Sunday, 13 February 2011

Living by the Heart

Matthew 5:21-37
The gospel for today is part of ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, which in its entirety takes up all of chapters 5, 6, & 7 of Matthew’s gospel. We heard some of the sermon last week, and we’ll hear more of it next week and on into March. For disciples of Jesus, I think the Sermon on the Mount should be read repeatedly - marked, learned and inwardly digested. In the section we heard this morning from chapter 5, verses 21-37, Jesus ‘expounds’ the law; in other words, Jesus looks at some of the Ten Commandments and develops them further – he affirms the law, and goes beyond it. “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not murder’, but I tell you that anyone who is angry will be subject to judgment”. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, but I tell you that anyone who lusts has already committed adultery”. “Again, you have heard that it was said ‘do not break your oath’, but I tell you, do not swear an oath at all”.

Jesus is really challenging us here in this passage to true integrity, goodness and compassion in dealing with anger, lust, adultery, divorce and making promises. By this passage, Jesus shows us the level of purity that is found in God. When we hear these words, we all recognise our shortcomings. How can any of us mere mortals possibly live up to these high standards? We can only hope to come close to this level of purity if we live from the heart rather than from our self-promoting ego. This is what’s important to God – love, faithfulness, loyalty and reconciliation. And this is what true discipleship looks like.

The heart is the place where obedience and righteousness are made possible; and the heart is the only place from which Christ-like grace and compassion can flow. Righteousness is not just about following laws imposed upon us from the outside – it’s about what happens in the heart. Christ’s challenge is to refuse to allow ourselves to live only by the letter of the law, but to go beyond the law to living from the heart – serving, seeking justice, offering welcome and compassion, protecting the vulnerable and preserving our rich ecological heritage on the planet. To adopt Christ’s heart-driven life is sometimes painful and difficult. But it will open the door to life for us and for others.

When we speak of ‘the heart’, it’s the heart that seeks God’s will – it’s the heart that listens to God’s Spirit living within him or her. The opposite of living ‘by the heart’ is living by the ego. The ego is the selfish part of our self, the part that wants to be the centre of the universe and wants to control things out of fear and pride; the part that doesn’t think too deeply about the effects our thoughts or actions have on other people or on the created world. The ego is the veil that keeps us from seeing God’s vision for the world and for ourselves and other people, and keeps us from fully living, loving and serving. The ego-self edges God out, it edges inspiration out; it inhibits growth. The ego state of mind brings discontentment and fear and a continual desire for the next, newer, or younger thing. It ultimately leads to our unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

In Luke 9:23-24 Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” We all have an ego-self, and would benefit us to be aware of this. But as disciples of Christ, not only do we want to be aware of our ego, we also hope that through that awareness, and through prayer and obedience, our ego will become less significant in influence (i.e. we will decrease), and the influence of God’s Spirit in our heart will become more significant (he will increase). That’s what is meant by ‘dying to self’ - dying to self means determining to live for Christ rather than for our self. And this is a daily battle. In his 1st letter to the Corinthians [15:31], St. Paul writes, "I die daily." Paul, a veteran apostle who witnessed many miracles and had a revelation of Christ, still had to personally die to his own selfish desires. We do too, daily.

The Christian life must be based on a humble heart. When we’re willing to humble ourselves through a realistic awareness of our ego’s self-serving influence, then we’re able to make progress on the narrow path that leads to life. It’s a choice that we have to make in every moment – will we experience life, perceive our self, and engage with the world from the heart or from the ego? That choice determines how clearly God’s pure values of love, faithfulness, loyalty and reconciliation will be reflected in our life.

This living from the heart takes far more work, and far more awareness than legalism. It requires us to allow God to constantly challenge our attitudes and convictions, to constantly transform our feelings and reactions and to constantly call us to a higher standard. In this way of living we cannot sit back and rest in the future guarantee of heaven. We are called to work to be citizens of heaven now, and to actively bring heaven into our world and into our lives through submitting to God’s gracious guidance. If we’re courageous enough to embark on the journey of heart-driven living, we will discover a richness and a fullness to life, a deeper connectedness and a more gracious way of relating and living together.

Whenever we interact with family, friends, neighbours and strangers, with those who are safe and those who are not, may we live by heart. When we deal with those who help us and those who challenge us, with the poor and with the wealthy, may we live by heart. With those in our care, or with those in authority over us, may we live by heart. Whenever we eat, spend, drive, use or enjoy anything that this world has gifted us, may we live by heart. May we refuse to settle for simply doing what the law requires, giving ourselves instead to live from hearts that are captured by God’s Spirit. And through our daily living by heart may the heart of our world be positively transformed. Amen.

(with thanks to John van de Laars at Sacredise)

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