Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Concluding Remarks on the Sermon On The Mount

If we had been among the crowd that descended from the mountain after hearing Jesus’ teaching in what we now call “the Sermon on the Mount” we would have, lingering in our memory, Jesus final words:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Jesus did not ask for a commitment on anyone’s part to “practice” what he had preached; he simply stated the consequences of practicing or failing to practice. It was a simple matter of building for success or building for failure. So we would be free, along with the rest of the multitude, to go our way and be whatever kind of person we wished to be. We could build houses on the rock or on the sand, as we wished.

The sad truth is that the human race (the kingdom of this world) has chosen to build on the sand, ignoring the things that Jesus said would bring “blessedness” and permanence to their lives. The result has been two thousand years of collapsing houses. The even sadder truth is that within the church that bears the name of Christ, his teachings have been marginalized as well. No one I know would overtly say that one should practice behaviors in direct contravention of Jesus teaching, although many (perhaps all of us at times) squirm and seek to find reasons why Jesus didn’t mean his words to be taken literally.

But the bigger issue raised by the Sermon on the Mount relates to its purpose within the whole body of Christian theology and praxis. Was Jesus offering a path to redemption through right-behavior? Some – particularly liberal theologians of the 19th and early 20th century – as a child I heard them roundly and regularly denounced as “modernist” preachers – seem to be saying that he was; that the kingdom of this world could be transformed into the kingdom of God if humankind would only attend to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. They discounted, and in some instances outright rejected, the death of Christ as an atonement for the sins of mankind. Faith in Christ, to them, simply meant a belief in, and a sincere attempt to live by the principles he taught and demonstrated during his life on earth.

It is my contention that much of the Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christian church has fallen off the other side of the horse in an attempt not to associate themselves with a “works-based” salvation. But in the process they have created what some have termed “cheap grace” in which faith in the atoning work of Christ is the sole criteria by which one’s salvation is achieved. They would never say this, but their position suggests that they believe that “it would be nice if people lived by the principals that Jesus taught, but their doing so or not doing so is irrelevant to their standing before God.” And thus they have widened the gate and broadened the path that Jesus declared was straight and narrow. Liberal theology has failed to produce a works-based perfect society, but Evangelicalism has succeeded in creating a massive, world-wide, grace-based movement. Evangelical Grace 1, Liberal Theology 0!

As usual, a middle way is needed. God has provided a way back to right relationship with Him through the sacrificial death of his Son. It is a bloody way that many may find hard to accept, but the teaching of Scripture and the words of Jesus himself indicate that there is no other way to the Father except through His Son. But to return to the Father through the gracious gift of the Son’s death and then to ignore the words of the Son is to walk away from the very salvation one has just claimed. That is why Scripture is plain in its description of those non-kingdom-like behaviors that will prevent one from entering (or remaining in) the kingdom of heaven. If Jesus is the King, those who wish to live in his kingdom had better be willing to live by the principles of his kingdom. Not always able to, but willing.

Is the King gracious? Yes, he knows we are a work in progress. Is he patient? Yes, he has granted me long years, and still is working to instruct me. Does he demand instant perfection? Obviously, no. But what he does ask is a poverty of spirit and a hunger and thirst for righteousness. And even those, his Spirit is building in the believer, bit by bit.

The Sermon on the Mount provides a partial description (it is only one of Jesus’ discourses) of the kingdom of heaven. The Epistles reiterate and expand upon the picture given in the Gospels. Together they give us a blueprint, so to speak, for building that house that will last through eternity. The building permit, we pick up at the cross; but if we try to build the house without reference to the blueprint; if we choose to build on sand, rather that the rock, the house will not stand.

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