That work colleague who regularly regales you with inappropriate stories of his many, many escapades. Your dad passing the time on a long car journey by singing along with all three verses of Starland Vocal Band’s ‘Afternoon Delight’. Someone you know sending you a copy of Tim and Bev LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage as an engagement gift (Not cool, mom…not cool). Some things make you feel just plain awkward.
Jesus’ teachings are like that – especially the ones advocating the way of peace over against the way of violence. For 2,000 years, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (from Matthew), or the parallel ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (from Luke), have caused us to squirm uncomfortably in our seats and laugh nervously.
The Kingdom Manual
Wouldn’t it be easier for us if Jesus had said, “Blessed are they that pursue national and personal security” or “Blessed are the strong and well armed, for they shall achieve awesomeness,” or “Resist evildoers with the power of freedom and, when necessary, lethal force”?
But Jesus didn’t say any of that, unfortunately. Instead, he said things like, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”, and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”, and “Love your enemies”, and “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”. And this formed a huge part of the operating manual for life in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ words cut so sharply against the grain of our culture, that we think they couldn’t possibly apply to us. Thus, we surreptitiously shunt his sermons into the background, shouting, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”, always hoping to discover some secret, hidden meaning behind the very obvious plain reading of the text.
One innovation on this Christian sleight-of-hand has been to hold separate the teachings from the cross. We insist that Jesus’ work on the cross, not his words, should command our focus. We therefore send the Beatitudes and other Jesus statements into the corner, so they can’t steal our attention away from Good Friday and what Jesus did for us and for the world.
It’s clever on our part, because it actually makes the teachings of Jesus a threat to our Christian faith and praxis, a potentially dangerous distraction away from ‘the main thing’.
This approach is right in some ways, except that it’s completely wrong. The teachings of Jesus weren’t just supplementary ‘fluff material’ that the gospel writers inserted to reach the optimum length for publishing, or for some Tolstoy-esque character development, before diving into the action of the passion narratives. The deft composition of the gospels speaks clearly against that idea.*
If we read them again, with eyes wide open, we’ll perhaps notice the intimate relationship between Jesus’ teachings and his path to the cross. The crucifixion is Jesus doing exactly what he taught us to do in his sermons: submitting to the aggression of enemies, allowing them to do their worst, suffering terrible violence, and resisting any urge to strike back or take revenge. To isolate the words of Jesus from the death of Jesus is to rob the cross of a critical layer of its depth and power.
Still, the undercurrent persists among us that Jesus’ way of non-violence is too ‘soft’, that it simply doesn’t ‘work’, not for us and not for our society. But his dying act was one of passive resistance and it doesn’t equate to weakness. He endured the most sickening brutality that corrupt human systems and the darkness behind them could inflict. He absorbed the very worst that they could do – and exhausted their power. In so doing, he stood toe to toe with evil, sin and death, overcame them, rescued the world, established the Kingdom of God, and came out the other side alive for good measure. All in all, not a bad day’s work.
What would it mean for us to follow Jesus’ example of peace, the one he taught and walked out? If we’re honest, we wouldn’t know, because we’ve rarely tried. Maybe we would discover something of that mysterious and counter-intuitive power, the power of the cross, the power of the Kingdom, that defies and overturns all that we think we know. In any case, the call of the master is clear: he invites us to take up our own crosses and to follow him.
* Matthew builds his entire gospel around 5 great discourses, of which the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is the first. Luke, for his part, gradually lets the notes of Jesus’ teachings crescendo as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem and the cross.
- Feature Image: The cross and the scriptures (from Allan R. Bevere’s blog at http://www.allanbevere.com/2018/01/scriptures-and-prayer-for-fourth-sunday.html)
- The Act of Marriage, by Tim and Beverly LaHaye (uggh) (from Amazon.com)
- ‘Pay no attention’ gif (from The Wizard of Oz, found at https://giphy.com/explore/the-man-behind-the-curtain)