Sunday, June 1, 2008

Acting on Jesus' Words

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
RCL, Year A, Proper 4: Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22b-31; Matthew 7:21-29

There’s a story about a preacher who once sat on a train next to Mahatma Gandhi. As they traveled together, the preacher did his best to try winning Gandhi over from Hinduism to Christianity. Nearing their destination, the preacher asked Gandhi if he was ready to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. “Jesus!” exclaimed Gandhi with a pretended look of surprise. “I didn’t realize you were talking about Jesus. I thought you were talking about some successful oil tycoon from Texas.”[1]

If we honestly reflect on the Church’s witness, we must admit that we sometimes misrepresent Jesus and the Good News for which he died. Sometimes we portray Jesus as someone he isn’t, someone that, when compared with the New Testament, is virtually unrecognizable. Whether it’s a version of the Prosperity Gospel, or a version of the Fire-and-Brimstone Gospel, or a Gospel of Good Works, all too often, the message we teach, preach, and live doesn’t necessarily look like the message Jesus taught, preached, and lived. Sometimes the Jesus we proclaim is made in our own image and justifies the values and the ways of life we already approve of.

Across the denominational spectrum, the Church confesses Jesus as the Christ. We confess our faith in him as our Savior and as the Lord of both the Church and the world. And yet, across the spectrum, there is a tendency to misinterpret or even ignore the teachings and practice of Jesus. As two Christian ethicists put it: “This evasion of the concrete teachings of Jesus has seriously malformed Christian moral practices, moral beliefs and moral witness. Jesus taught that the test of our discipleship is whether we act on his teachings, whether we ‘put into practice’ his words. This is what it means to ‘buil[d our] house on rock’ (Mt 7:24)” as opposed to building it on sand.[2] And this is precisely where we connect with this morning’s gospel reading.

Jesus is wrapping up a major teaching event, something that later Christians reading Matthew’s Gospel would call “The Sermon on the Mount.” And he brings it to closure by offering words of warning: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). Those words are strikingly similar to something Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet don’t do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46 TEV). Apparently, that’s been a problem from the very beginning.

Jesus’ words launch a stinging rebuke against any orthodoxy that neglects orthopraxy. Right teaching without right action falls woefully short of the gospel mark. As the letter of James puts it, “faith without works is dead” (cf. James 2:17). So confessing Jesus as Lord with our lips is meaningless without confessing Jesus as Lord with our lives.

Of course, in order to confess Jesus as Lord in our lives, we have to not only know his teachings – what he tells us to do – but we also have to put them into practice. And that’s why a block of Jesus’ teachings like the Sermon on the Mount is so important. It not only serves as a window through which we see what life in the Kingdom of God looks like; through the Sermon, we also hear God’s call to embody life in the Kingdom right here, right now. And my friends, that’s where following Jesus can become dangerous.

It’s true that some of Jesus’ teachings are little different than that of other rabbis of his day. But it’s also true that Jesus takes accepted Jewish teachings and intensifies them, bringing into sharp relief the ways in which those who call themselves his disciples are different from the rest of the world. As some theologians have put it, “Here is an invitation to a way that strikes hard against what the world already knows, what the world defines as good behavior, what makes sense to everybody. The Sermon [on the Mount] … shows us the world to be alien, an odd place where what makes sense to everybody else is revealed to be opposed to what God is doing among us. [After all,] Jesus was not crucified for saying or doing what made sense to everyone.”[3]

We who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior are called to live in the world but not of the world. Another way to put it is to say that we are called to be against the world in order to be for the world.[4] Just as God in Christ was against the sin and evil of this world for the sake of saving the world, so we, too, are called to stand against all the world’s values and self-evident assumptions that fly in the face of the gospel. What might this look like?

Taking Jesus’ teachings as our cue, let’s look briefly at just three areas of life in which the gospel runs against the grain of values our culture takes for granted. Those areas are money, family, and retaliation.

First, there’s money. The world says that money is power, and power is good because it gives us control over our lives. It gives us status and prestige. It gives us a meaningful identity in relation to our social peers. It may not buy us love, but it does give us security. So given the opportunity, anyone in their right mind would naturally want to amass as much money and wealth as possible.

But Jesus says wealth and money, while not sinful, are dangerous. They tempt us to indulge greed, which in turn encourages a lifestyle of luxury, pride, hoarding, self-indulgence, oppression, and lack of generosity. “You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jesus says (Mt 6:24).

Jesus also says that true security comes when we’re willing to give up the illusion that we can be in control of our lives in the first place. True security comes when we give up attachment to money and material possessions, especially by giving them away for the sake of the poor and needy. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus tells us (Mt. 6:25). Instead, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt. 6:33). And while we’re at it, Jesus tells us to be generous by giving our money and possessions “to anyone who asks” (Mt 5:42 REB).

Then there’s family. According to the world’s taken-for-granted assumption, nothing is more important than family. Family values are sacrosanct. Blood is thicker than water. But Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother … [or] son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37). As with money, we must be willing to renounce absolute attachment to family if we are to be Jesus’ disciples (cf. Mt 10:34-39 & Lk 14:26). Jesus goes a step further, saying that allegiance to him will sometimes rock the boat and even create division within families (cf. Mt 10:35-36 & Lk 12:49-53). And he expands the meaning of family values by including among his brothers and sisters – and even in the place of his own mother – anyone and everyone who does the will of God (cf. Mt 12:46-50, Mk 3:31-35, & Lk 8:19-21).

And finally, there’s retaliation. The world takes it for granted that retaliation is always a justified response to an attack. Suffering a wrong gives us the right – perhaps even the duty – to redress that wrong. “Do to others as they have done to you.” Some even say, “Do to others before they do to you.” But Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). And then Jesus ups the ante when he says: “Do not resist an evildoer” (Mt 5:39); instead, “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44), and “be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:35).

If you want to see just how radical this teaching is, compare it to Psalm 109.

These are not just words Jesus said. These are words Jesus lived, and at great personal cost. For rather than striking back against his enemies, Jesus suffered and died for them.

In these and many other ways, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ challenges us to a higher loyalty and to a different way of life. Being a disciple of Jesus is a life-long journey of unlearning taken-for-granted values and assumptions so that we can more clearly hear and follow the voice of the One whose will never sits easy with merely human plans and aspirations.

I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to unlearn. I find it difficult to live Jesus’ teachings, and at times, I find his teachings unsettling and even unrealistic. Just taking a glance at what others have said about Jesus’ teachings, perhaps I can take some comfort in knowing that I’m hardly alone.

And yet, for all that we find strange, difficult, and even crazy about him, we still dare to call this same Jesus Lord. We still hold his life and his teachings up as the norm against which to judge all other claims to truth and goodness. And even when we don’t fully understand, we still say to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life,” and in you we find our strength and our salvation (Jn 6:68).

[1] Illustration from Tony Campolo, Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God (Word Publishing, 1997), pp. 3-4.

[2] Glen H. Stassen & David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 11.

[3] Stanley Haurwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abindgon Press, 1989), p. 74.

[4] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 340-341.


Perpetua said...

I'm am thinking that it is in the immediate local actions we take with those around us that we need to heed these words.

Money -- So, we are not impressed if someone is giving money to the poor but engaging in legal battles over property rather than working out an equitable resolution. We are not impressed by Christian leaders who use claims of "fiduciary responsiblity" to refuse to negotiate.

Family -- So, in some cases people are going to have to walk away from the bones of the ancestors. And in other cases people are going to have to give up their demands to create families blessed by the church.

Retaliation -- No one is going to really win. But we can reduce the damage and feelings of injustice. We can part in peace.

Dave said...

It does often look like we have forgotten who Jesus really was.

Take the Jesus Test at and see if you know him.