Good News

Why Jesus Didn't Teach an Ethic

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

—     Matthew 4:23

Following the Call— Chp. 2: GOOD NEWS (September 29)

Update and Upbeat. Something new is happening. Christian happy hour? A thought experiment. Your turn.

Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven, and he was filled with a mighty spirit, the spirit of the rule of God. It raised a storm among his listeners when he said: “Repent! Become quite a different person! Everything must change. The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That is, leave all your preoccupations, give up all that has influenced you till now, and give up every power that has gripped you. A new kind of power is taking over. A new monarch is on the throne. A new king has assumed his reign. You shall have a new Lord over you. The old is passing away and a new time is coming.

—Christoph Freidrich Blumhardt (from chp. 1: Good News, in Following the Call.)

Update and Upbeat

I wanted to thank everyone who has managed to attend one of my Following the Call book launches. It’s been invigorating to meet and talk with so many of you in person. Please know that I will be doing a live YouTube conversation on October 7. This is open to anyone who is interested. For those in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, please consider joining Greg Boyd and me at Merlin’s Rest Pub on October 12. This promises to be a great evening. For several years now Greg has been seriously reflecting, along with his congregation, on what it means to put the Sermon on the Mount into practice.

Something New Is Happening

The horizon and goal of the Sermon on the Mount is life in the kingdom of God—whole-hearted, total, single devotion to the rulership of God. Matthew places accounts of Jesus’ miracles right before and right after the Sermon. Jesus’ words regarding God’s reign are spoken against the backdrop of his works of healing. In Jesus’ teachings, God’s kingdom is not a place but the revolutionary effect of God reigning in justice among his people here on earth. This kingdom is not a utopian ideal; it is a reality in which God’s future of peace breaks into our midst. Jesus’ message, therefore, is ultimately good news.

Why is this so important?  First, Jesus didn’t come to teach an “ethic.” He wasn’t about clarifying or refining our moral or social duty. He called people to repent, to turn around in response to a powerful, new reality in their midst. Something radically “other” was breaking into their midst. As Blumhardt says above, a new, liberating power was taking over. This reality changes everything, and everything for the better! Jesus beckons and expects a response. Are we ready for God to reign? Do we want to come under his dominion? Will we let it change our lives and lifestyles? Will we let go of the old and enter the new?

Second, Jesus calls us to seek God’s kingdom above everything else (Matt. 6:33). This kingdom, however, has very little to do with religion, including Christianity. Blumhardt notes that despite two thousand years of Christianity the world is still asleep. We sleep under a canopy of religion. Sadly, “Under this or that beautiful church roof every kind of dominion, other than God’s, has crept in. Today we are subservient to many different authorities. Some of us are directed in one way, others in another…. But where is the reign of God?”

Blumhardt’s question is critical. Where in the church is the reign of God being demonstrated today? Alfred Loisy (1857–1940), a French Roman Catholic priest and theologian, once quipped, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” Sadly, “church” has become little more than a sacred time and place in which people engage in certain religious performances and then go on to live like everybody else.

But this is not what Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is about. Jesus came to show us how to live in accordance with God’s will and justice in everyday life. For God’s authority is ultimately manifested in business, in family, in daily life, in our relationships with one another. The all-encompassing will of God is a penetrating reality embodied in his people, and this reality overcomes the opposing old order of impurity, greed, retaliation, violence, and injustice.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ way of describing life in the kingdom of God here and now. His way is down to earth. When God’s authority is recognized there are no limits to the Christian’s sense of duty. In the words of E. Stanley Jones (chp. 1), “the first mile does not suffice, he will go two; the coat is not enough, he will give the cloak also; to love friends is not enough, he will love enemies as well.” Good news! A new kind of power truly does take over; a new time is coming.

Christian Happy Hour?

A few weeks ago I got into a conversation with an enthusiastic thirty-year-old who is trying to start a church among young professionals. Among other things, he relies on social media to bring people from all over Denver together.

“Do you ever actually get together?” I asked.

“Well, once a month we have a happy hour somewhere.”

“Where do you meet?”   

“Anywhere. At restaurants, parks, bars, bowling alleys, wherever we can have a good time together,” he answered.

“Anything else?” I inquired.

“We also have a praise and worship time where we can hear God’s Word together,” he explained. “We’re actually getting large enough to start a church.”

This guy was sincere and serious. But I had to think: How does Jesus’ approach on the mountainside, with his focus on the kingdom of God and teachings such as turning the other cheek, fit in with happy hours? I can’t recall Jesus ever trying to attract crowds, certainly not by means of having a good time. Even his miracles were quiet and on the side (including changing water into wine at a wedding party). Besides, Jesus wanted followers, not crowds of admirers.

“Happy are you who are poor in spirit, you who mourn, you who thirst for righteousness, you who are persecuted for my sake….” For some reason, I just don’t think Jesus’ notion of happiness amounts to partaking in a Christian happy hour. “In God’s kingdom,” writes Blumhardt, “only one thing is required: a complete turnabout.”  

A Thought Experiment

I’ve been wondering about doing an experiment. Invite someone who knows virtually nothing about Jesus or the Bible to become part of my church for three months. Afterwards, ask them to describe what they saw and experienced. What would they say about the members of my church, what we do and the ways in which we relate to one another? Then compare this with the Sermon on the Mount. Would there be any similarities? If the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of God’s kingdom, do others actually recognize us as citizens of that kingdom? Do they encounter the Sermon on the Mount in the flesh? I wonder.

Your Turn

Did Jesus teach a new ethic? If not, what difference does this make? What does the church have to do with God’s kingdom? I welcome your comments, opinions, questions, and personal experiences. Please click the little comment bubble below to leave a comment or see what others are saying.