Sermon on the Mount

Letter and Spirit

Romans 7:1-6 (NLT)

Now, dear brothers and sisters—you who are familiar with the law—don’t you know that the law applies only while a person is living? For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. When we were controlled by our old nature, sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death. But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.

Paul begins with an illustration from marriage to demonstrate that even before Christ, the law of Moses, the law given to the Jewish people, had power only in this life.

Spiritually, as he has said before in Romans, we die to our old lives when we “die with Christ” by believing in his death on the cross and his resurrection. Therefore, the Jewish law has no power over us.

As Christians, I’m sure you care about the cross and the resurrection. But frankly, I suspect most of you haven’t thought much about how God’s grace undoes the power of the Jewish law. Life under the Jewish law is foreign to most of our experiences.

As Christians far removed from the Jewish experience, consider the matter this way: What is the basis for how we live? A good Jew would have simply answered, “The law given to Moses tells us how to live.” We need a similarly clear answer.

Instead of the letter of the law, Paul says, we are called to live in the Spirit who inspired the law. Behind the law there were universal principles that existed before the law—the law can be thought of as an expression of those principles.

Jesus spent a lot of time trying to teach the principles behind the law. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is a good example. Again and again, Jesus told his listeners, “You have heard that it was said,” a reference to the letter of the law. He would then go on, “But I say … .” And what followed was a statement pointing to the principle.

You have heard that it was said, do not murder. But I say, don’t even be angry.

You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery. But I say, don’t even look at a woman with lust.

You have heard that it was said, there’s an easy way to get a divorce. But I say, marriage is to be taken with lifelong, serious commitment.

You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, you must love your enemies!

These and other sayings reveal principles about how the heart should work when aligned with God. Remember how Jesus spoke of the law when asked to define its most important part.

His answer rooted the law in love. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Also, love your neighbor as yourself.

“The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments,” Jesus said.

Let me tell you a little secret. In some ways, it is harder to live as an expression of God’s grace and love than it is to live by executing a set of laws. When you’re grace-minded, there often is no checklist to work from, no clear way to say, “Yup, got everything right today.”

Imagine a stereotypical “helping the poor” scene, a homeless man holding out a cup. Is putting money in the cup good or bad? To really know, you have to love the homeless person enough to know his backstory.

By giving him money, are we helping him eat, or are we feeding an addiction? Is he simply needing a quick financial boost back to a normal life, or is he cyclically impoverished? What actions might we take other than dropping a little change in the cup?

Under grace, the homeless man before us becomes a call to a relationship.

If we take such matters seriously, we find ourselves driven to pray for guidance, and we will spend a lot more time studying the New Testament for lessons of love applied. We test what we think we hear from God by examining his revelations to the early church, and where we find alignment between answered prayer and revelation, we know we have received clear guidance.

We also have to acknowledge that when we don’t pray and study, we can do a lot of damage. Through a youth ministry I worked in nearly 20 years ago, I knew a man who had come to Christ in his 40’s. He went to a different church than mine. The particular church he attended emphasized the importance of speaking in tongues, noting correctly that the ability to speak in tongues was New Testament evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

He had a problem, though. He prayed and went to church Sunday after Sunday, but he could never speak in tongues. He was an earnest Christian; this man truly loved the Lord and was thankful for his salvation. But one day, the leaders of his church pulled him aside and said that because he could not speak in tongues, they doubted whether he really knew Christ.

He called me that evening, weeping. Fortunately, Paul had dealt with this issue in another letter, the one we call First Corinthians. In its 12th and 13th chapters, Paul acknowledged tongues as being a gift from the Holy Spirit, but he placed them among a variety of gifts. Prophecy, counsel, special knowledge, faith, healing and miracles are just some of them.

He also put those gifts in their place relative to love. “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

My friend’s church leaders had read the part about tongues and taken it very seriously, but they failed to read on. They failed to show love to a man who really, really needed it. When he understood what Paul had said about speaking in tongues and the primary importance of love, he seemed restored, and went looking for another church.

Paul is also encouraging us at this point in Romans. As we grow in our ability to love God, align ourselves with God, and love the people around us, our actions begin to make a difference for Christ’s kingdom. Good deeds happen, the kind of deeds that move people from lives of sin, brokenness and death to lives that never end. Through our Holy Spirit-inspired good deeds, people move from anxiety and sadness toward the constant experience of God’s joyful presence.

In the coming weeks, we’ll spend a lot of time exploring what Paul has to say about life lived in the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, let’s look at every situation we encounter and ask God, “How do you call me to show love here?”


Beatitudes III: Making Peace

In our continuing series on the Beatitudes, I choose to pause at one particular verse because it seems to be where Jesus’ introduction to the Sermon on the Mount comes to a point.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Up to here, we’ve been hearing descriptions of characteristics of citizens of the kingdom of God. Within those characteristics, some action is implied, but we’ve been talking largely about a state of being.

But now we’ve reached peacemakers, what sounds like an occupation along the lines of carpenter or construction worker. Something gets done; something new exists once these people are at work. And in the case of peacemakers, it is a God-like work, a creative and restorative activity.

Assuming we have at least some of the necessary precursors within us, the attributes found in Matthew 5:1-8, how do we go about making peace?

It helps to look to Jesus, of course, to examine the greatest act of peacemaking in the history of the universe. Sin had destroyed the relationship between God and humanity, but Christ’s death on the cross made restoration possible. Thanks to Jesus, God among us, there once again is peace between Creator and creation.

Clearly, deep, sacrificial love—shown even to those who don’t deserve it—is a key part of peacemaking.

It also seems important to have internal peace, to have largely overcome the battle between good and evil going on in our minds. Again, we win this battle not by striving, but by inviting the Holy Spirit to do the work, by meeting God in those places he said he would always be: prayer, Scripture, worship, and Christian fellowship.

When we find ourselves ready for peacemaking in the world, we take on a high calling, one of the most difficult tasks a human being can attempt.

There have been a lot of peacemaking strategies employed in the history of the Christian church. I have always admired pacifists, the people who forgo violence in any form, although I have never been able to fully embrace pacifism. Perhaps God will correct my understanding one day, but for now my own experiences tell me there are situations where a pacifist response can turn into a sin of omission, a failure to act to prevent evil.

The opposite approach concerns me more, however. When we decide to be “people of action,” those who would battle evil with force, it’s amazing how quickly we can become what we fight against.

In terms of large-scale conflict, the early church tried to counter this tendency toward moral entropy with something called “Just War Theory,” but even the most noble-sounding wars we’ve fought seem to break some of the Christian boundaries for a righteous war. In World War II, we fought a very real evil, but we also managed to drop atomic bombs on civilian populations, violating one of the basic principles underlying the just prosecution of a war.

It’s clear historically and today we need more of a focus on Christian peacemaking. We see the need on the large scale—if last week’s photos of nerve-gassed children from Syria don’t make the point, I don’t know what does. We see the need on a small scale. Anyone ever been involved in a church war, where two sides line up against each other over some nonessential matter, destroying ongoing ministry in the process?

To equip myself as a peacemaker, the only thing I know to do is continue beyond the Beatitudes and delve more deeply into the Sermon on the Mount, particularly three of Jesus’ very difficult teachings clearly related to peacemaking.

In all three cases, Jesus is employing some holy hyperbole, describing behaviors that seem humanly impossible. We’re told not to be angry, and that speaking out in anger is as bad as murder. We hear we should not resist an evildoer. We’re shocked to learn we’re supposed to love our enemies.

Even with God’s help, I’m not sure I can ever maintain such a perfectly holy approach where I perceive the presence of evil. But perhaps by dwelling on these teachings and keeping them consciously before us, we can all make a real difference in bringing peace to the part of the world we occupy.

This past week, some of you may have heard the story of Antoinette Tuff, a Christian woman who drew heavily on her faith as she calmly convinced a mentally ill man to lay down his rifle after he fired a shot in the Georgia school where she works. If you haven’t heard about her strategy, take time to do so. She reached out to a lost man with empathy and love and made a real difference in the world in just half an hour.

Surely she is blessed, and surely she is evidence of what can be achieved.