building our lives on Jesus’s teaching: Matthew 7:24-27

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Matthew 7:24-27

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who is blessed according to Jesus?

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

Jesus’s idea of the blessed life is surely not the norm. We think of certain ideals more in terms of material success, so that at least we are well taken care of, with hopefully the thought of helping others. That’s fine, as long as we don’t make that our main drive in life. After all, we are to provide for our own, and help others.

But Jesus’s words on who is blessed, or truly happy don’t touch that. It’s not at all about finding the good life as most people think of that. Instead it’s about supreme or perfect blessedness or happiness in terms of something much more. But it involves living in a world in which death awaits us sooner or later, and many troubles before that. And this is all magnified and especially pointed for those who follow Christ.

And so to be blessed according to Jesus is paradoxical. It won’t make sense to the world, and only makes sense to us as we seek to follow Jesus. But make no mistake, it won’t be easy, unless I’m missing something.

It is of a different realm and kingdom present in this world, a world which at its heart is not aligned with God’s will, and is suffering the consequent curse of that. And yet a world in which the blessed are present to help everyone enter into the same blessed realm with them. In and through Jesus.

Sermon on the Mount Christians

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

It is puzzling to me, how Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (see link above: Matthew 5-7) is so easily relegated to another time, or as being under the law and not under grace. While Jesus’s context is different than today, which is after his death and resurrection, and his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, yet the new era of the gospel of God’s kingdom and grace in him was being revealed in significant part in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and is echoed elsewhere in New Testament letters which follow.

And I’ve found too that it seems to be a strict either/or. Either a tradition such as the Mennonites sees the Sermon on the Mount as basic to their lives, or many evangelical traditions really do not. An exception to the rule might be John R. W. Stott who wrote a book on it, as well as a Bible study, and in his last book emphasized taking up the cross and following Jesus. And I appreciate it when at least a church often cites scripture from the Sermon on the Mount.

What seems to mark a church or tradition as Sermon on the Mount Christianity as we might call it, is their view of the church and the state, and whether or not Christians should serve especially militarily in the state. A plain reading of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as taking in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a whole seems to me to suggest something different than what has occurred historically beginning with what is called the Constantinian turn, effective, even if different, right up to the present day as in the United States, where, while there’s separation of church and state, church is still allied with state in a way that seems to me to be foreign to the New Testament.

Of course there are arguments on the other side, such as the military centurions who had faith as in Jesus’s day. The gospel is open to all, and God’s grace meets us all where we’re at. I’ve lived most of my Christian life with Christians who take it for granted that Christians can serve in the military. And I’ve known a number of fine Christians who have.

I was raised in the tradition of Sermon on the Mount Christianity as a Mennonite, even though it may have been taken too much for granted, and not as indelibly impressed on us as it needed to be, though being so far removed now from that time, I can’t really say, but I’m wondering. My own inclination it to completely embrace the Sermon, which for me included a pacifist Christianity. And arguments supporting Christians going to war for the state, and possibly killing other Christians along with nonChristians seems to me to be rather far fetched. Yet with the Romans 13 seeming (to me) to authorize police force (not military might, as a study of that passage would bear out), although I see it in context with the end of Romans 12 and the rest of the New Testament in a way that still sees the state as other than the church, I think I’ve come to the place where I’m not sure if there can’t be some use of force to stop evildoers by Christians functioning as part of the state. In fact it seems for sure that at least God uses those in worldly governmental authority to do that when necessary. Although I hold to a position of no capital punishment under any circumstances in line with what Jesus himself taught contrary to the Old Testament law. But I still hold to the position, that Christians should not bear “the sword” in the function of the state.

Should Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) be central to our faith as Christians and the church? I think so, regardless of how we answer some of the thornier questions. Jesus’s teaching should characterize our walk and our life in this world as a witness to the one who is the gospel: to Jesus. That people might see the new life breaking in, in contrast to the old, and even in the face of the old, bearing the mark of the gospel, which is weakness to Greeks of old, and foolishness to Jews of old, and certainly remains counter to this day. The message of the cross. In and through Jesus.

the true blessedness

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:2b-12

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount explaining to his disciples and the crowd who really is blessed which was in marked contrast to the ideals held among the Jews and Gentiles(/Romans) at that time. Jesus begins to reveal both the counter-cultural aspect of God’s kingdom come in him, how it would run against the grain of the world, a hint to where he was going, what we might call the cross culture, which at that time was not only avoided, but even despised. Only the lowest of the low were nailed to crosses.

Of course, what we call the Beatitudes gets specific enough and is interesting.  According to the Collins Dictionary, beatitude means “perfect blessedness or happiness.” There has been debate on precisely how to translate the Koine Greek word transliterated makarios. What is meant is more than just happiness, but that is certainly a part of it. It would go much deeper though, than what the world often seems to mean by the word, happiness, which is often superficial at best, and deceptive at worst. It is definitely a blessing and resultant happiness that is again, in contrast to what the world holds dear. And yet often admired by the world, with the attempt to emulate such, which apart from Jesus cannot fulfill what Jesus is getting at, and cannot be Christian.

We do well to remain in them for a time, so that they can get into our mind, our heart, and out into our bones in how we live. It is definitely part of the lifelong ongoing process to which we’re called in this life, a kind of goal. But more apt, this is really a description of Jesus’s followers, those who are part of God’s kingdom come under the Savior and Lord, King Jesus.

This helps us to see what the Spirit is working in us, and what we’re to work out of that as believers and followers of Jesus. In and through him.

In Luke there is a parallel “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17-49), good to read along with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

finding the wealth in poverty

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

Scripture and especially in the way of Jesus is full of paradox in which the normal order of things seems upside down. What works in the world isn’t at all what works in the way of the Lord. Unless somehow the world’s values are imposed on the church, which all too often is the case, and which we need to guard against both in our personal lives, and together, in the life and witness of the church. Of course that’s not to say that somehow we don’t try to connect with others in following Paul’s example of being all things to all people to by all possible means save as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9).

The way Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount is especially near and dear to me, since most all of my life I’ve really struggled internally. And scripture and especially the gospel does answer much of that struggle, for example the Lord gives us his peace in his presence in the Father’s love by the Spirit which is for all of us, for all who believe.

I find over and over again that accepting the struggle and hard places of life, instead of trying to find an answer past or around them is key for me. I find the Lord in those places, his strength in my weakness. I also have found again and again that the Lord meets me in the depths, in the hardest places. And that I shouldn’t be afraid of either pressure or even controversy, both inevitable even as simple followers of Jesus. But I am more than happy for those times which are relaxing and in which there doesn’t seem to be a care in the world.

The poor in spirit is an apt description of myself and my own spirit and spiritual state. But I find that’s where faith is born, and grows, and even thrives. Not in a world in which everything is awesome with high fives. But in a place of struggle which encourages humility so that we’re cast upon God.

I get in trouble when I am trying to find the spiritual secret to getting out of my mess. But when I accept the poverty, then ironically I find the Lord’s hand to help me to a place that seems more like Jesus, in him. Paul’s thought in Philippians comes to mind here:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

Philippians 3

Over and over again, we find this to be true in the witness of scripture, and in life. With that comes the danger of caving in, and not having the right attitude in the midst of difficulty. Instead we need to press on in faith, and learn to rest in Jesus and the Father’s love in him. Accepting poverty so that we might find true riches in and through Jesus.

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.

the new covenant replacing the old covenant

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4; NRSV

When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished,” (John 19:30), not only did that mean his time and travail on the cross, but surely as well, and perhaps primarily, the work he had come to do, which would be vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.

What specifically was accomplished at that point was the end of the old covenant, and the beginning of the new covenant. This change is in terms of fulfillment and completion of the old, and out of that, the metamorphosis into the new.

Jesus by his death brought in a new order in which the requirement of the Law might be fully met in those who have faith and live according to the Spirit rather than the flesh (Romans 8). And so also is fulfilled the greater, deeper righteousness Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Far from relegating that sermon to a different time and people, the heart of it is fulfilled both in terms of the true meaning of the Law, and how it’s supposed to be lived out now. Of course we have to read that sermon in context, so that not every line in it lines up with today (e.g., the altar in it). But the essence of it is surely apt, fulfilled in the new covenant: an internal righteousness that goes right to the heart to change the life.

So there is both continuity and discontinuity. Surely a radical newness along with a fulfillment of the old covenant, which itself is actually called imperfect (Hebrews) and even flawed, seemingly because of its dependence on sinful humans for its fulfillment (Jeremiah). Jesus’s coming and specifically his death sealed in the new covenant, which is dependent on God and God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus and from that by the work of the Spirit mark the start of a new resurrection life, the new creation. If we doubt such a claim, thinking it too radical, and perhaps think that this awaits the after life, then we need to read again the entire New Testament and compare it with the Old Testament. All of this in and through Jesus.