Second Sunday in Epiphany
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Today’s scripture passage from the good news according to Matthew comes at the tail end of a long sermon by Jesus. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount It’s like Jesus’ greatest hits album. The Sermon on the Mount contains Jesus’ most popular and influential teachings. This is the Jesus that everybody knows and loves. Love your enemies, forgive not once but seven times seventy times. You can’t serve God and money, turn the other cheek.” It’s all there.
This is the essence of Christianity. The Jesus we all know and love. And yet, no doubt today’s passage has some of us scratching our heads, pointing out that here he sounds decidedly un-Jesus-like. Jesus is known as being Mr. Non-judgment. In fact, earlier in this chapter, Jesus even says the words “judge not, lest ye be judged.” So it’s surprising that Jesus begins this chapter with harsh words of judgment:
“Not everyone,” Jesus says. “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven. But only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Here, Jesus paints a picture for us of the end of time. When all history is laid out in a way that will make sense. When our lives can be judged from the vantage point of eternity, rather than by our own limited perspectives. Some folks spoke pious words, “Lord, Lord.” They laid on the Jesus real thick. They also prophesied, they cast out demons, they performed powerful signs for people. These are like the spiritual superstars. Everyone could see. And yet, at the entrance to God’s kingdom, Jesus turns them away. Like “do I know you?” he says to them. And he slams the gate shut.
Like I said, it sounds really harsh. Not very Jesus sounding. But in the previous chapter, Jesus warned his followers against false prophets. Against people who come in Jesus’ name, and teach in Jesus’ name, but end up being, he says, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” On the outside, these people may look good, but their appearance hide their true intentions, which are often dangerous. It’s hard to see past their appearance, Jesus says. But Jesus says you judge them the same way you’d judge a fruit tree. You can’t just tell by looking. But good trees produce good fruit. And bad trees produce bad fruit.
So basically, the people Jesus slams the door on, pretends he doesn’t know, are folks whose faith is all surface. So what seems to bug Jesus here. What seems to morph non-judgmental, mercy-extending, forgiveness-preaching Jesus into door-slamming, pretending-he-doesn’t-even-know-you Jesus. It’s when we profess with our mouths our undying love for Jesus, showcasing our deep spiritual knowledge and maturity. Even when we do great acts of religious devotion and mercy, could even be serving at the soup kitchen day after day, after day, but remain fundamentally unchanged on the inside. I imagine this is the kind of thing that made Gandhi once remark, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Our faith can be a tool to justify us to others, to ourselves. Even to God. And when we think we’ve earned our box seats in the New Jerusalem, that we’re “in” with God. When we get there, Jesus closes off the velvet rope. He can’t even find our names on the guest list. Because there’s one thing Jesus can’t seem to stand… is a faith that’s all for show.
It’s harsh, right? Might kind of make some of us feel pretty good, too, right? Makes me feel good, anyway. All those pious religious hypocrites getting their due. Just desserts and all that. Until you read the next part.
“Everyone then,” Jesus says. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine, and acts on them, will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’”
Jesus sets up two types of people. Both groups hear his words. But the first are people who hear his words, and then do what he says. And the second are people who hear his words, and then don’t actually do them. Hearing and doing’s like building your house on a strong foundation that’ll hold up to the worst mother nature can throw at you. But if you hear and fail to actually respond, you’re like the guy who build his house on sand. Everything might seem fine and dandy until the inevitable storm hits. The sand’ll wash you away, and leave you with no option other than to be washed away with it. First Jesus called out bad trees producing fruit. Now he’s calling out trees who produce no fruit at all.
First, Jesus closed the kingdom’s door on a superficial faith. A faith that’s all about appearance, all about self-justification, without deep transformation. But this parable shows us something equally as dangerous. Especially in churches like the United Church, we react so strongly against for-show faith, or a faith that’s so overbearing, judgmental, or guilt-inducing. It’s the reason why many of us are here and not at churches elsewhere. We prefer—and rightly so, I think—the God who doesn’t measure us by our outward acts, but meets us with love first and foremost. But the danger we always face is that God for us can be like a doting grandparent. One who loves us, but demands nothing of us, wanting to indulge us rather than help us to change for the better or guide us on the path to spiritual maturity. For Jesus, the danger here is not only a faith that’s superficial: it’s a faith that’s inconsequential.
First Jesus took our for-show religiosity to task. But then he moves from the spiritual show-it-alls to divine do-nothings. Where one spirituality is all for show, the other has nothing to show for it. Despite the fact that these two ways are drastically different, they’re the same in one important way: they’re both utterly useless in following Jesus.
For us, it’s usually one or the other. We’ll either make faith all about doing, without inner transformation. Or we’ll make it all about inner transformation, without it actually changing what we do and how we live life. For us, it’s either/or. We favor one to the exclusion of the other. And seem to miss the point entirely. But for Jesus, it’s different.
When Jesus finishes his greatest hits sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, the people are blown away. “The crowds were astounded at his teaching,” it says. And they’re astounded not just because he’s handsome, a good speaker, or knows the TED Talk format inside and out. The crowd’s blown away it says, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” As one having authority, not as their scribes. I love how Eugene Peterson puts it: “When Jesus concluded his address,” it says. “The crowd burst into applause. They had never heard teaching like this. It was apparent that he was living everything he was saying—quite a contrast to their religion teachers! This was the best teaching they had ever heard.”
“He was living everything he was saying.” This is the key. See, with Jesus, one of the reasons why he was—and still is—so compelling, and why he’s unlike so many religion teachers, is that for him there’s no difference between his inner spiritual self and his outer actions. God’s will and his actions are are perfectly aligned. But the thing is, we don’t believe that it was just a matter of Jesus working really hard. This perfect alignment is the result of God touching down in Jesus. And that his life was (and is) a perfect conduit for God’s mercy and grace. It flows in, and out. So where either/or people, one or the other. Jesus’ words, his thoughts, his inner life and his actions are intertwines, one single movement. God’s grace flows in, and flows to the world. With Jesus it’s not either/or. With Jesus, it’s both/and. And Jesus shows us what a full human life looks like.
So here’s the challenge.
Each of us is a mixture of both in some way for sure. But for those of us who are busy people. Who find ourselves acting, serving, doing, but have little time for that inner life. Jesus is challenging us out of our comfort zones. To go deeper. Think about attending worship more regularly. Or with more intentionality. Think Bible study. Think small group ministry, adult formation, helping teach children’s church. Sign up for Alpha next time around. Our challenge is to open ourselves up to God’s mercy and grace, and to let it change us. Inside out.
And for those of us who find ourselves hearing, most often basking in the grace of God’s love and mercy, but find ourselves coming up short in the doing department. Our challenge is to find an outlet for the grace we’ve been gifted with. Start small. Greeting on Sundays, helping with coffee. or finding another church ministry that you’ll help make better. Work your way up. Try giving some of your money away. Serving at the soup kitchen, drop in or pantry. Find a way to connect with people face-to-face, inside the church, or outside. Or, as the Pastor Bill Easum likes to say, “grace comes to us on its way to somebody else.” Our challenge is to receive God’s love, and let flow out through us and into the street.
With Jesus, it’s both/and. Hearing and doing. Receiving and giving. And this is the pattern he sets for the Christian life, the whole human life. Without both we can never experience the true joy of full life, eternal life here and now. But, whether you find yourself a hearer or a doer first. Know that it always begins with God. Grace comes, then gratitude. As Anne Lamott likes to say, “God comes to us where we are, but God’ll never leave us there.” Like the parable says, Christ is the rock in the storm. The one who is always there, and already there for us to stand on. Giving us the sure footing to build a full life on, too.
So I pray we are given the courage to stand tall. The wisdom to ask, that we may receive. And when we receive, the willingness give it all away.