Sermon: Epiphany 5 RCL B – “Fulfill”

Photo by Travis Grossen on Unsplash

Several years ago, at a passion play, an incident occurred during Jesus carrying the cross. A man in the audience was heckling the character playing Jesus, throwing out jeers, taunts, and dares. Finally, the character could no longer tolerate the heckler; he dropped the cross, went over, and punched out the man. The director was aghast and, after the play, pulled the actor aside and told him in no uncertain terms that he was never to do that again. But the next night, the same heckler was back, and the same thing happened again. Jesus, this time, had to be restrained. The director called the actor in and gave him an ultimatum of quitting or keeping his composure. The young actor assured the director he would keep himself under control. On the third night, the heckler was present again and taunted even stronger than the two previous nights. The man playing Jesus rose to his full stature, gritted his teeth, and told the heckler, “I’ll see you right after the resurrection.”

Today our Gospel reading was from Matthew 5:13-20, and they are a part of the Sermon on the Mount, following immediately after the Beatitudes. Verses 13 through 15 of our reading, which speak of salt and light, make for good sermon material. Verse 20—“For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”—also makes for a good sermon, but verses 16 through 19… those are best left alone. What did they say? 

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

You wouldn’t be the first if you were confused by the meaning of that statement. In fact, it is still up for debate, but perhaps we can come close, and it primarily hinges on our understanding of the word fulfill

When we consider the word fulfill, we might think of fulfilling an order or fulfilling the requirements for something, but to fulfill can also mean “to bring to an end” (Merriam-Webster) or to bring “to its intended meaning.” (Word Biblical Commentary, p.106) When Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, he was saying that he came to bring the Law to its end by fulfilling it as it was intended. When Jesus spoke these words, the fulfillment was a work in process. It would not be completed until the Cross.

It was there, on the Cross, that every letter—every jot and tittle of the Law was fulfilled and completed in the life and teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10) Love fulfills the Law, and there is no greater act of love than Christ giving Himself on the Cross that we might have life in him. It was then and there that the Law was brought to its intended end, but it was also there that you and I were called to a much higher standard because before he departed, Jesus gave us a new commandment so that we might be His true disciples. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Jesus brought the Mosaic Law to its intended meaning, so he did not abolish it; he lived it—every jot and tittle—and He asks us to do the same. Jesus said, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus said, “The Pharisees lived the Law externally—they ‘clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.’ (Matthew 23:25b) The Pharisees were all show, but on the inside, not so good. So if like them, you only give lip service to this new commandment, then you are no better than they are.” 

“No,” says Jesus. “You must fulfill the Law by loving one another as I have loved you. And ‘greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’” (John 15:13) That is the new standard. So… how ya doin’? Is that how you are living your life? Is that the Law you are fulfilling in your life? In answering this, most of us could probably agree with Ernestine, the telephone operator, Lili Tomlin, “If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?” Yet, would Jesus have given us this mandate to love as he loves if it were impossible? And if it is, then why don’t we?

I won’t speak for you, but I will speak for myself. I don’t know how to love like that. I don’t even know if I have it within me, but I also know that’s the devil within giving me an excuse. A way out of applying my body and soul to live in such a way. If I can set aside those excuses, then why? Well, I can give you some philosophical explanation or discuss the heresy of Pelagianism or something along those lines. Still, if I am honest with myself, the answer to why I can’t love as Jesus loves is—deep down inside—I don’t want to. I want to want to, but I also want to live my life according to my rules. There is this war inside of me, and the good guys don’t always win. But… that does not give me permission to stop wanting it. To stop trying. As a disciple of Jesus, I have a standard set for my life, and that standard is Jesus, so He must always be my aim. Regardless of my successes and failures, I must never stop trying.

George Herbert wrote The Country Parson. Included at the beginning was a “Note to the Reader.” Here, Herbert writes, “I have resolved to set down the Form and Character of a true Pastor, that I may have a Mark to aim at: which also I will set as high as I can, since he shoots higher that threatens the Moon, than he that aims at a Tree. Not that I think, if a man do not all which is here expressed, he presently sins, and displeases God, but that it is a good strife to go as far as we can in pleasing of him, who hath done so much for us.” (The Classics of Western Spirituality edition, p.54) We aim for the stars. We aim for Jesus. There will be days when we come close to hitting the stars, and there will be days when—regardless of how hard we try, how many times we’ve been corrected with threats of losing everything,  we will raise our fists and shout, “I’ll see you right after the resurrection.” On those days, the One who fulfilled and completed the Law will fulfill and complete our weak efforts through his grace and mercy. Those are the days when we get back on our feet, confess our sins, and try once more to fulfill the New Commandment to love as Jesus loves.

Let us pray:
God, our Father,
You redeemed us
and made us Your children in Christ.
Through Him, You have saved us from death
and given us Your Divine life of grace.
By becoming more like Jesus on earth,
may we come to share His glory in Heaven.
Give us the peace of Your kingdom,
which this world does not give.
By Your loving care, protect the good You have given us.
Open our eyes to the wonders of Your Love
that we may serve You with a willing heart.

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