In Dying, We Live

Sixth Sunday after Trinity

July 8, 2018

Matthew 5:20–26

Because you haven’t unlawfully taken the life of another person you perhaps don’t realize the power you have. You have power over others to harm them. If you were to actually murder someone your power over them would be evident, having snuffed out their life. By your action they would no longer be living. 

It is because most of us Christians have never done this that we don’t take the Fifth Commandment as seriously as we ought. In the Gospel reading Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ that whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” It stands to reason that if you haven’t murdered anyone then you aren’t liable to judgment. 

But Jesus ups the ante. If you are angry with another person you will be liable to judgment. If you insult someone you will be liable to the council. If you say, “You fool!”, to someone you will be liable to the hell of fire. Suddenly you are shown that the power you have over others extends beyond taking their life when it is not your right to do so. You harm someone when you are angry with them and when you insult them and when you say they are a fool. 

In the eyes of Jesus the Fifth Commandment is bringing harm on your neighbor when it is not your position to do so. The apostle Paul expresses it this way in Romans 13: “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.’” The power you have over others you are to exercise in love toward them, not harm. Just think of how much good you do for others when instead of harming them you love them and are merciful toward them.

If you have hurt someone in thought, word, or deed, make amends. Ask for forgiveness. Love them even if they do not love you in return and even if they harm you. The way Jesus speaks of the Fifth Commandment is not in regard to what others ought to do but what you ought to do. You cannot control how others will treat you but you can take to heart what Jesus says you ought to do. If they harm you, do not respond in kind. If they do not care that you are treating them in kindness, continue to do it anyway.

You will fail of course. Your sinful nature will rise up in retaliation against those who hurt you, even if it’s not doing anything to the person but just a thought of ill-will toward them. As Jesus has upped the ante you have no hope of keeping the Fifth Commandment as God demands of you. Jesus has shown that you are guilty of eternal judgment by even your thoughts toward others every bit as much as those who actually carry out their thoughts in murdering others. What are you to do about this? Has Jesus upped the ante to such a degree that there is no hope for you?

Part of the problem with your sinful nature is that not only does it rise up and get the better of you in harming others in thought, word, and deed, it also takes the words of Jesus and understands them according to itself rather than according to who Jesus is and what He has done. Even Christians fall into this trap, seeing the Sermon on the Mount, where our Gospel reading is taken from, and turning it into merely moral teaching. As if Jesus is just another great teacher, telling us what to do and what not to do. 

But this does not take into account the full picture. If all Jesus is doing is telling you what to do and what not to do, there are plenty of religions or systems of thought that can serve as guides for moral living. And many people think of Christianity in just this way, it is one option among many for living a good life and treating others the way you ought to treat them. 

Is this really what Jesus is doing though? Take a step back from His words in the Sermon on the Mount and see them in light of who He is and what He did. Jesus spoke these words knowing what He had come to do. Certainly He came to teach, and there is no greater teaching anywhere. He preached, He even healed people. Remarkably, He even raised people from the dead. 

Even here, though, Christians will fall into the trap of looking at all of this that Jesus did and apply it to what He will do for you. This great power is yours as well. Jesus will come and make your life better as well. There is great truth here but it’s not the whole story. You know all too well that Jesus making your life better does not mean that He removes all evil from your life. Your life is filled with all kinds of trouble, sickness, trials, and of course you continue to sin. Jesus has not come to be another great teacher or even miracle worker.

Look at the words of Christ again and see that what He tells you to do He has done. Everything He exhorts you to do He has fulfilled in His own words and actions. He endured every thing He spoke of. People spoke ill of Him, they insulted Him, they brought bodily harm on Him, and ultimately, they murdered Him. He was the recipient of evil at the hands of others. And what did He do? He did not respond in kind but in kindness. He responded in forgiveness. He responded by loving those who were harming Him and even unlawfully bringing His life to an end.

Even so, you must not fall into a further trap of seeing even this as one more, and even the greatest, example of how Jesus shows you the way. What He did is an example that you ought to follow. But in Jesus’ eyes, He was not setting an example but rather taking your place. He suffered all of this because of you, because of your sin, because of your failure to keep the Fifth Commandment and every other commandment. If He were just showing you the way He would be no different than any other great teacher of any other religion. No, He was saving you.

He was doing for you what He has commanded you to do in the Gospel reading. Instead of giving you the judgment you deserve, He gives you mercy. He forgives you your sin, He loves you.

What is missed so often when people hear the words of Jesus is that they don’t see that they are bound up in His life, His suffering, His death, and His resurrection. The words He spoke, He lived. It’s much more than He practiced what He preached. He did what you have not and cannot do. He kept the Fifth Commandment and every commandment perfectly. He did this for you. His righteousness is counted as yours. In His suffering and death, He received the eternal judgment due sinners. You receive the opposite, mercy, heaven. His resurrection seals the deal. It ensures that everything Christ has done for you has in fact been done. 

Now go back to the words of Christ and see them in a whole new light. They are not a prescription to live but a description of your life. Not your life of yourself, that is your sinful nature. Your new life. Your life in Christ. Paul in the Epistle reading says that this new life is yours in Baptism. You know what happened in your Baptism? You died. While you are not to unlawfully take the life of another person, or even think ill of that person, you ought to see that there is great good in killing. Not just great good, eternal good. You need to die. You need to be killed. This is not murder though. This is salvation.

Paul says that in Baptism you died with Christ. While He was murdered, you are killed. That is, your sinful flesh is brought to death. This is the work of God. And how does Paul say it? If we have died with Him we believe that we will also live with Him. If we have been united with Him in a death like His we will be united with Him in a resurrection like His. 

You cannot live unless you die. In Baptism you have died. You now live, as Paul says, in newness of life. How do you treat others and love others as you ought, as Jesus has commanded you? You are in Christ. In dying, you live. Who are you to exercise control over others by harming them in thought, word, and deed? That is your sinful nature rising up to control you. Rather, live in your Baptism. Die to your sinful nature, repent of your sin. Live in Christ—in mercy, forgiveness, love, in giving of yourself. In dying to yourself you live. Amen.


Rev. Paul L. Willweber

Lutheran Service Book Lectionary: One-Year, Gospel

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, San Diego, California