Tag Archives: Sermon on the Mount

I’m H-A-P-P-Y

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The second thing I want to say about happiness (as promised) is that to be happy is to do good to others. There is no prize for the right answer, but there is a question. Who said “There is no such thing as society?” Of course, it was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The statement was part of her thesis that life is enhanced by an individual’s personal initiative and self-motivation. Many people can live with that, and do, their philosophy more political than religious. In practice looking after number one is not the same as doing good to oneself. The doctrine of looking after number one does not quite gel with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. Two things stand out: take the Beatitudes alone and they are all about happiness and community and the two are interrelated. To be content with our lot, we are truly blest. One example, “Happy are those who are merciful to others.” The Sermon on the Mount demonstrates clearly and bluntly how much we are bound together in the bundle of life. Take one small example, the desperate need for Food Banks and the magnificent response of so many people. And the Sermon on the Mount also makes clear that to belong to Christ is to belong to a community. A community, or society, shaped by the conviction that no one is an island. So, those first Christians shared with one another as each one had need. Happy are those who are merciful to others.

There is the third thing to be noted about our quest for happiness. We must not equate the Beatitudes with the Ten Commandments: they are not the same! The Beatitudes are not a collection of moral rules of conduct or code of ethics. They do not mean you must do those things in order to deserve and win divine approval. They have nothing to do with being well-thought of. The happiness God promises comes to those who claim no merit for themselves but, knowing their own hearts, are content to rest their need on the mercy of God. A description I have borrowed: “not so much the ethics of obedience as the ethics of grace.” The picture we are given is of a gracious giver and ourselves as humble receivers. Side by side with the teaching, there are the promises. The happiness of the Beatitudes is not the product of an alliance of human will and strength. The happiness of the Beatitudes is the promise of a living relationship with the One Christ Jesus, who not only taught them but exhibited them in his own life. And the more closely we walk in His Way, the more firmly we walk in His footsteps. The closer we are drawn into His presence, the more we become like Him, the more Blessed we become.

Epilogue: “I have spoken to you,” Jesus says “that My Way may be in you and your joy be complete.”

Happiness, Happiness, The greatest gift that I possess; I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness. (Ken Dodd)

I’m H-A-P-P-Y (song)

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5 / Luke 6

Advertisements

Blessed

A Methodist minister is ordained at the Church’s Annual Conference in June. It is a big day, a long day, a memorable day – although not quite as lengthy as in my day. First there is a lunch where the ordinands and their guests meet with the President of the Conference who talks to them informally and briefly, congratulating them on reaching Ordination and perhaps offering some practical advice gleaned from his/her experience in ministry. After lunch in a crowded conference auditorium they are received into what is known as ‘Full Connexion’, in my judgement of greater significance even than ordination. The President addresses them more formally about ministry. Come evening, at different venues, is the ordination by laying on of hands, the service itself always a wonderfully inspiring and humbling occasion. A Charge is given to those about to begin the work to which God has called them by an appropriate person on behalf of the whole church, a pertinent word of wise counsel and encouragement.

Three times that day an ordinand is challenged, as indeed is the entire gathering. But two things stick in my mind, neither of mind-boggling significance. At the informal session the President said, “Keep your desk tidy. It turns my stomach to see the mess in some ministers studies.” Good advice but not tremendously exciting or inspiring! At the ordination service all I remember is an extract from someone’s homily, a tit-bit of practical advice it being said, “In your ministry Saturday is the day you prepare yourself for Sunday. So, do not anything on Saturday that you ought not to be doing on Sunday.” I saw myself denied the pleasure of shouting encouragement and, now and then, (polite!) abuse at my favourite football team on a Saturday afternoon. I thought of some of the activities in which we participated at the youth club on a Saturday evening. I thought to myself – is this the code of practice to encourage and sustain in the years ahead? Am I doing the right thing? Subject to those restrictions I would certainly not be ‘a happy bunny.’

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Turn to Matthew chapter five or Luke chapter six to what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, and which may be like an ordination charge, in this instance addressed to the twelve disciples. As I was given my charge on ordination day, likewise Jesus spoke to the disciples in similar vein, as they prepared to undertake their life’s work. My charge came in three sessions and it is virtually certain the Sermon on the Mount as it is presented in the gospel is not a single actual sermon but a summary of a number of talks given by Jesus on different occasions. The Sermon on the Mount begins with The Beatitudes – eight of them; each one begins with the words Blessed or in modern translations,’You are blessed or Happy are those’ (who) . . . .

When I first appeared in my royal blue cassock, gifted to me by family at a special time in my career, a lady in the congregation enquired if it was a new uniform for ministers! I was later to learn that a group of my colleagues actually participated in a discussion as to my motive in becoming so clad for worship. Was I trying to be different, a lookalike bishop? A sensitive subject for us! The Methodist church still refuses to countenance the appointment of some form of episcopacy into our system. Well, what was I getting up to? My friends need not have feared, I had no thoughts of grandeur, I was acting on the understanding that the Sermon on the Mount/Beatitudes consist of a promise of happiness, a call to happiness, an invitation to the happy life. Why did I choose to go blue? Ministers in the Church of Scotland dressed in the royal blue and I thought it looked well and bright – colourful. I wore it as a form of protest, an attempt to get away from the more familiar funereal black; a modest attempt to change the image of the church – to demonstrate that the party we attend on a Sunday is not a wake but a ball. So, be happy and be glad, is our Lord’s invitation and call.

To be continued . . . . . .

Kingdom come

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

Calling of the Apostles. Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A clever piece of fictitious writing about Jesus at the beginning of his ministry has him thinking about the recruitment of disciples. He compiles a short list of potential helpers and takes it for assessment to the “Jordan Management Consultants” in Jerusalem. The Agency’s response, based on computer analysis and interviews, is highly critical. “The men you are thinking about,” the report says, “do not demonstrate any true potential and you might be advised to look elsewhere.” There can be little argument that the men Jesus did propose for leadership roles were a motley crew!

Keep with the idea, extend it, and engage in another fictitious exercise involving the same Management Consultants. This time Jesus is exploring how best to proceed and succeed in his missionary task. A possible response from the Consultancy’s Public Relations Department might read, “Sir, we have reviewed your stated objectives and it is our considered judgement that to win public appeal your movement would be advised to have a single watchword or master-thought. A careful evaluation of your aims and purpose lead us to believe your most appropriate and effective slogan would be: “The kingdom of God.”

Although, astonishingly, it is given no mention in the historic Creeds of the Church, “the kingdom of God” was at the very heart of Jesus’ message. He is on record as saying, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God, for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43). The kingdom of God is the main theme in Jesus’ teaching: it occurs over 100 times in the gospels. Many of the parables were stories Jesus told to explain what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom features in his very first sermon. “The appointed time has come,” he said, “The kingdom of God is here.” (Mark 1:15). It is still there in his last sermon. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) tells us that after the resurrection of Jesus, “He spoke to them about the kingdom of God.” And he asks his followers to pray for it: in the prayer Jesus gave us on which to model all our prayers, we are to ask, “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Every time we say those words we are asking for the Rule of God to be recognised and accepted in the world. The hope of the visionary with whose writings the New Testament closes – the Revelation of John – is of a time of rejoicing in heaven because “the kingdoms of this world now belong to our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (11:15). Whatever else Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God, its fulfilment is something for which the disciples must pray.

A word of caution – a mistake is easily made if our evaluation of prayer equates it with a quick-fix God who is good at conjuring tricks. T.W. Manson, a noted theologian, had this to say, “Those who think Messiah will come and transform the world by a wave of a magic wand are mistaken.” Jesus could not be more clear; early in his ministry he launched His campaign “manifesto” (without the help of the Joint Management Consultants in Jerusalem!) He took the opportunity to do it in the Synagogue when asked to read the Scripture, a passage from the prophetic Isiah. There he made public how he saw his task (Luke 4:18-19): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

There we have it – a ministry that was to revolve round the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the suffering and to do something practical, positive and radical about their circumstances. Not surprising then, that those early Christians were known for the way they lived, just as much as for what they believed, One of the first things Jesus did following his dramatic announcement of how he saw his task was to choose his disciples. And then it would appear he gathered them together in a series of seminars where he spelt out in detail what the kingdom was about. In the gospels, we have preserved what might be called “the manifesto of the kingdom” in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is no airy-fairy waffle. Here is a programme which is more than theory, more than academic. Here is something that deals in a realistic and practical way with a new and universal order. Jim Wallis, the American preacher and evangelist has this to say, “Here Jesus speaks to the basic stuff of human existence. He concerns himself with money, possession, power, violence, anxiety, sexuality, law, and goes on to the way we treat people, as well as with faith and religion people.” N.T. Wright in his book Who is Jesus? gives an opinion that No King but God was the revolutionary slogan of Jesus’s day and Jesus was seen as the one announcing that God was at last to become King. And for Jesus the kingdom was not purely an inward, private thing, Tom Wright says, it was essentially to do with the way in which Israel’s God was to become the Lord of the cosmos. He concludes that is the big picture the Gospel paints. That is the ambition God has for the world. That is the task in which the Church must engage. No wonder we are to pray for it. And more – live and work for it!

The Golden Rule

 

Bloch: Sermon on the Mount. Photo credit Wikipedia.

Bloch: Sermon on the Mount. Photo credit Wikipedia.

“Do for others what you want them to do for you.” Matthew 7: 12 (GNB).

One of the best known sayings of Jesus and, with it, the Sermon on the Mount comes to its climax; described by William Barclay as “the topmost peak of social ethics, and the Everest of all ethical teaching”. This Golden Rule – “Always treat others as you would like them to treat you” (REB) – is concerned with the distinctive attitude and behaviour expected of the disciples of Jesus. The Emperor Alexander Severus is reputedly said to have had it written in gold on his wall: a constant reminder, an example and a testimony. There were many parallels to this saying to be found in the ancient literature of religions, the religious and their teaching, but none of them adopted, or were known to quote, the precise words of the text as we have it in the Synoptic Gospels. Practically everything and everyone gave it in its negative form: Do not do to others what you yourself dislike. It isn’t difficult to find rabbinic parallels of the Golden Rule in almost everything Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, but there is no real parallel to it. What we are considering here is new teaching, no one had ever said it before and this new teaching incorporated a new view of life: a fresh, radical and demanding way of life – unselfish love in action.

In the ill-informed opinion of some, Christianity is for softies, an escape from the realties of life and life’s obligations. The Sermon on the Mount dispels the illusion. Pioneering stuff? Jesus set high standards! Yet, strangely, this one gives the impression of being easy. Do as you would be done by! Reasonable and simple? Or is it? It demands getting to know the person next to us. It requires us to put ourselves in the other persons place. It calls for empathy, getting under the skin of our neighbour. Doing to them as we would like them to do to us if we stood in their shoes, although as individuals we might stand poles apart, separated by different attitudes and standards, difference in politics and religion, and so on. Who are we fooling? There is an interesting and apposite American Indian proverb which says, “Suffer me never to criticise another until I have walked for three months in his moccasins.”

For some it might be a surprise and an unexpected revelation to discover that this Golden Rule is not always honoured in the Church. Discipleship can be hindered because of an inability to transcend our differences. Every bit as important is our ability to get alongside folk who make no profession of Christian faith and try to appreciate what makes life tick for them. Alas, many to whom we ought to reach out, regard us as thinking ourselves to be too good for this world and not a bit of good to them.

A concluding quote: “To obey this commandment a person must become a new person with a new centre to her/his life; and if the world was composed of people who sought to obey this rule, it would be a new world.”   William Barclay.