by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Jesus saw the crowds and went up the mountain. After Jesus sat down there, the disciples gathered around and Jesus began to teach them…” — Matthew 5:1-2.
One of two thoughts for meditation today is from The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation by Justo Gonzalez. (Quote:) “Early— that is: Jewish— Christians in Jerusalem continued to keep the Sabbath and attend worship at the Temple. To this they added the observance of the first day of the week, in which they gathered to break bread in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Those early communion services did not center on the passion, but rather on the victory through which a new age had dawned. It was much later— centuries later— that the focus of Christian worship shifted toward the death of Jesus.” (Slight pause.)
Indeed— and I have said this here before— in Christian art, there is no sign of any anything resembling a cross, art which might call to mind the death of the Christ, until the middle of the third century. There is no sign of anything resembling a crucifix, a cross with a body on it, until the middle of the fourth century.
Further, that first art which resembles a crucifix does not have a battered body nailed to a cross and wearing a crown of thorns. Rather, early art of a crucifix has what is commonly called Christus Rex— Christ dressed in robes— regal attire— wearing not a crown of thorns but a royal crown.
This crucified Christ, dressed as sovereign, levitates off the cross, resurrected, free from the bonds of death. This is a statement about liberation, about the love of God. It will be about another century before the kind of crucifix with which we are familiar today, a battered body with a crown of thorns, becomes common.
That means it takes around five to six hundred years for a depiction of Christ suffering on a cross to appear in Christian art. That raises the obvious issue. Both the early church and the church for a long, long time did not see— be ready for a $64 term here— did not see substitutionary atonement as a way to understand what God did for humanity in the reality of the Christ.
Here is a less imposing way of saying “substitutionary atonement”— Christ died for our sins. Now, I need to be clear about this on several counts.
First, the idea or doctrine of substitutionary atonement is not in the foreground of church thinking until around the year 1,000 of the Common Era. Can the concept of substitutionary atonement be found in Scripture? Yes it can.
But remember this. Based on the post resurrection stories in Scripture, it seems for people who may have known and may have even seen the risen Christ, the resurrection rather than the death of Christ was central to and at the center of Christian faith.
In fact and at least in part, the split between the Eastern Church and the Western Church was exasperated by this shift from thinking that centers on the resurrection to thinking that centers on death. One position of the Eastern Church is resurrection is a great mystery. This mystery above all else invites us to a leap of faith— faith in God.
That raises an obvious question. Clearly a shift in how we Westerners think about Christ happened. Why?
There are a multitude of reasons. But real history is not about episodes. Full stories, histories, pursue multiple paths, are plural, are not episodic, are not single stories.
That having been said, prime among the aforementioned multitude is what theologians think of as the overwhelming influence of the culture on faith. And this is a given: the culture of medieval times was often both harsh and transactional
And saying Christ died for our sins is a transaction, a harsh transaction. This certainly and therefore turns resurrection into less mystery and more transaction. I would argue and it is clear to me that we, especially in the West since the East did not make this choice, decided the culture, which was both harsh and transactional, should be more prime for the Christian faith than the clearly non-transactional free gift of the love of God in the mystery of the resurrected Christ.
So, does substitutionary atonement have any role? Yes. I am not denying that. I question its primacy, because it seems to stem less from Scripture than from culture. And a primacy of culture which proclaims a transactional way of life cannot be allowed to supercede a primacy of Scripture which proclaims the free gift of God’s love. Simply put, did Christ die for our sins or was Christ raised for our sins? (Long pause.)
We find these words in the work we call Matthew: “Jesus saw the crowds and went up the mountain. After Jesus sat down there, the disciples gathered around and Jesus began to teach them…” (Slight pause.)
I think on many levels the culture can be a factor which becomes too important and diverts our attention away from what is truly and deeply important. Indeed, the culture inappropriately effects even the way we translate Scripture.
Yale Scholar David Hart, a translator of the New Testament, recently wrote that inadequate renderings of many of passages simply need to be corrected.1 And, as you heard when the passage from Matthew was introduced, one verse is often translated, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit:…” But a more accurate translation might read: “Blessed are those who live into perfection….”
That having been said, does Scripture say the Sermon on the Mount was preached to a crowd? No. But that is an image— a cultural image— many people have and it is not found in Scripture.
Scripture clearly says Jesus left the crowds, went up the Mountain and spoke just to the disciples. Also note, it is disciples, not the twelve and not the crowd.
For me that brings up questions, many of them. Given the images painted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, images of what the Dominion of God looks like, who are these disciples, what might they have been called to do because of what Jesus taught and what should our discovery, our take away from that be? (Slight pause.)
First and foremost, I think we need to recognize this sermon contains primary teaching about what the Dominion of God needs to look like right now, here today. Aside from the aforementioned verse, these are among the points made by Jesus: ‘Blessed are those who are gentle, who hunger and thirst for justice, who show mercy, who work for peace.’
We need to recognize this is not the world today and we need to ask ‘to whom are these lessons being taught?’ Jesus educates a small cadre as to what the Dominion of God needs to look like. Is Jesus writing off the crowds? No. But some are called to spread the word. They are not the crowd.
Last, we need to ask, ‘who are we?’ – ‘who am I?’ Am I simply a member of the crowd? Or am I a disciple of Christ? (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest if we buy into a cultural version, a cultural vision of Christianity, then we are a part of the crowd. If we adhere to what is found in Scripture then we are and need to be what we Protestants in this 500th Anniversary year of the Reformation call the Priesthood of All Believers.
We need to be disciples of Christ, to listen to what Christ says, to help everyone willing to listen to understand the Dominion. Those willing to listen need to know buying into a cultural version, a cultural vision of Christianity is not a place to which God calls humanity.
Further, living into perfection—into perfection— something to which the Beatitudes call us— is not a static, cultural, way of life. And we are called to live into perfection and not see perfection as a singular, unchanging state.
And if we live into the teaching of Christ, we shall grow, we shall change and constantly listen for the call of God. As I suggested last week, can we be, can the church can be re-formed by the living Word, God’s gift to us through the resurrected Christ. (Slight pause.)
The part of that thought for meditation I did not quote references The Acts of the Apostles. It says as a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus in the earliest Christian community, the breaking of the bread, took place (quote:) “with glad and generous hearts.”
Hence, this presents us with an understanding that we are called to live out our lives as Christ would have us live. That means loving one another, serving one another, sharing with one another, and as we love, serve and share to do so with gladness and with generous hearts.
You know, I might be wrong, but I do not hear too much about gladness and generous hearts in the culture today. In fact, do not hear too much about the call of Christ to live by the precepts we hear in the Beatitudes. Perhaps we simply need to leave the cultural Christianity behind and try the way of life recommended by Christ. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “A couple of weeks ago I offered a sermon very few people here today heard since it was in a service at Chenango Valley Home. On that afternoon I said we need to read and to listen to Scripture with First Century eyes and ears. Hence, a requirement of examining Scripture is that we concentrate on not our culture or what the culture over the course of many centuries has done because it has effected how we read and hear Scripture. It requires us to read and to listen to the message of Christ and then to ask, ‘what does the Dominion of God need to look like here, now, today?’ based on that First Century reading. And then strive to work toward that sense of the perfection God might seek.”
BENEDICTION: Go from here in the Spirit of Christ. Dare to question that which holds us captive. Count it a privilege that God calls upon us to be in covenant and to work in the vineyard. And may the peace of Christ which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the love, knowledge and companionship of God the Creator, Christ the redeemer and the Holy Spirit the sanctifier this day and forever more. Amen.
1This article by Hart give a much more detailed explanation of both translations and how the culture effects it.