Sermon on the Mount 2 – Poor in Spirit

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“The foundation of all is poverty of spirit,” according to John Wesley. This is the first step to living in God’s kingdom.

Bonhoeffer seems to see it, if not as a first step, as a sort of first reality. It is the first way to describe the new reality into which Jesus’ band of disciples have entered. Here, it seems to me, emerges one of the ways in which the historical context of the expositor of the text influences their commentary on the scriptural text. Both Bonhoeffer and Wesley seem to envision a dual audience for the Sermon–the original one composed of disciples and crowds in Matthew’s gospel, and the one they picture reading or hearing their words in their own day. For Bonhoeffer, this undoubtedly includes young pastors in his underground seminary, men who have left safety and security behind to pursue a calling to live an authentic Christian life and proclaim the gospel of Christ in the midst of an overtly hostile society.

So, while Wesley’s explanation of “poor in spirit” is clearly that of an evangelist calling people to conviction and conversion, Bonhoeffer reflects with solemnity on the weightiness of the calling to which the disciples have answered, “yes.” Both of these interpretations yield important insights.

Bonhoeffer

Concerning Jesus’ use of the term “blessed” in these eight sayings, Bonhoeffer says that the self-denial and sacrifices “they have made… are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which [the disciples] are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes.” The call to Christ and the promise of God’s kingdom are the only sufficient reason to enter the life described in the beatitudes.

On the first beatitude, regarding poverty of spirit, Bonhoeffer comes across almost as favoring Luke’s rendering (Luke 6:20, “blessed are the poor”). He writes, describing the disciples, “For his sake they have lost all. In following him they lost even their own selves, and everything that could make them rich. Now they are poor… they have no other hope but him who called them.” Connecting this insight into the original disciples’ situation with the particular relevance to the young pastors under Bonhoeffer’s tutelage at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde is no difficult task. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great value is illustrative here (Matthew 13:45-46). The one who finds the pearl sells everything he has in order to possess it. He impoverishes himself in every other way in order to gain that which he considers most valuable. Disciples of Jesus will do the same, sometimes literally.

JW_poverty of spirit quote

Wesley 

John Wesley, pressing for evangelistic revival, emphasizes the spirit of a person as the location needing a palpable sense of poverty. This is the first step. We cannot understand, engage, or enter God’s kingdom without a deep awareness and conviction that we come before God with nothing to merit acceptance. Wesley insists that we need not pursue material poverty in order to gain poverty of spirit. This could become a pitfall for self-righteousness. Instead, the poor in spirit are the truly humble and the helpless, those who know they fall far short of the glory and will of God and who acknowledge that they are powerless to remedy their situation.

Wesley observes, therefore, “that Christianity begins just where heathen morality ends; poverty of spirit, conviction of sin, the renouncing ourselves, the not having our own righteousness (the very first point in the religion of Jesus Christ), leaving all pagan religion behind.” Other religions teach salvation—life-giving connection to God—through moral performance or religious observance. Christianity teaches receiving salvation when we know we are morally and religiously insufficient before God. Against this backdrop, the amazing love of God in Christ stands in beautiful contrast. This is why poverty of spirit is blessed and the first step to the kingdom of God.

Sermon on the Mount 1 – Introduction

This spring I’m working through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the company of John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their works, Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount (Wesley, available here) and the middle section of The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer, available here). I’ll be posting short reflections and collections of insights and quotations here as I go.

Mt5_blog picWesley and Bonhoeffer come from different eras. Wesley, the son of priest in the church of England, lived in eighteenth century England. Bonhoeffer, from a line of prominent intellectuals, lived in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet there are connections. Both men ministered at odds with the state church. Bonhoeffer led an underground church and seminary that was opposed a morally and spiritually compromised church in Nazi Germany, while Wesley led a revival movement in a spiritually dead church. And both men embraced the call to discipleship in the Christian life. From Bonhoeffer we hear the stern invitation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And from Wesley, we receive a belief in the powerful love of God to transform and perfect in us “holiness of heart and life.”

Background

Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and tested in the wilderness in Matthew 4. After success against the temptations of the devil, Jesus begins his public ministry, including preaching repentance (4:12-17), early calling of disciples (4:18-22), and healing (4:23-25). In the passage just prior to the Sermon on the Mount, he is attracting large crowds due to his reputation as a healer.

Audience of the Sermon

The audience for the Sermon is a mixture of the crowds and the disciples. At this point in Matthew’s narrative, we are not yet referring to the Twelve with the term, “disciple,” as there are further calling passages in the chapters that follow the Sermon, and the Twelve are not named as such until chapter 10. The number of disciples is so far ambiguous. It is simply a way of distinguishing a difference in character and commitment: the disciples are committed followers/students/apprentices, the crowds are curious and interested. In 5:1-2, Jesus is directly teaching the disciples in the presence of the crowds. By 7:28-29, the crowds have clearly been listening carefully as well.

Purpose of the Sermon

The Sermon on the Mount is both “kingdom ethics” for disciples and an invitation for the crowds. Christianity is not a secret society, the instruction on how disciples of Jesus are to live is given in public. Because humankind is intended to live in God, the Sermon teaches the true way of living for humankind.

Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer points out that the disciples are those who have responded to the call of Christ and obeyed his word, while the crowds (Jewish residents of rural Israel here) are heirs of the promise of God. “Hence the aim of this beatitude is to bring all who hear it to decision and salvation,” says Bonhoeffer.

All are called to be what in reality of God they are already. The disciples are called blessed because they have obeyed the call of Jesus, and the people as a whole because they are heirs of the promise. But will they now claim their heritage by believing in Jesus Christ and his word?

Bonhoeffer presses this question on us personally too: Will we now claim the heritage of God for us “by believing in Jesus Christ and his word” here in the Sermon?

Wesley

Wesley sees the Sermon as instruction for disciples, but also are revelation of God’s will to humankind: “with what amazing love does the Son of God here reveal his Father’s will to man!” Wesley wants us to know that holiness is the way to true, soul-deep, happiness and views the Sermon as an exposition of that reality, if we will recognize and receive it as such.

Happy are the mourners, the meek, those that hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart. Happy in the end, and in the way; happy in this life, and in life everlasting! As if [Jesus] had said, ‘Who is he that lusts to live, and would fain see good days? Behold, I show you the thing which your soul longs for! See the way you have so long sought in vain; the way of pleasantness; the path to calm, joyous peace, to heaven below and heaven above!’

Wesley might ask us, then, if our eyes are open. Do we see clearly that true happiness is taught here in the Sermon? For those with eyes to see, he trumpets: “Behold, I show you the thing which your soul longs for!”

A Definition of Discipleship 2

In my previous post, I shared that a friend asked me to answer the question, “What is discipleship?” I said there are plenty of good, solid ways to express what God reveals in scripture about discipleship. I shared a definition and some thoughts about the phrases in the first half of my definition.

Here’s the definition I’m working with, followed by some thoughts about the phrases in the second half.

Discipleship is a process of learning beliefs and behaviors from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.

From Jesus: While there are many great moral and spiritual teachers in human history—and it’s quite worth reading works like the dialogues of Plato and the Tao Te Ching, if you’re so inclined—Jesus stands head-and-shoulders above them all. Not only that, Jesus is the one human being in history who is not merely a human being, but also the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all creation. For everyone else, they gain significance because of what they taught. For Jesus, what he teaches holds significance, not just because it is brilliant, but because of who he is.

About living as a son/daughter of God: Forgiveness for sin and transgression of God’s Law is a very real part of our being reconciled to God that we must not overlook or diminish. That said, the image we find again and again in Scripture is of family. A powerful image in the writings of Paul for our salvation is adoption into the family of God. Salvation is not only the freedom of a pardoned prisoner who has been told, “you’re free to go.” Salvation, robustly understood, is the freedom of an adopted child who has been told, “you’re free to come.”

The most famous example of this is of the prodigal son from Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. He alienates himself from his father due to his choices but returns when he realizes the poverty of his chosen path. He offers to become a servant in the household but the father will have none of it. Full restoration is the only option the father will entertain.

Being a child of God is a thing of great comfort and security. Being a child of God involves learning the character, the virtues, the way of life that this family embodies—the beliefs that give rise to the behaviors characteristic of this family. The best person to learn them all from is the Son, Jesus, whose life perfectly demonstrates what a Divine image-bearing life looks like. And, lest we forget, we are not alone. God graciously gives us his Spirit to dwell in us, empower us, and do the restoring work in us.

Favorite Books of the First Half of 2014

Here are some of the books I read from January to June that I enjoyed/appreciated most. 

Fiction 

  • Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004 Pulitzer Prize) 
  • The Runaway Jury, by John Grisham 
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (collection of ten short stories) 
  • A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the debut story featuring Sherlock Holmes) 

Theology and Spirituality 

  • Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness, by Wesley Hill (a gay Christian’s reflections on living a celibate life out of convictions about the gospel and Christian morality) 
  • Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate, by Justin Lee (a gay Christian’s account of coming to terms with being gay, exploring Scripture, and presenting a case for legitimizing gay relationships/marriage within Christian ethics) 
  • Behold the Pierced One, by Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI)
  • How to Be Rich, by Andy Stanley (on Christian stewardship and generosity) 
  • Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-out Culture, by Sean Gladding (exploration of the Ten Commandments and significance for today)

Leadership and Ministry 

  • The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation, by Herrington, Creech, and Taylor (on the place of spiritual and emotional maturity in the life of a ministry leader) 
  • Rich Church, Poor Church, by Clif Christopher 
  • Effective Staffing for Vital Churches, by Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittain 

A Definition of Discipleship 1

“What is discipleship?”

That’s the question a friend asked me recently. I appreciated the opportunity to think about it and take a stab at boiling it down into a simple definition.

It is an important question to answer because we are called to discipleship when we become Christians. If you are not interested in being a disciple, you are not, by definition, interested in being a Christian.

Before sharing mine, let me affirm that there are lots of “right answers,” well-grounded biblically and theologically, to the question, “What is discipleship?” Mine is simply an effort that captures my reflections on Scripture and that seeks to express a practical theology of justification (being reconciled to God relationally) and sanctifcation (being restored as an image-bearer of God).

So, here is the answer I gave (with a little modification) and that I’m working with at present. I’ll share a couple of thoughts on the first half of the definition below and follow up with thoughts on the second half in the next post.

Discipleship is a process of learning beliefs and behaviors from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.

Process of learning: Discipleship is a journey. A disciple is a student or apprentice. It is not about “arriving,” but it is absolutely about advancing. In other words, being a disciple isn’t about doing enough to gain a status (the title of “disciple”), but about embarking on a journey. To be regarded as “being a disciple” demands walking the path, not just standing on it. Just like being a runner, guitarist, scientist, businessperson, teacher, etc, being a disciple involved submitting to a process, the aim of which is to mature and grow us in the vocation we have endeavored to take up.

Beliefs and behaviors: Discipleship is not merely about belief or merely about behavior. It includes both. Beliefs must lead to behaviors or they are not our true beliefs. Behaviors reveal our beliefs. Being a disciple is not only about adjusting our behavior, it is also about renewing our minds. Beware teachers who promote belief at the expense of behavior. Beware teachers who raise up behavior in a way that diminishes the importance of belief. To use some theological jargon, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are vital.

In the next post, we’ll look at the last half of the definition, “from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.”

Recent book reviews at Seedbed.com

I wrote a couple of book reviews for Seedbed.com this spring and summer.

In April, I wrote about Sean Gladding’s latest book, TEN: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided, and Worn-Out Culture. Gladding explores the Ten Commandments through a story about Monday-morning congregants at a coffee shop.

This month, I wrote about Rob Renfroe’s new book, The Trouble With the Truth. Renfroe contends that living out an authentic Christian witness requires balancing grace and truth. “The Christian faith is not one instead of the other or one more than the other but both together in equal measure, because this is the nature of our God.” Our culture’s understanding of truth has rapidly changed and this is a challenge that must be met well by the church.

Both are good books that will challenge their readers in various, helpful ways and I recommend them.