06 February 2007

Part 9-Luke 6:12-49 (B) "teachings"

This teaching known as “The Sermon on the Mount” is told by Luke & Matthew. Our two-week study will be in Luke as he relates it. Last week, we focused on observing what Luke says. This week, we turn to interpreting & applying it. Next week, we’ll talk more about what love is and how it can change the reality of this life.

INTERPRET what does it say?

In this teaching, Jesus proclaims that material realities of this world and the immaterial realities of the next—intersecting now in our life—are somehow connected.

What can you say about the nature of their relationship from this?

The relationship between the realities of this world and the immaterial realities of the next world are connected, but not in the way we think. Those material conditions that we would view as fortunate are, in Jesus’ view, actually unfortunate. Those conditions we view as fortunate are actually unfortunate. It appears that God values those life circumstances which leave us desperately aware of our deepest basic needs, that do not clutter our life with distractions, that make us long for something better, that put us at odds with the mass of humanity because we have begun to follow Jesus’ way of living. James picks up on this same theme in his letter (1:9-12; 2:1-13).

What other NT passages point to and describe this reality?

A few clear examples come to mind. In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 Paul makes the point that our lack of wisdom, strength, and influence is not a cause for concern but an opportunity for our weakness to reveal God’s strength. The relationship between what we perceive to be advantageous in this world is seen to be something that can in the way from God’s perspective.

Later in the letter (8:1-13; 10:23-33), Paul points to people who do not feel that they can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols without sinning in doing so—this is the relationship they see between the physical and spiritual realities. He points out that this relationship is not accurate (8:4-8). To the contrary, what is around is God’s and cannot affect one’s spiritual well-being if dedicated to God’s glory (10:27-31).

Another example is found throughout the writing of James. James rails against those who hear but do not do (1:22). He faults those who consider themselves religious but do not exercise self-control or self-sacrifice (1:26-27). His big point is that we should not deceive ourselves and view ourselves as living a spiritual reality that our material reality does not evidence or confirm.

Throughout the beatitudes and woes (vv.20-26), the “now” and “then” nature of these realities is prevalent. In the teaching which follows (vv.27-49), the focus is squarely on the “now” aspect. What does this tell us about what Jesus thinks about how we should respond to His teaching?

While the reversal of circumstances that Jesus points to is clearly in the future (20-26), the response to this is on how we act right now (27-49). Right now, we are supposed to love those who hate, curse, mistreat, or strike us. We are to forego retaliation, go the extra mile to repay debts and meet needs by giving freely and generously. We are to take the initiative and make the sacrifice to treat others as we would like to be treated. We are to make judgment of others secondary to our primary job of self-examination. We are to concentrate on seeing the spiritual realities of our heart expressed in the tangible actions of our material world. Jesus is clearly talking about a world that will someday be different. But, He clearly expects that, among His followers, it must begin to be different right now as believers bring these two realities back into their right harmonious relationship.

With this backdrop, Jesus zeros His teaching in on love—a love that extends to those who hate you (v.27), a love that treats others as you would be treated (v.31), a love that is expressed in concrete actions. Do you agree or disagree with this statement: A follower of Jesus is called to love everyone they come into contact with in extraordinary ways (i.e. beyond what is ordinary)?

The more I study Jesus’ life and teaching, the more that I am aware of the centrality of His call to love God by expressing love to others.

For much of my life, I’ve thought of love for God as something defined by how much I wanted to go to church on Sunday, how energetically I sang the songs, the quantity of time that I spent in prayer, the quality of my study of the Bible, or how much I had made progress in being good (defined in my mind as not doing the obviously wrong things).

I see it differently now. Going to church on Sunday can be the easiest thing in the world—an escape from a difficult broken world where I can be with like-minded “safe” people. I can belt-out the songs but still be subject to the ancient prophet’s criticism that my words ring hollow with no accompanying “real-world” actions that evidence God’s deeper concerns. I can spend much time in prayer but never conduct a conversation that has any substance with the lost around me that I am charged to reach. I can have deep study of the Bible but never have it take root deeply in me through living expression. I can be good in the sense of not doing wrong while being bad in the sense of not doing the right.

What saves our spirituality, faith, religion, relationship—whatever you call it—from being a purely abstract construct is making it tangible to the other human beings who live around us. What ensures that these things are really true to us is the fact that we act on them to those with whom we have relationships. In this regard, Jesus sets the hurdle high. The accurate test is not how we treat those like us, who treat us well, from whom we have something to gain. The only ultimate valid measure of our love for God expressed through others is how we love those hardest to love. This is a painful realization that is difficult to respond to. But, it is in this understanding that we can be confident, assured, and hopeful. This is where life full and lasting resides as we remain in the life Jesus lived.

APPLY how do I respond?

Is your faith framed more around personal self-improvement of your character, or around selfless sacrifice to love others for the sake of Jesus? Both are inherently what a follower of Jesus is about. The question is, what is the relationship between these two. Do we seek to be better people so that we can love others better? Or do we seek to love others better and in the process become better people? This is not an academic question.

Much of Christianity has, in the words of one writer, become “moral therapeutic deism.” God is fairly distant and removed, content to be a small modifier in one portion of our life. Our interaction with Him largely has the benefit of being a “therapy” to make us better moral people on the margins of our behavior. Is being incrementally “better” people really the issue? Was it ever? Isn’t it the point that we could never get better on our own through our own efforts? Isn’t this why He had to die for us? The core of our identity is not that we are “good” or “better” people. It is that we are forgiven.

I obviously think we should become “better” or people who are more “good.” This is the essence of what it means to remain in Christ, to be transformed, to be reborn. But the call is to do this in the context of going to, serving, and loving people. If our focus is on ourselves and our desire to be better people, these other things may never happen. But, if our focus is on others and our willingness to go to them, serve them, and love them, you can’t help but become a “better” person who is more like Christ. That relationship seems critically important for us to understand. It is the distinction that was so painfully evident in the contrast between the miss-the-larger-point Pharisees and the understand-what-this–is-all-about ministry of Jesus.

Consider your own spiritual life and religious expression. How much of what you do as a Christian is essentially just about you? How much of what you do is about God disconnected from any bearing on the human beings with whom you are in relationship? How much of what you do is explicitly about someone else? Serving them, helping them, giving to them, loving them. If we’re followers, do our footprints appear to walk the same path Jesus describes here?

I urge you to undertake a spiritual experiment. What would happen if you reprioritized your spiritual life and religious expression to make it primarily, or at least equally, focused externally? What if you knew more unbelievers better as a result of your time at church? How would your time praying change if you were intentionally and deeply involved in the lives of unbelievers on a daily basis. How would your time in the scriptures change if you were forced to confront God and your faith through the eyes of those who do not share it? Would you sing or listen differently if you’d been regularly involved in witnessing to others about the God who has changed your life? Might our fellowship be more meaningfully if we were all making real, costly sacrifices to serve others beyond our church?

It’s an experiment I’m trying to incorporate into my life. I urge you to start looking for ways to do the same. Things can change. They will. If my heart has truly been changed, then I am a part of that unfolding revolution. I hope my spiritual “patriotism” is deeply held enough to compel me to lay down my life for another.

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