Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Light for the World

Light for the World
Matt. 5:13-20; Isa. 58:1-9[1]
  There is an important balance that can be found throughout the testimony of Scripture.  Although it’s foundational for truly grasping the message of the Bible, I’m afraid that far too many have missed this balance.  It’s the balance between grace and demand.  In the Bible, God’s grace, God’s gift of life and love and mercy, always precede any demands.  This is true from the Ten Commandments to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the Apostles’ teachings.  Grace always precedes demand.  The point is that we who have experienced amazing grace in the gifts of love and new life and community are to reflect that grace in the way we relate to others.[2]
  This balance is crucial for our understanding of Scripture because when we downplay one side or the other, it skews our vision.  When we overlook the fact that all the commands of the Bible are grounded in the grace and love and mercy that God has so freely given us all, we turn those commands into rigid rules that are applied often in a strict and severe way.  We can think of various communities in our world who do just that: enforce a ruthless set of demands and expel those who don’t live up to them.  I don’t think that’s a very accurate portrait of the God who has lovingly called the human family into relationship throughout the centuries.
  The opposite is also true: it’s all too easy to focus only on grace and ignore the very real demands that are found not just in the Hebrew Bible, but also throughout the New Testament.  When we make that mistake, we miss the whole point of God’s outpouring of grace in the first place: to shape us into the people we we’re meant to be from the beginning.  In the words of the pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when we ignore the demand for heartfelt obedience to God’s commands, we turn all that God has done for us into “cheap grace.”[3]  I believe we can also think of those voices in our world who expect a loving God to be tolerant of any and all kinds of behavior, regardless of the consequences to others or ourselves! Again, I don’t think that’s a very accurate portrait of the God whose love has always called the human family to practice justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another.
  We see this balance reflected when we look at our Gospel lesson for today in light of its context.  Jesus opens the “Sermon on the Mount” with the beatitudes, which are not primarily instructions for living.  The beatitudes are a declaration of the grace that God is pouring out on all people through Jesus Christ.[4]  They are a more detailed announcement of the heart of Jesus’ message: the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  If you wonder what the kingdom of heaven is about, look at the beatitudes.  It means blessing and peace and comfort for those who have been trampled on in our world!  Right from the start of this “sermon,” Jesus makes an elaborate statement about the grace that God gives to all people who will open their hearts to it.
  Immediately following our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus begins to teach his disciples what it means that he was calling them to a righteousness that surpassed even that of the great examples of piety in their day.  But whereas the Jewish religious leaders had sought to fulfill God’s demands by specifying the precise actions one could or could not do, Jesus called his disciples to obey the commands from the heart.[5]  That would mean not only not killing, it also meant avoiding the anger and hatred that leads us to devalue the life of another enough to justify killing.  In other words, Jesus didn’t make it easier to obey God’s commands, he made it harder.[6]  He went back to the original intention of the commands--to produce a people who would practice God’s justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another.  And they would do so not for fear of punishment or in order to gain some reward.  They would practice this kind of life because God’s grace had changed their hearts, and they could do no less.
  It seems to me, that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples that they were light for the world.[7]  They were to demonstrate the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis.[8]  And if you’re wondering what that means in terms of specifics, our lesson from Isaiah 58:6-7 puts it this way: what God desires of us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, ... to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke ... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.”  It sounds very reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 25:35-36, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[9]  When we live our lives in this way, demonstrating the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis, we are living as light for the world.[10]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/9/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Perry Yoder, “Liberated by Law,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1999  (Vol. 28, No. 5), 46; Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, 113; O. Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:363.
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4, 43.  For him, “cheap grace” meant that God’s grace “justifies sin” without making any difference in the sinner, so that “everything can stay in its old ways.”He continues (p. 44) by saying that “cheap grace” means that “there is no difference between Christian life and worldly life,” and “the Christian need not follow Christ” because this “cheap grace” is the basis for their comfort and security.  This translation is by far better than the common one, entitled, The Cost of Discipleship, which in my opinion suffers from a great many translation errors when compared with Bonhoeffer’s original Nachfolge.
[4] cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 466: “by opening the sermon on the mount [the beatitudes] place it within the context of grace.”
[5] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 140-41: Jesus made it clear that God “demands not only external acts which can be observed and controlled, but also internal responses which cannot be controlled or checked. He demand’s man’s heart.”
[6] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 482: “what Jesus requires of his followers surpasses what has traditionally been regarded ... as the requirements of the Torah.”
[7] It is important to recognize that Jesus speaks of being light for the “world” not just for the few: Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 125-26; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:804-805.
[8] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 499, where they define this in terms of “right intention, right word, right deed.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127: “it is not only love that is demanded. It is in the first place faith, the faith, namely, that the least of the brethren are waiting in Christ’s stead for the deeds of the just man. It is not that the wretched are the object of Christian love or the fulfilment of a moral duty; they are the latent presence of the coming Saviour and Judge in the world.”
[10] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 475, where they quote St. John of the Cross: “the followers of Jesus are to be windows through which the divine light enters the world”


Raynor Bradshaw said...

Thank you for this wonderful message. I always enjoy reading your blog, but this one is very special to me. Blessings.

Alan Brehm said...

Thank you! I'm glad you found it helpful! Grace add peace to you.

Kevin Lindley said...

What a pertinent message for our context right now. Thanks!

Alan Brehm said...

Thank you!

William Schlesinger said...

Good work.

Alan Brehm said...