Whatever became of the Sermon on the Mount?

July 28th, 2020

Have you noticed that we’re not hearing much about the Sermon on the Mount these days, particularly from “evangelical” preachers and politicians who wave the Bible in the air but whose personal behavior and public policies would suggest that they never actually read it?

There are good reasons to avoid the core collection of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7. Wherever we place ourselves on the conservative-to-progressive, right-to-left, red-to-blue continuum, when we take Jesus’ words seriously we’re sure to run head-on into something that disturbs our assumptions, disrupts our conscience, or destroys our overconfidence in our own goodness. It sounds downright absurd!

Virginia Stem Owens discovered this truth when she assigned the Sermon on the Mount to students who had never read it in a composition class at Texas A&M University. One responded, “It made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.” Another reacted, “The things asked in this sermon are absurd.” Owens described their comments as “a pristine response to the gospel, unfiltered through a two-millennia cultural haze.” 

The students got it right! The way of life Jesus’ prescribes in the gospel is downright absurd unless we hear it as Jesus revealing a way of living that is consistent with and a preview of the kingdom of God which is the redemptive will, saving purpose, and healing love of God at work in human experience and history. It explains the behavior of people who “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). It shows us what it looks like to become active participants in God’s healing and transformation of the world.

What could be more absurd in our conflict soaked culture today that to hear Jesus say:

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” (Matthew 5:43-48) 

And yet…Jesus really expects his disciples to live this way!

More free samples

Dr. Donald English was the spiritual leader of British Methodism when I heard him say, “The world doesn’t need any more salespersons for the gospel. What the world needs are more free samples.” 

I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said,

“Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father.” (Matthew 7:21-23) 

Now and then we actually see people who become free samples of the Kingdom of God by putting Jesus’ words into practice (Matthew 7:24-27). We saw the Sermon on the Mount become a tangible reality in the life of John Lewis.

Looking back across the way Lewis joined the Freedom Riders who faced beatings, fire bombing and possible death on bus rides into the deep South, the way he marched fearlessly across the Edmund Pettis bridge on Bloody Sunday, and the way he gave himself in consistently courageous leadership in Congress, we saw a strong and humble man who took Jesus seriously and put the Sermon on the Mount into practice through his life, work, faith and witness. He demonstrated the way of love to which Jesus calls every disciple.

The morning after Lewis died, historian and Lewis’ biographer, John Meacham, called Lewis “a genuine saint. A human being willing to suffer and die for his understanding of the gospel and how that gospel found expression in America of the 20th and 21st century.” He summarized Lewis’ life in saying, “He was about the beatitudes … For him love was not an ideal but love as a reality. He was in the streets because of Jesus of Nazareth.” 

Lewis leaves us with a promise and a challenge.

“We will create the beloved community, we will redeem the soul of America … I still believe we shall overcome.”

So, what will it mean for us to hear and live the Sermon on the Mount today and tomorrow?

Jim Harnish is the author of Easter Earthquake,  A Disciple's Heart and Earn. Save. Give. He blogs at at JimHarnish.org.

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