Sermon Bit: On Christian Extremism

We live in a time and place where extremes are fashionable.  There are extreme sports, extreme adventures, extreme makeovers and extreme home makeovers.  Looking at myself in a mirror, I should likely look into extreme sports, though my wife would probably prefer I look into the home makeover!  We often will see products advertised as “extreme” as if taking something to an extreme makes it extremely good.There is one place though where the word “extreme” is seen as extremely negative.  In our pluralistic culture, any religious view is seen as having a place, but every religious view is seen as dangerous if it is taken to an extreme.  We hear of extremist Muslims, extremist Christians, extremist whatever, it does not matter, it gets bad press.  And the fear factor that draws people to extreme sports and adventures becomes a fear factor that keeps people away from extreme expressions of faith.I have tended to agree with the general frustration with extremist religion.  Much of it makes you either shudder in horror or shake your head in disbelief.  And though a Christian, I may run from the label “extremeist Christian.”  Yet while expressions of extreme religion draw a reaction, these words from Jesus call for a response:  “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 NIV).

A righteousness that surpasses that of the pharisees and teachers of the law must be extremist indeed!  These folk were the ‘fundamentalists,’ these were the ‘extremists’ in their day.  Any regular Canadian dropped into that time and place might want to turn and run the other way.  But Jesus does not leave that option open to us.  He calls us not to turn away from, but to catch up to and surpass the extremists in our righteousness.

And how do we do that?!  This does not refer to a righteousness that surpasses in quantity.  That’s not possible, and though some argue that Jesus is calling us to something impossible so that we will realise our sinfulness, I believe that here He is calling us to something we can and ought to do so we can start doing something about our sinfulness!  So how do we do it?  Let’s look to Jesus to find out!

In a story about Jesus (found in Luke 6), the Pharisees and teachers of the law were watching Jesus to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  I’m sure they were hoping he would, for then they would have proof that Jesus is breaking the law by breaking the Sabbath.  I’m sure the man with the withered hand in the story was also hoping Jesus would heal on the Sabbath, but for different reasons altogether!  Both groups get what they hoped for and Jesus goes forward with the healing, but not before asking a question: “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or destroy it?”  The righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law fell short because while they took obedience to the rules to the extreme, that’s all they did.  In this case and others, Jesus went beyond them in His righteousness, creatively thinking with a God tuned heart, doing, not what religion has required in a rule book, but what God has desired in a person’s life, and in the world.  We are called to do likewise.

Jesus calls us to an extreme righteousness, to be extremist in our following of Him.  We can look to the rest of his words in Matthew five to see further examples of extreme and surpassing righteousness.  Never mind just keeping a rule about murder, we are to take extreme measures in our efforts to reconcile with others (Matthew 5:21-26).  Never mind about just keeping a rule about adultery, we are to take faithfulness to our spouse to an extreme (Matthew 5:27-30).  Never mind about just keeping the rules about divorce, we are to be extremely keen to keep covenant promises (Matthew 5:31-32).  Never mind about just following rules regarding oaths, we are to be extremely honest (Matthew 5:33-37).  Never mind about just keeping the rules about justice, we are to be an extremely merciful people (Matthew 5:38-42), and never mind about just doing what love requires you to do, and just for whom you are required to do it, take love to an extreme, in its depth, and breadth (Matthew 5:43-48).  A righteousness that surpasses isn’t just about being just with regard to the rules, it is about creatively thinking with God tuned hearts.  This is what it means to be an extremist Christian.

There is a great fear in our culture today of anyone that you might label an ‘extremist Christian.’  Yet we cannot escape the fact that Jesus calls us to a righteousness that is extreme.  We cannot escape the fact that Jesus went to extreme measures when He went to the cross.  And He calls us to pick up our crosses and follow Him.  Extreme measures indeed.  Are you and I ready to be extremists?

(modified from a sermon preached in July)

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