Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Radical Sermon – The “Transforming Initiatives”

Cover of "Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus...

Cover via Amazon

I will say it up front and honestly – the remainder of this series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount will be based largely, if not exclusively, on Glen Stassen and David Gushee’s book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary ContextWhen I step away from Stassen and Gushee I will probably land on John R.W. Stott’s The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Stott’s book was previously titled Christian Counter-Culture and I regret the change in name. Christian Counter-Culture tells you that what Stott wrote was intended to be challenging. That book was, and remains, a classic in the field of study on the Sermon on the Mount and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Cover of "The Message of the Sermon on th...

Cover via Amazon

But, I was recently introduced to Stassen and Gushee’s work and I have been working through it carefully. Dr. Stassen is one of the premier Christian ethicists today, and, I might add not unrelated, a premier scholar on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One of the questions arising from the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is how a Lutheran pastor, and a man who had accepted the basic tenets of pacifism, could ultimately be involved in an attempt to assassinate a national leader. Much of the problem revolves around the indisputable fact that Bonhoeffer built much of his theology upon the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-8 became for Bonhoeffer the key to unlocking not only the New Testament, but the entire Bible and his view of discipleship as well. One question then becomes, how could someone who built so much of his theology upon the Sermon on the Mount become involved in an attempt to overthrow Hitler? Beyond that question, there is the issue of how Bonhoeffer treats (or, to be more correct, omits) the Sermon on the Mount in his monumental work on Ethics. The Sermon on the Mount was the text for much of what Bonhoeffer wrote, yet it virtually disappears in the many essays he penned and hoped to complete on his theory of ethics. The questions is “why this omission?” The story is much too long and involved to fully relate here, and suffice it to say that volumes have been written to attempt to unravel this Gordian knot.

Personal aside here: as related in a personal conversation, Dr. Stassen’s suggestion is that what Bonhoeffer missed in this text is an understanding that Jesus was not presenting a dualistic way of looking at faith and the world, but rather that he was presenting a series of “transforming initiatives” that provide the disciple with an entirely new and, although the term is overused, “radical” way of addressing faith and the world. Perhaps, although it is purely speculation, if Bonhoeffer had seen this structure, he would have been able to use the Sermon in his work on Ethics. Bonhoeffer himself hints that he struggled with his explication of the Sermon on the Mount as presented in such works as Discipleship, but he never fully recanted that explication, and he never was granted the time and opportunity to fully explain what it was that gave him pause as he reviewed his earlier work. Bonhoeffer was incredibly consistent – far more consistent than most theologians who produce the amount of material that Bonhoeffer did, so we are left with a huge gap and a nagging question as to what exactly Bonhoeffer meant when he wrote to Eberhard Bethge that his study on Discipleship was under his own careful re-examination and critique.

Cover of "Ethics"

Cover of Ethics

[Additional note: Dr. Stassen's study on the Sermon on the Mount was also presented in the Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122/2 (2003) pages 267-308 in an article titled, "The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)". By way of contrast, Stott's work in The Message of the Sermon on the Mount follows the traditional understanding of a dualistic, or "dyadic" teaching from Jesus, "You have heard it said ... but I say to you..."]

For those of us who were raised with the traditional understanding of the Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Stassen’s suggestions are not only new, but also somewhat disorienting. However, and I want to stress this, his linguistic, grammatical and stylistic evidence is solid. Moreover, the theology that results is even more compelling, and I am growing more and more convinced that Dr. Stassen has given the church a great gift in the ongoing effort to understand and to live the Sermon on the Mount.

I will work through Dr. Stassen’s arguments in greater detail in the following installments of this series. Let me briefly summarize his main points so as to whet your appetite for the remainder of these reflections:

1.  Dr. Stassen builds his case on a careful study of the Greek words, sentence structure, and also what I consider to be Matthew’s “Rabbinic” style of writing. (Note: that is my term, I do not remember Dr. Stassen making that connection. I believe Matthew to be very well educated, and where else would he have been educated in the Jewish literature of his day if not in a Rabbinic school? Just my two cents worth)
2.  Building on the work of other Matthean scholarship, Dr. Stassen identified 14 “triads” within the main body of the Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, Jesus presents a traditional view of righteousness (“You have heard it said…”), then a description of a “vicious cycle and consequences” (“but I say unto you…”) and then Jesus gives a “transforming initiative” that is counter to the “traditional” yet misunderstood view of righteousness, and completely overturns the “cycle of viciousness” that he has identified.
3.  What this understanding of the main body of the Sermon on the Mount accomplishes is that it prevents the Sermon from becoming a list of impossible commands and it allows the Sermon to be a liberating set of instructions for what Dr. Stassen has identified as “Kingdom Ethics.”

Obviously, if you are truly intrigued by the concepts that I will attempt to summarize here, the place for you to go is Dr. Stassen and Dr. Gushee’s book. The article in JBL summarizes the first part of the book, so if you simply want an understanding of the “14 Triads” and the “Transforming Initiatives” you can obtain that article.

I will attempt to do my best to present Dr. Stassen’s arguments and evidence in a brief, yet understandable, format. I truly believe that Dr. Stassen (and those to whom he gives credit) has presented a strong case for this interpretation of the Sermon. It deserves our fullest attention. He answers a lot of questions, and his arguments are persuasive and, to me at least, compelling. I will leave it to you to make up  your mind for yourself.

 

A Radical Sermon – “Persecuted” (Matthew 5:10, 11)

English: Persecution of the Christians

English: Persecution of the Christians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have now reached the end of the beatitudes, and as with every beatitude we have looked at before, this one holds great meaning, and has also been deformed to the point that it is almost unrecognizable.

How many times have you heard a snide comment about a “Christian,” or maybe the Lord’s name used in an unworthy manner, and someone you were with (or, heaven forbid, perhaps even yourself) said, “Well, Jesus said, ‘blessed are the persecuted!'” as if to pin on some precious badge of honor?

I know many (otherwise) godly people who walk around with their sore thumb extended at full arm’s reach, desperately looking for a hammer that they can use to inflict the tiniest little tap, so that they can yowl at the top of their lungs that they are being “persecuted.”

I’m thinking that never in the history of mankind has one verse been so over-interpreted by so many people with so little justification. As we have done with each of the beatitudes above, let us carefully unpack what Jesus is saying here, and then re-evaluate just how accurate we are when we apply these verses to our lives.

To begin with, I want to stress that the primary verb in these verses is persecute. A persecution is an illegal and vicious attack upon someone’s person and/or property. Yes, it is true that in v. 11 Jesus adds “insult” and “falsely say every kind of evil,” but clearly the context is one of vicious mocking and false allegations that could lead to physical attack. Just think of Stephen, the early apostles, and later the life of Paul and his co-workers. The “insults” and “falsely spoken evil” was not some kind of anemic, “boy, you people are weird” kind of put-downs. They were false allegations that lead to legal repercussions, sometimes involving prison experiences and eventually even death.

I relate this phenomenon to my earlier discussion of hunger. We in the United States in particular simply do not get the concept of persecution. We say we are hungry, but we have a fully stocked pantry and refrigerator mere steps away from our over-stuffed recliners. We say we are persecuted when the Supreme Court rules that forced prayers in public schools are unconstitutional. Excuse me? Persecuted? Now, I am not arguing the Supreme Court was correct, but seriously; are we to compare a legal ruling that simply prohibits one type of prayer from being uniformly read or said over a public address system with real persecution? I think we need a refresher course in how to look up and read dictionary definitions!

Persecution would involve being locked up in a prison for months or years for even saying that prayer in a public place. Persecution would be having your property confiscated for publicly professing the name of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Persecution would be watching your children beaten or your wife raped because you “apostatized” from one religion to Christianity. That would be persecution. That would be an insult. That would be having someone say all kinds of evil against you. Having someone laugh at you because you won’t go to a bar or to a dance is not persecution. It might be uncomfortable, but let’s not get the situation out of perspective here.

The second huge misconception here involves the fact that Jesus is specifically linking the persecution to righteousness and because of me. I am afraid that in far too many circumstances when someone ridicules us it has nothing to do with Kingdom righteousness or because of Jesus; it is because quite honestly we were behaving like jerks. The so-called “Christians” of Westboro Baptist Church come to mind here. They are not acting for the cause of righteousness, nor are they representing the name of Jesus. They deserve all the mocking they receive. In this country their right to vent their poison might be guaranteed, but there is no law protecting them from proper and measured denunciations. True followers of Jesus will not allow his Name to be dragged through the racist and perverted mud that these hate-mongers attempt to do. They have no claim to Matthew 5:10-11.

So, the next time we attempt to get our sore thumb smashed by an un-godly hammer, we need to do some real soul searching. We need to ask a couple of very penetrating questions. One, is what we are experiencing true persecution or a life threatening insult? Or is it a simple slight against our self-image and pride? Is what we are experiencing a threat against life, property, our safety, or our way of life? Or is what we experienced just an example of someone being obnoxious that we should let roll off of our shoulders like so much water off of a duck’s back?

And, perhaps even more important, is the perceived insult, slight or persecution due to the righteousness of the Kingdom that we are exhibiting, or is it because of our own boorish and unchristian behavior? Are we receiving the attack because of the name of Jesus, or is it because we are mocking the name of Jesus?

These beatitudes come at the conclusion of the list for a reason. If we exhibit each and every one of the other characteristics that Jesus has enumerated we will stand out as strangers in our godless society. These behaviors and attitudes will make us be different. These actions and attitudes will make others nervous and they will generate negative reactions. In our country, with our legal protections, the negative reactions may never reach the level of persecution. We must be very careful that we do not over-reach in the estimation of our problems. But, we will not be welcomed, we may be ridiculed, and we may not get that promotion or win that award.

But there are disciples of Christ in this world today who face the very real possibility that they will lose their freedom, their property, and perhaps even their lives because of their allegiance to the crucified one. They are the ones who are blessed. They are the ones facing the persecution.

Is it possible that at some time in the United States a disciple of Christ could actually face persecution? Perhaps. Maybe even likely, who knows. If that happens we must be prepared to stand under the attack. But until we truly face the withering onslaught of the evil one, let us not confuse mere vanity with what our brothers and sisters throughout the world are experiencing on a daily basis.

May God keep them in a special place in His Kingdom!

A Radical Sermon – “Peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9)

Frans Floris - The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, ...

Why do most ministry leaders get out of ministry (whether paid or volunteer)?

Why is there such a high burn-out rate among ministry leaders (both paid and volunteer)?

What is the one thing that, if it is not the #1 least taught aspect of ministry in schools it has to be in the top 3?

Hint: the same answer covers all three questions.

Answer: Anyone who seeks to take up the mantle of ministry is going to get creamed – certainly in the metaphorical sense, but sometimes in the literal sense.

To minister to people means that you are going to place yourself near someone in the process of experiencing pain or discomfort. Think about it – who needs a minister when you get the huge promotion, when the baby arrives in splendiferous perfection, when the love of your life says, “yes” and when the grandkids get the starring role in the school play? No one – except maybe in the case if the proposal if a formal church wedding is in the works. But that is becoming less and less a reality these days.

No, ministry in the real sense involves the hours and days and weeks and sometimes months when everything seems to go wrong at once. The newborn baby dies. The lead deacon on the ministry team announces his divorce and engagement to the church secretary in the same email. Five irate parents demand that the youth minister leave or be fired. Five others demand he receive a raise and a commendation. Last week’s sermon on the sacrificial giving did not go over as well as you had planned it.

Oh, and, by the way, the elders would like to speak to you in your office after class and before you preach. Chances are, this is not going to end well.

Ministry is dealing with the 60 year old who has just been informed of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Ministry is also dealing with her sister who has held a grudge because of a real or imagined offense that took place decades ago.

Ministry is working with a group of young and excited Christians who want to see the congregation grow and be responsive to their community; and it is also dealing with a group of senior Christians who have seen far too many of these excited Christians come and blow up the church and then move on to really trust this latest group. The’ve dug in their heels and refuse to budge.

Ministry is dealing with a young man who for whatever reason either cannot or will not surrender his attachment to pornography; and it is helping to bind up his young wife who cannot compete with his digital mistress.

Ministry is clearly seeing the sin that is destroying the congregation; but it is also knowing that when that sin is identified and condemned there will be immediate and painful ramifications. Honesty and integrity to God demands skillful and Spirit led intervention; reality and human failure means that the repercussions will be dramatic.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” he was basically saying, “The captain has turned on the ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ sign. We are headed for some turbulent weather.”

You cannot “make peace” in the absence of conflict. If everyone was at peace to begin with, there would be no need for a “peacemaker.” And, you cannot step in the middle between two (or more) conflicted parties without getting caught up in the mess. And, just for good measure, add in your own weakness and sinfulness, and peacemaking becomes a real test of faith and of discipleship.

Some messes are easy to identify – the couple who call you to referee a marital spat. The single parent who calls you to counsel the belligerent teen. The alcoholic that needs an intervention. These can be nasty – and sometimes dangerous – but at least they are the easy ones to spot. In these situations it is possible to bring along back-up, either a fellow minister or even the police if need be.

But there are also the hidden conflicts, the sin and rebellion that lie simmering in a congregation for years if not decades before they blow up in spectacular fashion right before homecoming Sunday. There is the racism that is never spoken of, but which silently dictates every decision coming from the eldership. There are the aspects of greed, of pride, of selfishness that lurk behind the selection of every ministry leader in the congregation. There are the petty disputes over paint color and chair styles that can paralyze a rebuilding work. These sins – and countless others like them – must be addressed if there is to be the healing of the Spirit and a transformation into the mind of Christ, but how is it to be done? And who will have the minister’s back when he tries?

Jesus promised a blessing. Peacemakers will be called “sons of God.” Wow. Remember what happened to His one and only, unique Son? Yeah, that whole crucifixion thing.

But, think of the blessing again. Peacemakers will be called “sons of God.” Where is the one and only, unique Son of God now? Yes, that’s right – with His Father in heaven. Those who seek to build bridges, those who “stand in the gap,” those who purposefully and bravely bear the brunt of all attacks in order to create and deepen peace on this earth – they will receive that blessing too. There can be no greater epitaph, no greater words spoken in the memory of an individual whether they are living or dead than these -

“This man is a Son of God; this woman is a Daughter of God. Where there was conflict, they brought peace. Where there was brokenness, they brought healing. Where there was enmity, they brought reconciliation. They paid the price. Blessed is their name.”

That does not make ministry easier. Peacemaking will still be a dangerous, emotionally draining, and sometimes painful process. But at least it allows the peacemaker to know that his or her work is not in vain. If not in this life, then certainly in the next, our peace making efforts will bear fruit. We cannot ask for more than what our Savior received, and he paid for his peacemaking efforts with great sorrow and pain.

But we can rest with all certainty knowing that if we engage in this radical work of transformation His presence will be with us, and our blessing is secure.

May God send us more peacemakers, and may we lift them up in continual prayer.

A Pleasant Milestone

Smiley face 2

Smiley face 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just wanted to pass along a huge “thank-you” to those of you who stop by and consider my rantings, quirky jokes, and occasional worthwhile theological insight. Today this blog received its 10,000th view, which is a very pleasant milestone for me. I have been posting here for approximately 19 months, so that averages out to be a little over 500 views a month. I realize in the real blogosphere that would be a bad day for many blogs, but for me it lets me know that you are at least noticing, if not actually reading and agreeing with, what I have to say.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope that something that I have to say ends up being valuable for you – if for no other reason than it forces you to research your own opinion to prove that I am wrong.

Here is hoping that you keep the shiny side up and the oily side down – and that every take-off ends in a smooth and enjoyable landing!

Paul the curmudgeon “Freightdawg” Smith

You Might NOT Be A Hypocrite If You…

a hypocrite

a hypocrite (Photo credit: romana klee)

Just a quick follow-up to my post of yesterday. I have noticed that when any preacher delivers a spellbinding sermon condemning any kind of sin, everyone seems to think he was preaching right at them. It’s kind of like the theory that pharmaceutical companies use to hawk their latest and greatest pill – make a slick advertisement telling people that they MIGHT have this disease or another, and that their pill MIGHT be a solution, but be sure to go talk to your doctor right away just to be sure.

I do not want anyone to think that because hypocrisy is deadly (it clearly is) that I am suggesting that everyone in the church is a hypocrite. I do not even wish to suggest that everyone who owns a gun is a hypocrite. I happen to own guns. Misguided and ignorant? Well if the shoe fits then wear it – but that does not necessarily make a person a hypocrite.

You are not a hypocrite if you condemn a certain behavior, and yet occasionally find yourself caught in that exact behavior – as long as you recognize your failing and work to overcome it. For example – a recovering alcoholic is not a hypocrite if he or she temporarily “falls off of the wagon” and relapses. That is being human and being weak, but it is not necessarily an act of hypocrisy. Likewise, a person may be a real stickler for personal honesty and integrity, and yet find himself or herself in a situation where bankruptcy is quite literally the only option. That person is not being a hypocrite – as long as they recognize their failing and work to make sure it does not recur, and as long as they are not advertising themselves as some kind of paragon of virtue that has never failed any measure of honesty or integrity.

Many people live lives absolutely terrified that they are being hypocrites for being regular church members and yet finding that they “fall short of the glory of God” and occasionally sin (Rom. 3:23). That is not hypocrisy, and it is most certainly not what Jesus soundly and repeatedly condemned (see Matthew 23 for the best known example).

Hypocrisy is knowingly and willfully leading a double life. Hypocrisy is saying you believe one thing or are committed to a certain ideal and yet living a life that is directly opposite of that stated ideal or commitment. Hypocrisy is preaching against any use of “demon rum” while you have a well stocked wet bar in your house. Hypocrisy is condemning pornography while you maintain your XXX rated subscription on your Dish network. Hypocrisy is condemning drunkenness because it is condemned in the Bible all the while you are eating yourself into an early grave through gluttony.

And, as I suggested earlier, hypocrisy is quoting book, chapter and verse to proclaim your steadfast devotion to protecting life and the process of justice while applauding our current President’s immoral and unjustifiable use of secret weapons and tactics to “remove” suspected terrorists. And, I added that hypocrisy is proclaiming out of one side of your mouth that the only thing that matters to you is the inspired word of God while simultaneously singing the praises of the 2nd Amendment, as if it were equal to Scripture, out of the other side of your mouth.

There are sane, justifiable reasons for owning a gun. Not nearly as many as some people think, but there are a few. I can think of hunting, owning an “heirloom piece” (emotional attachment) and, to a limited extent, recreation. Personally, I even call into question the idea of “self defense” as a legitimate use of a gun. For a weapon to be used as a form of self-defense it must be (1) loaded , (2) readily available, and (3) you have to have the mindset that causing death to another individual is something you are perfectly willing to perpetrate. To that scenario I simply would ask – how many children have been killed by guns that they found loaded and readily available? How many domestic violence situations have resulted in single or multiple deaths (often murder/suicide) because a gun was loaded and immediately available? [Every layer of safety that you add to protecting against accidents such as trigger locks, gun safes and keeping the weapon unloaded, etc., lengthens the time that it can be adequately used in self-defense, and thereby lessens its effectiveness, and thereby weakens the argument for using a gun as self-defense]. And, perhaps most disturbingly, how can a disciple of Christ decide that they are not only capable of killing another person, but are actually willing to do so before a crisis arises? We are not talking about military service here (that is another can of worms entirely). We are talking about loading a gun, putting it where we can reach it quickly and perhaps even coming out of the fog of a deep sleep, and telling ourselves, “Yes, I will shoot with the intent to kill perhaps without knowing who it is I am shooting or what their intent or frame of mind is.” And just to be honest here – many homeowners have killed “deadly intruders” who turned out to be nothing worse that a truant teenager returning from an illicit romp through the countryside.

As I said in my previous article, the more emotional investment we have in a particular issue, the harder it is to recognize our own duplicity. I know this from personal experience! I am not claiming perfection here. Maybe it is because I see my own duplicity here that this issue is so troubling to me. But I have lost a lot of respect for certain individuals because their willingness to defend and even perpetrate violence is absolutely opposite to the message of the one they call their Lord and Messiah. It runs counter to their stated commitment to Scripture and their reliance upon the evidence of history in regard to the way the early church responded to violence.

I’m just asking for a little self-examination here, using the Word of God as the scale. Let us each and all pray we will not be found lacking.

 

Hypocrisy – The “Silent Killer” of Faith

Hypocrites are always right.

Hypocrites are always right. (Photo credit: PropagandaTimes)

Two men are having a conversation. One, a devout Christian, asks the other, an avowed atheist, to come to church with him. The atheist inquires as to the location of the church. Upon finding out where the church is, he responds: “I would never attend there. That church is full of hypocrites.” “Well,” responds the Christian, “There is always room for one more.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that joke. I have probably told it almost as many times. Looking at the situation rationally, apparently what the joke teller is saying is that clearly the unbeliever is a hypocrite, and so therefore joining a much larger group of hypocrites would be in this person’s long term best interest.

Somehow the joke is just not funny anymore. I wonder why I ever did think it was funny.

I remember that when I was growing up I would see numerous commercials on TV warning about this or that disease being a hideous “silent killer.” The warnings were supposed to be more dire because being killed by something you could not see was supposedly more frightening that being killed by something you could see. Frankly, I can’t think of anything more frightening that being killed by an enraged bull or some such event. However, you should be able to see the bull coming and therefore get out of the way, and if you are aware of certain “silent” diseases you can take steps to overcome them, so therefore you do not have to suffer death.

I have been thinking over the past few weeks that one of the great silent killers of faith in today’s church is the sin of hypocrisy. I know there are others, and that hypocrisy may not be the biggest of the faith killers, but it is a brutally efficient killer none the less. Notice that in the New Testament, Jesus addresses the sin of hypocrisy perhaps most frequently and most directly. That should cause us to at least ponder the seriousness of the sin.

To make a long post much shorter, let me summarize the gist of my thinking:

  • Hypocrisy and hypocritical thinking is a long process made up of many small steps. We do not wake up one morning and make a promise to become a full-fledged hypocrite by the end of the day. In reality, hypocrites die a death of a thousand little cuts.
  • Hypocrisy is not based in or on logic, but on feelings and intuition. If we are cured of a hypocritical stance it is usually after someone has pointed out the illogical position we are holding. The less emotion we have riding on the hypocritical stance, the easier it is to let go. Conversely, the more emotion we have riding on the contradictory positions, the harder it is to let go of one of them.
  • Hypocrisy is therefore doubly painful to confess and repent of, because (1) we were wrong on the issue at hand and (2) we have invested considerable emotional capital in the error.

I have a couple of examples that (for me, at least) illustrate my points with crystal clarity. I hope I do not get too many people’s blood pressure up, because high blood pressure can be a silent killer.

The first example involves President Obama and his use of CIA drones and super-secret covert operations to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and other countries. On the one hand, if a Republican president had ordered such strikes the “Doves” in the Democratic party would be positively apoplectic in their denunciations of the “illegal” and “immoral” actions of the president. Congressional hearings would be convened, the Sunday talk shows would be ablaze with their heated rhetoric. Strange, but I just do not see or hear any of those “Doves” commenting on their Commander in Chief’s actions. Hypocritical, you say? I would have to agree. But what of the Republican silence? These are the passionate, conservative, “we are a nation of laws” crowd that loves to quote the Bible and that simply cannot have enough bashing of President Obama when it comes to abortion or homosexual rights or same-sex marriage. Where is their complaint against a President who is absolutely flouting the law and biblical morality when it comes to “targeted eliminations” of “suspected combatants” that also end up killing scores of innocent bystanders. You see, when the “pot starts calling the kettle black,” there is not much left in the kitchen that escapes observation. Hypocrisy cuts deeply in both political parties.

Or, as a second example that is perhaps closer to home and one that disturbs me just as much, consider the recent (and on-going) debate concerning gun control. Consider that everything in the life of Jesus, his words and his actions, points to the disciple’s non-violent response to violence. Consider that every event recorded in the book of Acts reveals or demonstrates the fact that the early disciples understood and lived out that non-violent response to violence. Consider that for the first three centuries, our recorded history of the church convincingly supports the New Testament teaching concerning a non-violent response to violence. And then stop and consider who it is that is doing the loudest and the longest defense of owning and using a gun as a weapon of self-defense against an act of violence and you will see a long list of very conservative, very Bible believing, very Christ-confessing “disciples.”

In my own heritage, if a certain practice of worship is questioned you will find an adherent quote the gospels, quote the book of Acts, quote the letters of the early apostles, and possibly even quote an early church historian as to either why that practice should or should not be continued in today’s church.

In that same heritage, if a certain doctrine is questioned you will find an adherent quote “book, chapter and verse” to defend the doctrine (if he or she believes it to be true) or to condemn the practice (if he or she disagrees with the doctrine). That same adherent will also find evidence from writers within the first two or three centuries to defend their position.

In that same heritage if the question of gun ownership and use comes up, there is an increasingly shrill and pointed reference to…..the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Reference to the gospels is non-existant. Reference to the book of Acts is strangely missing. Voices that make reference to the rest of the New Testament or to the early church are deafeningly silent.

Honestly, the best I have heard anyone come up with is a misapplication of Luke 22:38 and some vague and as yet unsubstantiated command that we are to defend our families with the biggest, baddest gun we can own because we are to love and cherish our wives and children. Hmmm. Can’t find that exact reference in my concordance.

Returning to my oft-quoted but no longer funny joke about the level of hypocrisy in the church. That is just not funny anymore. The next time someone tells me that joke, I am going to ask them what is so funny about the church being full of hypocrites, when hypocrisy was so soundly condemned by our Lord. Instead, when the atheist or agnostic comments on the level of hypocrisy in the church, our response should be – “God forbid that is true. If it is, God will deal with the hypocrites as only he can deal with them. But I am called to a higher standard, and because you can see that higher standard as well, it is obvious that Jesus is working on your heart. Would you like to join me in working toward a hypocrite-free church?”

To be honest, I share the emotion expressed by our imaginary atheistic joke dweller. The church should be the LAST place hypocrisy is found. But that means that we as disciples must evaluate not only our actions, but our hearts and our emotional attachments as well.

Hypocrisy is a silent killer of faith. That does not make it more scary – but it should make us more diligent about dealing with it before it kills us.

A Radical Sermon – “Pure In Heart” (Matthew 5:8)

Soren Kierkegaard studying

Soren Kierkegaard studying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have to admit a certain frustration here. As I read the beatitudes, this is THE beatitude that explains/allows/empowers all of the others. And, so, in my own thinking I would expect to see this particular verse (a) at the very beginning, (b) in the middle as sort of a high point, or (c) at the very end as the pinnacle of Jesus’ teaching. But, try as I might, verse 8 just does not fit any of those man-made criteria. So, I will approach the verse as another of the beatitudes, equal to the others as Jesus presented them, but on another level I will still hold to the idea that this verse holds a very special key to understanding and applying the others.

I have had two “teachers” who have helped me understand this verse. The first is the writing of James. Twice in the book of James we read of the “double-minded” person. In fact, James is the only New Testament writer who uses the term “double-minded.” The first is in 1:8 when he is writing about the person who prays to God while doubting. It is not clear whether the doubt is concerning the existence of a God who can do anything, or whether it concerns the assurance that one will actually receive what one prays for. In either circumstance the prayer is offered by a “double-minded” person – one who thinks out of both sides of his mind, as it were. The first prays (an example of faith) to a God he is not sure exists (an example of doubt). The second prays to a God he believes exists, but his prayer is thwarted because although he is praying, he does not truly believe in the reality that he will receive what he prays for. His prayer basically amounts to wishful thinking.

The second occurrence of the word “double-minded” appears in 4:8. I believe it is this passage that most clearly illuminates what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 5:8. Notice the similarity in language. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and James says, “Purify your hearts, you double-minded!” Here, clearly, James is speaking to individuals whose minds are going two (or more) different directions. The solution, according to James, is to “purify” their hearts, or in other words, to focus on only one thing. Devote yourself to God and him alone. If you have your mind focused on God and his will, you will have a “pure” or undiluted mind. You will not be “double-minded.” You will be single-minded, or pure minded.

This then leads me to my second teacher, Soren Kierkegaard. I only have one book by Kierkegaard, and it is entitled, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Now, I certainly do not suggest that reading Kierkegaard is easy, but if you have an opportunity to read intently and quietly, I suggest you read this book. It is ultimately a book for the preparation of one’s heart to receive communion, but it is an intense (and intensive) study in the meaning of the phrase “purity of heart.” The answer that Kierkegaard develops is fundamentally that of James 4:8 – the pure of heart are those who only will one thing, and that is the reign of God.

Matthew 5:8 (along with all of the other beatitudes) has been lowered to the status of a moralistic teaching, something akin to Aesop’s fables. They are often regarded as nothing more than Jesus’ moralistic ramblings. No passage of Scripture has been treated in a more deprecating fashion. The beatitudes are so much more! Yes, on one strikingly simple level the beatitudes are sound instructions for a moral life. But to leave them there is to destroy their ultimate value. And none of the beatitudes is more violently abused when treated only as a moralistic teaching than Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart.”

Jesus in not giving a moralistic command about “be careful little eyes what you see” or some vague guideline about whether or not a Christian can watch an “R” rated movie. What he is saying is that those who will see God are those who are completely and totally committed to His reign. The “pure in heart” are those whose hearts are only focused on one thing. Jesus echoes this so many times during his teaching career – seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, a man cannot serve both God and mammon (financial success), do you love me – feed my sheep. There can be no “doubling up” with Jesus. We cannot have a mixture of this and that, of spirit and the world, of God and of Satan.

Now, the end result may be the same. If our eyes are turned only upon God and His kingdom, then we will certainly “be careful little eyes what we see.” If we have only one goal in mind, that of furthering the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then we will of our own accord draw the line with which entertainment we fill our eyes, ears, hearts and minds. But (and this is critical to understand) the morals will come as a result of our pure mind (a mind with a single focus), and not as a way to achieve some good behavior that will demand God’s blessing. It is not within mankind to direct his steps. In fact, if we focus on the blessing we are in reality betraying that our mind is not pure! The pure of heart and mind only want to serve God and to further His kingdom. The blessing is that they will be able to “see God.”

There is a great irony in trying to turn the beatitudes into simple moralistic teachings. Turning the beatitudes into some kind of Herculean list of ethics means that  a person focuses on themselves and their ability to achieve a special relationship with God. The person immediately becomes “double minded.” However, viewed as Jesus taught them, as a description of the radical new life of discipleship, these characteristics achieve their true power. They reveal that a human is unable to achieve any of them. But one who is empowered by the Holy Spirit and who trusts implicitly in the grace of God is able to receive all the blessings – because they are pure in heart. They can “see God” because it is only God that they are looking for.

In addition to all the “radical” things that we have been discussing so far, that is truly a “radical” way to view our relationship with God.

A Radical Sermon – “Mercy” (Matthew 5:7)

Matthew

Matthew (Photo credit: Missional Volunteer)

In this continuing study of what can arguably be called the most radical sermon in the Bible, we arrive at the blessing that is most directly attached to its antecedent – those who bestow mercy will receive mercy.

Now, at first blush there should be little to say about this – it appears to be one of the very few “self-explanatory” passages in the Bible. Nice people get treated nicely. Tit for tat. Put a quarter in, get a gum ball out. On a purely egoistic view of living in the world this would make perfect sense.

But, as I hope that I have demonstrated in this series so far, Jesus is bringing us to the edge. He is challenging our view of the status quo. He is challenging us to re-evaluate our priorities. He is talking about Kingdom behavior here, not politics. If we behave nicely only for the purpose of being treated nicely maybe we will have a nicer world, but we are still working on humanistic motivations. So, what is hidden here? Where is the challenge? What is the Kingdom value that confronts our humanistic, secular value?

The key, perhaps, can be found in a couple of other passages in Matthew. Matthew, I am totally convinced, was far more educated and a far more brilliant thinker than many of us have given him credit for. (Acts 4:13 does not mean that the apostles were stupid, back-water, red-neck hayseeds. What it means is that they were not “professionally” educated, in the sense of a school of a well-known Rabbi, competent to handle not only the law, but the volumes and volumes of commentary upon the law.) The gospel of Matthew reveals a deep thinker, and a systematic thinker, one who carefully and prayerfully constructed  his story. (Note: I am in no way questioning Holy Spirit inspiration. But, you cannot do a study of the gospels and not realize the profound literary and thematic differences of the gospel writers. I do not believe in dictation inspiration, but I do very firmly believe in the Holy Spirit inspiration of the text.) So, anyway, let us return to Matthew and see if there are other passages which shine a light of understanding on Matthew 5:7.

I think those passages are found in Matthew 9:9-13 and 12:1-8, two “bookend” passages as it were that encompass an ongoing conflict that Jesus had with the Pharisees. In both of those stories the key verse is, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (9:13 and 12:7). In the first passage Jesus calls upon His Pharisee enemies to go and learn what the passage means. In the second, he chides His enemies and tells them that if they had done their homework and learned what the passage meant they would understand his mission. Now, here is where biblical interpretation, and therefore theology, gets to be so much fun. (At least for geeks like me.)

The passage that Jesus appears to be quoting is Hosea 6:6. But if you read the passage in Hosea in a formal or mostly formal translation you will not read what Jesus quoted. You will note that Hosea is quoting God as saying, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.” The same concept can also be found in Micah 6:6-8, in which Micah quotes God as saying all he desires is “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” The Hebrew word here is chesed, almost always translated steadfast love or loving kindness. However, when the word was translated from the Hebrew into the Greek for the Greek speaking Jews, the word become eleos, meaning mercy. Now, we do not have the exact word that Jesus spoke here – he most probably was speaking to these Pharisees in Aramaic and not Greek. But, regardless, the word that Matthew chose (once again, lest I be misunderstood, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) was mercy.

So, did Jesus (or Matthew) change the meaning of the text? Why the change from steadfast love to mercy if Jesus really wanted to quote Hosea perfectly? Does the context of these two passages offer a clue?

In Matthew 9 the context is the calling of Matthew and the following meal. Jesus confronts the exclusivist behavior of the Pharisees by quoting a homey little proverb “those who have need of a physician are not the healthy but the sick” and then quoting Hosea. The context strongly favors our typical understanding of the word “mercy” – showing kindness to someone whether they deserve it or not. But, upon careful examination, a physician helping a sick person is not an act of “mercy.” It is his obligation. It is his job. It is something he is called to do, maybe based on his drive to help others, but still something that is expected of him. So, what is the “mercy” to which Jesus refers here?

In the second passage the immediate context involves the Pharisees’ complaint about the disciples’ violation of the Sabbath by plucking grain and eating it. Jesus responds with two Old Covenant examples of “legitimate” law breaking – David and the consecrated loaves and the priests “violating” the Sabbath law by making necessary sacrifices. Here, neither case that Jesus presented has anything to do with “mercy.” What they do encompass is obeying the will of God to its fullest extent. Both stories communicate steadfast devotion to God, and thus I believe we have the clue that unlocks the meaning of 9:13 and also of 5:7.

It is my understanding of the word “mercy” here that Jesus (and therefore Matthew) is drawing upon the greater meaning in Hosea and not just the limited meaning that we attach to the word. That is to say that meanings such as kindness, generosity and serving when others do not deserve our service are a part of the concept taught in Matthew 5:7, but the full meaning of the word is far, far bigger.

When you combine the passages in Hosea, Micah ( and others) with the later passages in Matthew, I truly believe Jesus is saying something like this: Blessed are those who are so utterly and totally focused on living out the full nature of God that everything they do reflects upon God’s faithful and enduring nature. Those who demonstrate their steadfast and immoveable love to God by steadfastly demonstrating God’s love, will, in return, receive the steadfast and immoveable love and kindness from God. Does that involve showing mercy? Absolutely. But does our 21st century understanding of mercy exhaust the concept of chesed and eleos? I don’t think so.

Many, many people can show mercy to others and not demonstrate any idea of serving God. There is a difference between feeding the poor and feeding the poor in the name of Christ. Both are good endeavors, and the hungry get fed. But it is only in the second that the steadfast love and mercy of God are glorified. The first points to the filling of an empty stomach. The second point toward the one who created both the stomach and the food – and to spiritual hunger and eternal blessing.

I really believe far, far too many people take Matthew 5:7 and secularize it and turn it into a command to go out and start a soup kitchen, or open a health clinic, or dig a well somewhere. Now, don’t misunderstand me – all those are good things. But if we are doing those things as a work of human righteousness, and we ignore the steadfast love and enduring forgiveness of God, then we are missing the point of Matthew 5:7. Jesus, and Matthew, is not just saying -“Go out and do something.” Jesus is saying, “In everything that you do, be so fully wrapped up in God that people will not see you – they will see only God and his love in you.” It is at that point that we will receive the love of God, even if, and in particular when, others turn against us.

When we get our minds wrapped around that, we will truly become a radical people.

A Radical Sermon – “Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)

Three emaciated survivors in a barracks in the...

Three emaciated survivors in a barracks in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right off the bat there are two concepts in this verse that make it almost opaque for the modern American to see and comprehend.

The second is the technical term “righteousness,” to which we will return in a moment.

The first is the metaphor “hunger and thirst.” I know there is a staggering amount of hunger in America, primarily located in certain geographic regions and particularly in inner cities. However, percentage wise America is the most over-fed, over-nourished, over-medicated, and over-satiated nation on the face of the earth. The United States does not have a hunger problem (although, the fact that we have any hungry citizens is a problem!). The United States has an obesity problem, and it is growing worse by the year. One of the leading health issues among elementary children today is obesity and its related side-effects.

Americans think they are hungry when their stomach growls. I write that sentence with a certain degree of irony, because my stomach is growling at me right now. But it is not because I am really hungry. It is because I have trained my stomach to receive a certain degree of snack at approximately this time every day. I have trained it to receive a meal at least twice a day, and maybe another snack along the way if I see or smell something pleasurable. You see, what we call “hunger” us basically a Pavlovian response to a particular time of day, a particular odor, or maybe even a particular familiar sight. For example, my daughter could spot a Taco Bell and start yelling that she was hungry virtually about the time she could start speaking in coherent words. After “mommy” and “daddy” the next word she spoke was “chalupa.” Well, I exaggerate, but I hope you get the point.

So, I feel in a very significant fashion that we as affluent modern Americans simply cannot understand what it means to “hunger and thirst” after anything. At one time in our history this verse was probably much better understood. Now, not so much.

I want to connect “hunger and thirst” to the idea of “poor in spirit” that we discussed previously. When you are utterly and completely poor, you have nothing to rely upon except the good will and charity of others. When you are utterly and completely hungry you have NOTHING with which to fill your stomach. There is no fully stocked refrigerator in the kitchen. There is no Taco Bell or McDonalds down the street. I cannot even really describe hunger because I have never felt it. I can only go on how others describe it. It is all-consuming. Real hunger saps strength from your body. It eats all available fat and then begins to eat away living muscle. When I think of hunger my mind pictures the survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Treblinka and the other prison camps of Nazi Germany. That was hunger. We also see it today in the African continent, as well as other ravished nations across our globe. Hunger is not just an irritation, it is a debilitating situation.

And so, Jesus is not just talking about being slightly interested in righteousness. He is not talking about simply thinking about righteousness if we see something that reminds us of righteousness or because we have programmed our minds to consider righteousness on Sunday mornings at 10:00. Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those whose entire life depends upon finding, consuming, generating, nurturing and therefore protecting a large supply of righteousness for others. Righteousness is not just a diversion or a charity event where we pay $40.00 for a round of golf and a meal thrown in: it is the very fabric of our existence.

But what is righteousness? What is it that we are to hunger for?

There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of righteousness. They are distinctly inter-related, but not identical.

One is the way in which Abraham is said to be righteous, and that is by believing in the promises and activity of God. So, in Gen. 15:6 we read that “Abram believed God, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Paul would later use this verse with great power in the letters to Rome and Galatia. Because we have largely turned Christianity into a cerebral event, this is the understanding that most people connect with the word righteousness.

But there is a much deeper meaning to the word that we (and I include myself here) have come to overlook. Both in the Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek there is a meaning of the word that attaches to definite behavior. That is, one is righteous when one behaves in a just, fair, righteous manner. It does not matter what you believe, if you act in a manner that is inconsistent with that belief. So, it should come as no surprise that James uses the exact same verse in Genesis to prove you cannot be considered righteous apart from your works! Many people see Paul and James as being at odds with each other – that one internalizes faith and one externalizes it. The reality is the word righteous demands both!

Here is where the “rubber meets the road” to quote an old proverb. We can sit in our antiseptic church buildings dressed in our Sunday finest with all our starched shirt glory, and we can perform each of the “five acts of worship” with surgical precision and pronounce the right words and partake of the Lord’s Supper with mathematical precision and at the same time be utterly bereft of righteousness. At the same time, there may be someone out feeding the masses and clothing the naked and freeing the slaves and be equally bereft of righteousness. Righteousness is both believing in God (including his promises and warnings) and acting on that faith in a way that shapes, re-shapes, redeems, and purifies this bent and broken world. The believing part enters into our worship (why worship if we do not believe His promises?) and the acting part enters into our daily life.

Being righteous demands all of our self – all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It means we seek to please God in our intimate conversations with him, and it means we act to put a stop to racism, violence, hatred, malnutrition, and just about every other “ism” you can think of. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness it means we focus on our relationship with God and our relationship with our fellow-man all the time – not just when it is convenient or when our efforts draw the spotlight to us and our behavior.

Jesus’ beatitudes are profoundly radical – if that is not being redundant. The beatitudes are designed to tear down our understanding of reality and to build an alternate world of reality – the reality of the Kingdom. The beatitudes, the opening section of this radical sermon, are not designed to make us feel good. They are designed to get us to wake up, to challenge our assumptions, to break us of our old humanity so that the Messiah can re-shape us in His image.

It won’t happen unless we want it to. It won’t happen unless we are hungry and thirsty for it!

Paul Smith:

This post, as well as the previous one from David Smith (no relation that we know of) is excellent. For those who are unfamiliar with David’s work I present these two posts for your consideration and growth.

Originally posted on preachersmith:

V-for-violenceHow did Christ’s original apostles (excluding the one who betrayed him, Judas Iscariot) respond when confronted with violence?

As we seek the answer to that question, let’s consider most closely Simon Peter and John. Why? Because Peter was the one our Lord chastised and snubbed for displaying and suggesting the use of weapons. Peter was the one who Jesus rebuked for attempting to defend him and who took off a man’s ear with an errant swing with a sword. If there was ever a follower who had proven himself ready to use deadly force to defend himself and those he cared for, it was Peter. Consequently, we’d do well to note how this man behaved following his Lord’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

Similarly, let’s pay close attention to John for he was the one whom Jesus loved like none of the rest. It was John who stood close to…

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