There is an old Hasidic story about a rabbi who calls his students together and asks them, “How do we determine the moment when night ends and day begins?”
“Is it,” one student suggests, “when, from some way away, you can tell a sheep from a dog?”
“No,” says the rabbi.
“Is it,” another student asks, “when, from some way a way, you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree?’
“No,” says the rabbi, “You know it is almost dawn when you can look into the face of another human being, and you have enough light to recognize them as your sister or brother. Until that time, it is still night, and the darkness is still with us.”
Last week we looked at our first church goal, exploring what it means to follow Jesus today, through Jesus’ teaching, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we are salt and light – that God calls to be salt and light– just where we are and as who we are right now.
And today we are looking at our second church goal, building inclusive, caring community (knowing when the moment of dawn has come), again from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, about hatred and dealing with hatred so we can build genuine, Christian, inclusive, caring community.
This section about hatred comes from a larger section, traditionally called The Antitheses, where Jesus takes existing Jewish teaching, “You have heard that it was said…” and contrasts it or replaces it with his own, “but I say to you…” But antithesis is not really the right word for what Jesus is doing here, for he is really following the teaching of the Law to its logical conclusion. Commentator Bill Loader says, “It is like saying: you know what they said the commandments meant? Well, let me tell you what they really mean!”
And Jesus proceeds to give three examples of everyday human behaviour and tie them to the clear Old Testament injunction that murder is wrong and will be punished. Interestingly, the crimes here don’t really escalate in severity; hating someone (hatred is a better translation than being angry), insulting someone, calling someone a fool, but the punishments escalate out of sight! First there is judgement, then being taken before the council or Sanhedrin (from what we know this was not a good place to be) and finally being condemned to the hell of fire. (Literally, Gehenna, a valley south of Jerusalem where rubbish was constantly burned and where, in the past, human sacrifices had been made. An accursed place. A figurative and a physical hell.) This is a poor illustration of the kind of hyperbole Jesus uses here, but I am reminded of that moment, as a parent, when you say, “One more word from you and you are living in your bedroom for the rest of your life!” What Jesus is actually saying is, “It’s all bad. Hatred, insults, damaging reputations. It’s all bad, and it’s all antithetical to being my followers, to being part of my church.”
So how are we to be Jesus’ followers? How are we to be the church? How are we to continue to build inclusive caring community in this place?
“So – when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you (in other words you have injured a brother or sister in some way), leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
What is the furthest you have ever had to go back for something? How many of you have got to the shops and realised you don’t have a wallet or purse? Have you gone further? I once got as far as Lake George, while driving to Sydney to fly to Japan, before realising I wasn’t wearing shoes – just ugg boots – though I confess I did just stop and buy new shoes rather than going back. Jesus is making a humorous point here to his Galilean audience. It would take many days to reach Jerusalem from Galilee, to make an offering in the temple, and it was not an easy journey – but, even then, you must go and seek reconciliation with your brother and sister before you seek reconciliation with God and offer your gift.
There are several messages that I find here in this text.
Firstly, it tells me that people are not always going to get on. We should expect this even (Shock! Horror!) within the Christian church. People are not always going to get on. People are going to go about things differently. People are going to misunderstand each other. People are going to hurt each other. And people are going to get angry. Welcome to Canberra Baptist Church – just like every other church that has existed since the book of Matthew was written!
I mentioned earlier that hatred is a better translation of the word in verse 22 than ‘anger’. Anger is a natural response to many situations, and anger can be used positively. What Jesus is describing here is closer to ‘harbouring anger’ or ‘hatred’, ‘nursing a grudge’, choosing to stay angry when working towards forgiveness or reconciliation is possible. This is sin, and a sin that Jesus calls us – if we want to be called his followers – to address.
Because, secondly, the text tells us that – hallelujah – we can be reconciled. In Christ we can be reconciled to one another. Hatred is not the inevitable outcome of anger or disagreement in the Christian community. “Leave your gift…” Jesus says, regardless of how far you’ve come, and go and try to sort things out, “then come and offer your gift.” Have we taken hold of this extraordinary gift of reconciliation that we have in Christ?
You might be interested to know the practice of ‘passing the peace’, at Communion, comes from these verses. Perhaps we should pause the service at that moment – encourage everyone to go and try to resolve any unresolved issues – and pick up again with passing the peace the next week! I read one sermon that encouraged people to take their offerings home for a week (though church treasurers might not be too happy with that suggestion!) There are other formal forms of confession – in the church service or at the beginning of Lent or in the confessional. (As Baptists we practice “the priesthood of all believers”; believing that any Christian – not only a priest or minister – can hear our confession – can stand in Christ’s stead and make God’s presence and forgiveness real to us.) And in Matthew 18:15-35, Jesus sets out a conflict resolution model for us that involves first, personal reconciliation, then mediation, then the wider church, and lots and lots of forgiveness! The most powerful way to deal with hatred is to acknowledge it, recognise its impacts and seek to be reconciled, “as far as it depends on you”, Romans 12:18, with the other person.
Because what this text also tells us is that there are grave consequences for us, and others and the church if we don’t deal with hatred and resentment – and, alternatively, that there are joyful and fruitful consequences for us and others and the church if we do!
I think we are still discovering the impact of psychological distress on our physical bodies. I remember seeing a film many many years ago about the missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, who upon visiting another missionary who was ill would ask, “Does your brother or sister have something against you?” Taylor was well aware of the impact of actual disease on people’s lives – dysentery and malaria and cholera – on his first visit back to English for furlough he completed medical surgical and midwifery training – he also studied Chinese medicine – but he also was remembered for believing hatred impacts our health.
Some of you may know the work of American psychologist John Gottman. His research has found that couples who demonstrate contempt for each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (cold and slurs etc) than couples who are not contemptuous. “Contempt,” he states, “is the most poisonous of all relationship killers. We cannot emphasize that enough. Contempt destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health.”
And hatred and contempt have a corrosive impact on community as well.
The Quaker theologian and writer, Richard Foster, describes an exercise he once went through – not because he was burdened by some sin – but because he felt inadequate to meet the needs that he was facing. He “longed for more power to do the work of God”.
So, he prayed and asked God for direction, and over three days he sat with a piece of paper before him. On the first day he asked God if there was anything in his childhood that needed forgiveness or healing or both. Anything that then came to mind, he wrote down, without analysing or judging, trusting God would reveal anything that needed a healing touch. The next day he did the same for his adolescent years and on the third day, his adult years.
Then he went to see a Christian friend with this list. He read it out to him and at the end, when he was putting it back into his briefcase, his friend took the list and took a rubbish bin and tore the list into hundreds of tiny pieces and dropped it into the bin. He then offered him absolution in the name of Christ who forgives all sins and prayed a prayer for healing for all the hurts of the past. “The power of that prayer” Foster writes, “lives with me today.”
Foster goes on, “I cannot say I experienced any dramatic feelings. I did not….the entire experience was an act of sheer obedience with no compelling feelings in the least. But I am convinced that it set me free in ways I had not known before…I was released to explore what was for me new and uncharted regions of the Spirit….There was [also] one interesting sidelight. The exposure of my humanity…sparked a freedom in my counsellor-friend, for directly following his prayer for me he was able to express a deep and troubling sin that he had been unable to confess until then. Freedom begats freedom.”
When you have been reconciled… “Then come and offer your gift”. What new gifts of the Spirit might we discover in ourselves, might we spark in others, might we build in community when we recognise that we are human, that we hate, we hurt each other, we err; but that God is divine, forgiveness is abundantly available to us, and that as a forgiven and forgiving community, an inclusive, caring community, freedom begats freedom and we will be truly be God’s people living and working in the world.
The year at Canberra Baptist is getting underway! What gifts do you want to offer to God this year? Do you first need to go and be reconciled with a brother or sister? Can you then return and offer your gift so you and they and all of us, so God’s kingdom, flourishes here?