Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Transfiguration- Jesus, as he is

Sometimes our ideas of who someone is can overshadow the person. Sometimes we think we know someone, but then we get new information that is hard to fit with our idea of who that person is. Maybe we find out the person has been to jail, suddenly we wonder if we really know that person. Sometimes our prejudice can cause us to be surprised when we learn that our cab driver was a medical doctor back in the country they moved from. Our assumptions can sometimes overshadow the person to the point that we don’t really see them.

Something similar happened to the Apostle Peter, who is often the spokesperson for the disciples. In the chapter before our Gospel reading today (ch 16) we witness an interesting conversation between Jesus and the disciples. They are walking along the road and Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them "who do people say that the son of man is?" They respond by saying "some say John the Baptist [who had been killed], but others say Elijah, and still others say one of the prophets?"

In our world we would get a variety of answers to the question, "Who do people say Jesus is?" There are no shortage of positions. An enlightened being- like Buddha. A wizard who can do magnificent miracles. Others might say that Jesus was an alien in disguise. Some think Jesus was just an idealistic young man. Others believe Jesus was an anti-Roman revolutionary. And we could go on and on. I'm sure you've heard your share of answers to the question, "who do people say Jesus is?"

After the disciples answer, Jesus turns and asks them a more important question. His second question is not about what people say, but what they say as his disciples. Who do they say he is? Saying what others believe can be a way of distancing ourselves. It can allow us to sit on the fence and not make a decision. Jesus turns and asks his disciples (and us), "who do you say that I am?" This is a more personal question. Our answer will have implications for our lives. If we answer, "A nice young man who tried to teach people to be nice" that might not impact our lives much. But if we answer, "My Lord, and My God" then our lives will need to be changed to match than belief. A command coming from a “nice young man who tried to teach people to be nice” will be treated like a suggestion that can be ignored. A command coming from someone we call the “Lord” of our life and the world cannot be disobeyed without turning us into liars and hypocrites.

Peter spoke up saying, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God". Jesus praises Peter for his answer saying it was a revelation from the Father in heaven. It was the right answer. … But something strange happens after this. Right after Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus praises him for it, Jesus then starts teaching about how he will suffer in Jerusalem at the hands of the authorities and be killed. … In Peter’s mind there was no room for this image of a messiah who suffers and dies at the hands his enemies. To Peter the Messiah is someone who is a great military leader. He leads his followers to reclaim their land from the oppressive Roman forces. He assumes leadership of the temple and the nation. That is what the messiah does. He liberates the people from oppression. A suffering and dying messiah doesn’t make sense to Peter or to most Jews of the time.

Peter pulls Jesus aside to correct him, "God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you." Peter was persistent and passionate in rebuking and correcting the one he called “Lord”. “Rebuke” is a strong word. I don’t know if any of you have been rebuked lately, but it is the kind of thing that happens to you as a child when you get some hair brained idea that is going to get someone hurt. Being rebuked is not comfortable.

Jesus responds strongly, "get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Talk about rebuke! … Peter is imposing his image of the messiah onto Jesus. Peter just couldn't combine the image of suffering and death with his image of the messiah. He either had to change Jesus, or change his idea of messiah.

Of course we do this to Jesus all the time- knowingly or not. We impose our image of who we think he is onto him. We don't see him as he is, we try to make him into someone else. Often we emphasize one aspect of who he is and diminish or forget about the rest, which skews our image of him. Some might only see Jesus as dealing with forgiveness of sins and that's it. While this is true, he also wants us to be transformed and to transform the world as well. Some will emphasize other teachings of Jesus and will make him into a kind of social activist who stands up for the rights of minorities. While this is also a part of the image of Jesus, it is not the whole picture. We often decide on the kind of Jesus we would like to follow and then we impose that idea onto him, rather than following Jesus as he presents himself to us.

That's what the Transfiguration is about. It is about showing the closest disciples- Peter, James and John- who he is. Right after Jesus speaks about how he has to suffer in Jerusalem, which Peter is not able to accept, they go up a mountain. Mountains to ancient people were almost like suburbs of heaven. That's why they are often the place where people go to meet God. And our modern minds might think that's a bit silly, but when you stand on top of a mountain you can start to get a sense of why people might have thought that way. So Jesus takes his three closest disciples up the mountain.

Suddenly they see Jesus transfigured. He is changed. He is transformed. He is shining- glowing like the sun. Even his clothes are bright. He looks like a heavenly being, which is of course who he is. He came from heaven, he existed before his own birth. … The Eastern Orthodox Church sees the transfiguration as a huge deal. They see this as Jesus revealing his divinity- Jesus is God. It is the revealing of who he actually is. Divine light shines from him. What they experience is a revelation. Something hidden is revealed and the disciples see Jesus as he truly is.

This is a bit of a side note, but this is also important to the Orthodox because we are supposed to be constantly growing into the image of Jesus. Getting a clear image of Jesus also gives us an image of God’s desire and goal for our life. There are many stories about Orthodox saints that begin to shine with a divine light. The 19th century Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, was being interviewed by a man named Nicholas Motovilov when light began shining through his face. Nicolas recounts the experience saying, 
“Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?’ I replied: ‘I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’ … After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!”[1]

The Orthodox see the goal of human life as being filled with divinity. They will describe it like a piece of iron that is placed in the fire and begins to glow with the energy of the fire. It is still iron, but it has taken on qualities of the fire. So we remain human, but are filled with divine energy and take on qualities of divinity. This is what the Orthodox think when their hear Paul's teaching to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" 
(Rom 13:14).

Two others appear with Jesus- They see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses and Elijah both had experiences with God on mountains. Their appearance shows that what Jesus is doing is in line with what God has always been doing. What Jesus is doing is supported by the representatives of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Jesus is not starting a new religion though he is leading God's followers to a new covenant- a new stage in their life with God.

Peter, not knowing what to do, but feeling he should do something speaks up. "Should I set up three tents- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?" even this shows that Peter still isn't getting it. Peter might be thinking that his image of the messiah as the warrior-ruler is coming true. Tonight they set up camp and tomorrow they head to Jerusalem with Moses and Elijah to set up the kingdom. But of course that still leaves out the unpleasant suffering bit that Peter wanted to forget about before.

While Peter is still speaking a bright cloud- the Glory of God that rested on Mt. Sinai and filled the temple- surrounds them, and they hear a voice, "This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" They hear the voice of God the Father and he declares that He has a special and intimate relationship with Jesus. He is His beloved Son. These words echo the words we hear at Jesus’ baptism. The disciples are reassured that Jesus is indeed in line with God's will.

I'm sure the Father's last words echo in Peter's ears- "Listen to him". Peter, who rebuked the one he called “Lord”. God says, "listen to him". I'm sure that if you hear God tell you to listen to someone your ears would be especially attentive to the next sounds that come out of the person's mouth. And what does Jesus say next? First he says, "Get up and do not be afraid". Then he tells them to keep this experience secret until he is raised from the dead. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, and then mentions his own death, which was the truth Peter was unwilling to accept.

It can be easy to poke fun at the disciples as they stumble around trying to figure out who Jesus is, but we really aren't all that different. There are parts of who Jesus is that we don't want to see. There are parts about Jesus we want to emphasize and follow, but there are also parts we are just unwilling to incorporate into our life. At that point we have to ask ourselves what we mean when we call Jesus our “Lord”. Is it just a word? Or, do we actually believe he has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Does he actually know the best way to be human? Or do we know better than him?

Perhaps as we prepare to enter into Lent we could hear the Father's words with a new kind of gravity, “Listen to Him!” Perhaps we can allow those words to change how we hear every Gospel reading as we hear with hearts that desire to live out his teachings. Perhaps we can reconsider what we mean when we call Jesus "Lord". AMEN

[1] http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx

Sunday, 19 February 2017

enemy love

These teachings of Jesus are among the most challenging words he ever spoke. He says, 
“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. ‘You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I suspect many of us hear those words, but then quietly reject them as not livable. It is anti-intuitive to love your enemy. Is it even possible? What do we mean by “love” in that context? We hear Jesus say to turn the other cheek when struck and we suspect that our fist would be halfway to the other person’s nose before we have really had a chance to start thinking at all. We hear Jesus saying give to everyone who asks and we suspect we could go broke quite easily following that command. So what many Christians do is politely and quietly put these teachings away as nice words, but don’t seriously consider them realistic and livable.

Now “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” we get. It is from Exodus 21:24. There we read 
“if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-24).
 We get that. Someone harms you so that you lose an eye, well you can’t kill them, but you can take their eye. The Old Testament is often about managing sin. It is about putting boundaries on the influence and damage of sin. So someone harms you and you lose a tooth, you can’t get revenge by killing the person. Otherwise, one sin could turn into many more. If you escalate by killing the person who knocked out your tooth, then their family retaliates against you and soon we have a feud. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was meant to put limits on retaliation. It limits the effects of sin.

If you take away the context though and you just think about the act of taking a person’s eye, or tooth, we see that it is an act of destruction. One anonymous Church Father said, 
“If therefore we begin … to return evil for evil to everyone, we are all made evil.”
Jesus wants us to live in the kingdom right now. He wants us to behave as citizens of the kingdom now. So in everything we do we need to ask ourselves, is this the kind of act that we would find in God’s kingdom? Is a person who lives in the kingdom of God the kind of person that can gouge out a person’s eye in revenge? … Destructive actions like taking a person’s eye out do not have a place in that kingdom. Those acts of destruction belong outside the kingdom, so participating in them does something to us and our ability to live in the kingdom Jesus speaks about. We are suddenly acting like people of the world (that organizes itself apart from God), rather than kingdom people. It’s not about behavior as much as it is about our heart. It’s not about faking it. It is about the kind of person we are.

We shouldn’t think that Jesus’ words are just letting evil have its way, rather Jesus just knew that when we use fire to fight fire we are likely to have a giant fire. We need a different way of reacting in the kingdom. We need water, not more fire. … Put yourself in the attacker’s position if you hit someone and then they hit you back, you suddenly feel very justified in hitting them again. But if you hit someone and they don’t hit you back it is usually harder to feel justified in hitting them again.

Some, like Bishop NT Wright, believe that there is strategy behind Jesus’ words. If someone were to strike you on your right cheek it probably meant they struck you with the back of their hand. This was not only a violent act, but it was insulting as well. It was an action that declared you were an inferior. In that culture, it is the way someone might treat a slave, a child, or a woman. What Jesus says isn’t “run away”, nor is it “hit back”. Jesus says to face them and turn to them the other cheek. To hit you on the other cheek with their right hand means suddenly the person has to treat you as an equal, rather than as an inferior.

Gandhi was incredibly inspired by these words of Jesus. He believed that not hitting back and looking the attacker in the eye called out the deeper humanity of the attacker. Gandhi is probably the person that comes to mind for most people when we think about the reality of living these words out. It is ironic that a Hindu man has become iconic of living out these words of Jesus. The other famous example is The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Christian minister, but who also wrote that Gandhi’s teachings were “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change”. It was a Hindu man who taught the Christian minister that the words of Christ could be lived. …

Moving to the next example, Jesus tells us that when a powerful enemy tries to sue us for our coat, then we should give him our cloak as well. Bishop Wright says that in a culture where people usually only had those two garments your nakedness would expose the shameful act of the person suing you. This powerful person is reducing the poor to a pitiful situation. It exposes what kind of a person they are- greedy and willing to take advantage of the poor. …

Bishop Wright also says that under Roman law a Roman soldier was allowed to force a person to carry a load, but they could only force them to carry it one mile. The law strictly forbade forcing someone to carry it further than a mile. So if you carried it two miles a couple things would happen. One, is that the soldier would begin wondering what kind of a person this is and why they are doing this. But secondly, the soldier might begin worrying that his superior officer might find out and punish him. So there is probably more to Jesus’ examples than meet the eye.

This reminds me a bit of Jigoro Kano, who was the founder of Judo. It has been said that wrestling him was like wrestling an empty jacket. He just went with whatever force was being used on him. If you wanted to push him, he could use that force. If you wanted to pull him, well, he can use that force too. He would just go with it, absorb it, and use it to his advantage. But he avoided meeting force with opposing force.

I don’t think Jesus meant these as rules to blindly follow, but examples of Kingdom living. The early church father Theodore of Heraclea (355ad) says, 
“he does not command to give to everyone who asks without exception, even if one has nothing to give, for that is impossible. Nor does he instruct us, if we have plenty, to give to someone who asks with a bad motive. For the donation then goes for evil things. … For why is it said [in Acts 4:35] concerning the apostles that ‘distribution was made to each as any had need’? This tells us that they gave not so much to those who simply asked but that they provided for others on the basis of need.” 
So the early church understood that these were complicated issues.

The examples Jesus gives are examples of the kinds of things we might do as children of God as we attempt to imitate the holiness and generosity of our heavenly Father. They show that our hope is not found in our earthly safety because we will all die. Our hope is not found in our possessions, because they can be easily stolen from us. These examples show our hope is in God.

The kingdom way that Jesus describes is also about our own spiritual health. Loving our enemy benefits our enemy, but it also benefits us. If we sit in our hatred of our enemy we are really only hurting ourselves. The same anonymous church father said, 
“I think that Christ ordered these things not so much for our enemies as for us: not because enemies are fit to be loved by others but because we are not fit to hate anyone. For hatred is the prodigy of dark places. Wherever it resides, it sullies the beauty of sound sense. Therefore not only does Christ order us to love our enemies for the sake of cherishing them but also for the sake of driving away from ourselves what is bad for us. … If you merely hate [your enemy], you have hurt yourself more in the spirit than you have hurt him in the flesh. Perhaps you don’t harm him at all by hating him. But you surely tear yourself apart. If then you are benevolent to an enemy, you have rather spared yourself than him”.[1]

One of my favorite teachers, Dallas Willard, once commented that if we think loving our enemies seems impossible we should look at the lives of those who hate their enemies. Perhaps we could look to Palestine and Israel, or the Hatfields and McCoys. Then we can ask ourselves which way of living seems more desirable- hating our enemies or loving them?

We should also remember that Jesus is not asking us to do anything he himself didn’t do. Jesus lived the kingdom life. Bishop Wright says, 
“When they mocked him, he didn’t respond. When they challenged him, he told quizzical, sometimes humorous, stories that forced them to think differently. When they struck him, he took the pain. When they put the worst bit of Roman equipment on his back- the heavy cross- piece on which he would be killed- he carried it out of the city to the place of his own execution. When he nailed him to the cross, he prayed for them”.
 Jesus asks his followers to live the way he did. And he promises that it will lead where it led him- to resurrection and new eternal life.

[1] Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 13- pg 56:702. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Anger- Mat 5

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) is where Jesus defines what it looks like to be his disciple. He is describing life in the Kingdom of God. He is describing the character of someone who belongs in that kingdom. In the Sermon Jesus describes a person who is not controlled by the divisive force of anger; who treats lust as seriously as adultery; who doesn’t abandon and leave vulnerable a person they have been married to; a person whose word can be trusted without extra oaths and contracts; who doesn’t seek revenge; who even loves their enemies; who gives to the needy secretly without needing to be recognized for it; by using money as a tool to be used rather than a master to be served; by the reality of God in our lives eclipsing the anxieties about the necessities of life; who doesn’t judge others when they still have so much wrong with their your own lives. What Jesus is describing in the Sermon is life as it was meant to be. He is describing the characteristics of someone living in the kingdom of God- a person as they were created to be.

The alternative starts to look hellish in comparison. The opposite of the Sermon on the Mount is a life controlled by anger, and filled with unbridled lust. It is a life of broken relationships and lies. It is a life full of the desire for revenge, the constant need for people’s approval and reassurance. It is a life of service to money, and full of anxiety about the necessities of life. It is a life full of judging, hoping we can ignore our own failings. That sounds like a hellish life. It is the opposite of the kingdom life Jesus describes.

To show how seriously Jesus takes this Kingdom character, at the end of the Sermon Jesus says, 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:21-23).
 Jesus is saying that we can do miraculous things like cast out demons, or prophesy, or other miraculous works of power, but if we are not marked by these kingdom characteristics then it was as if we didn’t know Jesus as all, or worse, as if he didn’t know us. The Sermon on the Mount cannot be ignored if we want to consider ourselves followers of Christ.

For the last couple of weeks parts of the Sermon on the Mount have been read as the Gospel reading. This week the Sermon on the Mount continues as Jesus teaches about anger, lust, and lying. I want to focus on anger today. Lust is very pervasive in our culture and it is important to talk about, but there is still a sense of shame attached to it that causes us to resist lust to a degree. It is still embarrassing, at least for Christians. I should say that Jesus is not talking about a sexual thought that pops into your mind. It is about holding onto that thought rather than letting it go. Lying still has a sense of shame attached to it as well. We would be embarrassed to be caught in a lie. Generally we strive to be honest people. Anger doesn’t seem to have been given the same kind of attention in the church so we will look a bit more specifically at anger this morning.

Jesus says, 
"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matt 5:21-22).
 Jesus is getting to the heart of the Law about not murdering. How do you not murder? … How many murders would happen if people didn’t allow their anger to take control of them? … Very few if any. So the heart of the Law telling us to not murder has to do with anger and contempt.

Just to define what we are talking about, Anger is a natural emotion. Internally there isn’t anything wrong with anger that sparks up in us. It lets us know that something we value has been violated. Anger arises when something gets in the way of our will. Anger is often evidence of a wounded ego. There is often a self-righteousness that is part of Anger. Anger is self-justifying. No one feels angry and sees both sides clearly. In anger one side is right and the other side is wrong. Anger becomes sinful when we hold onto it and allow it space in our minds. We turn over the event that made us angry and allow ourselves to grow angrier and angrier. Anger that becomes normalized can become contempt and resentment. Contempt is the feeling that a person is worthless, or deserving of scorn. When this anger or contempt is turned outward in action or words it becomes wrath. Wrath is an act of destruction towards someone motivated by anger.

We can see an intensification in what Jesus teaches here. First, he says holding onto anger makes you liable for judgement. Then it gets a little stronger. If you insult someone by speaking contemptuously to them you will be liable to the council. Here he uses the word “raca”, which might come from the noise used to gather saliva before you spit on someone. Then it gets even more intense. If you say “you fool”, which in the ancient world was about the most demeaning, dismissing, contemptuous thing you could call someone, you are liable to the fire of hell (Matt 5:21-22). This isn’t about avoiding those exact words, “you fool” or “raca”. We completely miss the point if that’s what we think. This is about the outward and attacking expression of contempt and anger. You can see that the next step in his list here might be murder, and it all starts with holding onto anger. So hopefully we can begin to see why Jesus and his disciples and the many Christians who followed told us to beware of anger. In the letter to the Colossians it says, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Col 3:8). I could go through many examples of the early church fathers warning against anger here as well. With very few exceptions they thought outward expressions of anger were to be avoided. Those who left a little room were very selective about the circumstances where it might be okay.

To give ourselves permission, we sometimes want to turn to examples where we think Jesus or God are angry. My belief is that Jesus is able to hold anger in a way we are not. He has the character to use it in a way that isn’t sinful. Likewise God’s anger is not a human anger. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Is 55:8). So any time we talk about God’s anger it is really by analogy, but they aren’t necessarily the exact same.

We want to hang onto our anger for a variety of reasons. We feel very justified and righteous in our anger. The bad person needs to be dealt with. We feel like our anger is about justice. If I don’t hold onto my anger justice won’t be done, or they will get away with what they did. The problem is that scripture speaks directly against that. The letter of James says, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). So according to the Bible, whatever we think we are accomplishing with our anger we should ask ourselves if we can’t actually accomplish it better without anger. Anger turned outward is destructive. You can feel hurt just knowing someone is angry at you. You might even get angry at them for their anger towards you. Paul tells us in the letter to the Ephesians that holding onto anger is to give the devil a foothold in your life (Eph 4:26-27).

So what do we do? (really this could be a whole series of sermons) We don’t just repress it (that’s another way of holding onto it). We have to find ways of transforming it. Jesus teaches that our main motivation must be a strong and persistent love. It doesn’t mean we start there, but that is where Jesus wants us to get to. That is the destination. So maybe we start in small ways, dealing with minor annoyances as we prepare for the bigger causes of anger that come our way.

To transform our anger we can learn to stop when we feel that first burst of anger arise in us. We breathe, and recognize the anger. … Then, perhaps, we focus on the life of Jesus, especially his crucifixion, and we can see him forgiving his enemies from the cross. If, through prayer, we can really enter into that moment, then it might put into perspective our anger at the person who cut us off in traffic. Of course we build up from those trivial sources of anger to more intense and personal causes of anger. We might also recall times that we have done something careless, or offended someone, and others have been gentle and patient with us. We could ask what value our anger is adding to the situation. Might it be better to use this situation as an opportunity to practice patience? Is there any other way to learn patience? Are we assuming we know the motivations of the other person? Is there a possibility we are mistaken? We can practice surrendering our will to God when things don’t go our way. We can practice focusing on thanksgiving to God rather than complaining that things aren’t how we think they should be. Thomas Merton once said, 
"We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God."
 So dealing with anger is really about our whole lives with God. It is about dealing with who we are and who we think we are. It is about getting to the root of how we view other people, how we view God and how God runs things, and why we feel things should go the way we want them to.

When we learn to live in cooperation with God's Spirit living in us and working through us, then we can allow anger to be transformed. Like I said earlier, it's not wrong to feel that initial burst of anger, but our reaction to that initial burst is what matters. We can allow anger to rule us and we can throw things and yell and scream, or we can choose to breathe and slow down. We can recognize that we are feeling angry, but we don't have to let it rule us. We can allow it to float through our minds and leave us, but that takes practice and it takes a continual training our minds on God. It is about God's kingdom being established in our lives. Amen.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Salt and Light- Mat 5

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us who we are as his disciples. If we claim to be followers of Jesus then the Sermon on the Mount should be front and center in our lives. It is at the end of the Sermon that Jesus says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:21-23)

It is a frightening warning that comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which doesn’t talk about casting out demons, or prophesying. Those might be impressive (even important at times), but we should not be too concerned with those flashy ministries, when what really matters to Jesus is the character of the person he describes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

In the Sermon Jesus describes a person who is not controlled by the divisive force of anger; who treats lust as seriously as adultery; who doesn’t abandon and leave vulnerable a person they have been married to; a person whose word can be trusted without extra oaths and contracts; who doesn’t seek revenge; who even loves their enemies; who gives to the needy secretly without needing to be recognized for it; who doesn’t serve money as the most important reality in life; who is not anxious about the necessities of life; who doesn’t judge others when they still have so much wrong with their own. These are not abstract characteristics. We can do miraculous things like cast out demons, or prophesy, or other miraculous works of power, but if we are not marked by these kingdom characteristics Jesus is talking about then it was as if we didn’t know Jesus as all, or worse, as if he didn’t know us.

So for Jesus, the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount describe his followers. If these characteristics are not present then these teachings also show who is not his follower even if they claim to be. It is a frightening thought because the Sermon on the Mount asks a lot of us. It is probably the Sermon that G.K. Chesterton was thinking about when he said, 
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
 The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought the Sermon was the real hope for the future of the church, he says, 
“the renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time people banded together to do this.” 
 The Sermon on the Mount cannot be ignored.

Our gospel reading last week began the Sermon and this week we are still at the very beginning of it. Jesus is speaking to his disciples. He is speaking to you because you are connected to him. 

He is telling you who you are- "You are the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13). In the ancient world there were no refrigerators and salting meat was the way people preserved it from rotting. For Jesus to call you “salt” means you are a preservative- You are a force against decay. Salt also brings out flavor that is hidden in the food. For example, eggs taste very different with a dash of salt.

How does this apply to us though? The world was created to be a beautiful place. It was created to be good. We read that when God created, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Sin entered the world and had a decaying effect. If we are a preservative for the original creation then we are preserving that original goodness against the rot of sin. We are a preservative, but we are also to bring out the original flavors that are originally part of creation.

How that works is going to be described in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. It happens by not being controlled by anger, not allowing lust to fill our minds, but taking the breaking of relationships seriously, by speaking truthfully, by not seeking revenge, by loving enemies, by giving secretly, by using money as a tool to be used rather than a master to be served, by our focus on God preventing  us being taken over by anxieties about life, by recognizing we all have things to work on and not judging others for their part. What Jesus is describing in the Sermon is life as it was meant to be. The characteristics of someone living in the kingdom of God is a person as they were created to be.

We are made to be salt and to both preserve creation against the rot of sin and bring out the original flavors of creation. If we are not doing that then we are “no longer good for anything” (Matt 5:13) just like salt that has not its saltiness.

Jesus uses another metaphor. He says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). We might feel intimidated by this. Jesus seems to be putting a lot on us. We would perhaps prefer to turn back to Jesus and say he’s the light of the world, not us. In the Gospel of John he said as much, 
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). Jesus turns this back on us telling us that we are the light of the world. 

Some of us have been given a form of the Gospel that expects very little from us. We say, "don’t look at me, look at Jesus. I’m just a forgiven sinner." True as that is, the church should be different. St. Paul had the boldness to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Most of us wouldn’t dare say that. And yet, Paul does. And Jesus tell us we are the light of the world. We are to be different. True, we can’t be the light of the world on our own. I was recently told a story about a little boy who was asked what a saint was and he pointed to a stained glass window of a saint and said, “it’s those people the sun shines through”. The pun is beautiful. Just as the sun shines through the window, so the Son of God shines through the lives of the saints. That is really the only way we can be who Jesus is asking us to be. And to hide that light makes us as useless as salt that has lost its saltiness.

We can’t be salt and light by just trying hard. It does require effort, there’s no doubt about that. However, our primary focus is on Christ. Being salt and light are side effects. We so focus ourselves on Jesus and his teaching that we become filled with awe. We become amazed by his love and the beauty of his life. When we have that vision of Jesus as the focus of our lives then everything else falls into place. When we realize how much Christ loves us and how he forgave those who were crucifying him it becomes natural to live a life of forgiveness. If Christ can do what he did, how dare I take offense or hold a grudge. Whatever enemy I think I have, they have not crucified me. The more we focus on Christ the more the kingdom character Jesus describes in the Sermon makes sense.

The alternative starts to look hellish in comparison. The alternative is a life controlled by anger, and filled with unbridled lust. It is a life of broken relationships and lies. It is a life full of the desire for revenge, the constant need for people’s approval and reassurance. It is a life of service to money, and full of anxiety about the necessities of life. It is a life full of judging others while hoping we can ignore our own failings. That sounds like a hellish life. It is the opposite of the kingdom life Jesus describes.

Those who live the Kingdom life Jesus describes are light to the world. Just as salt preserves against decay, light shines in the darkness. When we light a candle in the darkness we see the beauty of the flame itself, but that flame also allows us to see what is hidden in the darkness. We stub our toe more often in the darkness. We stumble and trip in the darkness. In the darkness we see a garden hose and we think it’s a snake. Light shining into the darkness removes illusions and shows us where to plant our feet as we walk.

Jesus tells us to let our light shine before others. What is our light? It is our “good works” that cause people to “give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). It doesn’t mean showing off. In fact, if you are getting the glory for it, you probably aren’t doing it right. As we live the kingdom life Jesus describes people should become caught by the beauty of it. The world that seemed dark- uncaring, vicious, and meaningless- suddenly seems to be filled with beauty and there is a desire to live that way.

Jesus is not necessarily teaching anything new. Jesus is showing us what life was supposed to be like. This is the life described in the Old Testament Law, if properly understood. Jesus is recapturing the original creation. Jesus is showing you who you really are. When you hear Jesus teaching the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t your heart leap? Even just for a moment? Before you start critiquing it and wondering how you could possibly live like this, isn’t there a moment when you are caught by the beauty of it? That is you recognizing yourself as you are created to be. That is you recognizing the world you were made to live in. As your gaze rests on Christ may you find yourself and your true home as you become salt and light to a world that so desperately needs you. AMEN
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