Following the Rules?

A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at

Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, February 9th 2020

Matthew 5: 13-20

In last week’s sermon I started with the Sermon on the Mount and with the beatitudes – its best-known bit. Jesus then went on to say, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ (5:17-19)

So, there you have it. If we are to be like a lamp on a stand which gives light to a whole house, says Jesus, and if we let our light ‘shine before others, so that they may see … [our] good works and give glory to … [our] Father in heaven’ (5:16), we need to both do and teach the whole of the law. How on earth are we going to do that? Who’s up for being so good at keeping and teaching the law that ‘your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees’?

If fulfilling the law involves keeping all the rules and regulations of the biblical Old Testament then I’m sunk, and so is any church that I’ve ever come across. Besides, churches already have a bad enough (if somewhat undeserved) reputation for telling people to follow rules we make up, but which we fail to follow ourselves. So who are we to think that we can take on the whole of biblical law and keep it? Those legal and religious professionals in Jesus’s time, the scribes and the Pharisees, never managed it, so why should we?

Is being a Christian about knowing and following the rules? A few years ago, a poll of UK Christians revealed that most of them could not remember all ten of the ten commandments. This prompted the public atheist and campaigner, Richard Dawkins to trumpet the imminent end of Christian faith in Britain. If you couldn’t remember the most basic rules of the religion, he argued, you couldn’t be a believer. As it turned out, though, when he himself was interviewed, although a biologist, he couldn’t remember the wording of the full title of Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, yet no one was suggesting this meant he didn’t believe in evolution.

So, then, is it ok to be a Christian despite not knowing or following the rules? That sounds a bit strange, in fact unbelievable. Ok, so Richard Dawkins wasn’t word-perfect concerning a book called, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, but he knew there was such a book, he had heard of the author, and he accepts in general terms the theory of evolution pioneered by Charles Darwin. If he had not known the book or author existed that would have been another story. As with Richard Dawkins and evolutionary biology, so with Christians and our religion: we’re not required to know every detail, but we do have to have some acquaintanceship with it.

And, as it happens, we do know something about the content of our faith, even if we’re not confident about every detail. We had a good example of that a couple of Thursday nights ago in this very congregation. This happened when we kicked off our study series about women of the Bible, with the story of the woman who anointed Jesus.

We divided into four groups to talk about what we remembered about that story. We remembered lots, though sometimes we remembered differently. We were aware that there were things that we maybe once knew but just couldn’t quite recall. Then each group was given the text of the biblical story, one as it was told by Mark, one by Matthew, one by Luke, and one by John. Now we discovered that the different Gospel writers supply different parts of the story we “remember”, and sometimes they seem hazy on detail. Did this event occur in the house of Lazarus or Simon (who may or may not have been a Pharisee)?

We also found that we had picked up some ideas concerning this story about the woman who anointed Jesus that did not originate in any of the four biblical accounts. Particularly, although one Gospel writer tells us the woman was called Mary, none of them say it was Mary Magdalene. Also, although some of the Gospel writers suggest the woman was “a sinner” none of them say she was a prostitute. Yet, in the popular shared memory both Mary Magdalene and prostitution feature. So if knowing the story is part of the rules of being a Christian, then, on this occasion, we were on a sort of respectable seven out of ten, but not at the level of perfect recall that would make a scribe or Pharisee jealous of us.

But Jesus said, ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (5:20) It matters to know the laws, the rules, the regulations of our religion and our life, but if we are being asked for perfect recall, we will never be good enough. It matters, because without some knowledge of the content of faith you can’t believe it or practise it. At the most basic level, you can’t be a Christian without knowing something about Jesus Christ. You need to know something about his life, his death, and his resurrection. You need to know something of his teaching, of what he said. Not knowing these things does not mean you are a worse person, than someone who does know them; it would mean, though, that you are not (at least yet) a Christian.

So what makes the difference? It’s not just knowing about Jesus and about what he said that makes you a Christian. After all, Richard Dawkins knows quite a bit about Jesus and the Bible. He probably knows all ten of the commandments, as well as memorising the full title of On the Origin of Species, just in case anyone ever asks him again, but he, as he would tell you himself, is not a Christian.

So what makes the difference? The clue to that lies in something Jesus said when he told his disciples, ‘you are the light of the world.’ (5:14) he said, ‘let your light shine before others so that they see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’ (5:16) – so that they see your good works. There’s an important link between what we know and believe, and what we do.

It’s not that these good works in themselves are what make us into Christians or that they put us right with God when our lives have previously gone off in a wrong direction; it’s God who does that. Rather, these good works are evidence that we are aware of at least some of the law, of the rules of the game, and we are trying to respond in the right way. So maybe we can’t remember all ten of the commandments without a quick glance at Exodus chapter twenty. On the other hand, for example, although HMRC might never know about that pot of money, filling in a tax return involves reminders to us that two of those commandments are against stealing, and against false witness, and we make our decisions in that light.

We need to know something about the Bible, something about God, something about Jesus, but we can’t and don’t need to know everything. I would always recommend knowing more about the Bible, Jesus and God, as the basis for good decision-making in life. It’s never too late to learn. What matters to God, though, I believe, is what we do with what we do know here and now. Trying to apply well what we know of the content, of the rules, of the stories of Christian faith, is what matters.

That means that the situations that we face today will impact on how we interpret religious rules that were written in a different time and for different situations. How Jesus set about fulfilling the Old Testament law and prophets is our model for doing so today. And Jesus was shockingly flexible with those rules to make them fit the situation: “he’s abolishing the law”, some thought. And we will discover that out for ourselves … in my next sermon: same time, same pulpit, same preacher. See you then.

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