1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Why isn’t following the law enough? Why does Jesus get into this litany of “not just this, but more is required, or else . . . “?
If we are law abiding citizens, are we people of God? Just following the rules is not enough. We can imagine the guy who Jesus is speaking about. The guy who never raises a hand to hurt anyone physically, but walks around constantly angry with other people—always accusing them of wronging him, always creating conflicts and divisions. Jesus says—it’s not enough just not to murder. If you are angry with your brother, you must reconcile or you’ll be thrown into prison and you’ll never get out. It’s not good enough to obey the laws about marriage or divorce-- to meet your financial obligations to your spouse—it’s about living into the promises you made, not wishing you were with someone else, not abandoning your partner and thinking you are good enough because you pay alimony.
Jesus is encouraging his disciples, and he’s encouraging us—not just to live by the law, but to live fully into God’s will. Jesus lecture to his disciples has implications for how we think about “being good”. It has implication for how we think about leaders and lawmakers. And it has implications for how we think about being community.
Matthew, the gospeler seems to know something about human nature and leaders and followers. We want to do what’s right. But it would be really much easier to have someone tell us what doing right is. We’d like to have clear rules to live by. And it would be so much easier if someone could give us credit for being good when we follow the rules. I am living with teenagers. Any of you who know teenagers might recognize this phenonmenon. We argue all the time about what movies to see. The movies that I love most are ones where there is moral ambiguity. I love movies where the characters struggle to figure out what being good means—in war, in business, in love relationships. They make choices, but those choices aren’t clear cut. (Maybe you saw “Me Before You” or “Amour”). The boys prefer movies where the good guys are clearly defined. There is evil in the world , but the hero, the leader fights back and wins. They want answers, they want clarity. They want the teacher, the movie hero or the leader of the government to tell them what’s right. They feel most comforted when there are black and white answers.
But Jesus is warning his followers that this is not the way that God works in the world. Meeting the minimum standard is just not sufficient. There is a gray area about the essence of the law, God’s will that goes beyond, above, behind what leaders tell us, who the “good guys” are.
By running through the whole list of different examples, Jesus is inviting his followers to think about God’s will for them in many different aspects of their lives. His example of murder and reconciliation with our brothers and sisters points us to thinking about God’s will for us in our community life. We can think about the laws that we live under here in the United States. Do our law makers define what is right or wrong in our relationships? Or are we, as followers of Jesus called to do more than what the laws require?
We can think about our community here in Church. Maybe we are hoping that leaders of the Church, the priest or the vestry will tell us what the law is. If the priest says, “you should come to church on Sundays”, and you do, is that sufficient? Maybe the vestry says, we need a volunteer to help with the crab feed, or we want you to donate more to the stewardship campaign or to a fund to repair the parking lot. If you make a donation have you done enough? The answers are not clear. There’s no black and white answer about what you must do. And there is no president, no priest, no vestry, no teacher or writer or other authority figure who can tell you how to live.
Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians gets to this point about who the people should follow. Jesus says, the law is insufficient. Paul says, it’s not about following me, or following Apollos. Orient yourself to God because it is God who gives growth, not any human leader.
In his examples about adultery and divorce, Jesus is pointing his followers to think about God’s will in the most intimate family relationships. What are the laws about family life, the social norms, the expectations that come from society. People shouldn’t cheat on their spouses, people should meet their financial obligations to ex-spouses (that’s what I understand when Jesus speaks about the “certificate of divorce”—this is about paying alimony so that the spouse is not left destitute), parents should not hit their kids. But Jesus says, these rules aren’t what God is calling us to. In our most intimate relationships, we are called to love one another as God love us. Adultery is not a technicality—it’s about how we look at the person we are with. Divorce is not just about financial obligation, it’s about caring for your partner forever. People can’t be discarded, swapped one for another. I want to just take a moment and talk specifically about divorce because many of us have been divorced. I don’t believe that Jesus is saying that divorce is always wrong. I think Jesus is pointing to the deeper question of what is required in covenanted relationships. Will we truly care for one another, even if there are situations where we can’t or shouldn’t live together? Will we do more than meet the letter of the law about community property and do what God calls us to do in our family relationships? Are we doing God’s will if we follow the letter of the family court judge’s divorce settlement? Or is God calling us to do, to be, to care more deeply?
When Jesus tells his followers that it’s not just about not swearing falsely, it’s about not swearing at all, I think he is pointing to business relationships. The law tells us that we must keep to our contractual obligations. If we promise to pay for this service or promise to provide this product for a certain price and we keep those promises, then we are meeting the letter of the law. But Jesus says, it’s more than just not swearing falsely, making contracts you don’t intend to keep or breaking contracts you have made. Jesus says, leave it with “yes, yes or no, no”—anything less comes from the evil one. I think he’s saying don’t let the letter of the contract define your relationship. Rather than trying to live according to some rules defined by your promises, live by the Spirit. In your business dealings, you can look to what God would have you do and live that way. Let Jesus, God be the orientation for your business dealings. Anything less is insufficient.
Jesus lays out for his disciples this challenge—live into God’s will, not just according to the law. Look to God for direction and leadership, not to human lawmakers, or even to your own contracts. In our reading from Deuteronomy, we hear Moses telling the people—look God has given you a choice—life or death. If you want everything that God has promised you, you have to make the choice. Choose life. Choose to live according to God’s will and you will have eternal life. Everything that God promised to your ancestors will be yours. Moses is warning the people that the choices they must make go beyond the letter of the commandments. They must orient themelves towards God.
Choose life. Choose life! I hear this as a command to each of us. Choose life. Choose life in our community. Don’t look to the rules of being a good Episcopalian to tell you that you are good. It’s not about the expectations of coming to church on Sunday, or giving money, or volunteering for a certain number of hours. It’s not about following the church leaders—it’s about choosing what is life giving to you, following God’s call to you, discerning what God wants for your life. Maybe the question is not “have I done enough?” but rather, “have I chosen to do what is life giving?” We’re being pointed to a process of discernment—asking and listening to God’s answers for us—not just waiting for a leader to tell us the answer.
In our public life. We can’t trust our leaders to tell us what is right and what is wrong. We can’t be trying to follow Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders (Paul or Apollos). We have to listen for God’s answers. Whatever the laws are or the court decrees sanction or prohibit, we are called to discern the path that is life giving. Choose life over death. Do God’s will, choose life.
In our family relationships or our business dealings, we can’t look for a rule book. We’ve got an obligation to ask what God wants us to do. Choosing life means finding the path that is truly right. When we orient all of our actions towards God, we find that the answers may not be black or white, but the path that we follow will be life giving.
This would be a frustrating sermon for my teenagers. They would much rather have the Bible, the Gospeler Matthew, Saint Paul, Moses or Jesus (or even me) tell them what the answers are. They look to mom and dad, to their priest, to the government leaders for answers. But the answers aren’t out there. The answers are found in a dialogue with God. There is a process of discernment and action—listening and following that leads to eternal life. The call that we hear, the ministry that we engage in is where or how we come to know what is life giving, what is God's hope and promise to each of us.