the righteousness of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and “hyper-grace”

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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 5:17-20

There are some within what is called the hyper-grace camp of the church who relegate Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to his ministry to the Jews and as a function of the Law, simply to condemn them in their sin. Ironically what Jesus actually is doing is talking about a righteousness which can only be realized by grace, and comes from the inside out.

There are aspects of the old covenant in the sermon, such as Jesus’s reference to offering gifts at the altar. But the heart of the sermon is plainly the difference in the righteousness that comes with Jesus and the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom in him. Of course this is fully realized through Jesus’s death and resurrection followed by his ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But to relegate the Sermon on the Mount to the old covenant and the Jews, and essentially what we’re delivered from is a misreading of scripture, and a terrible loss.

And for that matter there is much that is rich for us in the Old Testament. God has always had his people, a remnant by grace (Romans 11:1-6). Abraham and David are held up as exemplars for us of God’s grace through their faith (Romans 4). Abraham who God promised to be the father of many nations is called the father of us all by his faith as both an example to us, and the one through whom would come God’s blessing of the Seed who would bless the world, the Messiah, Lord and Savior Jesus (Romans 4; Galatians 3).

The Sermon on the Mount is a centerpiece, perhaps the centerpiece of Jesus’s teaching in the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 the parallel to it, and Jesus’s Upper Room discourse the eve of his crucifixion also central to his teaching. Of course his teachings are sprinkled all throughout the gospels as in his parables (like the Good Samaritan, and the Lost/Prodigal Son), separate sayings, and his teaching on the destruction of the temple and the end times.

We read to some extent how Jesus’s teaching is fulfilled in the letters which followed after Pentecost. But Jesus’s words stand on their own, as well. To miss them by waving them off as a function of the law is a great loss to the church, not only in terms of losing the teaching, but in the failure to handle accurately the word of truth. Something we all have to keep working at, and hold each other accountable to, in and through Jesus.

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marriage today in the church and society

“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19

Eugene Peterson, one of the very best Christian writers in my lifetime, himself a pastor had an interesting exchange in the past few days in which he seemed to affirm same sex marriage, and then immediately retracted that, and clarified his position. See this interesting post from Christianity Today.

My own position is to side with what scripture up front seems to make clear both in regard to marriage, and same sex relationships, or homosexuality. Of course scripture itself is nuanced, and challenging on some levels, and always must be read in light of its fulfillment in Christ. That said, it seems pretty clear why the traditional view not only holds strong with most Christian denominations and traditions, but surely will remain so in generations to come. Perhaps what might change is how people who have same sex attraction are received into the church, although that probably varies from church to church now.

Denominations and churches which accept and practice same sex weddings, and ordain those who are thus “married” I have seen, either argue that scripture itself leaves room for “covenant” gay sexual relationship, that when scripture does address this subject the few times it does, it is referring to something else altogether. I have read the arguments myself, and find them less than convincing in comparison to traditional teaching and interpretation of scripture. Or there are those “Christian” leaders who simply question Biblical teaching, even at times suggesting that the resurrection of Christ can be taken either literally or metaphorically, in others words that one can be a Christian without believing Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection. While I disagree, I can respect the former, but not the latter.

I think it’s a tragedy when whole groups are ostracized by the church, and now I’m thinking of the LGBT group. But any church, or Christian who doesn’t hold an affirming view of such relationships, will be seen as attacking the person. I doubt that enough work is being done to reach out to these people. At the very least they should know that they’re loved, and welcomed. I’m not sure myself just how to address this, though I think I know what my tentative suggestion might be. But I would want to be part of a group of men and women prayerfully deliberating on that.

As to my own view for society, I say that the church should not try to dictate what the state wants to do. The state, or government is not the church, and can’t be held to the church’s standards. Nor should the church be forced by the state to adopt the state’s standards. So I would hold to a separation of church and state, at the same time hoping that the church’s influence through the gospel might rub off on the state. But never at the expense of compromising the church’s own complete allegiance to Christ and the gospel.

It is quite a challenging and hot topic today, a sea change having taken place in society, with some impact on some churches. It’s simply a new time for the church to learn to live in a culture which doesn’t define marriage in strictly a traditional way. The church will continue on, but hopefully with new insight in helping those who feel rejected by the only one who can change any of us, and receives us all.

trying to juggle the church and the state

Yesterday here in the United States we celebrated (and from the weekend prior) its 241st birthday. I was raised Mennonite, and we more or less practiced a respectful distancing from city, county, state and federal government. When I converted to Christ, I remember at a certain point hanging a flag on our house, of course with Dad and Mom’s permission. Dad actually served in the Army in WWII and was in a tank in harm’s way in Germany. He had a truce with Mom over the issue, indeed not everyone who attends Mennonite churches, or even are members are committed pacifists. I had converted to Christ in my late teens, and had eventually left the Mennonite church under the influence of someone who had discipled me. Since then in many ways my life has returned full circle, so that even though we are not part of a Mennonite church here (there is none nearby, anyhow), I am back to believing in that interpretation, at least emphasis, which places the Sermon on the Mount in a prominent place in its teaching.

The book which turned me back toward my Anabaptist roots was ironically not written by an Anabaptist, but by the great Bible scholar, historian, and theologian, N. T. Wright, entitled, The Challenge of Jesus. While some of what he says is quite compatible and close to a Mennonite view, N. T. Wright would still hold to more of a typically Anglican, Great Tradition perspective when it comes to the church and state. Since I have tracked closely with his friend, and colleague in both scholarship and writing, Scot McKnight, and am privileged to be acquainted with another scholar and friend of Scot’s, also a professor and not least of all, pastor, Allan R. Bevere, from the latter two especially, I’ve been kept on the straight and narrow when it comes to more of a historically Anabaptist take on the church and the state.

But the problem of juggling the church and the state remains, since most Christians and churches are in some way either marked or influenced by what is called the Constantinian turn when the church and the state essentially became united. See Allan R. Bevere’s excellent and helpful book on this, The Politics of Witness. That book helps us see how the United States, in spite of the new turn of the separation of church and state, is still largely marked by a kind of symbiotic relationship of church and state, that is to say a relationship of dependence on each other to some extent, although, as Bevere shows in his book, the state ordinarily always ends up with the upper hand.

Like any good Evangelical and Protestant, although I would much prefer to say, like any good Christian, I would return again and again to the pages of scripture, and with the help of others through the Spirit, just try to see if what is taken for granted is really the case. And like any good Anabaptist would (although I’m not sure in what way I’m an Anabaptist, since for one thing, I’m not really opposed to infant baptism), I find the position of the church at large, wanting.

Instead of going further, let me give an applicational thought as to how I see the church and the state. I begin with the important, but lesser function, indeed ordained by God, the state. The state is comprised of everyone, whether they are in the faith, have any faith, or whatever faith they might have, no one is excluded. It is not in itself Christian. The church, on the other hand, is the body of Christ through the gospel, which it proclaims in word and deed: the good news that Jesus is the saving Lord and King. Who by his cross has reconciled all things in heaven and earth, the cross shorthand here for his death and resurrection.

I take it then that the state, in whatever form of government it consists of, will promote the good of all, and will force no one to comply to anything beyond what is essential to the state’s function ultimately under God. The state when it’s doing well will certainly help the church have the freedom needed to proclaim, and be a witness to the gospel. But the state will also maintain order between different peoples where conflict might naturally arise. To try to say all that the state should do here is largely an exercise in futility, given the complexity of the makeup of nations. Democracy is only one form of government in the world, and Christians and churches often live in uneasy relationships with the governments under which they live, sometimes more or less underground, since their activities are forbidden. But a certain ideal surely remains, and all nations and governments are ultimately under God’s judgment.

This is just enough to hopefully help us begin to see the difficulty for Christians in juggling the church and the state. I believe everyone in the mix of the state is necessary in a good deliberation for a good outcome for all, a tall order, indeed. The church through the gospel is also for everyone, but Jesus is the heart and soul of that body, which brings people into communion with the Triune God, and into an eternal life in the new creation in him which will never end, even past this present existence. There’s a marked difference, so that the church and the state can never be essentially one without not only diluting, but actually changing the church, so that it indeed might no longer be the church, but an empty institution which Christ has left behind.

In the end, we Christians are indeed thankful for the freedom we have in the United States. But we also do well to be wary of any arrangement with the state which might not only cause us to water down our witness, but might in some way even move us to bow the knee to another lord other than the one Lord, King Jesus.

The United States and us fearful Christians

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

….All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

….Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 11-12

July 4 is upon us, this being the holiday weekend preceding it. And if there’s one thing for sure, so many of us, and I’ll include myself, are hardly past the election fervor, caught up in a presidency which may turn out to be the most polarizing in US history, aside from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during those tumultuous and horrific Civil War days. Hardly any of us like what is going on in US politics, many for similar reasons, others of us for different reasons, some of the concerns being the same across the board. It is a difficult time for a good number of reasons in a nation which is not only polarized, but threatening to be on the edge of being torn apart.

The question on this post is this: When push comes to shove, just where does our confidence lie? What do we think will win and save the day, and why? And just why are we so upset and fearful?

This is not meant to be a critique of the United States, but there’s no doubt there have been seismic changes in society, and that the liberal, progressives have been all but dismissive of the conservatives. And there’s no doubt that the conservatives themselves have written off the liberals. You have few moderates, who by many would be seen as wishy washy and weak kneed. As far as I’m concerned, while I do have opinions about US politics, and especially concerning issues of the day, none of that matters in comparison to the main point of this post. While those things have an important and provisional place, they are not at all on par with what now follows.

We as Christians, and especially the older generation of us, which includes myself, and I plead guilty, we have lost our focus and therefore are weak in our faith, and weary, in danger of losing heart. Oh yes, there will be some who will fight to the bitter end either for the Democratic Party, or for the Republican Party, or their version of what they think America needs, and won’t seem to have lost any heart at all. They have a lot of hope for good, and to avoid what isn’t good through the federal, state and local government. And again, it’s not like that has no value at all. But we in Jesus are actually called to something else, even while at the same time we pray and humbly participate according to our convictions for the good of the state.

Our goal is something better, something much more. It is to be a follower of Jesus in whatever culture we’re placed, to announce and live out the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus, in the truth that Jesus is King with the hope that follows. We should be those who are commended for our faith in God, both confident and assured that God will fulfill his promises come what may. And that includes whatever we may face in coming days, years, or generations, should the Lord tarry.

We need to quit thinking and from that acting as if all depends on what is happening or not happening in Washington, D. C., as hard as that might seem to us, for some of us for different reasons. Our eyes need to become fixed on Jesus, period, who shows us the way as the pioneer and perfecter of faith, and of course, is the way. Faith, plain naked faith, and I mean the faith that is in the God revealed in Jesus, that is what we live for, and if need be, die for. While at the same time we faithfully pray for those in government, and hope for the best for the nation, and the world.

That is our calling. This is what we Christians in America should be known for. In and through Jesus.

See Andy Stanley’s compelling message, Fix Your Eyes, which inspired this post.

 

at the heart of the gospel

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1

It’s a little less than six months until Advent, but there’s never an inappropriate time to reflect on its beauty and meaning in the coming of the Messiah. Jesus comes as King, but in a way unlike that of the rulers and authorities of earth. He came and will come, and now comes by the Spirit through the gospel, and he comes to reign. In that reign is most certainly salvation, along with judgment, and from that, justice.

Israel is at the heart of this promise, receiving mercy from God ultimately to extend mercy to others. And Jesus himself is the fulfillment of what God promised to Israel and through Israel to the world.

And this gospel involves a shaking up which in part is the dealing with sin in each individual, including the high and mighty. This kingdom is for the humble, the poor, and the oppressed. The rich must beware, because unless their pockets are open in generosity, they will end up empty.

Mary’s Song is a shorthand for much of what we read in the Bible. The gospel is political, but not like the politics of this world. But don’t be mistaken, it does deal with the politics of this world ultimately, when Jesus returns. And somehow by Christ even now through the church impacts the rulers and authorities, both physical and spiritual.

A missing note I believe all too often in our understanding of the gospel.

For two outstanding reads on this, see Scot McKnight’s, The Real Mary, and The King Jesus Gospel.

trying to make sense of it all

When it comes right down to it, often life both in the short-haul, and frankly in the long-haul has some head scratchers. It doesn’t take long, or much effort to observe that. We’re left with gaping holes, and no explanation for some things. In fact life itself can seem quite counterintuitive to our sense of how it should be. Maybe like in the Job story where Job himself is never told the full scoop, and in the end to simply trust a God too awesome for him to understand.

We like to read novels, or watch films with many unpredictable twists and turns, and with enigmas that leave us wondering, and turning the pages. Life is simply not like the nice, and even to some extent good Hallmark films. We’re sometimes, maybe even often left wondering.

Scripture in a true sense is story, yes true story, but story. Humankind is made as the crown of creation, and yet is not true to their Creator, and therefore the brokenness that follows. God calls Israel to a mission to redeem and restore humanity, essentially to bring in God’s reign to an earth which wants nothing of it. Jesus is the fulfillment of that calling, which today is known and witnessed to in the church.

We all have a story to tell. It may be quite broken and disheveled, but it has its harmony and beauty as well. Somehow in and through Jesus, our story is taken into God’s story. To wonder about that, we need to look no further than the pages of scripture. Somehow something good will come out of the trouble we face in this life.

For me, having lived as long as I have (now over sixty), and continuing to see what I see, I don’t worry much about trying to make sense of everything, or even anything. I try to stay focused as much as possible on the big story, God’s story in Jesus. I want God to deal with all the scattered, broken, or lost pieces of life, according to his will. And go on.

So the story I want to focus on, and tell people about is God’s story in Jesus. And yet sharing my own story, and how it fits into that larger story. By faith we tell others God’s story, and the good news in King Jesus which is at the heart of that. And we wait to tell our own story, if and when that seems appropriate. As a witness to the larger story, to God’s faithfulness and love in his redemptive reign in Jesus.

racism and the church

Yesterday there was a most interesting discussion on Joshua Johnson’s show, 1A – Speak Freely, entitled, Big Tent Revival: Southern Baptists Challenge A Racist History. Racism is not an easy topic to broach for me as a white American Christian who has roots and fellowship in the evangelical movement. No one is free of the demon (literally, or I mean here, figuratively) of racism, it seems to me. We can’t just wash our hands in innocence and go on as if nothing has happened, or is happening. We need instead to listen to our African-American sisters and brothers, their story, and what they experience to this day. And that includes Christians right where I live in a conservative Christian belt.

I am grateful to be part of a ministry which is working on diversity and integration in the work force. To say the church hasn’t been involved in racism over the years, even within my lifetime, is to have a profound ignorance of history and culture. Whether or not we think all the complaints of racism today are just, we need to consider that many blacks, including Christians, believe that is the case. And we need to understand just how blind we are to what has been called “white privilege.” This is a sociological term, made political, as nearly everything is nowadays. But there’s no question that more is stacked against African-Americans in this nation, than any other ethnicity.

The gospel in Jesus brings together, and even unites those who otherwise would be enemies. It breaks down and destroys barriers. But it isn’t automatic. The faith requires faith which includes repentance and hard work over time to overcome the prejudices so deeply embedded and ingrained in our psyches. We naturally like to be around people who think, act, and like the same things we do. And who don’t shake up the status quo. But the gospel opens us up to something different. The salvation in Jesus is as big as creation, not only about the individual person, but about all of life. Ultimately to fill all things when Jesus returns, but now to be present and at work in the church. In and through Jesus.