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Holy Trinity, Fairfax
Reformed Episcopal Church

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Please excuse any typos in this manuscript.

The Gospel lesson for this day is taken from the Sermon the Mount, specifically from Matthew chapter 5 beginning at verse 20. I invite you to turn there in your Bibles.

The passage that we read this morning introduces a series of 6 statements where Jesus says: you have heard that it was said…but I say. In these passages, true to what Jesus has just said immediately before in verse 17 that He has come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them, Jesus makes an authoritative interpretation of what the Law of Moses always meant. He takes passages from the Law of Moses and gives the interpretation that had always been intended, that had been lost in misinterpretation. For instance, in our passage from today, we have heard Jesus interpret the 6th Commandment: thou shalt do no murder. But Jesus reveals to us that the matter of murder is not merely about outward keeping of the commandment, but is also about an inward keeping of the commandment: it is about anger, and hatred, as well as unlawful taking of life. We are forbidden in the passage from unlawful anger, from grudges, as well as forbidden from murder.

Jesus says: whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say: Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire. It should be noted that there is a type of anger that is not wrong. It is not wrong, or sinful, to be angry against, or about, sin. It is not wrong to be angry when we have been wronged. But anger is sinful when we are angry at or about the wrong things, or when we are angry too much. If we do not or cannot control ourselves when we are angry, or when our anger causes us to do other sinful things, then it is sinful. The Psalms and Ephesians tell us: in your anger, do not sin. James reminds us that we are to be slow to be angry—for human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.

Anger when it is sinful can cause great divisions between people. Jesus gives two examples of the types of things that can be said in anger. The brother could be called “Raca,” or “you fool.” The term Raca, it seems, is a relatively innocuous term of admonishment. It is untranslated for us because the term is Aramaic, and means something like “blockhead” or “empty-head.” The terms Jesus uses here are not particularly vile or wicked terms, the sorts of things that might shock the conscience. They are the types of words that respectable people might use in frustration or anger with another. And yet these terms, said in earnest and in sinful anger, put in danger of judgment; they put us in danger, Jesus says, of hell-fire.

This is where we might think: wow, Jesus. I can understand danger of hell-fire for the deliberate taking of life, for murder. But for anger? For angry words said in anger? Sinful anger often has as its close relative pride, the sort of pride that seeks to control things, other people around us. This sort of desire for control is not always the root of sinful anger, but it often is, as we seek to usurp God’s kingship with our own. The Scriptures tell us that God is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. But sometimes I fear we picture Him as capricious and quick to anger, and so we excuse our own quickness to anger by thinking that He is angry. But Jesus is teaching us here that the very thing that may make God angry is our anger.

And so, Jesus instructs us to make peace with our neighbors while we can. He says: “therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Rather than wallowing in anger, and allowing grudges to build, Jesus says that when we come to worship, we are to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. In its original context, this thing that Jesus says here is probably a bit of an exaggeration. You see, most of the people listening would have been from Galilee, and it would have been several days’ trip to Jerusalem to make an offering at the temple. If they remembered they’d offended someone and left there gift and went to be reconciled, it was several days’ trip to go North to Galilee for the reconciliation, and several days’ trip back, all the while leaving their gift at the altar.

But this is point that Jesus is making. We are to sacrificially seek to make reconciliation with those we have offended—in other words, even when it is inconvenient for us. Even when we may think that we don’t have anything to apologize for on some level, we are to seek reconciliation. Jesus says if you remember your brother has ought against you—not that you remember something you did. If you remember there is a lack of reconciliation, go and seek that reconciliation. This is particularly important in the context of worship. In fact, the New Testament Church as long interpreted this passage as referring to Holy Communion, as well as its original intent. This is why before communion we hear we are to be at charity with our neighbors if we come to this table. And if we are not at charity, at peace with our neighbors, we are to seek reconciliation before we come to this table. The Lord’s Table is a symbol and seal of the peace that God has made with mankind through Jesus Christ. But it is also a symbol of the unity of the body of Christ, since we partake together. And if we are not at peace with someone else in the body, the Scriptures, and the Prayer Book following the Scriptures, command us not to partake until we have made the effort of reconciliation.

Jesus emphasizes the urgency of this task in his next short parable: be reconciled quickly with your adversary, while you are on the way with him, lest when you come before the judge, the judge finds you guilty and casts you into prison. There is an urgency to the need for reconciliation with our brothers and sisters, because we ultimately are going to appear before the judge, before God, the judge of the world—and have to give an account of the things that we have done.  The ancient Bishop Hilary of Poitiers says it like this: “The Lord suffers us at no time to be wanting in peaceableness of temper, and therefore bids us be reconciled to our adversary quickly, while on the road of life, lest we be cast into the season of death before peace be joined between us.[1]

I know the complications that there are in this teaching. I know the various very hard and complicated situations that people face with other people, and with the division and the hurt that can happen. I know that human beings are not always reasonable. Jesus knows that too. In fact, the Apostle says: if possible, as much as it relies on you, be at peace with all men. We can’t control the actions of others. We can’t make other people reasonable. But we can seek to make peace, as much as it relies on us. And sometimes, I think that we as Christians even are not really willing to do this. We may pay it lip service, but really we desire or want peace on our own terms, not peace on God’s terms and not peace that would really involve the other person’s desires and needs.

True reconciliation is going to involve humility, and it will involve trust. It will involve humility, because we will have to admit that we may have been wrong, and ask for forgiveness. It involves trust in God, that God would be involved in the process and that He would ultimately work to bring about good. We need to be willing to reconcile and forgive, even if the other person is not.

There are times when this will take a lot of time. People can develop patterns of manipulation over several years, hurting others, then demanding reconciliation, even using passages like this one to do so. To help think about this, an ancient Father notes this: But such as was the offence, such should also be the reconciliation. If you have offended in thought, be reconciled in thought; if in words, be reconciled in words; if in deeds, in deeds be reconciled.[2] Deeds of love and mercy must match the reconciliation, in addition to words.

This is a hard thing. I know this. More important than me knowing it, Jesus knows it. The lesson He is teaching us is that our hearts are to be open to reconciliation, to apologizing where it is needed, to forgiving, to not allowing anger or control get in the way. If you know that one of your brothers or sisters has ought against you today, Jesus is telling you to seek reconciliation with them before you come to His table. If this seems too difficult for you, then seek the help of His Church.

Perhaps you know of a broken relationship today that you have caused, or have been instrumental in causing. Perhaps by your anger you have caused brokenness. You have tried to control or manipulate others. Brothers and sisters, the Gospel is for you. Our Savior Jesus Christ, out of sheer love and grace, and healed the division between God and man that came about because of our sin. He has healed that divide and made reconciliation by His cross, where He shed His precious blood so that our sins which caused the breach could be forgiven. We do not have to punish the sins of our neighbors therefore, since Jesus has died to forgive sins, and God will ultimately bring all things into judgment when our Savior returns in glory to judge the quick and the dead. So let us this day trust Him in faith, believing the promise that He has healed the breach between God and man, and resolving by the work of His Spirit to seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. Amen.

[1] Thomas Aquinas. (1841). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew. (J. H. Newman, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 181). Oxford: John Henry Parker.

[2] Thomas Aquinas. (1841). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew. (J. H. Newman, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 180). Oxford: John Henry Parker.