The Sermon on the Mount has got to be the greatest sermon ever preached in all of human history. In Matthew’s Gospel it begins with verse one of chapter five and it continues on through the end of chapter seven. Matthew tells us that Jesus sat as He gave this sermon. In that culture, sitting denoted authority, so rabbi’s often sat while giving instruction. Jesus’ sermon begins with the ever famous Beatitudes. It contains the Lord’s Prayer. And it is filled with some beautiful expressions of God’s love, and the concern He has for the conduct or behavior of His children. The Sermon on the Mount basically contains the central doctrine or requirements of Christian discipleship. And it might surprise many to find that it ends with a fairly stern and possibly troubling warning.
The Gospel reading is taken from the very end of chapter seven of Matthew’s Gospel, and as such it is the conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And in His concluding statements Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt.7:21) What a disturbing thought. Apparently Jesus is saying that simply knowing the right things to say, or speaking the correct words of faith will not guarantee one’s admission into heaven. Well, if knowing the right words to say won’t open heaven’s door for us, what about doing the right thing? Will works of faith gain us admission? Jesus says no, not necessarily! He said, “Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name? Then I will declare to them solemnly, I never knew you. Depart from Me!” (Mt.7:22 & 23)
Sobering words! I’m sure that none of us would want to arrive at heaven’s gate and hear Jesus say, “Who are you? I don’t know you.” A scary thought, if spending eternity in heaven is your goal. So in reading those concluding statements of Jesus, two things become abundantly clear. First of all, nothing in this life is more important than our being faithful in doing the will of our heavenly Father. And secondly, by saying, “I never knew you”; Jesus is emphasizing the importance of Him knowing us and of each one of us knowing Him. In other words, our relationship with Jesus, and our fidelity to the will of the Father, is more important than our performance demonstrated by our words and deeds. And that can be a disturbing thought for many.
Obviously, professing one’s faith through words is a good thing. And being involved in genuine works of faith is also a good thing. So the purpose of the Gospel is not to discourage such activity, or to sow seeds of self-doubt and uncertainty. The purpose of the Gospel is to remind us that we must, first and foremost, be faithful to the will of our Heavenly Father while cultivating a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus. Words of faith and religious acts are clearly important, but not as a currency to earn God’s favor. Rather our words and actions are to be an expression of the love that we have for our fellow man and of the love that we have for God.
Fidelity to the Father’s will is therefore important and Jesus left no mystery as to what our Heavenly Father’s will is. Jesus had just completed His lengthy Sermon on the Mount that basically outlines for us the Father’s expectations regarding the conduct of His children. If you summarize those expectations, you find that what the Father desires most is to be loved by His children and to have his children reflect that love in the love that they have for one another. Jesus summarized those thoughts right in the middle of that sermon when He said, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” (Mt. 5:44) “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? Even tax collectors do as much.” (Mt. 5:46)
Later on Jesus made that thought even clearer when He identified the greatest commandment by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37 & 39) He said that this commandment summarized all the commandments and all the advice given to mankind through the prophets. In other words, it is the Father’s will that we live our lives guided by love. Our love of God and our love for our fellow man should be the guiding force in our lives.
As far as cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus, remember Jesus Himself said, “Whoever does the will of my Heavenly Father is brother and sister and mother to Me.” (Mt. 12:50) Love, therefore, is to be the guiding force in our lives. Love is to be the foundation on which we build all of our choices and decisions in life. Because God is Love! Even Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, said that mighty words and mighty deeds are meaningless without love. He said, “If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and, with full knowledge, comprehend all mysteries, if I have faith great enough to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give everything I have to the poor and hand over my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1-3) Paul then goes on to define what love is. But I would like to tell you a story, a true story, that I believe demonstrates the kind of love that our Heavenly Father is asking of us.
In May of 2008 a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck China. The area was devastated. Many buildings were destroyed. It looked like a war zone. About 70,000 people lost their lives. Immediately following this devastating quake, emergency personnel combed through the rubble searching for survivors. During the rescue effort, one of the rescue teams discovered the body of a young woman inside one of the homes that had been destroyed. They found her body by looking through the cracks in the crumbled walls. She appeared to be dead, crushed by the building’s collapsed walls. Her body posture, however, was very strange. She was in a kneeling position. Her entire upper body was bent forward, held up by her two hands that were pressed against the floor. She almost looked like she was performing a ceremonial bow, or was devoutly praying. One member of the team put his hand through a narrow gap on the wall to reach the woman’s body. The cold and stiff body that he touched told him that she most certainly was dead. The team then moved on to search the next collapsed building for any possible survivors. The team leader, however, stayed behind and stuck his hand back through the narrow cracks to search the little space under the dead woman’s body. To his astonishment he found something there and he shouted out, “There is someone here. A child! There is a child here!”
The whole team rushed back and, working together, they carefully removed the piles of rubble from around the dead woman. They found and removed a 3 month old baby boy. He was wrapped comfortably in a little red blanket that was decorated with yellow flowers. He had been lying under his mother’s dead body. Apparently, the woman had made the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to save her son. She obviously had used her body to cover and protect the baby. The little boy was still sleeping peacefully when they picked him up. The rescue team’s doctor worked quickly to examine the little boy. He found that the boy was totally unharmed, obviously shielded by his mother’s body. When the doctor removed the blanket that had been wrapped around the little boy, he found a cell phone tucked away inside the blanket. There was a text message on the cell phone’s screen. The message said, “If you were to survive, you must remember that I love you.” After reading the message, the doctor wept. As the cell phone was passed around, everyone who read the message also wept.
Looking to the scriptures for instructions on what it means to love another can be a little confusing. That’s because the content of our English bibles reflect a translation from the original which was written in Greek. And the true meaning of love, as defined in the Bible, has been corrupted by the limitations of our English language. Basically the bible identifies four different kinds of love. The first would be what the Greek call Eros; what we might call romantic love, or passion or infatuation. The second would be described by the Greek word Storge. This would be the kind of love demonstrated between a parent and a child. The third would be Phileo, or what we would call brotherly love, the kind of love that is shared between really close friends. And the fourth kind of love identified in the bible would be Agape, a selfless, self-giving, sacrificial love. The kind of love that asks nothing in return! A love that would motivate a person to deny themselves on behalf of, or to benefit another! And this Agape type of love is what Our Lord was referring to when He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37 & 39)
This is the type of love that was demonstrated by the content of that text message. This is the kind of love that was shown by that little boy’s mother. This is the kind of love that the Father said should motivate all of the words and deeds of us, His children.
Lent starts this week. Lent provides us with a perfect opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the relationship that we have, or would like to have, with our Lord and Savior Jesus. As I said earlier, a personal relationship with Jesus is only possible by our being faithful to the will of God in our lives. But remember, the will of God is not a formula, or a program. It is a relationship. It is not what you do, but rather it is who you are.
Life presents us with many trials. The purpose of life is far more than just surviving these trials. The purpose of life is to maintain a spirit of selfless, self giving, unconditional love in spite of the trials. Our Heavenly Father provided us with the most perfect example in the life of His Son. The life of Christ revealed to us, not only the Father’s unconditional love but also the reward of eternal life for His children. The life of Christ and the events we remember during Lent and Holy Week proclaims the Father’s love. The message of the Cross is love. It says, do more than just survive. Remember I love you and allow that love to guide your life. The text message that that dying mother left for her infant son is the same message that is proclaimed from the cross. “If you were to survive, you must remember that I love you.” [9th Sunday in OT- A]