A Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity
(4th of July weekend)
on Matthew 5:20-26 by James A. Frey
The Apostle’s words in today’s Epistle are most beautiful and indeed very powerful: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Now to die with Christ, which is what St. Paul says we did in our baptism, is to die to sin, for Christ’s bloody death was the atoning sacrifice that rendered sin powerless to pull us down into hell. And to be buried with Christ is to have all those sins, which are many, removed from God’s sight, all so that we might be raised with Christ to a new life, a life which is not dominated by sin though we still do sin, nor by death though we will die, not even by Satan who is allowed to tempt us only for a time, but rather is lived under grace and therefore in God’s blessings forever.
And because this new life is God’s gift to us through Holy Baptism, it is not something we merit or earn for ourselves by our works. Nevertheless, our works do give evidence of it and bear witness to it, which is why Christ, who set us free from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us and hanging on a tree, set us free to obey the law. Let me say that again in a little different way. Our freedom in Christ is this, that we can now live under God’s law without fear of punishment, for this is how we enjoy our new life in him and live it to the fullest.
But tell me, does this sound strange to you, that freedom in Christ is to live in obedience to God’s law?
Consider your life in America. Great as this country is, life in it can be made very hard by those who refuse to abide by her laws. Just ask the parent who’s lost a child to a drunk driver or a victim of crime if you don’t believe me. Now imagine what it would be like if there were no laws at all; if everyone was free to do what he thought was right in his own eyes instead! Do you see what I mean? To have laws is good; to have a government that enforces its laws justly and fairly even better.
And if that’s true of our life as American citizens, if our freedom is enjoyed best when everyone lives in obedience to the laws of the land, how much more true this must be of our life as ones who were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus in today’s Gospel our Lord focuses the attention of his disciples on the law of God, more specifically on the 5th Commandment: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.”
By this Commandment God seeks to protect the gift of life, and for us who are “by nature dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), true life comes from our heavenly Father, through the forgiveness of sins, which his only-begotten Son purchased for us at the expense of his life. Therefore in the 5th Commandment God commands the reconciled to live a life of reconciliation; or as Jesus expressed it, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
And if reconciliation is what he commands, then no one should be surprised by what he forbids, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”
Notice how comprehensive the prohibitions are! Our Lord forbids us to say anything derogatory against our brother, to even vocalize our anger against him in any way. In fact, our Lord regards it as sin for us to be angry with our brother, period! Instead should he wrong us, we are to forgive, and when we wrong him, we are to confess our sin and seek to be forgiven.
Now do you see why the Pharisees of Jesus’ day preferred to follow the letter rather than the spirit of the law? These men who lived to justify themselves before God and men rarely killed anyone. Why, they wouldn’t even kill Jesus, you may recall, but instead handed him over to the Romans to do the dirty work for them. And what does Jesus say to his disciples about this, “That unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Obedience to the 5th Commandment is not given just by not killing - otherwise we would all be keeping it perfectly - but also in the loving, selfless, humble, helpful and forgiving way we treat our brother.
And yet who of us really does this? Is it not so much easier for us to forgive but not forget; to hold a grudge against our brother so that he always remembers how much he hurt us by what he did to us? Or perhaps we choose to do just the opposite, to not forgive but to just act like it. This is the cowardly and hypocritical approach that leads to “back-biting,” as we call it today.
So now we discover that the law of God, which is intended to help us enjoy our new life in Christ, actually does just the opposite in this life. It condemns us too even as it does the unbeliever, perhaps even more harshly than the unbeliever for we’re supposed to be living a new life in Christ, remember? But to be very frank now, all too often our new life doesn’t look any different from the old one.
That is why in today’s Gospel our Lord Jesus brings out the full implications of God’s law- at least as they pertain to the 5th Commandment anyway. It’s so that we might see and know and believe that we are not the good people our flesh wants us to think we are, but in reality vulnerable, helpless, weak- and so in desperate need of the Lord’s mercy. Be honest now. When you heard Jesus say, “Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment,” didn’t it make you wonder- even if only for a moment, “Who then can be saved?”
Well, this is exactly the time you must return to your baptism and see for yourself the place where you died with Christ, where your sins were buried and removed from God’s sight, where you were raised with Christ to a new life. My Christian friends, every time you return to your baptism you are reminded of the mercy of God, that very mercy by which he now invites you to come to the confessional to lay your sins out before him that he might reassure you with the comforting words of his Absolution, and also to the Altar that he might feed you his very Body and Blood and so live in you. For you see when Christ lives in you, he also lives through you that he might use you, sinful creatures you are, to show his mercy to others.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Reverend James A. Frey is pastor of St. Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.