If this isn’t your thing (it’s about my faith) come back another day, no problem – I quite understand. If you’re not sure, or you’re ready to explore, make a drink and read on …
Amid all the activity of choosing and calling his disciples, healing ‘every disease and illness’, teaching in the local community halls and proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven – whatever that is! – Jesus Christ famously went up onto a quiet hillside one day, sat down with his new disciples and talked to them. Now called ’The Sermon on the Mount’ it was neither a sermon, nor on much of a mount, but who cares. It is captivating. Confusing. Challenging. Frankly? Impossible. You can read it for yourself: Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of St Matthew’s Gospel in the Bible.
Reading Jesus’ teaching on my Kindle as I travelled to Spain, heading to the Bay of Biscay (cue Pic 1)and later on into the mountains roads and Iberian autumn countryside (Pic 2), it seemed as if he is describing two ships (kingdoms) HMS Kingdom of Earth and HMS Kingdom of Heaven sailing close together, and we are given the opportunity to transfer ship onto Kingdom of Heaven, and live differently, live trusting God, dependent on the Holy Spirit, serving a different Captain and living with a different crew. “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near” he said. Reading it again it is clear that though the two ships may be sailing close together – within transfer distance – for now, they are actually incompatible. Chalk and cheese. Convention and revolution.
There are lots of incomprehensible things in Jesus training session on that hillside. For 2000 years people have been discussing what the kingdom of heaven is, what ‘blessed’ actually means, the impossibility of fully living this teaching out, and the incompatibility of this eternal parallel spiritual kingdom to the time-bound Earth Kingdom we live in. Some even deny its existence.
Yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is actually where the ‘Father’ is, where Jesus’ followers’ rewards are being stored up, and strangely, is ‘among you’. Here. Now. In this room.
He explains in this teaching session who really is the greatest and the least. He explains the need for his followers’ righteousness to be greater than that of those who dish out and interpret the ‘law’, society’s rules. Unless it is, his people will never make the transition into this unusual Kingdom of Heaven in the first place, strongly hinting that most of those politicians, religious leaders, law enforcers and academics won’t.
- He says that what you think matters, that lustful thoughts end up as actual adulterous deeds, and the consequences of such deeds are ‘hell’ to live through for those involved. (How many millions of families around the world would personally endorse that!)
- He tells his listeners to be perfect (it means ‘complete’), as God is perfect. No challenge there then!
- He says, because it isn’t possible for one person to serve two masters, don’t try. Choose God or material wealth.
- He says that me worrying about my life – what I eat, drink or wear, or have stashed in tomorrow’s pension fund – doesn’t work and is pointless. Yes, really.
- “Don’t judge” he says, yet the whole of the Sermon on the Mount calls for judgement, measurement, assessment – not just of ourselves, but of each other too.
- Jesus said his followers, his crew, were like flavoursome salt added to food, and a bright light to be put on a lamp-stand. And we are to shine, so others may see our good works and honour God for what they see.
- Learn to do things secretly he says. Give in secret. Pray in secret. Fast in secret. Live quietly. Knowing how and when to be discreet is important to Jesus.
For me, the message is more “This is impossible!’ Jesus is setting standards that are humanly unattainable without serious help, yet telling us to do it. Maybe try it. It seems to be a series of statements designed to reveal insecurity, to highlight inadequacy and point out in vivid autumn colour the blatant weakness of each one of us. Uncomfortable. Raw.
Jesus deliberately undermines the self-confidence and self-assurance of us people who think we ‘know’, sponsoring instead a humiliating sense of hopelessness in our ‘human effort’, and a dependence on something or someone bigger and beyond ourselves to help us get aboard this Kingdom of Heaven, if that’s where we want to be.
Changing the analogy again, Jesus said to take the narrow backroads, not the main road. Like a half-completed motorway being constructed by a broke european state, the accepted fancy road takes you nowhere, and will eventually run out to a silent and empty construction site. However good it may seem now, blindly rolling down the tarmac will lead to your destruction, he said, but the backroads lead to life.
Ah, the backroads! The narrower country paths, the mountain passes perhaps! These are the ones Jesus says to take, the backroads of daily lifenot of spectacular adventure. It’s where the real people live. Much more suited to a few hikers than 40 tonne articulated trucks, they are slower to travel on, less rushed, go up hill and down vale, are interesting, more individual, less well signposted, but well trodden, more honest, demand care to negotiate, can be harder work, and again, are less conspicuous.
You’ll be less noticed walking them – in a good way. Freer from concerns about image and perception, freer to find and be yourself, chose your route, to know and follow your heart. Freer to work, rest and play. Yet your good deeds, left behind as you travel on, like a lamp set on a stand, a light on a hill, will show observant fellow travellers the way. Great, he says. No need to fear that kind of influence. It is inevitable, and serves the world well.
I’ve noticed too, reading Jesus’ words again this morning, how the daily actions we take seem to matter more than the goal we have, with the focus and honour being more on taking the next deliberate step than anticipating arrival celebrations. It comes across to me as extremist in some places. Secret. Blunt. Blatant. Cut your hand off, he says. Don’t resist evil (What?!) Give in. Love the people who hate you and abuse you. How?!
The process matters…
Ask, seek, knock… They are action words. Pray, fast, give… Action. Doing it matters. It WILL produce rewards and results (safer when stored away in another kingdom, not this one) but don’t make the results your primary aim. Enjoy the journey. It is made one step at a time.
But amidst it all, keep your wits about you, Jesus advises. There are very deceptive and nasty people out there whose offerings will poison you. Look over those backroad hedges. There is no hurry. Wait for harvest time. Check out the barn-content of the farms you pass and the life-content of fellow travellers. See what grows from the fields and lives of the people around you and go by that. Bad fruit means bad trees. Good fruit means good trees. Be picky.
For an example of how to do it…
… we can look at the Teacher himself. We can see the outcome of Jesus’ walking the backroads and climbing the hills with his followers. Listen to His wisdom. He changed the world by being inconspicuously influential, infiltrating our world with his subversive wisdom and unnerving honesty, and his Spirit is still changing it in and through the myriad of communities around the globe that still choose to follow him today.
I made the choice to get aboard his ship early on in life. Still personally challenged and intrigued by the Christian faith, still learning from the Captain and my fellow crew members, it is a decision that to this day I’ve never regretted.