprise as we live in God’s dance of love, and God’s desire is that we shine with that love in the world.

Baptism – what a joyous event – the beginning of this dance for Charlotte.  As we respond with words of welcome, of care and of sharing of faith we are all called to be participants in Charlotte’s beautiful lifelong dance.  Thanks be to God.