Series: September 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"Be or Believe"
5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“Be Or Believe” – Sermon on the Mount 1
Last Sunday you heard our preacher Wilson Adkins ask a simple question, “Who is God?” He invited us to recognize how people’s experiences would affect how they answer that question. Let’s begin with a similar simple question today, “What is a Christian?” Answer that for yourself right now. Even write it on your bulletin somewhere, “A Christian is someone who ______” and then fill in the blank.
Today we begin a series that I hope may help you come to a more accessible, more helpful, and more actionable answer to that question. This will require some set up. Christianity increasingly feels neither accessible, helpful, nor actionable in a constructive way to people outside the tradition and increasingly to those who are in it or were recently in it. You heard Wilson’s statistics about people’s disproportionately low levels belief in a God in this part of the country and I could offer you similar statistics about regular church attendance.
I don’t believe the invitation of the present moment and context is do the machinations of church better, though there is room for improvement. Rather, the change being invited is far more fundamental, for much of Christianity has lost its way. The invitation for us is yes to evolve but also return to our source. The church has to reconsider what it is about.
Robin Meyers teaches in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University and is a United Church of Christ pastor. He has written a provocative book entitled, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. His title says a lot. Much of the church, and I’m speaking in broad terms, has long focused on venerating Jesus, lavishing praise on him, inviting him to become a personal savior. Lost along the way has been the central task of actually following him through the world except perhaps to proselytize. We can say “Jesus loves you,” but can we say “Jesus has shaped us, our priorities, and our values”?
Somewhere along the way being a Christian became believing certain things about Jesus rather than believing the kinds of things Jesus did and more importantly being committed to the kinds of things to which he was committed. You must accept Jesus is the Son of God, his mother was a virgin, he walked on water, he was raised from the dead, and if you don’t accept him you will not go to heaven. These may be easy for you to accept—God love you. How easy are they for others? More interestingly, how do these propositional beliefs shape us? How do they bless the world?
For a smaller number Christians on the other end of the spectrum, the response has been to distance from Jesus in a different way, avoiding him altogether out of some sense of embarrassment. Neither is the right instinct.
The gift Jesus offers is a way to be in the world that is born of divine love, one that articulates a different vision for how the world could be and then lives into it. Remember, the earliest Christians were not called people of the creed, for creeds didn’t exist; they were called “People of the Way.” The best way to learn of Jesus’ way is to listen to what he had to say.
This is where Myers points us, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world:
Strangely, we have come to a moment in human history when the message of the Sermon on the Mount could indeed save us, but it can no longer be heard above the din of dueling doctrines. Consider this: there is not a single word in that sermon about what to believe, only words about what to do. It is a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one. Yet three centuries later, when the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom, there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!
The Nicene Creed and the more familiar Apostles’ Creed were written for a reason and they have a place in our faith. They were brought into being as liturgical tools, used at times such as baptism. Our continued use of them connects us to all Christians of all times and places. They did provide a summation of the faith, but one can be faithful and raise question with the substance of that summation, or note absences in it. To use a critical eye, one can see how as the church became the official religion of the empire there would be incentive to decentralize the actual life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus challenged power that became corrupt and sided with the poor and marginalized. Jesus can be a threat to empire.
The earliest followers of Jesus didn’t follow him because of the things we would later in creeds. They likely hadn’t heard stories of his miraculous birth, and if they had it would not have been unique, for stories of virgin births were a common motif for royalty of the day. They didn’t follow Jesus because he was raised from the dead, because they began to follow him before he had died. They followed him because what he taught and what he did touched them on so deep a level that it moved them to change their lives. It invited them, as someone put it to me the other day, to a fuller consciousness and way of being in the world.
This is why today we begin a ten-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, the longest teaching of Jesus in Scripture. We will read every word and wrestle with earnestly. This will challenge us, it will comfort us, and it has the potential to bring us together. There is a myth that the way of Jesus just doesn’t resonate with people anymore. Fewer resonate with the way of many of his proclaimed followers. Fewer are able to get around some of the propositional claims about him. But, how many people do you know who truly take issue with what Jesus stood for – care of those in need, truth telling to abusive power, the power of forgiveness, nonviolence as a tool of resistance against injustice? Moreover, doubt and uncertainty don’t get in the way. Being unsure about the doctrine of the Trinity does not hinder your capacity to serve the poor, to advocate for the marginalized, to grow in loving your neighbor in meaningful ways.
Let’s, then, turn to Jesus’ teachings. The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘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 receive 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 for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 5:1-10)
What do you hear in those perhaps familiar but confounding words? Here is the first mystery I hear. It’s the first word. The Greek word means blessed; it could also mean happy, even more confounding. This makes no sense. Happy are those who mourn? In our world, those who mourn aren’t happy, those who are meek finish last in this world; those who are merciful get taken advantage of. One Christian response has been to say this is all about rewards for individuals in the afterlife, but I don’t think that is the other world with which Jesus was primarily consumed. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven, he was describing God’s desired way, a way of divine love and community, thriving communal life on earth.
Franciscan Richard Rohr calls the Sermon on the Mount “Jesus’ Alternative Plan” in his recent book of the same name. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ vision for how the world shouldbe, which relies on a total reversal of the world’s value system then, and, sadly, in many ways today. Another way of saying it is if we get the world right, those who are mourning now will be comforted; those who work for peaceful, a meaningful peace, will be celebrated as children of God; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (which is the same word as justice) will be filled. Jesus is laying out the outcomes of the re-creation of the world. This is the world you see and live into as you enter that fuller consciousness and leave behind a way that pits the self or one’s people against others.
Interestingly, Rohr teaches that when you start to inhabit that consciousness, you do experience a shift in orientation to this present world, even its challenges and injustice. You can find a place of gratitude in the face of hardship, peace or calm in the midst of storms, joy at the heart of trials. It makes no sense by the ways of this world, but neither does Jesus. Once you see it, you start to reap the blessings, the blessedness of the new world even before it has fully arrived.
I can’t emphasize enough how dramatic and sweeping this vision of Jesus is. It was not aimed at making Jews (Christians, of course, didn’t exist as a religion yet) just kinder, gentler Roman citizens. That’s how we often talk about and think of faith today, that it’s about being a 10% nicer version of the cultural norm. No, Jesus is talking about a new world not just a new person, a new creation, a creation he embodies in his person. Rohr turns to Jesus’ own metaphor of not putting new wine in old wine skins. If you are going to produce new wine, new ways of being together, the container, the society will change, because otherwise it will burst. Rather than just focusing on the individual, in this sermon, Jesus is inviting us to consider the whole. This is a big shift for some Christians who never thought of their faith as having implications beyond themselves.
If you think, wait a minute this is feeling like a lot, like imposing our way on the world, which will just keep pushing people away, I submit to you quite the opposite is true. First, this is not our way. It is the way to which we are pointed by Jesus, and returning to his teachings can keep us honest. Second, when did Jesus impose his way on others? He allowed others to take even his life because of their way. Third, again, when have you heard objection to the substance of Jesus’ teachings—I’m not talking about prayer in school, or proselytizing—the substance of Jesus’ teachings? If anything, this has the potential to connect with and appeal to insiders and outsiders alike. I can’t tell you how many times I have come across people who say some version of “Well, I’m not sure about this Jesus. I’m more concerned with peace and justice, about poverty and human rights.” I want to scream (nonviolently), “Well, then Jesus is kind of your guy!” Read the Sermon on the Mount.
That’s something I recommend to us all. Read the Sermon on the Mount. It’s in Matthew chapters 5-11. Read it every week, read it every day. Get it into you. Park it in a central place in your life and see what happens. As you read it notice what is in it, and just as importantly, maybe more importantly what is not in there. It may well create a big shift in you.
Ask yourself again, now, and again. Look down at what you wrote on your bulletin earlier. “What is a Christian?” Is it the same answer? Ask it again and again over these next ten weeks and watch it change and watch what we can be about grow.