A Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, whose light shines through us into this world. Amen.
In this season leading up to Lent, we are reading through the first chapter of Christ’s lengthy Sermon on the Mount, his first – and arguably best known – teaching that covers everything from the swearing oaths to anger and violence to instructions on fasting and prayer. Last week, while we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord and read from the Gospel according to St. Luke, the lectionary provided a second set of readings including the Beatitudes, that famous list of promised blessings that intros the Sermon on the Mount. This week, our Lord continues as he tells us to be salt and light for the world. Next week, we’ll hear the first in a series of new interpretations of the Mosaic Law as Jesus tells his listeners, “You have hard it said…but I say….”
These passages have been read and re-read so often, have become so familiar that, as with so much in the Gospels, we almost tune them out, hearing only what we think we already know. More than that, they have all too frequently been lifted from their context and plastered onto coffee mugs, posters, and t-shirts (to say nothing of the countless Facebook memes) that they have become utterly meaningless. We treat this discourse like a collection of vague aphorisms designed to make us feel good, and we miss the entire point.
Taken together rather than chopped apart, the Sermon on the Mount becomes more than a few disparate sayings. Instead, in it, our Lord paints a challenging picture of that radical Kingdom of God erupting into this sinful and rebellious world.
Be salt and light, Christ says. This does not mean to be merely a kind or generous person, well-liked by most folks. No, quite the contrary: letting your light shine before others might make you decidedly unpopular and will most certainly bring you into direct conflict with the dark and sinful powers and principalities of this fallen world. Know, Christ says, that you will be persecuted and reviled. Know that this way is not for the faint of heart or those who desire prestige or wealth. Being salt and light will make you many enemies. To shine the light of Christ into the shadows, to hunger for righteousness, to be a peacemaker, to be meek and merciful, will anger the unrighteous, the warmonger, the boastful, and the cruel.
And, as is so often the case, we then have to ask how any of this could possibly be good news. A few chapters later in St. Matthew, Jesus says his burden is easy and his yoke is light – and yet here today we see not a doing away with the Law or easing its burdensome requirements but reinforcing and adding to what is required of us. In this early sermon, he says, Not one letter of the Law, not even the dot over the I, will pass away. More than that, he not only maintains the Law but interprets it more strictly:
You have heard it said, do not commit adultery, but I say that if you look upon someone with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery.
You have heard it said, do not murder, but I say that if you call your sibling a fool, you have committed murder.
You have heard it said, love your neighbor and curse your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
It is not sufficient to simply abstain from doing what is wrong; we must actively pursue the Good. How is this rest for the weary or a light and easy burden?
How can we, fallen and sinful creatures that we are, live up to such a lofty standard? If I am so unfaithful in little ways, how can I expect to be faithful in the big and challenging ways? If I can’t keep from muttering curses against a driver who offends me on I-75, what hope is there that I could actively love my neighbor from a foreign country, my family member who confesses a different creed, my coworker who votes for the other party, the cop who accosts my black brother, the enemy combatant captured on a battlefield?
One of the greatest contributions Lutherans have made to the Christian faith is the distinction between Law and Gospel: that every part of Scripture bears witness to both God’s Law and to the Good News of Salvation through Jesus Christ. In this understanding, the Law is used as a mirror to reflect our own sin, that we might see more fully our own shortcomings and our need for a divine Savior. The Law certainly does that; it’s why, in some liturgical traditions, the Confession and Absolution are preceded by a reading of the Ten Commandments and why next week’s reading packs such a punch in the gut as we prepare for Lent and reflect on all the things for which we ought to repent. In our Lord’s explanation of the Law, we see clearly how short of the mark we fall.
But the Law is not merely a list of Thou Shalls and Shall Nots eventually abolished by God’s grace. Christ came not to do away with the Law but to fulfill it, and Martin Luther wrote also of use of the Law as a guide, a revelation of how God has always intended us to live. And so in reading the Sermon on the Mount, we see both our sin – all the ways we have failed to live as citizens of God’s coming Kingdom – but also how God intends for us to be an in-breaking of that Kingdom here and now: to be peacemakers, to show mercy, to love even our enemies. In this way, the Law is also our freedom in the Gospel: not a freedom to do as we please but the freedom from slavery to sin and death that we might live our lives to the greater glory of God. The Law is not only condemnation but also freedom to live, by God’s grace, as the Lord has always intended. The Law is not only what we must do or ought to do but also what we get to do: by God’s grace, we are set free to be instruments of peace, to shine the light of God’s mercy, to love our enemies and pray that God reconcile us to them.
This is a big ask. Who can possibly accomplish it? If anything, Jesus makes faithful obedience a heavier burden, a more burdensome yoke. We realize that while we may pat ourselves on the back for avoiding sins like murder and adultery, we are certainly guilty of violent thoughts born out of anger and giving in to the lust of our eyes. What hope is there?
Only this: while we were dead in sin, Christ has conquered the grave and raises us up to new life through the forgiveness of sins. With this glorious promise, any burden is now made light, and we can rest in the assurance granted to us in Christ Jesus.
In our failing, revealed through the Law, God reaches out to us and saves us. In these waters, we are brought into the Body of Christ, dying with him that we may be raised to new life through our Lord’s Resurrection. Being united into Christ, we light a candle and present it to the newly-baptized, repeating those words from today’s lection: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Living into this Gospel freedom with the Law as our guide, we point the world to the glory of our Heavenly Father. In Christ, we are set free to love God, to love our neighbor, to love our enemies, and to love one another. All of this is possible not because we are strong enough but because the Holy Spirit has descended upon us in these waters, strengthening us with divine grace and assuring us of salvation.
My dear friends, know then that our Triune God is calling us into a new and joyous freedom, revealing to us the Kingdom of God through both Law and Gospel, and strengthening us for this ministry through these gracious Sacraments. Reconciled to the Father through the Son and sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit, then, we know that the divine light shines through us into the shadows of this world.
*This homily is based off of Year A’s examination of the Sermon on the Mount and draws from the entirety of the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.