"Form Versus Substance"
Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – February 6, 2011
Centenary United Methodist Church
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20
You may have looked at my sermon title and thought, “What in the world is Stetler going to talk about this morning? What an abstract title for a sermon! And this is a communion Sunday no less!” The answer is really not difficult to understand once we realize that Jesus preached on this subject quite often during his ministry.
The writer of Matthew’s Gospel features Jesus stressing the importance of the Laws of Moses. Jesus reminds his listeners that he has not come to do away with the Law nor the teachings of the prophets. What makes this lesson curious and adding a little confusion, however, is the last verse in the section where Jesus is recorded as saying, “You will be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful to the Law and the prophets than the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God asks of you.” (Matt. 5:20)
How can this be? The Teachers of the Law knew with considerable certainty what God required. Historically, the Pharisees were obedient to the Law more faithfully than anyone who ever lived. Jesus was telling his followers that they had become superior to the very best examples of faithfulness to God available in their culture. Again, how are we to understand this?
Jesus’ audiences were made up of people who could not read or write, let alone grasp the intricate, tedious and often complicated Laws of Moses. What Jesus was asking of his people illustrates perfectly the difference between form and substance. The Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees represented the rigid form that Jewish religious practices had become.
I will illustrate the meaning of form from my own experience. Throughout my life, I have come into contact with a variety of Christians who made claims about God’s nature with their faith. A number of these people had the ability to quote the Bible by reciting the book, chapter and verse to defend their beliefs. I was a young man at the time and I have to confess that I was often intimated by such people. I often felt like I was in a court of law being cross-examined by Christians whose beliefs were very different from my own.
I had been told on a number of occasions that I was lost, that I was going to be thrown out into the streets, miss the banquet and be in a dark place where I would gnash my teeth. These Christians were preaching fear so that I would conform to their understanding of what it means to be saved. To me something was very wrong with beliefs that caused Christians to talk more about the Devil, Hell and eternal damnation than about the love that Jesus taught throughout his ministry.
In fact, I used to hope that whatever God had in store for me when I die, it would be in an environment other than where such people were located. They truly knew their scriptures, but their judgment about people who did not believe as they did completely overshadowed any love they once had.
These people were a good example of form. They were like the Pharisees who had the path to salvation firmly in their grasp. They knew exactly what people had to do in order to be saved. When they met me, they were coming into contact with a person who refused to conform to their form of Christianity.
I was a person that trusted God to love me warts and all. I have been at peace about the subject of salvation ever since by allowing God’s love to determine the destiny of all of us and not by the beliefs of people who call themselves Christians. By turning our attention to substance, we will make clear what Jesus was addressing with his last words in our lesson for today.
In one of my former churches, there lived a woman who was involved in every aspect of the life of our church. She was a worker bee who sought out people in need of support. For example, if there was a death or an illness, she would bring the family food she had prepared in her kitchen until they were better able to manage.
In one of my visits to her home, she made a confession. She said, “Dick, I want your opinion on something that has bothered me for years. I have never read the Bible. I keep copies of it all over the house. I have listened to the sermons through the years of the various preachers and I think I understand what Jesus was trying to do during his ministry. How do you think God will treat me when I pass from this life?”
I asked, “Do you mean you have been so busy that you never once found the time to open the Bible?” She said, “No, that’s not the reason. I am ashamed to admit this, but I never went to school when I was a little girl. We were all pretty busy with working the farm. My dad and mother never insisted that I go to school. In those days there weren’t the laws we have today. As a result, I never learned how to read.”
I said, “You are in good company. Only one percent of one percent of the people could read during the time Jesus was teaching and preaching. None of the disciples could read or write. None of them ever read the Bible either.” She said, “Really?” I reminded her that the Bible had not yet been written and further, that she reminded me of one of Jesus’ disciples. I said, “You are legendary in our community for all that you do for others.” She just smiled.
Can we now sense the difference between form and substance? It is one thing to base our goodness on obedience to what Jesus taught, and quite another to live a life of caring and compassion because it is our heart’s desire to do so. According to Jesus, the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees were practitioners of doing the right thing. The Law was their guide. But, Jesus often illustrated how such people, who felt they were more faithful to God than anyone else, had completely missed the mark.
Jesus encouraged his listeners to engage in compassionate living because they could be nothing less when it came to being of service to others. Such people did not need an external guide to light their path. This is what substantive living looks like.
There was an article in Thursday’s Gazette about an accountant, Ian Nash, who is taking off work for eight days to transport supplies to impoverished families living in Nicaragua. Here is a quote from him, “I am not overly religious, but I dropped plans to go skiing with friends in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to become part of this meaningful project.” What is even more intriguing is that his team is comprised of doctors and dentists. Isn’t this story just the best?
I am glad that he considered himself as not being overly religious. He is giving up a ski vacation to help people whose circumstances prevent them from having the opportunities that many of us take for granted. Jesus’ dream was that a time would come when people everywhere would respond to human need like this man.
Many times Jesus found fault with those who followed the letter of the Law but whose attitudes and righteous thought patterns were in a vastly different universe. He scolded them by saying, “You don’t hesitate to tithe everything you possess but you miss such things as mercy, justice and honesty. You clean the outside of your cup and plate, while the inside is full of what you have gotten by violence and selfishness.” (Matthew 23:23-25)
To define form with even more clarity, Jesus said to the Teachers of the Law and Pharisees, “You are like white-washed tombs, which look fine on the outside but are full of bones and decaying corpses on the inside.” (Matthew 23:27) The form and appearance that such people had assumed in Jesus’ eyes does not get any more graphic than that. Now we may understand why Jesus preferred eating with people whom the righteous had labeled as sinners.
What can we take away with us this morning that will help us on our journey in the coming week? We need to understand that we cannot earn our way into heaven by anything we believe or practice. Our salvation is totally in the hands of God regardless of what we have been taught. Some people think we are in charge of our eternal destiny when it is God who is in charge.
Secondly, we have to understand that who we are is not determined by how other people perceive us, but by what is going on inside of us, e.g., our attitudes, our thought patterns and our responses when our world is not the way we want it.
For example, we cannot have a “stage presence” that is patient, loving and kind, and spew forth venomous words when we get home because of what someone did to us. The world is filled with all kinds of people whose values are different from ours. This is why Jesus asked his disciples to go into the world to teach people to change how they think.
Finally, we must learn to treasure our moments of frustration, anger, resentment and anxiety. Let me repeat that. We must learn to treasure our moments of frustration, anger, resentment and anxiety. Why would I say that? Such circumstances are teachable moments in our lives when something in our midst is clearly offering us an opportunity to change how we have always responded. Do we choose frustration or patience? Do we choose anger or peace? Do we choose resentment of others or allow them to be free to be who they are? Do we choose anxiety and worry or are we now able to let go and trust God for the outcome of all things?
When we are working on radiating substantive loving values with our lives, there is only one way to do that. We need to use the abrasives that come into our lives as useful tools that will allow us to polish our own stones. Jesus did not come into our world to give people anything. He came to teach us how to add more value to our lives by learning to develop the qualities that are present in the lives of the angels.
Only by living in the Kingdom could Jesus have faced gross injustice, crucifixion and die with words of forgiveness on his lips. While on the cross, he continued to point with his last ounce of courageous strength, to what the rest of us have the same potential to do when those abrasives come into our lives -- let go and let God.