Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Doing the "right" thing
FAQ – Faithfully Asked Questions, a summer sermon series on questions asked by the children and adults of the church, week 4 of 7
Preached July 4, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
It’s week 4 of our 7-week sermon series, Faithfully Asked Questions, or FAQ where you all chose the sermon topics by submitting questions.
So far, Caitlan responded to the question “Who Is Jesus, really? If he was “fully human” how was he sinless … If he was “fully divine” why didn’t he know some things?”
I responded to the question, “My Yoke is Easy, Jesus? Really? How is it easy to follow Jesus in a world that’s so oriented toward success, money, consumption, and competition, and if it’s so easy, why aren’t more people doing it?”
And John last week responded to “Predestination… why, and what about free will, and what about universalism?”
You can find all three of those worship services and sermons on YouTube. Make sure to like and subscribe to our channel, and share them with your friends.
Today, we have TWO different questions.
The first one, “How does one have faith when so many decisions are being made for political gain, even when flying in the face of what is RIGHT and Christian? I have frequently gone to bat for the RIGHT reason and been defeated or hurt, because others take up alternative views for what is easiest, creates less fuss, or is a gain to them. It is everywhere, small personal side as well as national...”
The second question, “I am always bothered by the different tone and subject matter in the Old vs. New Testament. Jesus’ message in the New Testament sounds so different from the Old (emphasis on war and sex, etc...) How do they fit together?”
We’d better pray…
Let’s first unpack both questions a bit, carefully. I want to show y’all what I think I’m hearing in these questions. Then, I want to show y’all how I feel these questions are connected to one another. Last, we’ll read some verses from scripture and see if Jesus can help us find a fair Christian response to both. Okay?
So, the first question from one of you expresses frustration trying to keep faith when others seem to make decisions not for what is right, but for political gain. The question admits this happens personally as well as nationally or beyond. Maybe you all know someone in your own life or family, someone you like or maybe even love, who justifies saying and doing things that you’ve been taught are wrong, against what we believe God and Jesus and Scripture teach us. Maybe you have seen national leaders who seem willing to do or say anything to get more money or power, whether or not it’s true, whether or not it’s the right thing for the people they serve.
Now, this question has the word RIGHT in it. I’m going to assume that the person asking doesn’t necessarily mean right from left, but means right versus wrong. We know right and left pretty well. As a pastor, I think we need to spend less time being right or left, and need Jesus to remind us over and over again right from wrong.
The second question from one of you expresses a struggle with how the Old Testament seems to have a different tone and to prioritize different topics than the New. Note, I seldom use the term Old Testament. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do not call their scriptures the Old Testament. So you will often hear me refer to it as the Hebrew Bible, or the TaNaKh, for the three parts, the Torah or Law, the Nevi’im or Prophets, and the Ketuvim or Writings. T-N-K, tanakh.
Now, If we believe the God of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus’ scriptures, is the same God we know in, through Jesus in the Greek New Testament, then shouldn’t the messages, the tones, the priorities be similar in both? Shouldn’t the definitions of what is right and what is wrong be consistent from The Torah through the Prophets and Writings, to Jesus, to the Letters of Paul and the early church, even to today?
Do yall see what I think I’m hearing in these two questions? Okay, then let’s move to how I feel these questions are connected. The first question has a sense of what is right and wrong, what is faithful to God and what is not. The second question has a sense we might not be clear on the difference between right and wrong. Even from Jesus’ scriptures to Jesus’ teachings in our scriptures, there seems to be a difference.
Are we sure we know right from wrong? Can we clarify what Jesus believed and taught and practiced as right and wrong from his Scriptures? Can we find Jesus in our Scriptures teaching and practicing those same things? If so, maybe we could verify or correct our assumptions of right and wrong, and alleviate any frustration or confusion between the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. You still with me?
One last thing, before scripture. Did you hear me say, “our assumptions” of right and wrong? Our current definitions of right and wrong might be different than what we hear from Jesus. I assume none of us are Jesus, and therefore all of us have mistakes in how we perceive or practice right from wrong. So as we hear from Jesus his understanding of right and wrong from the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Scriptures, it might hurt a bit. When we hold something, in faith, as essential to our beliefs and understandings of right and wrong, and Jesus challenges that, I ask us to take a breath and remember, we are here professing and hoping Jesus is Lord, not us, and believing Jesus’ definitions of faith, truth, and life are better for all of us than any of our assumptions about right and wrong.
Now, scripture. What to choose? Let’s just go the first Gospel, Matthew, and go the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. There’s a reason those who assemble the our Scriptures put Matthew closed to the Hebrew bible. In Matthew 4, verse 17, Jesus has been baptized, and survived his temptation time in the wilderness. He begins his public ministry like this…
4:17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom...
The starting point of what is right, and good, is the Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. Christians often talk about Good News. What is Jesus’ good news? The Good News according to Jesus is the Kingdom of Heaven. What is the Kingdom of Heaven? It is God’s imagined and preferred and promised way of all created things doing life together. Jesus begins his ministry asking us all to change the ways we do relationships and community, and saying the new way, the good way, God’s way is at hand, near in both distance and time.
Let’s make sure we are together on this. Is the Good News that Jesus died for our sins? That may be covered under the umbrella of Good News, but that isn’t the Good News for Jesus. Is the Good News all who believe go to heaven when they die? We can believe that is also included under the grand plan for God’s community. But that’s not the top-level priority in Jesus’ message. The first, highest, most important, most universal message about what is RIGHT for Jesus is whatever brings into being the Kingdom of Heaven, the community of God for all God’s children. Everything Jesus says and does points all things toward believing and trusting and working toward that beloved community.
How does Jesus imagine that kingdom, that community looks? Well, from Matthew 5, starting at verse 3…
3 “Blessed are the poor ones, by the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the forgiving, for they will be forgiven.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of what is right to God, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This is what Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven, God’s community looks like. In God’s community, the poorest ones are blessed by God’s spirit, not the wealthy. Those who mourn are comforted, not told to be tough and get over it. In God’s community, it’s the meek and humble who lead, not the arrogant and confrontational. In God’s community, it is those who bring peace that inherit leadership, not those who fear and fight. It’s the “pure in heart,” (meaning those who have no deceit or corruption in their motives, words, or actions) who see God, (meaning experience, encounter, understand God.) And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. The word is dikaisune. We get the word Deacon from it. Some translate it as righteousness, or holiness. Others translate it as justice, or compassion. What it really means is what is right to God. Those who hunger and thirst for what is right to God, not to themselves, even if they have to suffer for it from others, they will be satisfied, and they will see, experience God’s kingdom.
Now, is that what the Hebrew scriptures teach? Someone in the crowd that day must have asked Jesus a similar question, because he says later in Matthew 5,
“17 “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). 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will disappear from the law until all (of it) is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, (or) teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; and whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your “dikaisune” (your doing right by God) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never experience the kingdom of heaven.
In other words, the laws of the land and the religion are not enough to build the community of God. The scribes and pharisees knew the scriptures very well, and did their very best to obey them to the letter of the law, and to hold all people accountable to them. They believed they understood the scriptures and were following them. Jesus says the problem isn’t the letters of scripture. All scriptures point to God and God’s community. But those who obeyed them to the letter weren’t even close. Jesus warns the people you have to look beyond the letters of scripture and see the kingdom scripture point to. You have to imagine what holy, just, righteous, fair, merciful, compassionate community looks like. All the law and all the prophets have always pointed to that, and anyone who teaches you something from the law or prophets that falls short of that is misunderstanding it and misusing it.
For the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tries to clarify what is right to God, what the Hebrew scriptures have always said and meant, and how we have misunderstood them. Jesus says things like this…
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; or if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council…
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at (another) with lust has already committed adultery…
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you… if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your shirt as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen…
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; (who) love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so that they may be seen… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray…
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust[g] consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
24 “No one can serve two masters; … You cannot serve God and money
do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness (what is right to God) and all these things will be given to you…
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged… first take the log out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to (help) take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
The most important lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures are about God and the community God wills for all creation. Every other little command or lesson, we can follow them all to the letter of the law, and still not be right. We can have the obedience of the greatest pharisee or know and practice the law better than any lawyer or judge, and still not build the community God wills for us. The Law is good, but its not enough. Its not enough to be a law-abiding citizen. To be right like God wants, we mustn’t defend our smaller or ancient definitions of what Scripture says, but must adopt Jesus’ wider broader vision for a just and loving community. Look for the gap between our “right” and God’s. Right can’t just be what we think or believe is right, even if we’ve been taught it by pastors or lawyers or politicians.
The only right that matters is the dikaisune, what is right to God.
How do we find that right? Well, we listen to Jesus’ definitions and descriptions, and trust them more than our own. We spend more time looking at our own short comings than attacking others. We look for leaders who are gentle, humble, compassionate, who speak the truth, and who prefer peace.
As for the perceived gap between Jesu’s scriptures, the Hebrew Bible, and the Greek New Testament, Jesus promises us, all of it, all of it is true, and points to the great community, the kingdom of heaven.