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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

August 19, 2007

Jesus Wasn't Kidding

I remember the first seminary class I ever took, years ago at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. My professor, Mike Sabo, asked the class how you could truly tell whether you were a follower of Christ, that you had meant what you said when you confessed Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

Now, I have to tell you that I felt like a fish out of water in that class, and in that seminary in general. Having grown up as a Methodist, there was so much evangelical jargon and talking points and conventions that I just didn't have the first idea about. I always felt I was a couple of steps behind, you know? And so I didn't say too much in my classes, because I didn't want to show my ignorance.

Anyway, when Dr. Sabo asked this question, I looked around the room at the other students. Nobody seemed too eager to answer it. I mean, this was a really big question, you know? How do you know you really are a Christian? How can you tell you haven't just been kidding yourself, and saying you're converted, but really you haven't gone all the way with it in your heart? This is the kind of question that keeps some people from sleeping at night. I remember thinking, “These people are evangelicals. That's a question I'd expect them to have the answer to.”

Since no one was answering, I decided to think about what I knew from the Bible. What was it that God always wanted from people? And what always got people in trouble? I knew the answer to that. And so I decided to go out on a limb. I figured if I was wrong, at least it would be a pretty good miss.

“Obedience,” I said. “If you are following Christ, you should live the way he wants you to live. If you are not trying to do that, then I can't see how you are really a Christian.”

And what do you know? I was right. After class, I decided to see whether Jesus had actually said this himself or whether it was just something I'd picked up from the bulk of Scripture. It turns out he did, many times. Jesus said the way we can know whether we are truly following him, on board with him, loving him, is simple: it is whether we are obeying his commands.

*****

Was “obedience” what came to your mind? And if it wasn't, did it make sense to you? Even if “obedience” wouldn't be our first answer, it shouldn't be much of a surprise to us. Quite frankly, it shouldn't have come as a surprise to Jesus' first hearers, either. From the Garden of Eden on through the patriarchs and the history of the nation of Israel, obedience was always the criteria God the Father used to judge whether people were with him or not. How did the people in the Hebrew scriptures show they had faith? They obeyed God's commands. When they went their own way and disobeyed, their actions showed they were not really worshipping God.

Chapters 13–17 in the Gospel of John give us a lot of detail about what Jesus said at the Last Supper. Jesus talks about what the disciples will be doing after he is gone, what he wants for them, how the Holy Spirit will be sent to them to aid them, and what the mark will be that will show they are his followers. That mark is that they will obey his commands, most of which have to do with some aspect of loving God and other people. That is how Jesus will know his own, and how those who follow him will know they are his.

*****

Of course, what we want to know is, “What commands is Jesus talking about?”

We aren't the only ones who have wanted the answer to that question. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus was asked, “Which are the most important commands?” He answered by paraphrasing two commands from the Scriptures that everybody already knew. First was the well-known command from Deuteronomy 6:4–5. It was so well known that it had its own nickname, the Shema, which means “hear,” and is the first Hebrew word in the command.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. —Deuteronomy 6:4–5

And then Jesus added Leviticus 19:18 to it, another command the people knew well:

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” —Leviticus 19:18

Jesus' own words were these:

“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” —Matthew 22:37–40

These, Jesus said, were the greatest commands, those that summed up the Scriptures, “the Law and the Prophets.”

In Matthew and Luke's accounts of this story, the question wasn't actually asked in good faith. Matthew tells us it was asked to “test” Jesus, while Luke adds that the person also “wanted to justify himself.”

So. What exactly does “love your neighbor” mean, he asks—who is “your neighbor”? He hopes the answer is easy, something he is already doing, so he can feel good about himself.

But in response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing that God's definitions of both “neighbor” and “love” are much larger than what people want them to be.

*****

You see, here is where the problem lies for those of us who want to follow Jesus. We like him all right, we like the part about the grace and the forgiveness and the going to heaven when we die, and we may even think we are doing pretty good at the obedience part. But when we get serious about all this and dare to say to Jesus, “what does obedience really look like,” he throws us the Good Samaritan curve and puts the fear of God into us.

That is what is going on in the Sermon on the Mount. You want Jesus to spell out “love God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself”? You want some details on that? If you really want to know what it takes to obey Jesus, if you want to know what he is really looking for from us, read Matthew 5, 6 and 7.

I'll give you the Cliff's Notes version here. What does the Sermon on the Mount cover? Pretty much every part of the human condition. It starts out with the Beatitudes, ten attributes of Jesus' followers that totally go against the grain of how people naturally think.

Jesus then makes it clear that aligning yourself with these values will make you stand out as different, in a way that shows the world how God intends people to live. When you follow Jesus, the point is to be an ambassador to this God-honoring alternative way of life.

Jesus emphasizes that his teachings are in line with what God has always required of people. In fact, they cut to the chase even more than what folks are used to hearing from their religious leaders. He not only condemns murder, but anger and derision. Not just adultery, but all the internal thoughts and desires that lead up to it. He vetoes men casually divorcing their wives. He places great emphasis on the integrity of our promises.

He give his followers an entirely unexpected way to respond to evil, and follows that up with the startling statement that we should actively love our enemies, and even pray for those who are persecuting us.

Then he bluntly dismisses the kind of outward displays of religious “devotion” that are nothing more than a show for others. He teaches us about the attitude we need to truly pray.

Jesus moves into the foolishness of materialism, amassing a bunch of things for ourselves during this lifetime at the expense of living the kind of life that will count afterwards. He also promises that God cares for us so deeply that he will provide for us as we follow him. Don't waste time worrying about that, Jesus says.

And he makes the startling comment, which he repeats on other occasions as well, that God's forgiveness of us is tied into the way we forgive other people for what they have done to us. There's a supernatural connection there. He also delivers a stern warning about judging other people. Jesus promises us that God will judge us in the same way we've judged the people in our lives. Jesus' rule is that we should always act towards others the way we would want them to act towards us. And that we're supposed to do this before they act this way towards us. This is so important, he says, that it sums up all the other commands.

He closes with warnings. Following him is hard. You have to be active and serious about it. Not many people will choose his path. In fact, we have to be alert to the many people who will claim to speak for Jesus but don't. Many who claim to be his followers will find out in the end that they really were not. And what will be the criteria that Jesus uses? He tells us. It is whether or not they obeyed his commands and did the will of God.

*****

Are you feeling discouraged yet?

I know that I have difficulty every time I read Jesus' words here. I miss the mark in so many of the things that matter to Jesus that I wind up wondering whether I am obeying—or loving him—at all. It is one thing to think you are following Christ in the abstract. It is another to take a hard look at the details and realize just how far short you fall.

I mean, take any of the commands in the sermon. ANY of them at all. Take the one about adultery. We tend to think as long as we haven't committed the physical act, we are in the clear. But Jesus says in God's eyes, we are liable the moment we have the first lustful thought.

Or take the one about murder, where Jesus says when we call someone an idiot, we're in danger of the fire of hell. Or the one about judging, which hits very close to home for me. I'm a pretty judgmental person. The way I judge other people is the way God will judge me.

I mean, take any of them. How do you measure up? But that's what the man said.

So we try to make excuses for the sermon. People have been making excuses for these words since—well, probably since they were walking back down the mountain after the sermon. I suspect that over the centuries, everyone who's read the Sermon on the Mount has had that reaction. Some have said the sermon wasn't actually meant to be lived, it was just supposed to make us feel bad. Its purpose was to show us how sinful we really were so we would fall on God's mercy.

We're so tempted to say, Doesn't Jesus know anything? What he says doesn't make sense, doesn't seem like it will work. No one could run their lives on the lines he laid down and make any sort of success of them. No country would last long under his principles, would it? His way is a way of disaster.

Jesus surely has to be wrong about loving your enemies and praying and doing good to those who are persecuting you. In this day and age that's completely unrealistic. There's a war going on, against people who hate us. They're blowing people up. They'll stop at nothing to get to us. And Jesus wants us to love them and care about them and pray for them? He just doesn't know what it's like for us.

Or—doesn't he realize how hard it is today to take two steps without running into sexual content in a movie, a song, on TV, on the Internet? Doesn't he know times have changed? Or—doesn't he realize how politics is played? Hasn't Jesus ever heard of talk radio? It's all about calling people on the other side names and judging them and their positions. What about that idiot in the car ahead of me? That's what the culture is like. That's human nature!

That really is what we think, isn't it? All that stuff.

*****

Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose the things he did to emphasize in the Sermon on the Mount? Maybe it was because he did know what the culture was like, and because he did know human nature all too well. You know, you look at what Jesus addressed, and you realize what he was on about back then are the same things we have problems with today. So maybe Jesus was on to something there. Maybe he wasn't kidding about how he wants his followers to live. Maybe there was a purpose to his choice of commands.

Could it be that if Christians became really serious about doing things differently, it would unleash something godly into the world? I mean, what if it actually did work? What if it started to beat back the darkness? We'd become salt and light and the world would begin to change. More people would come to know Christ. What if?

When Christians have tried to live in line with the Sermon on the Mount, things in the world have changed. Think about the civil rights movement in our country or the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Think about movements of compassion or justice that started in Christian communities and alleviated suffering. Think about those who served as missionaries and paid with their lives while spreading the Gospel. Think about the best Christians you know personally and the impact their lives have had on those around them. They became different from the world. They went against the culture. They went against human nature. They became salt and light. They pointed the way to God's something better. I believe that's what Jesus wants for each of us. I believe that's what his commands are really all about.

*****

The Sermon on the Mount convicts us. Not to wallow in our own self-pity, but to take action. Not to look around at what others are not doing, but to do something about our own future.

We cannot escape the fact that Jesus is speaking to each of us personally. He doesn't say “I say to them .” He says, “I say to you .” We can't read Jesus' words and then talk about how other people are missing the mark, how they should just shape up. Because Jesus is looking us each straight in the eye and saying, “I tell you …”

When he does this, I want to avert my eyes. I get a sense of who I truly am. I don't want to meet his gaze, even though if I want to be his follower, I know I must. But when I do look at him, what I see in his eyes are love and compassion. He knows who I really am—a person who tries but too often fails to obey his commands. He knows my heart, my intentions, my desires. And when I come to him he holds out his hand and says, “You can do it if you let me do it with you.”

One thing the Sermon on the Mount does to us is to show us that we do not have the spiritual resources to put any of Jesus' commands into practice. I know because I have tried. I have tried to love my enemies on my own, and I have failed miserably. I have struggled unsuccessfully with forgiving those who have hurt me. I worry about the future. I call people fools and judge folks I don't know.

I cannot fulfill God's standards by myself. But I can if I lean on the power Jesus gives me through the presence of his Holy Spirit and regular time spent with him. The Sermon on the Mount takes all my self-delusions away.

Margaret Cundiff, now in her 80s, is one of the first women ordained in the Church of England. Someone once asked her how she could tell if people who claimed to be Christians actually were. While acknowledging that only God knows for sure, she offered the following:

I look for evidence that people have recognized their sin and done something about it—not only being sorry, but turning right away from it. I look for evidence that people have come to know God for themselves through meeting Jesus Christ, a living Savior, and finding him a friend in need and also a Master to be obeyed. I look for people filled with love and enthusiasm to share what they have discovered, who know a power, not of themselves, but of God—the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I look for people who are putting into practice what Jesus said about loving others, caring for them, and sharing both materially and spiritually. I look for people who are practicing what they preach.

Would you do me a favor? Crack open your Bible and read Matthew 5,6 and 7. Then find a quiet place, away from everything, and spend about a half hour thinking about what Jesus said and how you've been measuring up. After you've repented, ask God how you can do better, where he wants you to start. And ask him to give you the spiritual resources you're going to need along the way. Then go out there and give obedience a shot.

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If you love me, you will obey what I command.

—John 14:15