Three years ago, as I was preparing to complete my doctoral work, I read some newer literature coming out of a movement called “New Monasticism.” This movement dates back many years, but is only now being studied and talked about as an important phenomenon in the church. One book that I read attributed this movement’s beginnings to the thought and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Third Reich for his involvement in an underground seminary system that defied the Nazi government, and for his role in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. In a letter to his brother, Bonhoeffer wrote, “The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ.”
I also read a book called Celtic Daily Prayer, a collection of liturgy and devotional materials published by the Northumbria Community. The Northumbria Community is a new monastic community headquartered in the U.K., but whose adherents are spread all over the world. They are bound together by the simplest of vows (which they don’t even really call vows): to be vulnerable to God and others, and to be available to God and others. They worship three times each day—wherever in the world they may be—using the resources in the book Celtic Daily Prayer. As I was reading more about this community, it caught my attention that they, too, quoted Bonhoeffer—the bit about New Monasticism and its radical adherence to the Sermon on the Mount. They practice what they call the “heretical imperative,” that is, they are always willing to challenge people’s assumptions, even if it ruffles feathers, in order to provoke thought that leads to more dedicated discipleship. You know when a preacher makes a point from scripture that completely convicts and challenges the way you live and think—sometimes so much that it makes you angry or embarrassed? That’s the heretical imperative. And it’s the way that Jesus preached, and the way many of my closest friends challenge one another to better and better discipleship.
So I thought that it would be a nice change of pace to spend some time really wrestling with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew—which author Brian McLaren calls Jesus’ “Kingdom Manifesto.” In the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps more than anywhere else in the Gospels, Jesus concentrates his teaching energy on the heretical imperative—radically challenging his listeners’ way of thinking, and nudging them to greater faithfulness. It is my prayer that over the summer months, our concentration on the Sermon on the Mount will do the same for us.
A continuing theme in the Gospel of Matthew is genuine righteousness—a righteousness that purifies us inwardly and fortifies us to live out our faith by seeking justice and peace for others. That theme is explored in great detail in the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew styles in a way that reminds the reader of Moses—who also climbed a mountain, and then taught the people of Israel the law of God. Here we see the ultimate Teacher, pointing out to his hearers (and we, his readers) that faith in Christ requires obedience—living in accordance with what Jesus taught. The main focus on the Sermon on the Mount calls for joyful, light-bearing obedience to Christ. The Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel commands the apostles not to enlist the nations merely as believers, but as obedient disciples. I hope that the question that will linger in all our hearts over the next few months is, “How obedient am I?”
As his sermon begins, we read the section traditionally called “The Beatitudes,” or, in English, the blessings. And I can’t talk about the Beatitudes without saying a few words as a reminder. As Jesus is preaching on the mountain and reinterpreting divine law—doing so in ways more spiritually strict than the Pharisees were known to do—he really is talking about the law that God expects his children to live by. As we will hear, Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and by preaching this sermon, he actually makes adherence to the law tougher, not easier.
And yet at the same time, this is Jesus we’re talking about, the Word of God made flesh, who came into the world not to condemn the world, but that we may have life through him. When we talk about the law, we’re not talking about God’s checklist of demands in order to enter into his good graces. Instead, we’re talking about God’s gift to his children—a rule for community life, like monasteries have. While it was in the Gospel of John that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” it is in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus teaches us what that Way, what that Truth, what that Life is meant to look like.
The phrase I often use to describe the law in the Bible is “indicative before imperative.” What I mean is this. Indicative means “describing the situation;” imperative means “law.” Now, if God put the imperative first, then we would have an If/Then statement on our hands: IF you uphold the law, THEN I will be your God and you will be my people. I can’t think of a single instance of God using such an If/Then statement when prescribing the law in the Bible. Not one. He may say, “If you repent, then I will forgive,” but that’s not about prescribing the law, that’s about our having already transgressed it! No, God never puts the imperative before the indicative; instead, he always describes the situation before he lays down the law.
Take the 10 Commandments, found in Exodus 20:1-17, for instance. There, his first words are, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; [therefore], you shall have no other gods before me.” It’s not an If/Then statement. It’s a Because/Therefore statement. “Because I love you, and have set you free, now here is how you can thank me.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” not because being poor in spirit is an entry requirement if we want to be followers of Jesus, but because Jesus is bestowing God’s blessing upon the poor in spirit, who remain faithful despite present adversities. “Blessed are those who mourn,” not because Jesus wants us to mourn, but because God wants to comfort us, even when our countenance is cast down. “Blessed are the meek,” not because Jesus wants us to be meek or needs us to be meek, but because God wants to encourage us when we are cowed by the powers of this world. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” not because Jesus wants us to lack in righteousness, but because God imparts righteousness to us in Jesus Christ. “Blessed are the merciful,” even when merciful is the last thing we want to be, because God knows how contrary to our human nature mercy really is. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” because God knows that the temptations of this world are so great that we remain unaware of most of them, and fall for them each and every day—a topic about which Jesus will have much more to say as his sermon goes on. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” because the powers of the world do not want peace, and any peace that a peacemaker might enjoy is likely to only come from being God’s child. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and blessed are you when people revile and persecute you on my account,” not because God wants to martyr us all and make us miserable, but because on the off chance that you are reviled and persecuted for your faith (a constant threat to those who first read Matthew, and arguably an increasing threat to us), we may be emboldened to pursue the “heretical imperative” knowing that our reward is great in heaven, and that we’re by no means the first to be ill-treated for putting our faith into action.
What needs to change is our attitudes about the Beatitudes. Rather than sigh and say to ourselves, “But the beatitudes are so hard to live up to!” let us remember that they are not imperatives, they are indicatives. “God blesses you, and will continue to bless you, even if you are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, or hungry and thirsty for righteousness. God blesses you, and will continue to bless you as remain merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers in a world that chews such people up and spits them out. God blesses you, and will continue to bless you, even—and perhaps especially—when you are persecuted for living the heretical imperative.” Those aren’t rules. Those aren’t demands. Those are blessings, encouraging words!
I think one of the best renderings of the Beatitudes I’ve ever read is Eugene Peterson’s, from The Message. He writes,
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourself proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. His food and drink is the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. [Here’s my favorite one…] You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable [there’s that heretical imperative again!]. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”
Let’s be clear—or at least pay attention to the fact that Matthew is quite clear—Jesus isn’t setting up conditions. These are not terms of service; Jesus is not going to make us click “accept” twice before proceeding! He is just plain blessing people! All kinds of people. All kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, and at the bottom of the ladder people. Why? To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where we least expect God to be—with the poor rather than the rich, those who are mourning rather than celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. This is not where citizens of the ancient world looked for God and, quite frankly, it’s not where citizens of our own world look, either. If God shows up here, Jesus is saying, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing.
So as Jesus begins what will be, for us, a series of eleven reflections about how to live our Christian lives out loud, in public, for all the world to see, he does so by abundantly blessing everyone around him, and especially those who don’t always feel particularly blessed. As I tell my congregation every chance I get, “God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it! Now… What are you going to do about it?”
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 424.