A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Sally Sandford Morgan, on the 19th February 2023
Matthew 5: 38-48
What makes one person different from another? What makes me, me and you, you? Any biologists amongst you would say that it depends on the chemical construction of our DNA, because that gives us our inheritable traits and these make us who we are even before we are born. Those with a psychology background might say that we become who we are by our experiences and the surroundings that we grow up in. The contrast between these two areas of influence on who we are is sometimes referred to as the nature verses nurture debate, but really it is neither one nor the other but a combination of the two. We cannot change our genetic makeup but we do have some influence over what we encounter and how we react.
Rowan Williams tackles the question of what makes each person a unique individual in his book “Being Human”. He says, “a person… is the point at which relationships intersect, where a difference may be made and new relations created.” As these relationships grow, fade or change we are also changed. It is our relationships with other people that can change and therefore change us; however, as Christians we have a foundational and primary relationship with God, which in essence does not change, he is always there for us, loves us unconditionally, and wants the best both for us, and of us.
Over the last four weeks, the Sunday Gospel readings have all come from Chapter 5 in the Gospel of Matthew, which contains the first part of a lengthy address given by Jesus to his disciples, which is commonly referred to as ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’ After beginning with the beatitudes, Jesus quickly moves into descriptions of desirable traits and characteristics for human beings, and particularly for those people that choose to be his disciples. Many of these involve instructions on how people should interact and therefore form relationships with one another, and if these are taken onboard by people, according to Williams’ definition of a person, this will then help the individual to develop their own characteristics or qualities in a positive way, and become a better person.
Today’s small section of the Sermon on the Mount concerns two of the ways that we interact with and form relationships with one another, and like so much of Jesus’ teaching, they provide instructions on how to be a better disciple, and are based on love for our neighbours. The first involves responding to acts of aggression with acts of kindness.
The reading begins with a quote from the Old Testament that says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This quote originates from an ancient system in operation 1750 years before Christ was born and is a part of the Code of Hammurabi. In this code, those who have been hurt by someone else were told to make their retribution match their own injury, so for example if a man broke another man’s leg, then his leg would also be broken in the same way. This code which sounds barbaric to us, was established at the time, to keep acts of vengeance under some kind of control. In Old Testament times this was altered, and people were encouraged to take others to court so that someone outside of the situation could make unbiased judgements about punishments, instead of people seeking retribution by themselves. Jesus opposed any sort of revenge or retribution and encouraged his followers not to stoop to the level of an aggressor and repay evil with evil. He is hoping that people will depend on God for justice. He goes even further by encouraging people to answer evil actions with good actions, and an example of these good actions is when retribution is replaced with forgiveness and generosity.
Jesus then goes on to tell the disciples to turn the other cheek, offer a coat as well when someone is suing you for your shirt, walk an extra mile possibly carrying a heavy load, and to give generously to anyone who wants to borrow from you. These were radically different from the Jewish teachings at the time but reflect the mercy and grace that Christ showed to his enemies when he was confronted with insults, injuries, theft and ultimately death on the cross.
Most of us are fortunate and don’t face these kinds of challenges in our lives, so how can this relate to us? I have seen evidence of this when people offer assistance, perhaps in the form of food, to those who are struggling, and for whatever reason the person responds negatively with insults or perhaps doesn’t show what we consider might be the appropriate appreciation. However, the person offering assistance continues to help and reach out to that person, with no expectation of anything in return. When this happens, this person is acting as the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and this is something that we can all aspire to. When we interact with others in this way, we are developing new relationships and enabling ourselves to grow and develop as people in positive Christ-like ways.
The second way that Jesus taught his disciples to interact with others was to love their enemies. He begins once more by quoting from Old Testament themes regarding loving one’s neighbours and fighting against one’s enemies. The thought of loving one’s enemies was another radical suggestion as there was no equivalent statement in Jewish literature. This generous and warm reaching out to one’s enemies reinforces the ideas previously taught by Jesus of treating others with kindness even though they haven’t treated you in a similar way. This was relevant to Jesus and his disciples as they were experiencing hatred from other groups in their society and was also very appropriate for first century Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. We are fortunate that we don’t have to contend with the same levels of hatred as this, but the increasingly secular nature of our own society will mean that we can sometimes be subjected to ridicule or insults.
Jesus continues to explain that this love for others should be extended to all people, not just our neighbours and our enemies, but everyone, and that all people have the same relationship with their heavenly father and therefore the same kind of reverence or attention is due to all of them. Rowan Williams explains the inclusive nature of this love by saying, “We can never say, that such and such a person has the full set of required characteristics for being a human person and therefore deserves our respect, and that such and such another individual doesn’t have the full set and therefore doesn’t. This is of course why Christians worry about those kinds of human beings who may not tick all the boxes but whom we still believe to be worthy of respect whether it is those not yet born, those severely disabled, those dying, those in various ways marginal and forgotten.”
As followers of Christ, we know that there are people in our own society who are in need of more love and attention than they currently receive, and it is up to us to do what we can to extend our collective love for others beyond the walls of this building. Once more, it is possible to see how we can develop and grow as a person when we interact with others to show that we respect and care about them.
When God made human beings, he made us all in his image and we are all loved by him. Each and every person that has existed, and will exist, in the world is loved by God, whether they love him or not. In today’s passage from Matthew, we are reminded that all people are blessed equally when the sun shines or when it rains. God does not treat his followers and those that reject him any differently. He does not distinguish between people, and neither should we. Every person has a relationship with God before they have relationships with one another and therefore when we look at our neighbours, we cannot make decisions or judgements about them and their relationships with us, because their primary relationship is not with us, but with God. Every person deserves respect and to be treated with dignity because they are all unconditionally and perfectly loved by our heavenly father.
As we begin the season of Lent next week, I would like to recommend that you make the time to read the whole Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5,6 and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel. You may like to reflect and absorb these words of Jesus and think about how they can open new possibilities for either new ways of interacting with those around you, or by seeking out completely new interactions. You may like to try doing something new, like joining a Lent study group, or coming along to the Midday prayers when they are on, or taking part in a weekday 7.30 Holy Eucharist service. These are just a few of the things on offer here that you can do that will enable you to build new relationships and therefore expand your horizons and enrich your own sense of being who you are.
When our physical bodies were created we were given a set of generally unchangeable parts that characterise our appearance. However, there is much more than this to what makes us all individuals. How we interact and react to those around us helps to define the type of person that we are, and gives us our individual personalities. As Christians, our foundational relationship is with God, and this is an important part of who we are, and when we access Scriptures, like the Sermon on the Mount, we are offered guidance and direction in becoming the people that we wish to be.
The Lord be with you.
 Rowan Williams, Being Human (London: SPCK, 2018), 32.
 Exodus 22:24
 Leviticus 19:18 and Psalm 139: 21-22.
 Rowan Williams, Being Human (London: SPCK, 2018), 32-33.