"Which Is It:  Obedience or Grace?"

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – February 9, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 112:1-10; Matthew 5:13-20


    One of the most confusing comments Jesus ever made is mentioned in our lesson this morning.  Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Laws of Moses and the teachings of the prophets.  As long as heaven and earth last, neither the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be diminished.”  (Matthew 5:17f)

    Some scholars claim that Jesus never said this, citing the number of times that Jesus broke the Laws of Moses.  Jesus healed on the Sabbath and was criticized for it by the high priest.  (Luke 13:10f).  Jesus was crucified by claiming that “The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30)  This claim was considered blasphemy by the religious authorities and their accusation was the primary reason why Jesus was crucified.  

    Other scholars suggest that because Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, the author put these words into Jesus’ mouth to expand the comfort levels of the Jews that would be reading it. However, as exacting as Biblical scholarship tries to be, it may have missed the point Jesus was making.  

    Jesus’ mission had nothing to do with taking anything away from his people. By making his comment, Jesus was neither validating nor invalidating the Laws of Moses.  These laws are still with us and will be around until the end of time.  Jesus wanted to give his people a new framework by which they could better understand their lives.

    In our lesson this morning Jesus told his listening audience that they were like the change agents of salt and light.  Jesus may not have known anyone in the large crowd he was addressing so his words apply to all of us.  No laws needed to be obeyed and no beliefs were necessary.  He told them that each had the potential to show up in every circumstance and change the quality of the experience. 

    What can we take from this lesson this morning?  Does it ever dawn on us that we devote ourselves to one hour a week for thinking about the various implications of having God entwined in our lives?   The rest of the week we are constantly bombarded by teachers that attempt to guide our thinking that we need an array of goods and services in order to experience a better quality of life.

    For example, all the entertaining Super Bowl commercials were geared to get us to buy something.  This is the mission statement of advertising.  These often humorous moments teach us how we can become more attractive, more peaceful, more sexually alive during our moments of intimacy and healthier by purchasing certain products.

    After listening to all the rapidly spoken verbal fine print, the statement comes, “Ask your doctor if our product is right for you.”  The melodic sounding medications are attractive:  Avadart, Toviaz, Spiriva, Abilify, Restatis, Viagra, Cialis, Plavix, Omnaris, Chantix, Lyrica and Boniva.  Don’t you want to run out and buy a bushel of each of these?

    Each year the list of these medications grows due to our hunger to control threatening symptoms.  These ads are accompanied by highly energized, smiling people that have had their lives transformed by medications.  Even when we know these roles are being played by actors, the invitation to become like them has been put into our minds and emotions.

    In addition, we have visual images that demonstrate the remarkable results from facial lifestyle lifts, wrinkle creams, shampoos that work miracles with unruly hair and a program created by doctors that have helped a 74-year old physician to look like a 21-year old body-builder.  Here is a truth you can take home with you today -- you can take a bath in Oil of Olay and you are still going to age.  

    Do you know how the message of Jesus competes with such powerful, slick advertisers?  None of the products that bombard us daily will improve the spirit by which we live.  None of them can brighten attitudes that were years in the making, help us stretch in our character development or improve the quality of the spirits that guide our thinking and emotional responses.  

    What Jesus taught was that obedience to the Law requires a different motivation from the one that seeks to change our world because we want to.  This is why Jesus said, “To enter the Kingdom of God, people will have to be more faithful to how God created them than to the practices of the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.”  (Matthew 5:20)

    It was very difficult for Jesus to preach his message when everyone in his culture for hundreds of years had been steeped in their tradition of remaining obedient to the Laws of Moses.  Today, it is equally difficult to hear his message because we have been taught for generations that we have free will.  People in our society routinely set laws aside and feel no guilt until they are caught.  We can even become model citizens that reflect the words of Psalm 112 and miss completely what Jesus was teaching.  Here is an example.

    Tim Mathers was a model citizen in every respect.  Religion remained a mystery to him and he had little desire to pursue it.  He had no idea what drew people to their churches Sunday after Sunday looking at the backs of other people’s heads while listening to a message being preached that may or may not have any meaning to him.  He enjoyed quoting Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”  Tim had learned the rules of how to succeed in life and he did well.

    When he saw a need in his community, he was the first in line to volunteer.  His values were above reproach.  In fact, his character strengths exceeded most of the social creeds found among various Christian denominations.  He had flawless people-skills that allowed him to be at home among millionaires and street people.  His personality endeared him to everyone.  If people spent any time with Tim, by the end of the day, it was as though they had known him all their lives.

    One day, an impaired driver drove through an intersection and hit Tim’s car at a high rate of speed.  Tim’s car flipped over several times, pinning him inside.  The ambulance was on the scene within a matter of minutes.  Somewhere between tearing the car open and removing his body by the rescue team, Tim’s heart stopped beating.  The responding Emergency Medical Technicians had a window of 4 minutes to get him breathing again.  After delivering two shocks with their defibrillator, his heart rhythm was restored.

    Some weeks later while recovering from his injuries in a North Carolina hospital, Tim wrote the following:

The year 2010 must be declared my birthday.  No one can imagine what it is like to have no religious beliefs or background and then suddenly to be confronted with a reality that was beyond what my imagination could comprehend or describe.


I stood at the scene of the accident and watched as the paramedics extracted my body from the wreckage of my car.  They put pants on me that were immediately inflated. Blood was everywhere. The men and women were shouting directives at each other to start IVs and apply pressure where they could. I watched them tear open my shirt to use a defibrillator.   


Clearly I had died and yet there I was, able to watch everything.  As I write this, I have no idea why I was experiencing this privilege.  What would have happened had the paramedics failed to resuscitate me?  Where would I have gone?  I am fascinated.  What I know is that my life will never be the same as it was. A new dimension has presented itself that tells me that there is more going on with human life than most people think. I will be pondering the implications of my experience for the rest of my life.

    Think about this.   How could Jesus teach his people that this invisible spirit living inside of their bodies has the power to change their world?  People were doing their best to obey God’s laws.  Without denouncing anything his people held sacred, Jesus began to teach that it was possible to let God’s love shine through their bodies. 

    Tim Mathers had already achieved a living pattern that had produced excellent results. Tim was a wonderful man that demonstrated his successes at everything he wanted to do.  He became overwhelmed by a mysterious dimension to his life about which he knew nothing.   In spite of his marvelous journey through 2010, he declared that year to be the birthday of his spiritual awakening.  A piece must have been missing for him to write how his life had been transformed by the experience. 

    Think of all the high profile people that have been in the news recently.  These people could have anything this world has to offer.  We wonder what causes some teenage idols to make a train wreck out of their lives.  What causes a much loved father of three and an outstanding actor to be found deceased in his New York apartment with a heroin syringe still hanging from his arm?

    Jesus had the answer then and he has the answer now.  When people search for something that is missing in their lives by using pills, consuming large amounts of alcohol or using marijuana or any of its cousins, Jesus cannot break through.  Why is Jesus powerless in these circumstances?  The answer is that God has designed us to communicate our healing energies only when we choose to do so. 

    There is no human law that demands this response.  However, for people that seek fulfillment and happiness from their external world, there is another law of spirit that offers different guidance.  It says, “The only path to sustained peace, prosperity and happiness lies within us.  Nothing else works.”  The moment we voluntarily open that door, an entirely different world becomes available to us.