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Not Abolish, but Fulfill: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 9, 2020:
Isaiah 58:1-12
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

The one thing I remember from Grade 12 French class is reading the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre (presumably in French under its original title Huis Clos, which means “closed door” or “behind closed doors” or even “in camera,” like a confidential ‘in camera’ session). The play’s about three people that mysteriously find themselves stuck in a room together, with no way out, with the feel of a Twilight Zone episode. And I’ve probably cited it before — the famous line from the play that’s pretty well-known: “hell is other people.” And I see some nodding heads, not least among those who’ve worked in the retail sector.

And there’s this thing I’ve come across a bit, called ‘team development theory.’ It gets used to study and help guide committees, or a group of co-workers, or even something like a new congregation. And what this does is says — sort of — is that ‘no, hell’s not other people; it’s just one stage in the development of a group of people.’ It’s the second stage of a process that goes forming, storming, norming, and performing.

‘Forming’ is pretty self-explanatory. We find ourselves having been brought together. We figure out our identity and purpose, and goals. Leaders are clarified or elected. People get to know each other.

Then there’s that ‘hell is other people’ stage, the ‘storming.’ Storming, as in storming out of the room, or storms of emotion. Conflict and competition comes out. Now that we know who’s around the table, we’re stuck with dealing with them.

And then we move on to the third and fourth stages: norming and performing. After the storming we start to coalesce as a group. ‘Norms’ are developed, either naturally, or through discussion and consensus. And in the performing stage, the group goes about their work in the unique way they’ve worked out.

And you see this process play out in a movie series like Star Wars or a TV show like Lost from a few years ago, about a group of survivors of a plane crash that end up on a supernatural island. (Maybe a twist on the plot of No Exit, as I think of it.)

So I might be a little bold, but not completely out of left field when I say that this process of group development has something to do — it’s not unrelated, it’s useful for helping us understand — what we call ‘The Law.’ I started on this trajectory by thinking about how we have laws to help us get on together, especially in times of conflict, in those periods of storming. Laws, in this way, can be life-giving, even freeing, in that they keep us safe. Though they’re not the whole story, by any means.

BUT I think there’s something more than this. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” says Jesus, in our story today. The Jewish Bible, or Old Testament as we usually call it, is divided into three sections, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. “Law” comes up something like 200 times in the New Testament, and it means different things in different places. To that first section of the Bible, or to the directions found in it, or found in other parts of the Bible, or the Ten Commandments, or the three big marks of Jewish observance: circumcision, rest on the Sabbath, and abstaining from pork. “Law” in this expansive sense has to do with our life together: our forming, storming, norming, and performing.

As Christians today, we want to be mindful of how for much of our history we fell into a sloppy habit of contrasting what we thought was Jewish legalism with Christian freedom. The Jesus we hear from this morning doesn’t seem to represent that clear-cut distinction. He’s not here to jettison the Law, but to fulfill it, he says. In just a few verses Jesus is going to hold up a few specific laws. He’ll say ‘you’ve heard “you shall not murder.” But I tell you, anyone who is angry with another, or calls them a fool will answer for it in hell fire.’ That’s a little scary, yes, but it tips us off that when Jesus affirms the Law, and says he is here to fulfill it, he’s not just talking about a rote and uncritical obedience of it. The actions that spring out of this might look a little different than what at one time had been assumed. There might be more room for context. For compassion. For surprise. For mercy that comes from the realization that we all struggle and fall short of our calling. (Or conversely, a higher standard is reinforced.) But it nonetheless comes from a heart that’s been formed by the way of the Law and the Prophets.

And this particular gospel book, Matthew, that in its Advent and Christmas stories had been so precise in its linking of the birth of Jesus to Old Testament prophecy, here we see it continuing in this way, painting Jesus as the fulfillment — the embodiment — of the Law and the Prophets. And in that context we’re not just talking about specific legal laws, but of the huge inheritance stories and the hopes of those that had gone before Jesus. Those that had led up to him.

Again, I’m trying to paint a picture of the Law as something like those stages — all the stages — of group development I mentioned earlier. Not just laws to get us through the storming; but Law as the forming, storming, norming, and performing of the Jewish culture out of which Jesus came. Jesus is not just an interpreter and teacher of law, but he’s the embodiment of the Law, the embodiment of that long and often painful story of which he’s a part (and of which we say he’s the fulfillment). And as Christians, we’re grafted into this story, as a continuation of the community of people that grew out of a life-changing experience of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The famous Anglican writer and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has said that “The Christian question was how to remain obedient to God in a changed world [changed by this resurrection experience]. The New Testament is the record of not one but several answers to that question…”* And different answers we’ll find! So today we hear Matthew’s Jesus speaking of the fulfillment of the Law. In The next Gospel book the narrator will add to a story found elsewhere “and thus Jesus declared all foods clean.” St. Paul will oftentimes rail against the practice of circumcision, or at least too much reliance on it. But then he’ll have his companion Timothy circumcised. And in the Acts of the Apostles we’ll read about a council of elders of the young Church. They’ve been formed through Pentecost. There’s been quite a bit of storming as people wrestle with this idea that God could actually work through people they’d previously written off. And now they’re establishing their group norms. And they determine: abstain from things polluted by idols; refrain from fornication; don’t eat meat from animals that were strangled; and don’t eat blood. (Interesting that blood sausage, or pudding, hasn’t been the cause of painful divisions in the worldwide Church of our own day.)

So these are different responses to the question of how to be obedient to God in light of the coming of Jesus. What comes through today is that while our New Testament demonstrates responses with different particularities, the Jesus of the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5 expects at the very least a response; expects obedience. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? [And] no one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.” We’re all a part of a story. And part of this story are the prophets that, when times were most dire and hopeless, said “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

And about 500 years after these words were written comes someone who embodies these hopes, and this love of others. This love will take him to the Cross, to a complete and willing sacrifice. Where many of Jesus’ contemporaries only saw accursedness. Where the gentiles of the day saw failed ambition. But as St. Paul describes it, on the Cross we see God’s love, God’s wisdom, and a spiritual truth that many will not understand, but that has the power to change the world.

In a few moments in our prayer at the altar we will hear elements of this story recounted. “We proclaim Jesus’s death until he comes again.” And we join our sacrifices of the things we’ve brought to the table, and our very selves as we orient ourselves toward it, and we unite our lives to Jesus’s. And just as God acted in the tomb, and just as God acts in our meal, we pray that the sacrifice of Jesus would do something to us. That we would understand more fully what it means to be righteous, and to be a character in the story written by God.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter