SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 13, THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY

It probably escaped your notice, especially since we kept Candlemas last Sunday and didn’t use the regular readings for the season after the Epiphany, but we are in the middle of a series of Sundays when the gospel reading comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Beginning with the Beatitudes on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany and going through Epiphany 8, we are reading and studying this remarkable body of teaching we find in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7. As long as people have been reading the Sermon on the Mount – which I believe is actually Matthew’s compilation of a group of lessons Jesus taught his disciples while they were withdrawn to a hill near Capernaum – Christians have had to grapple with the question of what exactly to make of it. Did Jesus really say these things? And if he did, was he serious? Does he really expect us to be able to do what he says in his sermon?

That’s a difficult question, but my short answer to it is: “Yes.” For a long time I have read the Sermon on the Mount as primarily showing us what we can’t do, laying bear our need by ratcheting up the demands God makes of us, showing us ever more clearly our inability to keep God’s law ourselves and, therefore, our need for a savior. But you can’t read the Sermon, indeed you can’t read the rest of the NT, and not believe Jesus does bloody well expect Christians to do what he said. In the verses just before what we read today in Matthew, Jesus emphasizes the perpetuity of the law. He says “I didn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them; indeed, as long as there is a heaven and an earth, not an iota, not the smallest stroke of a pen, not the dot on an i, will pass away.” So does Jesus expect us to do what he says? In a word: “Yes.”

A slightly longer answer to the question is based on something that we’ve been talking about in Entr’acte this year. In the great arc of God’s story, we have creation – when God made the universe and put us in it – and then the Fall – when humans decided we wanted to go our own way and ignore God’s commandments and will for his creatures. Lately in Entr’acte we have focused our attention on the next act in the great story – God’s plan to put things right after the Fall, and his plan centered on one thing: God chose a people, then he told them to be “holy.” Holy meant “set apart,” not spatially but ethically and culturally, from the other people groups in the world. They were to be holy because they were to show what it looked like to live under the reign of the one true God. Whatever else that meant, it most certainly meant they were to be different.

And one way to understand the Sermon on the Mount is that it extends this action of God, his choosing a people and setting them apart to be different or, to use a word from the King James bible, to be “peculiar.” (1 Peter 2.9 (KJV)). John Stott begins his little commentary on the Sermon on the Mount like this:

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do. To my mind no two words sum up its intention better, or indicate more clearly its challenge to the modern world, than the expression “Christian counter-culture.”[1]

In Stott’s book, in the Gospels, in other works like Augustine’s City of God, we consistently see God concerned with building a counter-culture, an alternative community in the midst of the fallen world, a beachhead where his kingdom gains a foothold and spreads throughout the rest of the created order. In short, God is concerned with the shape our lives take in the world; God cares not just about what we believe, but how we live.

But Paul, in what we read today from Corinthians, says he couldn’t address the Corinthians as “spiritual men” but as people still governed by the desires of their flesh. They hadn’t grown up, hadn’t moved from milk to solid foods, hadn’t matured in their faith and life to the point that they were capable of doing what God had created them and set them apart to do. They still exhibited jealousy and strife, and Paul’s indictment of them hidden in the passage we read today was: “You are behaving like ordinary men.” (1 Cor. 3.3) They weren’t different. They weren’t peculiar. They weren’t becoming the counter-culture Jesus set up in the Sermon on the Mount.

And, to be honest, a lot of the time neither are we. The sermon does show us our need for a savior -- because there is clearly a gap between its ideals and our reality. Nevertheless -- Jesus calls us to be an open and obvious example of life in the kingdom of God, what Alexander Schmemann calls “the sacrament of the kingdom” for the world to see. To quote Stott again: “The standards of the Sermon are neither readily attainable by every man, nor totally unattainable by any man. To put them beyond anybody’s reach is to ignore the purpose of Christ’s Sermon; to put them within everybody’s is to ignore the reality of man’s sin.”[2]

So, very briefly, what are we to do? Well, personally I believe God has given us all the means necessary to live the sort of lives he wants us to live, and it begins here, in our worship. We start by going to church. In our liturgy, the entire drama of the gospel is played out before our eyes, and we are invited to participate in it by confessing our sins and coming to the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus. Eucharist is both an act of thanksgiving for what God is doing to and through us, and it’s the primary way God makes us what we are, namely his body in the world.

But while our work begins with going to church, it certainly doesn’t end there. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that a once-a-week religious observance is capable of effecting the deep change of heart we need. Among other things we need, let me mention just three: Prayer; community; and service.

First, we need prayer. The church has always transformative power in life around a daily cycle of prayer, what we call praying the Daily Office. Prayer is how we connect with God, not just to ask him for the things we need and want, but to listen for his voice in the scripture readings, in the silence for meditation and reflection, even in the words of the prayers themselves. I didn’t actually see the interview, but I understand Dan Rather once interviewed Mother Teresa, and he asked her what she said when she prayed. Mother Teresa answered: “I listen.” So Rather turned the question around and asked “What does God say?” And she smiled and said: “He listens.” When we pray the office, we do more than just talk. We listen for God’s voice in scripture and he listens to us in petition. Daily prayer carves out space in our lives for relationship with God to develop and deepen until we are so in love with his voice that whatever he calls us to do in our lives, we are quick to hear and to respond.

Number 2: Community. We need each other. That’s why we set up community groups in homes around the city where we can meet together to study the bible and really wrestle with what God asks of us; where hopefully the gospel is drilled down deep into our hearts, and where we can build and strengthen relationships with others who are trying to live Christ-like lives in Boston. These groups are where go for accountability, encouragement and to pray for each other.

And, last but certainly not least, we need to serve. Whether it’s at the Tuesday Night Supper, the St. Elizabeth’s Guild or another of the mission opportunities the Advent seeks to create for us; whether it’s in an encounter with someone on the street or a hospital visit, service is where our abstract faith becomes concrete reality. It’s like a lab where we put into practice the principles we learn in church and in our own time of private devotion.

Last thing -- Take out your bulletin. There on the first page, in the Collect of the Day we prayed “because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed.” Worship, prayer, community and service. These are some of the tools God gives us to help shape our lives and build the counter-culture Jesus envisioned in the Sermon on the Mount. They are how God gets grace into our lives. They are really “levers.” We can’t do anything good without God, so he gave us these levers to work grace down into our hearts so we can keep the commandments, not to save ourselves, but because he has chosen us to be holy, peculiar, set apart to share with him the work of renewing the world.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1978): 15.

[2] Ibid., 29.