When I go to the dentist I suspect I’m not the only one who affirms the value and necessity of flossing without doing it as much as I should. It can feel the same way when it comes to studying Scripture. Its not that we don’t understand the value, it’s that with everything going on – and this is a time when it feels like everything is happening at once – it is hard for us to make the time.
I’m inviting you to listen to the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5-7, over the next few weeks. If you can join live via Zoom on Sundays from 4pm-5pm you can sign up here. You can also do it on your own schedule by following this blog.
Why this particular passage of Scripture? In part because in these chapters we encounter Jesus’ core teachings on discipleship: how to acknowledge and control our anger, our anxiety, and pride. How to pray. How to persist in the way of love and mercy when other ways seem so much more expedient. In these polarized times the Sermon on the Mount takes our focus off of partisan allegiances and helps us focus on following Jesus.
But more importantly we encounter Jesus himself. When Jesus warns us against regarding someone with anger, we remember that as he was being crucified Jesus forgave his persecutors because they were acting in ignorance. When we hear Jesus teach about doing what is right outside of public view we remember all the times he healed someone and asked them to tell no one. When Jesus teaches us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” we remember him feeding thousands in the wilderness. This sermon is not an abstract set of ethics or a series of life hacks. Instead it’s a kind of autobiography of Jesus that reveals how he offers himself to us and to the world not in the pursuit of power, but in the pursuit of God’s perfect mercy.
Mark Twain once remarked that it’s not the parts of the Bible he didn’t understand that bothered him, it’s the parts of the Bible that he did understand that gave him trouble. Reading the Sermon on the Mount, it can sound like these are commandments for the truly devoted and not for mere mortals such as me. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor executed for his resistance to Hitler, wrote this about the call to discipleship in the Sermon on the Mount:
But one question still troubles us. What can the call to discipleship mean today for the worker, the businessman, the soldier? Does it not lead to an intolerable dichotomy between our lives as workers in the world and our lives as Christians? If Christianity means following Christ, is it not a religion for a small minority, a spiritual elite? Yet surely such an attitude is the exact opposite of the gracious mercy of Jesus Christ, who came to the common people and to sinners, the weak and the poor, the erring and the hopeless. Are those who belong to Jesus only a few, or are they many? He died on the cross alone, abandoned by his disciples. With him were crucified, not two of his followers, but two murderers. But they all stood beneath the cross, enemies and believers, doubters and cowards, revilers and devoted followers. His prayer, in that hour, and his forgiveness, was meant for them all, and for all their sins. The mercy and love of God are at work even in the midst of his enemies. It is the same Jesus Christ, who of his grace calls us to follow him.”
My hope is that immersing ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount, it will give us clarity and confidence in our lives of discipleship, allowing us to experience and offer God’s mercy in these challenging times.