Sermon on the Mount 2 – Poor in Spirit

Mt5.3textpic3

“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!”

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 5a

This week, we continue looking at John Wesley’s little book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Article 5 is titled, “Conformity to the Master.” In it, Wesley describes how his heightened study of the bible led him more clearly to Christ as Master at life. Not only our Master in life (though he certainly is), but the Master at life—the One who really knows what life is really all about and how to live it abundantly, for all it’s worth.

There are two basic reflections I’d like to share from article 5. I’ll share the first, about Wesley and the bible, in this post.  I’ll get the second in the next post.

Wesley and the Bible

Wesley begins article 5 this way:

“In the year 1729, I began not only to read, but to study, the Bible as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion.”

First, we note that Wesley differentiates between reading the bible and studying the bible. I would contend that both are important. Studying takes us deep into the meaning of the Scriptures, whether getting into the details of a small passage or paying attention to the significance of over-arching themes. Reading can be many things. For my part, I see it as simple immersion into the Story of the bible itself. Perhaps Wesley is referring a sort of surface engagement here.

Second, we can see that an important part of Wesley’s faith journey entailed submitting himself to reading the bible “as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion.” This sort of posture does not only seek to understand the bible, but to gain understanding by “standing under” it, being instructed by its story and its wisdom. We not only read the bible, but are also read by it! We do not master the Scriptures, but are mastered by them.

Finally, Wesley notes that this posture toward the bible began in 1729. An observation: Wesley began reading guides to the Christian life in Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, and William Law. Those guides led him eventually to engaging the text of the bible himself. Sometimes we need the company of others (either face-to-face or through their writings) to help us along the way. But they should lead us to the Scriptures themselves as the “standard of truth’ and “model of pure religion.”

Then we may, like Wesley, see “in a clearer and clearer light…”

What Wesley saw will be the subject of our next post.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 4

In article 4 of John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, we are again introduced to the significance of Wesley finding spiritual mentors through books. I’ve mentioned it each week, but think it worth noting again how important that can be in our faith journey. I have authors who have become not only mentors but friends through reading their works. And I have authors whose writing crossed my path at a critical juncture in my journey and nudged me along the way.

Another of those persons for Wesley was William Law, a priest in the Church of England. Law wrote two books that came into Wesley’s possession soon after their publication: A Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection, and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Reflecting on them, Wesley writes:

These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian; and I determined, through His grace (the absolute necessity of which I was deeply sensible of), to be all devoted to God, to give Him all my soul, my body, and my substance.

First, Wesley becomes convinced that it is not merely unadvisable or awkward or even a serious failing to be “half a Christian.” Rather, it is an “absolute impossibility.” In the New Testament, James seems to say it only slightly differently: “Faith without works is dead.” Forgiveness and reconciliation with God are key, but they are the beginning, not the end. The journey is about maturing faith, faithfulness, restoration to the image of God in which we were created.

Second, Wesley says he “determined, through His grace… to be all devoted to God.” This work of maturation, of growth in faithfulness, of restoration, is ultimately God’s work, according to his grace. We may apply ourselves to serving people, for example, and thus participate with grace. But we dare not mistake our efforts for what really does the job. That is the grace of God.

Third, Wesley desires to give his whole self to God, not just part: “not a mite would I withhold,” goes the old hymn. On this, I will end with Wesley’s own questions:

Will any considerate man say, that this is carrying matters too far? or that anything less is due to Him who has given Himself for us, than to give ourselves, all we have, and all we are?

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 3

This week’s look at John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection witnesses another encounter with an important book and author to Wesley. He shares having “met with” it in 1726, the year after his encounter with Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s book. Again, I love the language of “met with” for his reading. I’ve had that sort of experience with a book.

The book on this occasion is one of the most famous in Christian literature, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which Wesley references by an alternative title, “Christian’s Pattern.” He titles this article, “Simplicity of Intention.”

Wesley writes:

The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this, and go no farther) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart to Him.

Wesley was not in the least opposed to good works. Indeed, the Methodist movement engaged in works of compassion and works of seeking justice. However, Wesley lifts up the significance of knowing Christianity as a “heart religion.” Christianity is about the transformation of human hearts.

This is really a false division anyway. As our hearts are transformed by God’s grace, we gain the mind of Christ and the heart of God. We affirm the truth of 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” And we pray, “Lord, may the things that break your heart break ours as well.”

We love because he has transformed our hearts by his love. We forgive because we’ve been forgiven. We seek justice because God is transforming our hearts to love justice as he does. We show grace because we’ve been shown grace. We love because he first loved us.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 2

Last week, we began looking at John Wesley’s little book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

The term “perfection” may be a stumbling block at first, but in was a term in use in Wesley’s day. So, he did not invent it, but he embraced it and became the movement organizer who worked it out into practical ministry through a multi-tiered small group system (described well and accessibly in Kevin Watson’s Blueprint for Discipleship).

Part of Wesley’s journey included several influential books he read as he sought to understand and practice the life demanded by the gospel. In article 2, he speaks of the “Importance of Complete Dedication,” having read Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.

I love the way he introduces the book: “[I]n the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.” Some books offer us such an encounter with Christ along our journey of faith that they are not merely read; they are met.

Indeed, Wesley confesses, “I was exceedingly affected.” I’ve had that experience too, and I’m thankful for it.

What affected him so?

…that part in particular which relates to purity of intention. Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words, and actions; being thoroughly convinced, there was no medium; but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil.

There was no middle ground for Wesley. I think he would like the line in the hymn, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.” Reserving some parts of his life for himself was as good as giving them to the devil. Perhaps this “no medium” view sounds extreme.

But it does sound remarkably like Jesus in Matthew 6:

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:21, 24 NIV)

Wesley puts the question to the reader, that is, to us: “Can any serious person doubt of this, or find a medium between serving God and serving the devil?”

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 1

One of the hallmark texts of the Wesleyan Christian movement is A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

When we come to faith in Christ, we are “justified” before God, reconciled in our relationship with him. That reconciled relationship is not the stopping point, however. Our relationship with God having been restored, in Paul’s words, “by grace through faith” (Eph 2:8-9), the Holy Spirit continues the restoration work in us by growing us in spiritual maturity. By God’s grace continuing to work within us, we are being restored to the image of God in which we have been created, growing in Christlikeness. This process is called “sanctification.”

John Wesley believed and taught a doctrine known as “Christian Perfection” or “entire sanctification.” He believed that God desires us to become completely devoted to him and that God’s grace was powerful and effective enough to succeed in that project in this life.

A Plain Account of Christian Perfection is Wesley’s book on the subject. On Wednesdays, I’ll be walking through this text and sharing what stands out to me.

Here’s an excerpt from his Article 1: Statement of Purpose:

What I purpose in the following papers, is, to give a plain and distinct account of the steps by which I was led, during a course of many years, to embrace the doctrine of Christian perfection.