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.

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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.

being a child of the Father in the family of our Lord

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5

Jesus’s words on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; see also the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6) are even now, after reading or hearing them many times still radical to our ears. And he says that we’re to build our lives on those words. They are understood essentially through where he was heading, the cross. And we in him are to live cross-shaped lives. We’re crucified with Christ already, so that his life might be lived out in and through us.

I think it’s rather hard for us where I live to readily identify with Jesus’s words here. After all, when are we really persecuted? Who are our persecutors? It seems by and large in the society in which we live, the worst we face is too often from each other. As we see in the New Testament, it’s not like believers always get along. There are family squabbles along the way, to be sure. And that’s another subject entirely, though an important one.

As we identify with Christ in this world, we may in more subtle ways where I live suffer persecution by being marginalized and ridiculed, not included, maybe sometimes not getting the promotion we thought we deserved. At any rate, Jesus by the Spirit will teach us along the way. As we continue in him to seek to love all in the way of the cross. And so be made more and more into the family likeness of our Father in and through our Lord.

where is our place as God’s people in King Jesus in the political process of this world?

Jesus is Lord. Neither Caesar, nor the current world power, the United States is. But since we live in a democracy which in theory is a government of “we the people,” normally we at least enter into the conversation on what is happening on the American political front. But we too often align ourselves on one side or the other, so that we’re known as Christians- not as those devoted to the politics of Jesus and God’s grace and kingdom come in him, but instead to the politics of the right, or the left (or even the center) of the world.

There are all kinds of problems in this, but first and foremost is our failure to grasp that the gospel itself is political, because the good news of God in Jesus is about a Messiah who is King of kings, and Lord of lords, and who reigns somehow in and through the church (Ephesians 1). This reign is destined to take over the earth only when he returns, but nevertheless is present now in a people who are to be marked as followers of the Way in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, and who live by the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the grace and kingdom of God. That may seem like a tall, indeed impossible order, but it is possible by God’s grace, in fact that is to what we are called.

I for one hold not only a certain respect, but also appreciation for the United States of which I am a citizen. Yes, it has its faults as has always been the case, and some of them are quite serious. But in a fallen world, there is much to be thankful for when one can worship in freedom, and have the opportunities granted here. Yes, for some it’s much harder, no doubt. And we have to be careful not to idolize any state, so that we end up making Caesar Lord, instead of giving him the deference due under the Lordship of Christ.

We in Jesus will line up in every way possible on the American political spectrum, surely mostly due to our take on and evaluation of the issues. What we must not lose sight of is what’s most important of all, in fact what we in Jesus are called to live by as his followers and witnesses in this world. In doing so, we can help the kingdoms of this world the way the Jewish exiles of old were to pray for the good of the kingdom where they lived, so that in its prosperity, they too would prosper, of course through the blessing and mercy of God.

We care, but we are different. Read the Sermon on the Mount again (Matthew 5-7) if you doubt that. And read the entire New (Final) Testament, and keep reading it. Of course keep reading the Old (First) Testament as well. The more we do this, the better for our witness to Jesus and the gospel, the good news in him. And the better for the nation where we live. We are citizens of heaven, first and foremost, the heaven that is destined to come down to earth in Jesus, and is lived out now in the way of Jesus. A way counter to, yet for the actual good of the present order of this world. So that we hope for the good of the nation in which we live, as well as the good of all other nations. But live as those whose one Lord is Jesus.

the missing sermon from the Bible

I am increasingly convinced that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; see his corresponding Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6) is essentially off the radar for many Christians, not a real consideration at all. And the ironic thing is that Jesus ends that sermon (both sermons) with the analogy of the man who built his house either on the rock, or on sand. That this teaching from our Lord is actually foundational.

I believe our heart by the Holy Spirit is often better than our heads. Christians often have a kind of sixth sense, so to speak, by the Spirit, so that they do much better in life, akin for example to what our Lord says about loving our enemies, etc., in the sermon. And those whose theology actually takes it out of consideration can be grace-filled, loving believers. But good theology, Biblical interpretation, and God’s written word matters. We need to be in all of it from Genesis through Revelation. And certain passages need to be underlined and probably emphasized depending on the culture in which one lives. Surely the Sermon on the Mount fills a needed dearth among many Christians in the United States.

We must beware of seeking to apply these words of our Lord to nations and unbelievers. Rather, they are for believers and followers of Jesus. But we must apply them, indeed. We can respect and want the US Constitution and foundation for this nation to be adhered to for the continuation of this liberal democratic state, liberal not in the way spoken of today, but according to what was meant at the nation’s inception, though much of what carries over from that might logically follow. But for us in Jesus, we need to be in all of the word, and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount should certainly be a staple of our thinking and living. Along with my psalm, Old/First Testament, and New/Final Testament reading, I read from either the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon on the Plain, daily. Hopefully more and more of that will soak in and make a difference. Something for the entire church to help make the difference that’s needed in our lives and witness in and through Jesus.

 

a thought on Revelation

I just finished going slowly through the book of Revelation. It is quite heavy, but appropriate, when we consider just how heavy the world is, if we pay any attention to the news at all. It is not exactly nice, as appropriate for a bedtime story for children. Yet it addresses real evil, and brings in the true and final salvation for the healing and flourishing of all.

When reading through this book, it’s not like we should just see it as metaphorical, and not really happening. I don’t believe world events will happen precisely as given in the book, because the book is chalk full of symbols, and symbolic imagery. Awesome, world-changing and shaping events will take place, and evil will at a point be purged, but we need to avoid what is surely the crass literalism of the “left behind” approach.

One is struck with just how strongly the Revelation shakes out to be a fulfillment in the sense of ending of the entire Bible, of the First (“Old”) Testament, as well as the Final (“New”) Testament. No one should think they are a faithful Bible reader and student if they don’t take the entire Bible seriously from Genesis through Revelation, of course including everything in between. Some things might not appeal to us, we might not get it, but we need to hang in there, and try to understand, and keep working at it over the long haul, little by little.

Revelation reminds us of many biblical themes, like salvation in the final sense, the kingdom of the world as in the world system, persecution of those who hold to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, the kingdom of God in King Jesus, the goal of all creation with strong parallels to Genesis, etc.

It is a hard book to read, probably for me  because it hits up against my Modernist Enlightenment influenced sensibilities, and one might even say, Anabaptist tendencies rooted in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The latter takes evil seriously, and simply takes the way of the Lamb in opposing it. The former cringes at the thought of actual evil (“we can educate it away”), and even more against the notion of judgment. And there’s the broken down systems of justice in our world today, perhaps adding to a cynical view of traditional approaches. Therefore, though a heavy read, Revelation is surely a much needed read for us today.

So if there’s a next time for me to go over Revelation, I hope by God’s grace to be more ready, and hopefully will be able to take more in, so that along with others, we can in faith faithfully endure through Jesus to the very end.