26 March 2021

Being Salt and Light

In Matthew 5, Jesus begins his sermon on the mount by blessing the people who are gathered there. They are his disciples, but they are also the "poor in spirit," "those who morn," "the meek;" they are people who are vulnerable, weak, and lacking in power and ability. How are any of these people blessed? It certainly isn't by society because Jesus tells them that they are even blessed when they are persecuted on account of him. The blessing comes in verse 12, where Jesus tells them that God's prophets, "who came before you," were also persecuted in this way (Matthew 5:1-12).

Jesus is not calling simple disciples to himself, he is calling God's prophets. These aren't teachers of the law, they aren't rich or powerful, they are common people. Most of them probably can't even read or write. But they aren't being called to be Temple priests or teachers of the law, they are being called to walk and talk with God (5:11-12).

Jesus compares them to salt, a city on a hill, and a lamp on a stand. In each of these examples, their value and ability is inherent in being what they are. Salt can be nothing but salty, a city on a hill cannot be hidden, and a lamp must bring light to its surroundings. This is what it is to be called by God, to walk and talk with one's Creator. It is the fulfillment of one's most basic purpose.

Of course, there is a choice to be who you were created to be. As Jesus points out, salt can be thrown out, a city can be walled off or "hidden," and a lamp can be placed under a bowl so its light cannot be seen (5:13-16).

The natural consequence of illiterate people walking and talking with their Creator directly and in the Spirit is that they will likely neglect to read the Law and the Prophets. Jesus tells them this, that his purpose is not to abolish the Law and Prophets, but to fulfill their purpose (5:17-20).

In Genesis 2, we see the God establish the purpose of humanity. God creates a garden, not a wilderness but a garden, implying that it needs care to be maintained. In the garden, God places every plant and animal, both fruit trees and livestock, everything needed to maintain human life. He then places Adam, whose name means "humanity," within the garden. This is God's ideal creation, a place where he and humanity walk and talk together.

In Genesis 4, God attempts to reconcile this relationship with Cain and Abel. He talks with them and guides them, but Cain grew jealous of his brother Abel and murdered him. God's response is not punishment, but protection. God marks Cain so that anyone who meets him will know he is under God's protection. God continues to attempt to reconcile Cain even after his brutal act of murder.

Noah, Abraham, and Moses all walk and talk with God. In Exodus 19, God attempts to reconcile all of Israel to himself, to establish "a nation of priests," in which all of Israel walks and talks with God (19:3-6). However, when God reveals himself to all the people of Israel, they cannot bear his presence and they cry out to Moses to intercede for them because they cannot bear to be in God's direct presence (20:18-19).

This is the intention Jesus is fulfilling. The Holy Spirit, which dwells in every Christian, is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. By it, there are no priests or prophets or holy men, but every person walks and talks with God. That is the invitation Jesus gives, and it is only the start of his sermon.

12 March 2021

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, is unique in the gospels. In Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus teaches mostly through parables, stories, leaving the exact interpretation of his meaning to the reader. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus is much more direct. It is likely that Jesus took both approaches at different times during his ministry. Matthew's account may have been a singular event, but it could also be a collection of teachings condensed into a single story for literary purposes.

That Jesus is both an essayist and a storyteller says a lot about his approach to teaching as well as his approach to interpreting the scripture. When teaching in parables, his meaning is not entirely clear, it is necessary for the listener to struggle with the story in order to interpret it. In his preaching, Jesus gives far clearer answers, though his meaning is still not always as cut and dry as it appears.

Teachers still do this today. There is a lecture portion where the teacher shows how something is done, and a work portion where the students attempt to solve the problems they are given. But what does the teacher do if the students will not think for themselves? What if they expect the teacher to make the answers plain for them? This is precisely what Jesus is addressing in his Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus references scripture throughout his sermon. In his time, Hebrew was the language of the Temple, the common people spoke Greek and Aramaic. The language of scripture was as far removed from daily usage as Latin is in our day. Similarly, the stories of scripture had been written in (or about) a time as far removed from Jesus as Jesus is to us. The stories were old, the laws written for a nation that had long since been conquered and so no longer existed.

Jesus was teaching how to be the People of God without an earthly nation or an earthly Temple, because both were coming to an end within the next century. In his sermon, he shows how to divide the scripture, what portion is the revelation of God's will for all humanity, what portion is to set Israel apart as God's holy people, and what was meant to build a nation that had long been lost to time and empire.

Approaching scripture in the way of Jesus means to attempt to apply it to our lives, in our time. That doesn't mean we try to reconstruct a temple system with priests and sacrifices, or that we cling to the way things were, but that we open our hearts and minds to God, that we struggle with what Jesus means by "blessed are the meek" in today's economy of attention. We may all come to different conclusions, we may weigh each passage's importance differently, but the shared struggle is what makes us all children of God.

'm looking at these chapters over the coming weeks, so I leave you dear reader, with a question. Who are all these people Jesus is blessing (Matthew 5:1-12)? What do they have in common? Why does God bless them, and what is God's calling for them?

Until next week,
Peace be with you.

05 March 2021

The Church's Foundation

As Christians, we are called to be a community of believers. We are not required to share exactly the same beliefs or to agree at all times on all things because our fellowship is not based on adherence to law or on moral "rightness," but on love, sharing, and forgiveness (Galatians 5).

Given the way Jesus started his Church, by following the path laid out by his cousin John (Luke 3:1-6), by calling the Twelve (6:12-16), and then the Seventy-Two (10:1-24), he practically guaranteed that there would be disagreements. He further complicates this start by giving the Holy Spirit to individuals at Pentecost (Acts 2), rather than having them rely on Peter for divine revelation, and then complicates the message again by calling Paul (Acts 9). Jesus sent out not one person with a singular message, but no less than 85 direct disciples to establish his Church.

Peter was sent to Jerusalem, Paul to Rome (in prison no less), John provided for Jesus' mother Mary and may have later gone to Turkey, Thomas is said to have gone to India, Matthias is said to have gone to Germany, the seventy-two were scattered as "workers into the harvest field," and the locations of the ministries of the other disciples is unknown.

The authors of the New Testament all agree that what brings us together as Christians is not a shared morality (or law), but a dedication to "walk with the Spirit" both individually and as a community (1 John 1:1-4). It is the experience of the Holy Spirit that gives us purpose to share the Gospel, it is our dedication to the Gospel that makes it possible for us to fellowship, and having fellowship in the Spirit "makes our joy complete."

John proclaims that the Gospel is not something we take on faith, for "we have looked at and our hands have touched;" it is not accepted on reason alone but on experience. John emphasizes this fellowship as the point of the Gospel, and to make fellowship possible, we must "walk in the light" (1:5-7). John tells us that "God is light" so as Christians, we must not keep secrets from one another. This begs the question, what is the point of keeping secrets from one another?

John goes on to clarify that this is because we want to appear to be without sin, but that this desire makes liars of us (1:8-10). How as a Christian community can we balance these desires, to live the Gospel, to be a community, and to be right with God and with one another? John raises the example of Christ as our answer.

We must confess to one another, and to God, when we have sinned, for "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1:9). Our fellowship is based on forgiveness, not agreement. If we forgive one another every slight (Matt 6:12), do not seek to correct one another (Matt 7:3), and sacrifice of ourselves rather than see others punished for their misdeeds against us (Matt 5:38-42), then we will be children of God indeed.

Peace be with you.