The Sermon on the Mount and the Church: the creative Word of God

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March 5, 2014 by jmar198013

One way of reading the Sermon on the Mount as a welcoming word of grace–indeed, as a generative and creative word that comes to us as gift and hope–is to recognize that it is not an abstract set of principles for good and happy living. It is not Jesus standing transcendent and judging us from a mountain. Rather, it is the creative word of the one about whom it is written:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being. (John 1.1-3 CEB)

And elsewhere:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Heb. 1.1-3 NRSV)

And again:

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

The Sermon on the Mount is what happens when the Word becomes flesh. When the Word by which the cosmos is created and sustained dwells among us, the poor; those who mourn; the meek; and the hungry are welcomed home (Matt. 5.3-11). Brothers are reconciled rather than killing one another (Matt. 5.21-26). We learn to tell one another the truth (Matt. 5.33-37) without judging each other (Matt. 7.1-5). When the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, God’s will is done–as in heaven, so on earth (Matt. 6.10). This is a sermon that creates a new world as it is spoken, because it is the word of the Word of God. Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that:

The Sermon on the Mount is the word of the one who did not relate to reality as a foreigner . . . but as one who bore and experienced the nature of reality in his own body . . . The Sermon on the Mount is the word of the very one who is the lord and law of reality. The Sermon on the Mount is to be understood and interpreted as the word of God who became human . . . Action in accord with Christ does not originate in some ethical principle, but in the very person of Jesus Christ. (Ethics, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005], 231).

Thus, all attempts to describe the Sermon’s imperatives as unrealistic, irresponsible, or impossible are judged by the truth of who spoke them. For they constitute a creative, generative word from God. That it is Christ who speaks them makes them not only possible, but necessary. That they are spoken by Christ renders them more real than what the realists of our time count as reality–war and injustice and exploitation. The realists of our time proclaim that peace and justice and love can only be approximated, and the attempt to realize them on the terms dictated by the Sermon are irresponsible. The Sermon judges those who continue to kill for peace and justice, because they believe that this is the only way to be responsible, out of touch with reality.

The generative Word of the Sermon is not abstract–it creates a people. It is a word to be embodied. It is a word that becomes flesh. It is embodied in a people called the church. In the Sermon, Jesus calls this people into being, a creative new word to sustain the world:

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5.13-16)

Matthew’s Jesus tells the church, You are the light of the world. John’s Jesus proclaims that I am the light of the world (John 8.12). How can both be true? Because Jesus continues to be present in his church (Matt. 28.20). Jesus the Word continues to animate the church. The church is the body of Christ (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4). Paul’s idea of the church as the body of Christ is not simply a crafty metaphor for the division of labor in the church, as most interpret it. Rather, it is an ontological description of our existence, character, and especially, our vocation. Again, Bonhoeffer:

The Logos of God has existence in space and time in and as the Church. Christ the Word is spiritually and bodily present. The Word is not merely the weak word of human teaching . . . but it is the powerful Word of the Creator. He speaks and thereby creates the form of the Church. The Church is thus not only receiver of the Word of God, but is itself revelation and the Word of God. (Christ the Center: A New Translation, trans. Edwin Robertson [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1968], 58)

The church, therefore, is not only necessary to make the creative Word become flesh, it is the Word of the Sermon become flesh. It is the Sermon embodied. It is the body of Christ. So Stanley Hauerwas concludes:

The message of the Sermon cannot be separated, abstracted out, from the messenger. if Jesus is the eschatological messiah, then he has made it possible through his death and resurrection for us to live in accordance with the life envisioned in the Sermon. The Sermon is but the form of his life, and his life is the prism through which the Sermon is refracted. (Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bile from Captivity to America [Nashville: Abingdon, 1993], 66)

The one who tells us in the Sermon, therefore, to turn the other cheek when struck; to give the other garment when it makes us naked; and to carry a burden that is not rightfully ours another mile (Matt. 5.38-42) is the same one who will be backhanded, stripped, and forced to carry an oppressor’s cross he didn’t deserve. Likewise, the one who tells us to love our enemies so that we will be like God (Matt. 5.43-48) is the one who dies on a cross to speak God’s love to his enemies (Rom. 5.8-10). Jesus embodied God’s care for us. The church, likewise, is called to embody God’s care for us in Christ.

In short: when the Word becomes flesh, the church happens.

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