What’s the first thing you think about when I invite you to reflect on Matthew’s Gospel? For me I am reminded not only of The Sermon on the Mount but the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. The command to live ethically, love God, self and others, and the call to make disciples ground my theology.
What does love look like in the Gospel of Matthew? To be sure love looks like surrendering to Jesus’ authority. Why do we struggle with authority? Our will is the most obstinate aspect of our nature – and it is fallen. Our emotions bind us to our individuality and lone ranger mentality, or bind us together in longing for affirmation. Together our will and emotions can run amuck until we discover the depth of our identity in Jesus Christ and enter his rest for our soul. The content of Jesus’ message can only undergird and sustain us after we have surrendered to his authority over our lives – trusting him, honoring him, respecting him, and obeying him.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, which is important for the audience whom Matthew writes. Matthew is writing to the Jewish community who understood that human authority was validated in the family lineage. Authority was bequeathed to the first born male child, and that male child received a double portion to ensure that the family tree continued. Next Matthew points to the Incarnation, the Virgin birth, as the impartation of spiritual authority in Jesus’ life. Not only does Matthew point to Jesus human authority, but also to his divine nature. The God-Man would possess both the human and divine authority to complete his task on earth as the Messiah.
Next, Jesus’ authority is validated by foreigners, the magi, even when the leadership at Jerusalem failed to recognize God’s Messianic promises being fulfilled. Then Jesus enters the waters of baptism, submitting to the prophetic declarations of John the Baptizer. Next, we find Jesus wrestling with Satan in the desert in a contest over Jesus’ authority. Afterwards, we watch Jesus call people to himself for discipleship purposes – the disciples, who will struggle to understand Jesus’ authority until his Ascension to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Following the call of disciples to his side, Jesus sat down and shared his teachings – The Sermon on the Mount – to those who would listen, hoping that some would hear the words and have their hearts and minds changed.
After The Sermon on the Mount, we find the first response of the crowds. The Church understands The Sermon on the Mount to be the critical teaching of Jesus among his followers today. We understand this content to be the way of salvation. The content of Jesus teaching was not a point of tension, it was his authority that infuriated the people.
Mt 7.28-29, “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching because he was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lays out the moral teaching which he will soon ethically demonstrate to the people. What captured my attention was the response of the crowd! As I read through Douglas Hare’s commentary, he offers these words, “…those who heard Jesus’ teaching were ‘astounded.’ The Greek verb often implies fear, sometimes panic. What prompts apprehensive astonishment in the listeners is not so much the content of the teaching as the authority with which Jesus declares God’s purpose for their lives. The motif of Jesus’ authority, which appears here for the first time, will recur repeatedly until we finally reach the climatic declaration of the Great commission (8.9, 9.6, 10.1, 21.23, 28.18-20).” To be sure Jesus’ authority was constantly hanging in the balance of his ministry.
Many people today recognize Jesus as a good teacher, but fail to recognize him as Lord and King. Many recognize his great love for people to heal, feed, and welcome, but fail to acknowledge the authority and position behind his words. I’ve heard it said many times at the hospital among the patients, families, and staff that Jesus’ teachings are great guidelines for living, but I don’t feel it necessary for me to live under those guidelines. Even to the point of saying those are great guidelines, but they are not for me. This sense of disconnect between Jesus’ teachings and his authority is a growing issue in our culture so much so that many see all religions as equally valid. You know the line in the song, “When we all get to heaven…” Many feel that the “all” will be everyone – no exceptions. The rising generation of believers are no different from previous generations in having to deal with their own rebellious hearts. We’d like to believe we are special, but the sin condition of every heart remains the same from the foundation of the fall of humanity.
The concluding statement of The Sermon on the Mount truly focuses on Jesus’ authority. What happens when the crowd gets amazed? Well, the amazement does not say they accepted the teaching or authority/power of Jesus, it means they were astonished. The crowds were astonished that Jesus would go beyond what was written to expounded on the text more fully. Jesus’ teachings point to his Messianic role of prophet, priest, and King. And, it is his authority as Lord that often finds contention among his followers even today. D.A. Carson in his commentary on Matthew notes that the central theme of The Sermon on the Mount is Messianic, Christological, and Eschatalogical. Even when people do not understand Jesus authority, his authority remains. And, as Matthew’s Gospel continues we can read the exercise of his authority with signs and wonders that would continue to baffle the people.
How do we understand the tender-hearted love of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel? Jesus pours out his discourse that we understand as the Sermon on the Mount with great conviction. He doesn’t spare words or use flowery language to tinkle the ears of the hears. He most certainly is addressing the moral and ethical failures of the people. To Jesus loving others becomes a choice, not a feeling. The false prophets of old were the ones who refused to observe the law of Moses.
Authority is defined as the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. It means the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something. Authority across the Scriptures is a hot top in two areas: usurped or misappropriated authority or domineering authority. It began in the garden with the serpent who usurped God’s authority, then Adam and Eve followed. It was easy to lay blame at someone else feet, but the proper response to such temptation is to remember the standard of living that God gave them. God gave Adam and Eve one command – not to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, “Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die” (Gen. 3.2). God provided for them a plan and a way of life that was good for them. When we find ourselves in the place of temptation, it is essential to return to God’s word, his plan for us. Otherwise, we will make choices that put us at odds with God himself.
When I hear the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, I hear Jesus calling the people to the deeper meaning of God’s plan for their lives. Jesus instructs his people to follow every stroke of the law and anyone who ignores it will never enter the Kingdom of God. Mercy! Does he really men that if we don’t follow the guidelines then we are in disobedience to God the Father? I think so. The invitation for us is to live within the means of grace God has given us. For us Methodist one of the means of grace is Christian conferencing. What is Christian conferencing? It is essentially gathering in groups to encourage one another and make decisions in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in bonds of Christian love.
What does not Wesley say about the Sermon on the Mount? Kenneth Kinghorn in his three volume set of Wesley’s sermons, translates the sermons into modern English for easy reading. Volume two is dedicated to the 13 sermons from The Sermon on the Mount. Wesley understood the Sermon on the Mount to be the pinnacle teaching of Jesus on true religion. To be sure Wesley understood this text to be the basis for Christian ethics, a distinctively biblical worldview. Some people find their morals and ethics guided by the natural reasoning and personal experience of philosophy. Some find their moral and ethical underpinnings in theological ethics or general spirituality that encompasses all religious beliefs. But Wesley understood foundation for his morality and ethics was the Bible. He was indeed a man of one book. He believed that truth was disclosed only through the Bible and the Incarnate word of Jesus Christ. Wesley believed that true religion is a balance between inner character and outward works or right behaviors. Indeed, The Sermon on the Mount guides us in our everyday walking around lifestyle.
We are called to enter the narrow way. So what is the narrow way? It remains for us to discern, but the context here implies that we are not to follow or become false prophets. Those who mislead us and disobey the Word of God. One illustration to help bring clarity is the way that bankers identify counterfeit monies. Counterfeits are able to get closer and closer to the perfect image of the real deal, and it has become increasingly difficult to detect. So much so that the treasurer had to redesign our monies to ensure only the real monies would be cashed. Special markers are used to detect the counterfeit.
But we can’t go around testing one another with markers, we need assessment tools. Wesley invites us to look at our assessment tools as the fruit of the Spirit: mercy, love, purity, doing good, and a willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. Not one of us is innocent of unjust or unkind behaviors. James says that our tongues can speak all kinds of evil, and it is impossible to reign it in apart from God’s sanctifying grace. Wesley urges us to be humble, meek, and gentle – to thirst more for God’s righteousness than anything else. It is impossible for us to be in the world and unstained by its problems. What we are invited to do is stay the course of the narrow way.
Where does your authority come from? Paul, Peter, and John – and the other disciples – found their authority resting in the intimacy of a relationship with Jesus Christ. They followed the pattern of first taking the log out of their own eye, then they were capable of removing the splinter from their neighbor’s eye.
What does love look like in the Gospel of Matthew? It looks like the surrender to God’s authority in Jesus Christ. When we find ourselves grounded in the surrendered relationship with God Almighty, then the storms shall come but the roots will hold us fast.
How can we surrender? When fears assail us and darkness seems to overwhelm our path, we resist the temptation to find our own way through. Instead we rely on Jesus to calm our cursing, still our insecurities, free us from fear, strengthen us in our feeble doubts, and relieve us from shame. The key to finding the narrow way is to become self-aware of those places in our lives where our will and emotions are running amuck. To be sure the content of the Gospel doesn’t have much value to us unless and until we surrender to the authority of Jesus Christ in our lives.
An honest self-assessment can reveal to us the places we are neglecting in our discipleship. Peter Scazzero points out the distinguishing marks of growing emotionally healthy disciples. There are four stages. Stage one disciples seek out others to care for the, have difficulty identifying with others, are driven by self-gratification, and use others as objects. Stage two disciples want their own way, get personally defensive in conflict, are easily hurt, play emotional games with others, and struggle to share their needs/wants with others. Stage three disciples are defensive, threatened by criticism, keep score, blame, talk around the issues/problems but not directly confronting the situation, preoccupied with self, and maybe critical or judgmental. Stage four disciples, which is where we all want to be, clearly and directly state with honesty what their needs/wants are, take responsibility for their own feelings, under stress they can declare how they feel and hold to their own principles and beliefs, respect others without changing them, give room for mistakes and appreciate all people, they can identify their weaknesses as well as their strengths and openly discuss them with others, and have the capacity to negotiate conflict to gain healthy solutions.
If you have spent your time today assessing everyone else in the room and not yourself, you are in stage one of discipleship and you ought to be the first one to the altar. Run! You are invited to enter the rest of Almighty God. The altar is open for those who would like to come a pray.