Read This Page in My Language
Sermon: Acts 11:19-26
Easter 6 – May 6, 2018 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
In another week and a half I’m going to be 68 years old. I just applied for Social Security benefits. I recently received an email informing that my 50th high school class reunion is going to be later this coming summer. At this stage in life it’s not unusual for a person to look back and do some self-assessment.
And one really important self-assessment question that I find myself asking is how good of a Christian have I been? My self-assessment and self-criticism center around what we call sins of omission. There are so many good things that I wish I had done which I didn’t do. There are so many things I wish I had done better. Putting it quite plainly, I wish I had been a better Christian, a more faithful Christian.
For anyone who’s serious about being a faithful and dedicated Christian this kind of self-assessment or examination is not at all unusual. It can serve a very good purpose of leading a Christian to repentance and the desire to live a more faithful life. But this spiritual self-assessment and examination kind of begs the question, how good do you have to be in order to be a Christian? What are the standards? What does God want to see in us?
In our text today Jesus has a lot to say about how we are to live our lives and even how well we are to live our lives. And we would do well to consider carefully his words and ask
HOW GOOD DO YOU HAVE TO BE
IN ORDER TO BE A CHRISTIAN?
If you have one of those Bibles that prints Jesus’ words in red you know that Matthew chapters 5-8 are almost all red. These chapters include what we call Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If you visit Israel today a tour guide will take you to a hill near the Sea of Galilee where Jesus likely spoke these words. They are mostly words of instruction that reiterate much from the Law of Moses but also emphasize the proper motivation for keeping God’s commandments. They are words about how to live a godly life, how to be a good child of God.
The first section speaks about being good examples to other people as children of God so that others will be motivated to be children of God as well and to live godly lives. Jesus speaks words to us that are quite familiar. “You are the salt of the earth.”
What do you use salt for? Most often we think of using salt to make food taste better. But salt is also a preservative. In the days before refrigeration many foods were preserved with large amounts of salt. It’s most likely that Jesus is speaking about this preservative nature of salt.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Children of God are the salt of the earth. Christians are the salt of the earth. God has sprinkled Christians throughout the world, in various nations, in certain societies, to have a positive, a preservative, effect. And we don’t say this in a self-righteous or arrogant way. It’s rather obvious, it’s common sense, that when there are godly people, more moral people, more faithful Christians in a community or society, there’s going to be a much more positive effect on that community or society – better examples set, more laws and leadership that follow God’s will, more motivation to be a godly society.
And part of that positive and preservative influence involves showing and teaching other people who God is. So Jesus also says, “You are the light of the world.” And we are to be lights that shine from a hill or are set up on a stand so that many can see us. In a dark world of sin we are to shine with the light of God’s word and will so that others will know who God is and how to please him.
So Jesus says, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” There’s an interesting adage that some have attributed to St. Francis: “Always preach Christ. Use words if necessary.” The point of this admonition is that Christians always have a responsibility to preach Christ, to tell others about Jesus. But while it’s essential to teach people the biblical truths about Jesus and what he did to save us from our sins, it’s more important, so the adage says, to demonstrate Jesus’ love, to show people who Jesus is, by what we do and how we live our lives.
Are you the salt of the earth? Are you the light of the world? Or in keeping with our theme about how good you have to be in order to be a Christian, how salty are you, how bright of a light are you? How much of a positive and preservative effect have you had on your children and the people near you in life? How much have your words and actions told others and shown others who Jesus is and what he’s like and what he has done to save them from their sins?
Jesus is very serious about these admonitions about salt and light. He’s very serious about all of God’s word and God’s commandments. Jesus preached this Sermon on Mount quite early in his ministry, but already there were those who were beginning to criticize him as someone who didn’t keep the Law of Moses or didn’t command keeping God’s laws. Those criticisms of Jesus were very wrong. As a matter of fact he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Jesus was so serious about keeping God’s commandments and fulfilling all the prophecies about himself that he said not even “the least stroke of a pen” from God’s word would disappear or be ignored. The written language of the Jews, Hebrew and Aramaic, was characterized by many little dots and small marks. Keeping God’s commandments and fulfilling his word was so important to Jesus that not one of those dots or marks would be ignored.
Therefore Jesus has a very serious warning for us about keeping God’s commandments: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teachers others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Breaking even what we might call a little commandment, something we don’t think is so important, demotes us to the least in God’s kingdom. It’s bad. It’s very bad. We have to keep all of God’s commandments if we want to be considered great in God’s kingdom. I’m reminded of the words of James in his letter: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
Considering those very strict standards, are you and I going to be great in the kingdom of heaven or are we going to be the least?
And just in case any of us think that maybe we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping God’s commandments and that we’ll be pretty great in the kingdom of heaven, he says something that will cause us to reconsider that personal assessment. He says something that most certainly would have gotten his disciples’ attention, even shocked them: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
If you had lived in Jesus’ day, if you had been just one of the common folk of Judea or Galilee, you would have thought that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were the most godly and sanctified of God’s people. You and I would have looked at these religious leaders as the best examples of God’s people, that they would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, that attaining just half of their holiness and obedience to the Law of Moses would be a goal worth attaining.
And it was understandable why people had that mistaken notion. Outwardly the Pharisees and the teachers of the law perfectly kept the commandments of God. They obsessively kept commandments and traditions to the very letter. They were so committed to keeping the Law of Moses that they even made up more applications and rules and regulations that they kept and demanded that others keep all these rules too. So when Jesus told his disciples that their behavior and righteousness needed to surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, they must have been astounded and maybe even discouraged at the futility of trying to attain such a level of perfection and obedience.
But Jesus knew something about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law that his disciples and the common folk didn’t know. These religious leaders were real good at outwardly keeping the commandments and the letter of the law, but inside they didn’t really love God or their neighbor. They were often proud, self-righteous men who were not motivated to keep God’s commandments for the right reason. They were good on the outside but spiritually rotting and dead on the inside.
Jesus’ point to his listeners was that not only were they to obey God’s commandments, but they were to be motivated to keep God’s commandments out of love for God and love for their neighbor. As a matter of fact the whole purpose of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was to teach the Law of Moses and the proper, heartfelt motivation for keeping the Law – love for God and love for your neighbor.
In my Bible Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount goes on for three more pages with many more commands and the proper motivation for keeping those commands. By the end of Jesus’ sermon we certainly do have to ask almost in frustration, “How good do we have to be in order to be a Christian?” The answer is that we have to be very good, really, really good. As a matter of fact on the next page of my Bible Jesus lays down the absolute standard of goodness: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And if you think Jesus’ standard is too high, then remember that he based his words on what the LORD God commanded the people of Israel: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
Well, I missed that standard of perfection and holiness a long time ago. I’m not salty enough. I’m not a bright enough light. I don’t deserve to be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
But I know something else. I also know Jesus did not miss God’s standard of perfection and holiness. He was the perfect Light of the world. And he offered himself as a holy sacrifice on the cross to atone for our sins and failures.
Our sins are all forgiven. Believe that God has forgiven all your sins in Jesus’ name, and he will call you the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He will call you great in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.