The Wholeness of Life
A sermon on Mathew 5:21-37; Deut. 30:15-20; 1 Cor. 3:1-9
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
So, let’s just name the elephant in the room: These are not the texts that I would have chosen for a baptism Sunday. Dire warnings of judgement, death, and curses, not to mention the colorful instructions about what to do with our eyes or our hands if they cause us to sin… they don’t really go that well with an adorable baby and lots of visitors in worship.
Nevertheless, uncomfortable as these readings may make me or you, I’m still glad that we are a church that uses the lectionary to determine our weekly readings. I’m glad because there is an invitation in these readings-that-we-would-probably-never-use-if-it-were-up-to-us… an invitation to push past our initial discomfort to find a teaching that is actually profoundly life-giving.
They are life-giving because they help us to see that life might mean more than we think.
In our first reading, Moses charges the people of God to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19b). Taken out of context, it sounds like an absurd instruction. Absent circumstances of intense suffering or extreme depression, wouldn’t everyone choose life? Why is this something that needs to be exhorted?
But in reality it isn’t that simple. In the fullness of what it means to truly choose life, choosing life is much harder than it sounds. Consider this series of questions that theologian Fredrick Buechner poses, in his mini-essay on “life”:
“Have you wept at anything during the past year?
Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?
Have you thought seriously about the fact that someday you are going to die?
More often than not, do you really listen when other people are speaking to you instead of just waiting for your turn to speak?
Is there anybody you know in whose place, if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer yourself?
If your answer to all or most of these questions is NO, the chances are that you’re dead.”
It sounds extreme, but I think the point Buechner is making is that life is about much more than just physically breathing and walking around. Life is deep awareness, and transformative interconnectedness. Life is something we have to practice, with intentionality, and with the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to beauty, to pain, and most of all to other people.
This understanding that choosing life means choosing to engage with the world and with others in a vulnerable and connected way gets us part of the way to the life-giving teaching of today’s readings, but we can still run into problems because of how we tend to think about choosing. Focused as our culture is on personal choices – on the individual priority of controlling our own destiny – we hear a command to “choose life” as an instruction to which each separate person must respond for themselves. And we probably hear Jesus’ instructions on ethical topics in the Sermon on the Mount in the same way: as a moral checklist being presented to each of us, individually, as requirements to fulfill in order to avoid judgement.
But Moses was talking to the people as a whole – not to a collection of individuals. And Jesus was describing the wholeness of the life that God wants for us, not a prescription for individual righteousness.
This more communal vision of the Sermon on the Mount would be clearer if we had read to the end of the chapter. After his extended teaching about the heart of God’s law that goes so much deeper than what “you have heard it was said,” Jesus concludes by saying:
“Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matt. 5:48, CEB).
This conclusion makes two things clear:
First, Jesus is proposing an impossible standard of righteousness. None of us can love everyone with the completeness of God’s love. So, if his teaching was really about a checklist for avoiding judgement, we would all be doomed.
But, second, Jesus is telling us that all of his ethical guidance is really about completeness in showing love; it’s about a wholeness that can only, ever happen when our whole orientation toward life shifts, and our way of interacting with others is reshaped by the unfailing love of God.
Jesus isn’t telling us that we are doomed because we aren’t perfect. He’s describing for us God’s vision for what perfect, love-formed relationships look like, and then telling us that this is what our loving God wants for us: completeness in showing love!
Choosing life is not about individual ethical righteousness; it’s about the wholeness that we experience in a community formed by the completeness of God’s of love flowing through us to each other.
Moses’s call to choose life is a call to live according to God’s law for the good of the community.
Jesus’ amplification of the meaning of that law is a description of what it looks like to practice love in community.
And – in a few minutes – when I welcome Parker into the waters of baptism, I (and all of us) will be welcoming him into a beloved community.
Because Parker’s baptism is not just about him. It’s not a purely individual event. Baptism happens in the midst of our Sunday worship because it is part of our life together as a community. It is by participating in a community called and shaped by the love of God that we all learn how to choose life. That we learn how to love others with the wholeness, the completeness of God’s love for us. The ethical challenges are all just examples of what is at the heart of life: the wholeness that we experience when we love others as ourselves.
That life of love is a gift of God.
That life of love is also how we come to know God.
When I met with Ryan and Toni for the pre-baptism class a few weeks ago, I asked them why they wanted Parker to be baptized. Among the faithful and thoughtful answers that they gave to that question, Ryan said that he wanted to “introduce Parker to God” as the first step on his journey of faith.
Well, uncomfortable as today’s gospel reading is to hear, I think it actually does offer a powerful and beautiful introduction to God. My favorite biblical commentator, Debie Thomas offers this explanation of how the instructions in today’s gospel actually give us insight into who God is:
“If we read Jesus’ words about murder, anger, reconciliation, adultery, lust, divorce, and oath-making in this more communal context – if we read them as instructions given in the hope of building and sustaining a community that is both blessed and commissioned to bless – what version of God might emerge?”
She goes on to answer that question: “I think the version that emerges is of a God who cares profoundly about human dignity. A God who takes our relationships with each other very seriously, and wants us to treat each other – not with a bare minimum of civility and morality – but with the deepest respect, integrity, and love.”
Our God is a God who wants us to have LIFE. A God who wants us to live in the wholeness of LOVE. This is the God who claims Parker today, and this is the God who claims us all. Claims us and calls us to practice the wholeness of God’s love in the way we love each other.
Thanks be to God.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, New York: Harper Collins, 1993, p. 61-62.