A steady stream of people had paraded before him throughout the whole region of Galilee. Some needed healing, some needed exorcism, some were just curious to find out what this new preacher had to say. They all needed hope. He gave them health, he gave sanity and he gave them hope, until exhausted, he slipped away up the mountain side and sat, quietly, pondering the meaning of this people and this message he bore. His disciples sat before him.
In a series of short lessons, he was about to turn their understanding of the universe on its head. They expected him to say something about establishing God’s Reign. They expected him to declare himself the Messiah, the long Promised One who would free them from their enemies. He gave them all that, but his words were not what they or we would expect. “Blessed,” he began, “are those who know they are poor. Blessed are those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger after righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who create peace, those who are persecuted for the sake of the truth. These are the ones who will see the Kingdom of God.” Who could live like this?
For this was a strange, upside down value system. Two and a half millennia of Hebrew thinking went out the window that day. There was no mention of taking their land back by force, no mention of the promises to Abraham or Moses, no hope of glory for an embittered people. Instead he offered them values that flew in the face of scripture, reason and tradition. Everyone knew that God blessed the righteous and made them prosper, that meekness was another word for weakness, that war was necessary to keep a free people free and to emancipate the oppressed. And so we have come to view Jesus’ words as did his hearer’s that day: a nice theory, a philosophy of ascetics who drank goat’s milk from skin bottles or wizened little nuns who minister to the unwashed masses of heathens. It’s no way to live, no way to survive in a world that requires power to succeed and punishes anyone who exhibits the faintest weakness. Who could live like this?
Commentators have long explained away Jesus’ teaching on the mountain as a parenthetical anomaly. Did he not after all, turn over the tables of the moneychangers and chase them from the Temple? Did he not permit his followers to take swords on the night of his betrayal?
The first followers of Jesus after Easter tried to live for awhile this way. But life intruded and the real world was a wild and untamed place. Within a few generations, Christians were found at every level of the Roman Empire, even fighting its wars under a cross-emblazoned banner, having accepted that Jesus had some really interesting ideas, but he obviously never had to deal with these people that we have to deal with. Besides, he was the Son of God, he never intended for us to live according to these words. Who could live like this?
In what has become a marvel of modern marketing and literature Christian writer Tim LaHaye has written a series of thrillers based on the Revelation to John. In them he weaves a story of the people who are “left behind” after the Rapture of Christians, including a contingent of 144,000 Jewish evangelists, must struggle with an evil world ruler on a globe plagued by a series of cataclysms in a battle to the death. His books, which have sold more than any other work of fiction, are exciting, intricately woven and devoured by both believers and non-believers. They are also false. The Book of Revelation is not some kind of esoteric code book that reveals the events leading to the end of the world. It is a message to the people who lived the upside down values of God’s Reign in a world which belittles those values. It’s supposed to be a message to us.
Phillip Turner, former Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and current Vice President of the Anglican Communion Institute, in the current issue of First Things, satirizes the content of contemporary Episcopal preaching as a mealy-mouthed recitation of the message “God is love; God’s love is inclusive; God acts in justice to see that everyone is included; we therefore ought to be co-actors and co-creators with God to make the world over in inclusivity.” Father Turner’s satire notwithstanding, the message of Jesus has just that counterintuitive thrust: God is love, God’s love is inclusive, God does act in justice to see that everyone is included. We ought to be co-actors and co-creators of a new, upside-down system. The problem is that most people, including most Christians, are neither acting nor creating according to God’s revelation wherein mourners are comforted, meekness is strength and peacemaking ends conflict. This is not mealy-mouthed: it is a radical renunciation of all that this world considers true. Who could live this way?
At our diocesan convention last week, wherein many good things came to pass, including a decisive vote to support Bishop Henderson’s leadership in the midst of the current crisis in our communion surrounding sexuality, there was for me, and for my fellow deacons, one very disappointing moment. A resolution was introduced which proclaimed that “war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because some feared that this was a political statement, the resolution was defeated.
Guess what? The Sermon on the Mountain is a political statement. The good news of God’s Reign is a political statement. The casting out of the moneychangers was a political statement. The murder of Jesus by the Roman authorities was a political statement. And all the armies that the kingdoms, republics and empires the world could muster could not stop the most outrageous political statement of all: the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But who can live this way?
Who can live as poor in spirit? Those who know that all the money in the world does not buy another minute of life.
Who can live as mourners? Those who know that human life is sacred and that every death diminishes us all.
Who can live as meek? Those who know that success in life comes not from their own good luck or hard work, but from the One who bestows all blessings.
Who can live with a hunger and thirst for righteousness? Those whose heart is rent at injustice and oppression by anyone created in the image of God against any creation of God.
Who can live as merciful? Those who forgive even the darkest of sins, even as their own have been forgiven.
Who can live as pure in heart? Those whose vision of themselves is so unclouded that they reveal the image of Christ within them.
Who can live as peacemakers? Those who will not use war and violence to settle conflict, but who strive to bring justice for all to reality.
Who can live as persecuted and reviled? Those who live out before all these values of Jesus.
In central Bosnia there stands a two-sided bronze cross, high on a hill, erected by the Franciscans. One side is the resurrected Christ in full glory. The other side shows Christ as eternal But the people there prefer the judgment side. Fifteen hundred civilians were killed in that area during the war—neighbor against neighbor. Every family was scarred. “When people see this cross, they understand that Jesus will be the judge of the wrongs committed, not them,” explains a local missionary. “This symbol of Christ as judge becomes a liberation for them. They are free to begin the act of resurrection.” That is the politics of Jesus and the Bosnian Christians are living it out.
In South Africa, led by the Church, the nation is involved in a search for truth of what happened during the years of apartheid. Who was responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of South Africans? Who should pay for those deaths? The Church, striving to be living out the values of Christ’s Sermon, reminds the nation: “All of us have paid and will pay until every vestige of this hateful system is removed.” Reconciliation and forgiveness is the goal, not vengeance. The mourners are blessed, the peacemakers become the children of God.
Ben Sirach writes that the saints are ordinary people living extraordinary lives. While we may seek to praise the famous ones, the great heroes of this and other ages, it is the quiet faithfulness of the ordinary that emerges as heroic. John describes the great multitude that from every tribe and tongue and nation of the world. What binds them together is not their great acts, but a simple one: by their faith they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
What the Sermon on the Mount and the vision of the Great Multitude mean is simply this: Jesus doesn’t care who you are, how much money you have, where your house is. Jesus doesn’t care what lies in your past, whom you’ve slept with, what you have done to hurt other people. He cares that you mourn now over injustice, that you know your money buys nothing that lasts forever, that you’re hungry for what’s right and true and pure, that you want peace. Who can live like this? We can, if only we will.