“You have heard that it was said…but I tell you.”
(Readings: Deuteronomy 30: 15-end and Matthew 5: 21-37)
I’m a big movie fan. Good movies, bad movies, silly movies, popular movies, obscure movies, I love them all. It’s not so much the cinematic experience – although slouching on comfortable chairs with popcorn and carbonated drinks is appealing – but it’s that movies ask us to suspend disbelief, use our imagination, and let ourselves be shaped by a story, by ideas. Movies like Star Wars, Spartacus, and Ben Hur helped to shape my thought growing up about justice, honour, love, sacrifice, and God. A recent favourite of mine is the science fiction movie Inception starring, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a specialized spy. His work consists of extracting valuable commercial information from the unconscious mind of his targets while they are asleep and dreaming. Cobb is then set an almost impossible task: "inception", the planting of an idea into a target's subconscious that will change their waking world, how they understand themselves and how they act. I think the movie summarises what movies can actually do and have done in my life: movies have ideas that shape my world, as small as those ideas may begin.
We started walking with Jesus last week through the lens of Matthew’s Gospel, and we will continue to do so for the next few weeks. We will listen to Jesus’ recorded teachings proclaimed to a large “crowd”, his ideas on God, the world, and how God and the world relate. This listening demands that we think deeply about how these little groups of ideas and images could shape our lives. Much like DiCaprio’s character – although in a deliberately open and provocative way – Jesus is involved in an “inception”, the planting of ideas in the consciousness of those who follow him that have the power to radically change how they view themselves and the world. What, then, are some of the ideas that we hear Jesus teach, and how can they shape us?
We began last week with the images of ‘salt’ and ‘light’, Jesus’ call to be God’s preserving agents in the world, bringing flavour and richness, and the call to let the goodness of God shine in the world. This week, we hear more from the same chapter, part of what most of us call ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. Jesus’ teaching, his ideas, may seem extreme to say the least. “You have heard that it was said”, Jesus says talking about various well-accepted Jewish moral standards, “but I say to you.” And what Jesus says radicalises and intensifies what following God through Jesus means: anger is as bad as murder, looking lustfully is as bad as adultery, and so on. Jesus has come not abolish the law and the prophets – the idea that particular actions are good for us and others harmful – but to “fulfill them.” ‘Fulfil’ has the sense of ‘completing’ or ‘perfecting’ those ideas that shape who we are and how we act. To follow Jesus means to shape our lives on him, his teaching, and his invitation to become “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Even the small stuff – our arguments with others, how we think, how we talk – all this matters because through them we either accept “life and prosperity” or encourage “death and destruction” in the words of Deuteronomy 30: 15.
How do we let Jesus’ ideas grow in us, how do we let that ‘inception’ work, and what would our lives look like once those ideas transform us? This past week, the Archbishop of York delivered a presidential address at the opening of the Church of England’s General Synod, meeting in London. In his address, Dr Sentamu considers what it means for the Church of England to contribute to the common good in very uncertain economic, political, social, and international times. Sentamu challenges us to question the ideas of our current climate: as political programs such as the Government’s ‘Big Society’ threaten to undermine and diminish the Welfare State, we need to ask what our vision for society is as the national Church. Sentamu points to a Gospel text from the same chapter of Matthew as our reading today: the Beatitudes, the blessings that Jesus sets out as God’s mission statement for creation. In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The challenge of Jesus’ powerful ideas is, however small they may seem, we must let them transform us and our world. Sentamu encourages us to be bold, to seek for an ‘inception’ of these ideas in the lives around us and in this nation. Sentamu concludes “we cannot be expected to be universally welcomed or applauded. But to do these things is, quite simply, our God-given duty and our particular calling.”
In the movie Inception, after many difficulties and near-failures, DiCaprio’s character and his team succeed in planting a small idea in their dreaming subject that radically changes his waking world. As the national, Established Church, shaped by all the vicissitudes of English history, we have a particular calling to be shaped, driven, and held to account by the ideas and lived reality of God’s kingdom given through Jesus Christ. In your own life, then, how will you let these small groups of ideas taught by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel shape your waking world? How will you in turn plant those ideas in the lives that surround you, in family, friends, neighbours, communities, and nation and let God do the growing of them? It won’t be easy. You will not always be understood, welcomed, or liked; neither was our Lord. But you can co-operate with God and unleash loving transformation. All it takes is courage and some small ideas lived out and proclaimed. Let’s choose life and prosperity. Amen.