by Jason Micheli
Matthew 5.20 (click to see Scripture text)
Scripture concludes with an apocalyptic vision.
St. John, a prisoner on the Roman penal island of Patmos, is taken up to the Kingdom of Heaven and there placed before the throne of God the Father.
And John sees. In the right hand of the Almighty, John spies a scroll “written within and on the back and sealed with seven seals.”
As soon as he sees the scroll, St. John beholds a mighty angel who suddenly proclaims with a thunderous and terrible voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll? Who is worthy to break its seals? Who is worthy for the Kingdom of heaven?”
Just then the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven respond with silence.
No creature replies with any names or nominations.
Not an angel in heaven nor any saint on earth.
Not Gabriel or Michael. Not Moses or Mary or Mother Theresa.
Not the prophet Elijah or Queen Elizabeth.
No one from the past and nobody in the present.
Neither Wayne nor Garth.
Not you— certainly not you; certainly not me.
“No one,” John laments, “in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and look into it.”
John doesn’t specify, but the search for a worthy and righteous candidate to unlock the scroll must’ve been exhaustive and conclusive because John confesses that in the moment of coming up short he broke down.
“I began to weep loudly,” John reports, “because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
No one was found worthy.
No one was righteous enough.
No one had enough enoughness for the Kingdom of heaven.
This semester I’m co-teaching a course on preaching at Duke Divinity School.
Believe me, my students seem as suspicious as you about my qualifications.
I fear it’s like that Woody Allen line: “Those who can’t do teach.”
Anyways, last Sunday morning I flew down to Durham for an intensive week of classes.
Sure enough, no sooner had I set my phone to Airplane Mode than the man seated next to me on the tiny plane asked me the question every professional Christian hates to hear from a stranger.
In fact, I’d just then been praying silently, “Lord Jesus, I know you’re busy in Ukraine and elsewhere, but if you’ve got a second of your omnipotence to spare, please keep this guy from asking about you.”
But, dammit, Jesus has a sense of humor: “So, what do you do?” he asked, looking down at the legal pad and notes and books on my lap.
He was a baby boomer with a bald head and a close-cropped beard and a Tar Heel blue polo stretched over a modest beer belly.
Normally, in such situations I shift into George Constanza mode.
“I’m an architect,” I reply.
“Who me? Oh, I’m a marine biologist,” I’ll say.
But my normal, go-to responses struck me as dangerous fictions to spin on the way to the Research Triangle.
“What are the odds this guy is a marine biologist,” I wondered, “Or married to an architect?”
So I came clean with it: “I’m a…uh…ahem…[cough]…a preacher.”
Immediately I steeled myself to hear how the nuns ruined his faith Catholic School or how he connects with God on the golf course or how he wants to know what happened to all the evangelicals who used to believe that character counts.
Instead he said to me, “I’m not very religious, but I think Christianity boils down to being a nice person and doing good for others. Don’t you think? Don’t you think that’s enough?”
Wow, that’s amazing.
Did you come up with that all on your own? You must have a PhD. How many years did it take to work that out? Hold on, let me ask the stewardess for a pen. I need to write that down. I don’t want to forget it. Now, run that by me again: “It all boils down to being a nice person and doing good for others.” You should do a TED Talk. And here I spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars Joe Biden’s not forgiving on a theological degree when it all just comes down to an episode of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood.
But what I said was— I was thinking of what Jesus says today— “No, it’s not enough.”
I remember, years ago I preached the baccalaureate service for West Potomac High School.
Seeing as how he’s the only young adult so described in the New Testament, I took as my text Jesus’s exchange with the rich, young ruler.
You know the story.
The blue-blooded, honor roll brat asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit the Kingdom of heaven?”
After replying to Jesus that he’s kept all the commandments since his youth— he actually thinks he’s kept them all— Jesus tries to being the well-heeled kid to his knees.
“Go,” Jesus says, “Liquidate all your assets. Empty out the attic. Sell the timeshare. Get rid of it all. Give the money to the poor and then come follow me.”
During the reception in the fellowship hall, the father of one of the graduating seniors approached me nervously.
“Let me get one thing straight, preacher,” he said, smacking cake frosting in his mouth.
“Sure thing,” I said, “What’s on your mind?”
“Jesus only said that to the one guy, right? He only said ‘sell everything you own’ the one time, right? To that one guy? He didn’t, like, say that to everybody did he?”
Here in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus puts us in an even bigger bind, and unlike the rich, young ruler, this time he is speaking to all of us.
If heaven is your hope, Jesus declares, then you need to out scribe the Scribes and beat the Pharisees at their own holiness game.
How’s that working out for you?
And in case there’s any confusion, in the event you mistakenly think Jesus has come to lower the bar for us or to make the law in any way less stringent in its demands upon us, Jesus pivots here in his sermon to the authoritative first person voice.
He started the sermon in the third person, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
Then he shifted to the second person, “You are the light of the world…”
But now it’s “I…”
From God’s lips to your ear.
“I tell you,” Jesus announces, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
Just so you understand what you’re up against, it’s only fair and decent that you know what Jesus’s first listeners knew about the Scribes and the Pharisees.
The Scribes were dedicated to teaching and preaching the law.
They gave their entire lives to the task.
That Jesus had a scroll to preach from in the synagogue is their doing; they copied them down by hand.
The Pharisees meanwhile responded to imperial occupation and temple corruption by living set apart lives in visible obedience to the entire law of God.
Thanks to the Scribes, the Pharisees had calculated that the law contains 248 commands and 365 prohibitions and they set out to obey them all, all of the time.
If you all want to have a prayer in hell of getting into heaven, you’ve got to outdo them, Jesus says at the top of his sermon, There is no hope for you unless you are like them.
Even worse, for you, the Pharisees went beyond the 248 Do’s and 365 Don’ts.
In his Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, Jesus notes how the Pharisee fasts twice a week, which is precisely 103 more times than the law requires.
The Torah commands God’s people to fast only once per year.
Twice a week— you’ve got to be better than that guy!
Otherwise you will no wise enter the Kingdom of heaven.
248 + 365 +1…does that sound like you?
Or, are you closer to the prayer of Thomas Cranmer that we prayed earlier in the service, “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone?”
“I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Earlier this week I met with a young woman— she’s barely out of college— to plan the funeral for her father.
Her mother, his ex-wife, wants nothing to do with the affair.
Mary is a rookie law enforcement officer.
Her Dad, Henry, worshipped at my former parish.
After over a year of aches and pains and doctor visits and elusive diagnoses, a couple of weeks ago Henry learned he had stage four bone cancer.
Only ten days later he died of massive organ failure.
In his last days and in the days since, his twenty-four year old daughter has been left to get the dead where he needs to go and the living where they need to be.
I knew Henry’s face and name.
I knew his youngest daughter, Rachel, was in my son’s class.
But I didn’t know much else about him.
I didn’t know what Mary told me on Tuesday.
After running a successful campaign in his home state of Michigan, Mary told me, her Dad had come to DC to make his living in politics.
And for a time, he was more than six-figures-successful.
But he lost his position at a policy firm during the Great Recession, and in the years that followed he refused to take any job that would pay him less than what he was making before.
He disengaged at home.
He started to drink.
He circled the drain.
And he ran up debts no career comeback could ever settle.
Seven years ago he was discharged from the hospital after a minor illness.
He came home to find his wife finally had made good on her threat to change the locks.
His belongings were on the sidewalk next to old, wet newspapers.
“It was fall, but he lived in his car for the next six months,” Mary told me, blowing her nose, “After that we never did find out where he’d gone. Where he was living. We’d see him every couple of months. He’d come by the house to take us to dinner or the movies. Eventually, it was just the two of us. My sister didn’t want to see him. She’s too young. This version of Dad is the only version of Dad she can remember. Honestly, maybe it is the only version of Dad.”
She wiped her eyes with her fists, a gesture that reminded me she’s barely older than my son.
“His cellphone was unlocked,” she told me, looking at the carpet. “I sat with him at Fairfax Hospital, and while his organs failed, I found his landlord’s phone number. I called it. All these years he’s been living in a tiny room in a house not far from here. He had fewer belongings than bills and letters from debt collectors. The landlord said that none of the people who’ve lived with him the past seven years knew anything about him, ‘probably not even his name.’”
“I’m just so sad,” she said and started to weep.
“Sad that he won’t be able to walk you down the aisle? Sad that he won’t meet his grandchildren? Sad that he’ll miss those sorts of moments?
“No. Well, yes. But no. No, I’m sad that this is the balance of his life. His life didn’t amount to anything but pride and shame and loneliness and— gosh— so much debt and even more regret.”
Now I’m hardly a perfect pastor, but even I sensed she hadn’t said what she really wanted to say so I waited and I kept my mouth shut.
Then she spoke: “I tell people, ‘At least he was a good father.”
And her breathing grew shallow as she fought off the tears.
“I tell people, ‘At least he was a good father, but not even that is true. He wasn’t. Isn’t. He only let me in at the end because, in the end, he had no one to be with him for the end.”
I stared at the soberness of her.
“I’m really just sad that he had nothing to his credit.”
“That’s not true,” I said.
And she looked at me and shook her head.
“No, it’s true. He wasn’t even a good father.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, “I meant it’s not true that your Dad had nothing to his credit.”
“What the lousy car he was apparently driving for Uber?”
“No,” I said, “faith— whatever else you can say about him, your Dad had faith. I know that much about him. People with no faith don’t weep when they come to the table with hungry hands and hear, ‘The Body of Christ broken for you.’ I remember your Dad cried just about every time I put Christ in his mouth and in his ear. That’s faith. He had faith.”
“That’s something, I guess.”
“No,” I said, “That’s everything.”
One of the principles of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is the conviction that scripture interprets scripture; that is, we should hear Christ’s declaration about righteousness in light of the prophet Isaiah who testifies that “all our righteous deeds are no better than filthy rags.”
We should interpret the Sermon on the Mount in light of the Apostle Paul who writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…there is no distinction among any of us…none are righteous…no, not one.”
In other words, when Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, he’s saying, Good luck with that. If you think you’re going to enter the Kingdom on the basis of your righteousness, I’ve got a camel and a needle to sell you too.
Which means, by the way, the Sermon on the Mount is not a program by which we earn salvation or accrue any meaningful righteousness.
Scripture interprets scripture.
And the scripture that unlocks Matthew 5.20 is Romans 1.16-17:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
This could not be more important so I’m going to make it plain.
The very definition of righteousness and our ability to access it changes at the cross.
At the cross, the meaning of righteousness changes from how even Christ uses the word in his Sermon on the Mount.
On the cross, it’s not just Jesus who dies so too do all our a priori definitions of righteousness.
No longer does righteousness refer to the active righteousness of doing the law and obeying the commandments, accruing merit and growing in holiness.
Now, because of the cross, righteousness refers to the passive righteousness of faith.
Faith receives a righteousness that is given freely in the gospel word of the cross. Jesus Christ died for you, a sinner.
Grasp ahold of that promise by faith— Sunday after Sunday, moment by moment, in word and wine and bread— and in it you receive a righteousness that far exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, the righteousness of Christ Jesus our Lord.
The gospel is a merciful surprise whereby God works in grace and power from the nothingness of human capacity and worth.
The gospel does not promise the possible.
The gospel delivers the impossible.
The gospel gives what the law demands.
To you, right now, just sitting there hearing it, half paying attention maybe, for free, by faith— the merciful surprise is that the gospel gives you, gratis, what the law demands.
As Martin Luther put it,
“God accepts no one except the abandoned, makes no one healthy except the sick, gives no one sight except the blind, brings no one life except the dead, and makes no one righteous except sinners.”
Walking out of my office, she asked, “Do you think you’ll have anything to say at his service, anything to say for someone like him?”
“If I don’t have anything to say for him, then there’s no hope for any of the rest of us because that would mean the gospel is not true.”
She nodded. Then she stopped in the hallway, turned to look at me and said, “Random question: Do you think there are bad people in heaven?”
I smiled and said, “You must not have been paying attention in confirmation. There are no good people in heaven; or rather, there is one.”
“Then I saw by the throne of heaven,” St. John reports, “a Lamb standing as if it had been butchered…and suddenly the whole company of heaven began to sing a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals…”
The man sitting next to me in 21D looked askance when I answered him, “No, it’s not enough.”
“You don’t seem particularly pastoral,” he said.
“Look,” I replied, “There’s nothing wrong with being a nice person and doing good for others. I’m all in favor of it. Some days my wife might even say I’m a nice person and do good for others. There’s nothing wrong with a message like that; it’s just not message for which Jesus Christ had to die. If Christianity is reducible to the Golden Rule, Christianity has no need for the one who taught the Golden Rule.”
“Are you this aggressive in all your opinions,” he asked.
“Hardly ever,” I lied.
“Look,” I said and turned towards him in the narrow coach seat, “Jesus Christ died for the whole world— that means you. Whether you want to trust it or not is your business. You’re free to live your life. What you can’t do is turn the message into something it’s not. The gospel is “Christ and him crucified” not humanity and it improved.
I saw him turn the words with their odd locution over in his mouth, Christ and him crucified.
“I’m not sure I understand what that means.”
“It means Christianity is not primarily a mandate to be good and do good. Christianity is a promise there is mercy and absolution for you when you have failed to be good and do good.”
“If that’s true,” he laughed, “then you’re never going out of business. Christianity will never disappear because people are never going to stop being failures to others and disappointments to themselves.”
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul writes, “for it is the power of God.”
The gospel is God’s word.
It’s a word God’s given to say to you.
Whether you think you need this word or want this word or might benefit from this word, does not matter at all in the first place.
It’s the power of God; that is, it’s a word God wants spoken to you.
Just as when God said ‘Let there be light’ God didn’t first consult the darkness to ask if the darkness thought it needed the light; likewise, God hasn’t bothered asking your opinion first.
God’s not interested in your own self-assessment of your needs.
God just wants to spring this merciful surprise on you.
So hear the good news, this word God wants said to you, this little word in which Christ wraps himself as a gift for you.
From God’s lips to your ears today:
On account of Jesus Christ, you are more than forgiven.
You are righteous.
You are justified.
You are enough.
For the life to come.
And if the life to come, then certainly you’re enough for this life.
More than enough even.
Receive this word in faith and you have everything.
20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
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