Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Sermon on the Mount and the Hippopotamus

Reubens: the Hippopotamus and Crocodile hunt
Courtesy Wikipedia
1 Cor 3:1-9
But Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people of the flesh - mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. But you are still not ready. You are still of the flesh. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh? Are you not acting like mere humans?  For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Psalm 119:1-8
Ah, blest are those perfected in their way: those walking in the Torah of The LORD.
Also blest those who keep His testimonies: yes those who seek for Him with all their heart
Avoiding doing works of wickedness: in His ways they have walked their path in life.
Almighty, You have given Your commands: that we might faithfully adhere to them.
According to my prayers direct my ways: that I might keep to Your commandments true.
Assuredly not being put to shame: when all Your statutes have held my regard
And I’ll praise You with uprightness of heart: when all Your righteous judgements I have learned
Always I will adhere to Your decrees: do not, I pray, forsake me utterly!

Matthew 5.21-37
Jesus told his disciples: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister  will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’  is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters  quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court . Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, apart from a matter of fornication , makes her an adulteress , and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

LORD bless what I say that is true, and correct my errors in the minds of my kind hearers. Amen.

Who remembers Flanders and Swann?

They were school friends born in the 1920s, Flanders got polio in 1943 and relied on a wheelchair, Swann was a talented composer and pianist, and they became an internationally successful duo in the 1950s and 60s, singing their comic songs which were often, ostensibly at least, on the subject of animals. Perhaps the best known is the Hippopotamus song: Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud.

Swann occasionally threw in foreign songs, there was one about a Greek farmyard which went on and on. Flanders kept trying to interrupt and eventually when he got in he said “Have you quite finished?” “Left out the last eight verses” Swann replied.
Psalm 119 is often thought to be a bit like that. The 176 verses are in 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, all 8 verses of the first stanza begin with Aleph, the second with Beth, etc… And each verse mentions God’s Law.   The stanza we read gives a good flavour, but the cumulative effect is amazing.  It ends
Yet seek Your servant, strayed like a lost sheep: for I have not forgotten Your commands.
Jesus, in common with most religious Jews, knew the Psalms by heart  and he is recorded quoting from the Psalms 8 times, more than any other book. The Psalms are clear about the Law: Psalm 19.
The LORD’s law: perfect, it revives the soul;
The LORD’s testimonies: sure, make wise the simple;
The LORD’s statutes: right, and rejoice the heart;
The LORD’s commandment: pure, gives light to eyes;
The LORD’s fear: clean, and it endures forever;
The LORD’s judgements are true and all are right
As Psalm 119 says:
Almighty, You have given Your commands: that we might faithfully adhere to them.
Now Jesus begins “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago” and everyone knows that this means “You have heard that God said to the people long ago” (Jews are reluctant to use the noun God and will not utter His name). and then he adds “But I say to you…”  God said to the people long ago … but I say that. ??!!  What on earth is going on?

Well we get a clue just before this passage: Mathew 5:17-20
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
No wonder at the end (Mat 7:28)  When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

The Scribes and the Pharisees were very scrupulous in their own terms. They “put fences around the Law” to make quite sure they didn’t break it. The Pharisee who prayed at the Temple saying “I fast twice in the week” was an example –fasting twice means he will still fast at least once even if he accidentally forgets on one occasion.  But I think here Jesus is doing something fundamentally different. I think he’s saying two things:

  1. “don’t just look at the letter of the law, look at the spirit of the law”.  Yes, you mustn’t commit adultery – but even if you “look at a woman lustfully” (the Greek is pros to epithumisai which means “with a view to desire”  – Tom Wright translates this as “gazes at a woman in order to lust over her”) you have sinned. Yes, you mustn’t murder, but anger and contempt are also sinful.
  2. Don’t look down on people because you “keep the Law” and they don’t. By Jesus’ standards, we have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.  Jesus develops this point later on (Mathew 7:1-6) but its implicit here.  And this is a revolution. Throughout the Psalms, for example, the Psalmist is contrasting his behaviour with other people, variously described as ungodly, unrighteous, wicked or, significantly, fools who are doomed to destruction by God. But Jesus tells us we must pray, daily, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” and that calling a brother “fool” will render you liable to the Gehena of fire. 

What was Gehena? It was the place outside Jerusalem where the rubbish was dumped and burned. Literally a place where worms and fire and decay consumed the discarded rubbish that was not fit to be retained in the holy city. An eloquent metaphor for hell. But note what Jesus is saying: if you seek to discard your brother or sister as a “fool” (who is rejected by God) then you are in danger of being discarded from God’s holy city. Remember that, in the Law, the penalty for a false accusation is that the accuser will have the punishment that would have gone to the person he accused.

Therefore – here’s the connection – when you reach the head of the solemn queue at the Temple, presenting your gift (an animal to be sacrificed and burned) if you realise that you need to be reconciled with your brother or sister, run back and reach shalom – peace – with them first. The Peace which is such a lovely feature of this service is based in part on this saying. And the saying about the adversary connects with this. The word, antidikW means someone who is speaking against you and it refers particularly to court proceedings. This is, primarily, your brother or sister who has something against you – you are “still together on the way” and “the way” is how Christianity was known in the early church.  The NIV has “settle matters” but the Greek is eunoWn which means something more like “be well disposed to” – the RSV has “make friends with” and it’s very much more like “reach shalom with”.

But if you are to be very forgiving to your brothers and sisters in Christ, this doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t matter!  You need to be very rigorous on yourself. Amputation was often necessary to save a life  and Jesus is very clear: it is better to be amputated than to be mired in sin.

The sayings about divorce, lust and oaths need sermons in themselves and I won’t go in to them, especially since the interpretation is contentious. Because there is much to be learned, of course, from the passage from 1 Corinthians.  What’s going on?  People are forming into factions, and blaming “the other guys”.  What do we know about Apollos? We first meet him in Acts 18. He’s a Jew, born in Alexandria which was the major centre of learning in Egypt, “eloquent, powerful in the scriptures. He had been instructed (catechised) in the Way of the Lord, and burning in spirit he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, understanding only the baptism of John.  He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquilla (note the order) heard him, they took him and expounded to him the Way of God more accurately.”  He then went to preach in Achaia and greatly helped the disciples there.  We hear of him in 1 Corinthians and there is a brief friendly reference to him in Titus.  Jerome  says that as so dissatisfied with the division at Corinth, that he retired to Crete with Zenas the lawyer; and that the schism having been healed by Paul's letters to the Corinthians, Apollos returned to the city, and became one of its elders. Some people think he wrote Hebrews, but I think it is more likely to have been his teacher Priscilla.

But from this passage we can see what happened: the church divided into factions. Some preferred Paul’s teaching, some Apollos. “I was converted by Apollos himself” you can imagine people saying. Human beings always tend to divide into us and them, the in-group and the out-group. There are some scary experiments which show just how prone we are to this, even when the division between groups is totally bogus and has no basis whatsoever . Most of us who have been in churches or any other organisations have seen it.  “It’s only human”

“But” says Paul (the NIV scandalously omits the But) this is not how people who are living in the Spirit of Christ are meant to live. This is not how spiritual people (pneumatikois) live but how fleshly people (sarkinois) live. In the spirit we can see that whatever humans do to help build the kingdom, we are merely servants, and it is God who does the real work.  We are, collectively, a building that belongs to God. Paul develops this idea later: we are living stones in the Temple which is the place where God’s spirit dwells. We are members of a body, and that body is Christ’s.

So the three things I’d suggest we take away from these passages are:

  1. Look to the spirit of the Law, not just the letter.
  2. Don’t look down on other people because you keep the law and they don’t and
  3. Don’t form factions in the Body of Christ, but be built together in God’s building.

Paul tells us that this is a fleshly thing to do. And I think TS Eliot had that in mind with his Hippopotamus of 1920  which surely helped inspire Flanders and Swann.
The broad-backed hippopotamus
Lies on his belly in the mud
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood
Flesh and blood is weak and frail
Susceptible to nervous shock
But the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.
In the end of his poem Eliot says
I saw the ’potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas. 
… He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.
We are formed of the dust of the earth – mud if you like.  We are flesh and blood, but not, by God’s grace, merely flesh and blood. In biological creation, mud becomes flesh. But in the incarnation, by the power of the spirit, the Word becomes flesh. So that by love, and by the Spirit, we can be caught up in the life of the Trinity. The mud, which has become flesh, becomes part of the New Creation.
Mud that looks to the spirit. Mud that does not look down on others. Mud that does not form factions, but is built together in God’s building. Mud, mud, glorious mud!

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