Sunday, August 14, 2016

THE SERMON OF SERMONS: What Did Jesus Mean? #JesusFollowers

Is religion practical? Does it make sense? Is it supposed to? Did Jesus teach things he meant for us to follow? Or was he teaching for some other reason?

These are important questions when looking at those "red letters" in the Gospel books - the words Jesus spoke to his disciples and the crowds who heard his teachings.

It's important to know, because we need to understand what Jesus meant if we want to understand who he is, his role in history, and what he means to us in our individual lives.

The book of Matthew (chapters 5 through 7) records Jesus’ words in a famous series of chapters known as the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus went up on a small hill and began preaching, and what he said amazed those who heard it. It amazes us, still.

Jesus' teachings were both shocking and clear to those who heard them; startling statements that challenged those who heard him speak.

He started by teaching about the character that God wishes us to have. In these “beatitudes,” Jesus assures us that God sends blessings of comfort, hope, healing, love, and strength, and that God expects us to seek to have that same character by sharing these blessings.

He says we must become both salt and light – spiritually enriching the world by being great moral examples to it - and that we do this by humbly performing righteous works.

He gives us practical teachings on Law, challenging us not to follow the mere letters in God’s Moral Law, but the spirit these Laws seek to regulate within us. Our attitudes towards oaths, marriage and even our dealings with our enemies, he says, ought to be guided by extremely high ideals, not by shallow obedience alone.

We are to do to others what we want done to us, seek spiritual treasures rather than earthly ones, and in our religious life and in our judgment of others, we ought always be humble. 

But just because this challenging sermon seems so challenging, scholars and churchmen throughout history have questioned whether it REALLY should be taken seriously at all.

For example, some have claimed that Jesus' teachings in this sermon were not meant to be followed by those who heard these words, but instead, Jesus simply meant to show us what we COULD NEVER accomplish, because they believe human beings are too evil and misguided to grasp and obey his teachings.

This seems to make Jesus into a mean-spirited and rather cynical teacher - if one could call someone like that a "teacher" at all. And indeed, most who believe this way don't see him as much of a teacher at all, but as someone who’s just teasing (or "convicting") us with high ideals.

This kind of teacher would seem mean and sadistic in a classroom, and insane standing on a hill claiming to be a religious Teacher from God. A teacher who would teach what we cannot follow (and then teach that we'd be punished by God if we didn't!) would be the worst of teachers.

Of course, Jesus never said his teachings were impossible to follow, so we can reject this view when we hear it.

Others claimed these teachings were a list of Laws for a future Kingdom of God – one we haven’t yet seen, even in the Twenty-first Century. But this, too, is wrong, because Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom was present and active during his First Century ministry. It was then and there, and is here and now, for us to make real on THIS earth, by our actions.

Still others go in the other direction, saying his teachings only applied to the Judeans of Jesus' time, and not to ours (so-called "dispensationalism.") Again, this seems very dismissive of someone who claimed to be God’s spokesman, and said that his words would live forever.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with a Teacher who taught us some rather clear, basic principles we were meant to take seriously. Challenging? Yes. Startling? In some cases, yes. All of these teachings require thought, prayer and study on the part of those who seek to know and follow Jesus.

But the one thing we cannot do with Jesus' teachings is to discount them, degrade them, or to explain them away as irrelevant or unimportant.

At the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said if we built our faith on the rock of his teachings, and actually put them into practice in our lives, our faith would remain solid when storms came. It would be wise to take his word on this, if we seek to call him our Teacher and Master.

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