June 26, 2011
The Sermon On the Mount
A Revival of the Heart
There are many things about churches that fascinate me, one of them being the things congregations choose to argue about. I think you learn a lot about a church by studying their congregational battles. The conflict I remember most vividly in my home church came during the latter part of my high school years. The church received a fairly good-size sum of money and the congregation began to debate how to use the money. Someone suggested that we air condition the sanctuary and fellowship hall, while others thought the money should be spent on something that was less about personal comfort and more about spiritual needs. It turned into quite a battle. The conflict really heated up when our local church camp made an appeal for money. The camp was making some badly needed upgrades to their facilities and building a chapel and some felt the work at the camp was a more worthy cause than air conditioning. One Sunday, after the worship service concluded, we had a congregational meeting to take a vote on the matter. There is something sad about a group of people who worship in a sanctuary and then turn that sanctuary into a battleground as they argue with one another.
For a long time my memory of that event was simply that it was an unpleasant conflict. Most of us find conflict to be unpleasant so we spend a lot of time seeking to avoid any and all conflict. But the reality is that conflict is sometimes necessary. Not only is it necessary, sometimes conflict is a really good thing.
I remember attending a 50th anniversary celebration, and during the remarks the wife said 50 years of marriage and we’ve never had an argument! Somebody standing near me muttered I bet they could have used a few. That’s a pretty good insight, isn’t it? Conflict is at times both necessary and positive, because it brings issues into the open that need to be discussed that may otherwise go unspoken, which then would allow tension and resentment to fester and turn into bitterness. For my home church, the discussion about how to spend that money led to a much-needed conversation about the nature and function of the church and the call to look beyond the needs of the congregation.
It is striking to me the amount of conflict we find in the Bible. Conflict leaps out from so many of the Bible’s pages and it is woven throughout the gospels and most of Paul’s letters.
As we continue in the Sermon On the Mount we come to a passage that lays the foundation for the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment. The gospels continually allude to the tension and conflict between Jesus and the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and other members of the religious establishment. They were constantly nipping at the heels of Jesus with one criticism after another, and in this passage and the verses that follow, we discover why. Here we see Jesus directly confronting the religious leaders as a group who perpetuate a false version of faith. That’s a pretty devastating accusation.
Here is the core of the accusation that Jesus makes: these leaders – those who represented the pinnacle of religious leadership – had ripped the heart out of faith. Ripped it right out. They did so by creating a counterfeit version of faith that emphasized a type of religion that cared about nothing but the keeping of a list of external rules. These leaders had pulled faith so far away from its true expression that Jesus had to spend most of the Sermon On the Mount directly refuting their teachings. Following our passage for this morning Jesus uses six specific instances where he says you have heard that it was said...but I tell you. The teaching of the religious leaders was so far from the intent of God that Jesus found it necessary to say the exact opposite of what people were used to hearing from their religious leaders.
One thing that tells us is this – religious leaders aren’t always right. In fact, sometimes they are absolutely wrong. My temptation was to name a few names this morning but then I thought that might not be fair. But I will say this – when a religious leader tells you who to love and who not to love, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader tells you to follow without questioning, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader demonizes a particular group of people, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader equates faith with a particular political party, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader says you must hold to their particular interpretation of Scripture, they are distorting faith. You can fill in the blanks with the names of people who fit that description.
Jesus stood up to the distortion of faith that was so prevalent in his day, and sadly, is alive and well in our day. Jesus was angered by the distortions of faith he saw, he was saddened by the way these religious leaders twisted faith into an unrecognizable form and he was willing to stand up and confront those distortions and did not hesitate to bring the conflict between true and counterfeit faith into the open.
What Jesus did was absolutely revolutionary. Jesus cut the bonds of legalism and smashed the man-made rules that were being passed off as legitimate faith.
When you start requiring certain beliefs and enshrining personal opinion, which is what the religious leaders had done, you squelch the spirit and stifle ministry and drain the life out of faith.
This idea goes right to the heart of who we are as Disciples. One of the premises of the Stone/Campbell movement is that in too many instances personal opinion had been enshrined as Holy Writ, as though personal opinion carried the weight of Scripture. The early Disciple leaders – Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone – recoiled at the thought of imposing a personal opinion upon another as an article of faith. One of the mottos of our movement is in essentials unity, opinions liberty, and in all things love.
To the religious leaders in the day of Jesus, it wasn’t enough that the Ten Commandments say to Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. They took it upon themselves to define what it meant to keep the Sabbath day holy, and if you didn’t follow their specific guidelines you were in violation of God’s eternal law, when in reality you were just disagreeing with their opinion.
When Jesus spoke these words the religious leaders were probably confused; they probably thought Jesus was contradicting himself. Jesus said do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (verses17, 19). The religious leaders thought that’s exactly what Jesus was doing – breaking all the rules and trying to abolish the Law. In their minds, the problem with Jesus was that he wouldn’t follow the rules. They saw Jesus as someone who was constantly breaking the religious laws. He broke the rules about ritual hand washing, he broke the rules about healing on the Sabbath, he didn’t follow the rules on fasting; time after time these guys were on Jesus because he was a rule breaker. And he was – he was breaking their rules, the rules they had invented.
The day that I begin to tell you how you that you must think the way I think, or believe the way I believe, or accept my personal opinion as absolute truth is the day you need to form a line at the door of my study to ask Dave, what in the world are you thinking? Will you promise me you will do that? (I’m probably going to regret saying that.)
The distortions that twist and turn faith into nothing more than someone’s enshrined personal opinions is far too serious to fail to engage those errors. Some conflicts are worth provoking. Jesus certainly didn’t hesitate to engage the religious establishment of his day in conflict to bring out the truth.
There are plenty of people today who are peddling their personal opinions as truth. The truth is not found in a bunch of rules that we construct, the truth is found in A Revival of the Heart, which means that love becomes the ultimate truth, as Jesus sought to teach and as Paul confirms in I Corinthians 13. Jesus said it was time to forsake manmade rules that allowed one to put up a veneer of religiosity while at the same time tearing the heart out of faith.
In spite of what some people might say, there is a tremendous hunger for God in our society. There was a great hunger for God in the time of Jesus, but that hunger was not met by much of the institutional religion of the day, just as we see today.
Back to the story about my home church, after people had been arguing for a while my dad stood up and said how many lives will air conditioning change? How many lives have been changed at the camp? Interestingly, the church found they could fund both endeavors. The sanctuary and fellowship hall were air-conditioned and the church made a large contribution to the camp.
Though my memory of that conflict was for a long time a very unpleasant memory, I have come to realize how important it was for my home church to have a conversation about who we were called to be, and I don’t think it would have happened if not for conflict.