The Golden Rule

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The writer of the ever-popular hymn “Amazing Grace” was a chap called John Newton. Many will know that John Newton was a former slave trader. He had been convinced that there was nothing wrong with slavery, he had made money from it, but he was converted and campaigned for the trade’s abolition. In 1788 he wrote a book. The book was called “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” and in it he writes of his desire to see the stain of slavery wiped out. He writes powerfully actually, and movingly of the shame he feels from his former actions and the sadness he feels that his conversion wasn’t sooner and that more weren’t spared from suffering and misery that resulted from his actions. But the whole of his whole argument, indeed the whole of his book actually, is set up by one verse of Scripture, and it’s printed on the front page. That verse is Matthew 7.12:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

You can see how the taking of that verse seriously would change the life and mindset of a slave trader, can’t you. Well, Matthew 7.12 is the first of three short verses assigned for our reflection this evening. So let’s ask the Lord for his help, not only in understanding those verses, but understanding how he wants us to change as a result. So, let’s pray now:

Father we thank you for your Son’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Please this evening, by the power of your spirit, keep talking to each one of us through you word and show us where we need to change in response. Amen.

There are good reasons to identify Matthew 7.12 as the end of the main teaching section of the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the word ‘So’ (or another translation would be therefore). By that we understand that what Jesus is about to say has to be understood in light of what has just come before. And we saw last Sunday that what had come before itself actually refers back to the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. So if you remember, Ian argued that the ‘it’ from Matthew 7:7:

…Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you…

That ‘it’ actually refers back to the impossible demands of the Sermon on the mount made possible through the power of prayer. And that ‘it’ is good and God is just longing to bless us with his gifts. Matthew 7.12:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, [whether that’s good gifts or judging fairly] do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

That last phrase the law and the prophets is meant to remind us of Matthew 5.17 where Jesus says:

do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.

That’s Matthew 5.17, right at the start of the sermon. So, we have law and the prophets at the start of the sermon. And we have ‘law and the prophets’ bookending it, if yoou like, at the end of the sermon. At the start Jesus is saying that the law and the prophets (which is Jesus’ shorthand for the whole of the Old Testament) find their fulfilment in him and in his teaching on how to live – and remember there’s been a lot of ground covered in the sermon on the mount. And now, at the end Jesus is saying that the law and the prophets (the whole of the Old Testament) can be summed up by this one, so-called golden rule.

Why is that important? Because Jesus is saying, if you’re going to be one of my followers, one of my disciples, this is what life looks like, this is what I expect. This is what you are saved to do, this is who you are saved to be, and if you want it in one bit-sized chunk, one easy to remember thing - this is my summary Jesus says:

whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them

In one simple, profound instruction Jesus is able to articulate both the attitude and the behaviour that he expects of anyone who would follow him. Only two headings tonight and this is the first:

1. Love ‘in action’ must characterise Jesus’ true disciples (Matthew 7.12)

Matthew 7.12 is ‘love in action’, and it’s ‘love in action’ expressed in its most positive form. It may surprise you to hear that this saying didn’t actually originate with Jesus, well not exactly in its form. There’s evidence that it existed in many ancient cultures, in varying forms in one kind or another, but with one key difference: all the others expressed it in the negative: ‘don’t do anything you wouldn’t want done to yourself’. Jesus took the saying and expressed it in the positive. They said “Don’t”, Jesus said “Do”!

Now that may not seem very significant, but think about it for a moment.
Casting the instruction negatively focuses on inactivity, and not doing something is an easy option and often not very loving. For example, you’d be justifiably concerned if I said that I love my family and you heard me then describing that loveby the way that I don’t speak to them them, or that I don’t do things with them or that I don’t do things for them. You’d be understandabaly concerned by that. But when you cast something in the positive – that is more demanding, it requires effort and forethought. And Jesus is simply saying that such love ‘in action’ must also characterise all those who claim to follow him.

Maybe a case study would help. Try and think back to a situation this week that’s wound you up. Maybe it’s a situation with a work colleague or a family member or a church friend. Maybe it involved an email exchange, maybe it involved a decision that you disagreed with or an unkind or insensitive remark. Maybe it involved exam results. If you’ve got an example in mind, great stick with it. But maybe you can’t think of a current situation of potential conflict or awkwardness or whatever, and that’s fine, because the golden rule is universal. So maybe think instead of this coming week. Think of is there a holiday coming up or a celebration on the horizon. Maybe after months of lockdown you’re actually meeting up with a friend for the first time for a coffee. Maybe you’ve simply got a trip to the shops to do or an appointment at the hospital What does the golden rule actually look like in all of those situations? Well, step one is to try and see things from the other person’s point of view.

I’m so grateful that I’ve been blessed with parents who to the best of their God-given ability have loved me and supported me and taught me about Jesus as I’ve been growing up. And I can very clearly remember my Mum counselling me in my youth; those times when I would be angry or upset with other people (which didn’t happen that often I canassure you (though she may say otherwise). But I remember my Mum very gently and frequently saying to me “try and see it from their point of view” she’d say, “try and put yourself in their shoes” she would urge me. It was great advice that I didn’t always follow it, but it is the Golden Rule in practice. What are they going through? What kind words do they need to hear? How can I encourage them or build them up in that situation?

By his words here we know that Jesus expects us, his followers to stop, to pause, and to try and put ourselves in someone else shoes and ask “If I were there, how would I like to be treated?” And once we answer that question, step two, we are to act on it – with love, with kindness, with generosity, and sometimes with patience and grace, and self-control. This so-called golden rule is wonderfully simple to understand, it’s unambiguous, it’s practical and it’s a principle so universal it can be used in any single one of life’s situations between children and parents, between employees and bosses, between teachers and students, between church members and vicars, and between friends.

Matthew 7.12 is a great ‘frame-it’ verse! Do you know what I mean by that?
Its one of those bible verses that you can print out or write out and maybe put in a frame and stick up on the wall somewhere. Apparently, in the third Century, the Roman Emperor Severus had it written on his wall and in public buildings, he had it written out in gold – and some think this is why it’s called the golden rule. But as frame-able as the verse is, there is a problem. And the problem is that left to our own devices, we are not inclined to treat others the way we want to be treated – especially when we feel that we’ve been mistreated. We are inclined to treat others more in light of our own feelings of hurt and anger and revenge. We are inclined to be motivated more by selfish gain and greed and lust. We are inclined to use others to get what we want, so we desperately need help. Somehow our inner desires, our attitudes, our very hearts have to change, in order for our actions to follow suit. And the way that change occurs is through the invitation that Jesus offers in Matthew 7.13-14 because in those verses he invites us to:

Enter by the narrow gate. [It’s an invitation accompanied with a choice, he says:]
For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.
For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

If Matthew 7.12 is the nutshell summary of the Sermon on the Mount, then what follows from Matthew 7.13 until the end of the chapter actually, is the conclusion or the epilogue, it’s the application. Remember the context. Jesus is teaching the crowds, his disciples, what exactly is involved in being a faithful disciple of his. In the chronology of time, none of them are Christians as such yet. They still don’t fully get it, Jesus hasn’t died, the gift of the Holy Spirit hasn’t been imparted. But they’re tracking in that direction. And to help them get there, Jesus explains that they now have a choice. Because they’ve heard what is involved, so they now need to think about how they are going to respond? And if you’ve been watching tonight, or watching over the past few weeks, and you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, then this second point is especially applicable to you. And it’s this:

2. Are you prepared to leave it all behind to follow Jesus? (Matthew 7.13-14)

Because once you have heard what Jesus has to say, there are only two gates to go through and only two roads to follow: One gate is wide and the other is narrow. But one road is easy or, more accurately roomy it’s broad- one route is hard work. One way will include loads of others, you’ll be one of a crowd- the other route will put you in the minority. One way leads to destruction - the other to everlasting life!

Which begs the question have you accepted Jesus’ invitation to everlasting life? There’s a gate to go through! It’s a bit like trying to get into St. James Park, heaven on earth for many of us, not all of us (not me), but some of us andeven for those it is, I know not all all of the time. Anyway, picture the scene going through those turnstiles to get in. You can’t come with bags of shopping, with suitcases packed for your holiday, you can’t even come with your pet dog. If you want to get in through that narrow turnstile, you need to be prepared to leave all of the non-essential stuff behind. That’s the kind of picture Jesus is using here. And to preach this text faithfully I’ve got to ask: Are you prepared to leave it all behind to follow Jesus? The immorality, the selfishness, the sin, the job maybe, if necessary friends, if necessary family. For no-one can enter this gate without first denying themselves and taking up their cross.

The wide gate – where everything is easy, where you can believe what you like, you can do what you like (as long as you don’t hurt anyone else) – that gate leads to destruction. Proverbs 14.12 describes that path:

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.

By contrast, the narrow gate, the way of shedding your self-dependency, of coming simply as you are - nothing else, no status, no excuses, no self-justification, no photoshopping on social media– just who you are: a precious child of God, created by your heavenly father in his image and loved and loved and loved by him. Passing through that narrow gate leads to eternal life! And here’s the thing, that gate isn’t just a physical way marker. That gate is a person – it’s Jesus himself. John 10:9 Jesus himself says:

I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.

John 14:6 Jesus says:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

You see ultimately, we follow someone who doesn’t just instruct us from afar in our discipleship. He leads us by example and invites us to set foot where he’s gone. He set the supreme example of love in action by dying on that cross - doing for us, what we could not do for ourselves. He sets the supreme example of leaving it all behind willingly leaving the glory of heaven for the shame of the cross – for you and for me.

So, which gate have you chosen? By default every single one of us is born on the easy way that leads to destruction. The gate is so wide that you don’t actually have to do anything to pass through it. You can choose to stay on that path, or you can choose to accept Jesus’ invitation, to do a u-turn, to repent of your sins, to leave your baggage behind and start tracking towards eternal life wioth Jesus. But note that Jesus leaves no third way here. His teaching is very clear: One way (the default way) leads to destruction and death. The other way, only through Jesus, leads to everlasting life.

Let’s pray:

Lord we do thank you that Jesus’ teaching has been preserved for us today.
Help each one of us respond to the challenge of these few verses.
Help us to love each other through our actions
Help us to leave all the trappings of this world and the sin of our lives behind and enter through the narrow gate of faith and trust in you.
We pray this In Jesus Name, Amen.

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