Looking to Reach the High Bar

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, daily we face being shamed, canceled and judged for not meeting expectations. Some of us even battle self-condemnation for failing to live up to our own goals. The ensuing loneliness leaves us weary when told our righteousness must exceed the religious elite. Thank you for both reaching the bar set for us and indwelling us, forming us into a community where our lives point to the One who is our righteousness. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Matthew 5:21-37

If you receive our weekly email, you may have read about my first experience at auction. A few years ago when I was in the fifth grade our principal took a small group of students to The Stock Yards. Long before I knew it was the smell of money, my nose knew the direction to the Stock Yards on those Spring and Fall days we opened the windows hoping for fresh air. I attended Lincoln Fifth Year Center. For those of you unfamiliar with Fifth Year centers, they were part of a model to desegregate schools beginning in the early 1970s. In fact, it is one of the social moments that contributed to suburban sprawl in the Oklahoma City Metro.

Mr. Bloomer took us to the auction arena. We sat several rows up and watched the livestock led into the corals where buyers would hear the age and weight class then the bidding would begin. I looked around and watched the bidders. They might indiscreetly raise a hand, tip their hat or nod their head. I thought I would give it a try. I figured they would not pay attention to a kid. 

They did. 

A look of disbelief came across Mr. Bloomer’s face. I was not sure if he could not believe I would do that or that the auctioneer would acknowledge a young boy as a bidder. Mr. Bloomer helped me understand the meaning of don’t move.

Many of you have attended the Tuttle Fair Board Cake Auction. It is not uncommon for a bidder to be bid up. Most of the time it is in good fun. Someone in the stands knows a bidder, usually a friend, who wants to buy a particular cake. The someone, hopefully, a friend, participates in the bidding in order to bid up the cake making it more expensive to win.

The church in Antioch heard the Sermon on the Mount. And, as they are helped to connect the dots by the person delivering the gospel, one wonders when the reader got to this part of the sermon if the hearers felt like Jesus was bidding up the requirements for the Kingdom of God. Or, to put it another way, many would be familiar with the laws under which they were subject. These laws would be the bar to meet. Every time they or another broke one of those laws it would bring shame – public or personal, even both. Would hearing Jesus’ words as bidding up the law have the same effect on the community of faith in Antioch as we do today? 

Jesus sets the bar higher. Doesn’t he?

Given that most of our cultural formation sets us up to perform well enough to be included in some group, we bear the weight that comes with not meeting the expectations of the group. Shamed by the group, or the self-shame that comes with not living up to the desired expectations, we look for ways to rid ourselves of that shame. One of the means often use to establish ourselves as worthy is to try harder. For we Christians, we try harder to reach the high bar thinking Jesus will only be pleased with us if in fact, we reach greater heights in our spiritual devotion. We have heard Jesus’ words, 

For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

There it is. 

Our reading is that in order to be in Jesus’ in-group we must perform our spiritual practices better than the religious elite. We self-select our benchmark personalities presented to us in well-packaged products and wonder how it is they achieved such success in the Christian living department. This Christian celebrity culture is actually damning. We tend to attribute great spiritual depth and height to these figures who share no part in our own Christian communities where we know each other, often too well, to think any such spiritual depth exists.

What’s more, since we read the Bible as all about us, we make the matter worse by reading that Jesus is raising the bar to the entrance exam of his Kingdom. We work into our self-talk that Jesus must be looking for those who can live up to these increased expectations. If we don’t, when we don’t, we fumble around believing that we are lesser people, certainly lesser Christians and unfit for the Kingdom of God. It is a short step from there to “why bother.” Or, our thinking runs along a different track. We look around to make sure that we are at least doing it better than those around us. Any sort of community, a group gathered that hears the y’all of Jesus, will be immediately undermined by the spiritual competition created by this thinking. 

Jesus scraps that plan in a couple of ways. First, Jesus pushes us to think beyond performance to intention. Let me say that again, Jesus pushes us to think beyond performance to intention.

You have heard it said, you shall not murder . . . but I say to you, that if you are angry with a brother or sister you are liable to judgment. You have heard it said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.

In the church community, we tend to judge on performance. Meanwhile, we have not taken the time to consider what is our intention. What is the motivation for our performance? If we somehow think we will be more pleasing to God or that at least we will be more pleasing than the person next to us, then our intention, our motivation is suspect. It does not reveal a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the religious elite, the people we have put on pedestals due to how we see them performing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer learned this the hard way, for himself. He entered a community with an intention to help that community be what he believed it should be. He learned that was not a very good motivation. Had he continued without considering his motivation, he believed he would have ruined the opportunity for that community to represent Jesus. His idea about what that community should look like had to die so that in its place, God’s purpose for that community could be realized, even in Bonhoeffer.

Second, Jesus raised the bar so high that the whole community realizes its common need. Let me say that again, Jesus raised the bar so high that the whole community realizes it’s common need. If no one can reach the bar, then there is no room for the self-important or the sort of spiritual hierarchy that creates a position for an in-group known for their spiritual elitism. In other words, since none of us may reach the high bar, there is no place for anyone to think of themselves more highly than others. That is exactly how the Apostle Paul interpreted the Incarnation of Jesus. If God comes to us in the flesh, then no one, no one, should think more highly of themselves.

So, what is at work in the sermon, if Jesus is preaching that his hearers have a higher bar than they thought? If Jesus has bid the law up for us, what are we to do?

It does not mean that we lapse into thinking that if we can’t reach the bar why bother. Let’s just give up. Instead, the message of the Gospel, the Good News, is that Jesus fills up the law for us so that our participation in the Kingdom of God is not determined by our performance. The consequence of that Good News includes the message that in the same way Jesus is God with us, the Spirit is God within us forming us into a community of people who’s intentions are re-formed toward the high bar in Christ.

I know that sounds like doublespeak. But, the purpose is to show that in Christ we have our righteousness – no need to trust our performance to make God happy. And, what’s more, Christ in us as his community created by the faithfulness of Jesus for us, we pursue that bar for a world convinced that what makes it valuable is its own performance. Do you see that? The Church living out the Gospel is for the world. The Church formed by the Gospel is for us, the place where we practice living for the world.

This does not negate Jesus’ sermon. It actually helps us realize that the way the Sermon functions is to describe for a people what sort of difference Jesus makes for the world through his people. If in Christ we are made righteous, it is not on us to earn our way by performing at a high level. That only sets us up to play right back into our natural inclination to prove we are worthy. In Christ, God makes worthy. And, our living a new way in Christ is Good News for a world that exhausts itself by working to perform better only to make things worse. 

Jesus casts the vision of what the Apostle Paul describes as one new humanity where the walls of performance divide us. He presses us to the question of intention by suggesting our living is as he is, for others. Then, Jesus gives us the means by being with us making us new by his Spirit. In this case, it is we who are looking for Jesus to be with us rather than that Jesus is looking for those who meet his expectations. The pressure is off we like to say. For we have been gifted the righteousness of Christ, God’s Grace! Enjoy your forgiveness as you live within Jesus’ Church for the sake of the world. And, as we live together as a small part of God’s Church, let’s give ourselves to the vision of humanity found in Jesus with the intention of giving ourselves for the sake of the world by the means of the Spirit of Christ within us.

I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here.  You may listen here.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.