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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

God is not mocked.

A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 17, 2023 at Holy Communion

Matthew 7:21–23, Galatians 5:16–6:10

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.


There are many shockingly stern passages in St Matthew’s Gospel, but this one must be among the most chilling:


“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ “ (Matthew 7:21–23).


Jesus predicts a day when there will be people who spent their lives serving God in dramatic ways most of us will never experience—driving out demons, performing miracles—who nonetheless are outside of the kingdom because they were “lawless.” “What law did they fail to keep?“ we wonder. And didn’t Jesus get us past that old obsession with laws and requirements?


To that second question, not at all, actually. “Law” is very much with us as Christians. The passage I just read from Matthew is one of the final parables from the Sermon on the Mount. At the beginning of that sermon, Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17–19). The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is that we need to do better than just fulfil the law outwardly, checking the boxes of what we are obliged to do, and we need instead to embrace a spirit of humility, faith, and goodwill which makes keeping the law our joy and delight.


In our Epistle reading today, St Paul tells us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We don’t generally think of Christ as a giver of “laws,” do we? We think of him as a giver of mercy, a teacher of gentleness and generosity. But these two things are not opposed: the “law” that Jesus gives is that we should keep the commandments with a spirit of humility and meekness, the same humility with which we treat others. To exercise generosity and mercy is to keep the law.


So St Paul says in our reading today, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 5:25-6:2). Bearing one another’s burdens, exercising humility in a “spirit of gentleness” toward one another, is keeping the law as Jesus taught it.


So back to Jesus’ parable of the rejected miracle-workers: what “lawlessness” were they guilty of? They did not keep the law of Christ. They may have cast out demons in Jesus’ name, they may have performed miracles, but they never knew Jesus because they didn’t keep the law he taught and demonstrated: they didn’t bear the burdens of others in a spirit of gentleness.


About the attitude of the rejected miracle-workers, St Paul says that “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7). “God is not mocked:” that means you can’t pull a fast one on God. We can spend our whole lives as if we were building a case, a defence of ourselves that we will make before God when it is our turn for judgement. “God, look at everything I did! I chose to be in church. I gave my time. I acted piously.” But God sees through it. “Did you keep my law?” he’ll ask. “Did you submit yourself to your neighbour? Did you bear his burdens? Did you restore those who were fallen in a spirit of gentleness?“


The truth is that, on the day of judgement, no pretentions about the depth of our own piety will save us. Nor will comfortable assumptions about Jesus offering everyone automatic mercy. Only actual participation in the Spirit of Christ saves, when we can say with all our hearts and know from experience that the meek are blessed and that the pure of heart see God (Matthew 5:5, 8).


St James tells us straightforwardly what God wants from us: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this,“ he says: ”to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Purity and charity: to adopt a spirit of humility before God which departs from all the ways in which we corrupt ourselves, and out of that new spirit to bear the burdens of our friends and neighbours in distress. This is the law of Christ.


Since fulfilling the law of Christ depends entirely on humility, we are blessed that St Paul gives us specific advice about how we can change our thinking. “If anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” The truth is that we think of ourselves far too often, we think that we are something worth talking about, but in fact we would be better off to forget about ourselves entirely so that we could be more taken up in the needs of our neighbours.


CS Lewis memorably describes what it might be like to meet a truly humble person. He says, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all” (Mere Christianity 3.8). A humble person does not think about himself at all.


But for the last word, we turn again to St James: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). Do this, and fulfill the law of Christ.

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