Perhaps you are asking, “Where is the best place for me to begin to understand what Christian nonviolence is all about?”
Start with Jesus.
Start with the message that Matthew puts front and center as he writes his Gospel to focus us on Jesus. I am talking of course about the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5-7).
Using one of the new artificial intelligence apps that will soon be ever-present in most of our lives, I asked what are some of the things people have called the Sermon on the Mount, and instantly, it spit out this list:
The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached
The Sermon of the Kingdom
The Magna Carta of Christianity
The New Law
The Ethics of the Kingdom
The Radical Teachings of Jesus
The Sermon of the Seven Blessings
The Sermon of the Disciple's Calling.
I was encouraged to see the Sermon of the Kingdom listed as the second item. For the last ten to twelve years, I have been teaching that a better term is the “Sermon on the Kingdom,” believing that the sermon is about living out the life of the Kingdom—doing the Father’s will on earth (now) as it is in heaven.
The AI piece ended by talking about the enduring influence this sermon has had on Western civilization. While in some sense that may be true, I believe it has not had nearly the influence that it should have. Many are those who will pay lip service to its loftiness and grandeur, but few are those who believe its message can be lived in the modern world. Fewer still are those who will commit themselves to follow it with all their hearts. Preferring a broader way—a much safer and less demanding way—the “many” will turn away from this narrow path that tests our resolve, determination and spiritual conviction. So taught Jesus in the sermon itself. We desire to be those who want to be serious about living these words Jesus both spoke and embodied.
There is no question about it, the sermon is a biblical Mount Everest, rising high above normal ethics, religion and spirituality. To stand at its base and contemplate living its message humbles every heart that gazes upon it clearly. To actually leave the security of the flatlands and climb toward its peak is to embark on a journey that can only be completed by the receiving of abundant grace.
But that is the incredible news! There are no physical or intellectual requirements for this expedition. One does not have to be blessed with self-confidence, self- esteem, creativity or high energy to embark on the journey. As Jesus makes clear in the first moment of the message, only those who realize their utter inadequacy have a chance of ascending its great height.
What is needed is not smarts, good looks, or strong sinews … but allegiance. This sermon is for those who dare to trust God, and to continue trusting in Him. Along the journey they will be called fools and fanatics, aliens and strange … but in the end, they will have no regrets and will have the Kingdom of every blessing the sermon promises.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you journey into the heart of this message:
1. These are the words of Jesus Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount is so contrary to what we have learned in the world that there will be times when something inside us will fight against what we are hearing. But we must remember whose words these are. These are the words of the Alpha and the Omega, he who was in the beginning with God, he who was God. In Understanding the Sermon on the Mount, Harvey McArthur has a chapter on twelve different ways people interpret the sermon. He says he could have called this chapter “Versions and Evasions of the Sermon on the Mount” because eleven of the twelve give “reasonable explanations” why you really don’t have to do what the sermon says. If we are honest, we are all tempted to come up with some ourselves, but our allegiance is to the risen Lord.
2. This is a message for all of us.
At one time Roman Catholic theology taught that some of the teachings here were only for certain monastic orders. Protestants later said the things here were just to make us realize how badly we needed grace. But both of these views are wrong as Jesus makes clear by the way the sermon ends: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Jesus is teaching these things so people would embody them. Only those who put them into practice are wise.
3. Every word here is spoken out of Jesus’ love and wisdom.
In a bookstore one day I perused a book by a well-known psychologist. A line referring to the Sermon on the Mount caught my attention. “Jesus Christ had no right to tell people to do such a thing,” wrote the highly regarded counselor and self-help guru. Convinced that what Jesus was asking was harmful to people, he virtually demanded that Jesus apologize for at least one of his extreme statements. Such religion, he felt, was a burden to people. The psychologist was in error on two accounts: (1) his very limited view from his own finite perspective and (2) the wisdom and love of Jesus Christ behind every word in this sermon. Jesus Christ does not lay upon us a new law of heavy burden, but of incredible blessing.
4. The Beatitudes are at the beginning for a reason.
The opening 12 verses are not just an italicized poetic introduction. They are ripe with power. In fact, everything else in the sermon flows from this. Without embracing these attitudes, and without a continual renewal of them, we have no chance of embodying this sermon. Trying to live Matthew 5-7 without the Beatitudes firmly in place in our hearts and minds is like trying to go up Mount Everest without hiking boots.
5. The Sermon on the Mount is more than the words of Jesus, it was his life.
He lived this message before he ever preached it, and after he preached it, he kept living it. Even as he hung on a cross wrongfully accused and oppressed by the wicked hearts of people and their power structures, he pleaded to God for their forgiveness and loved his enemies to his death. To see the heart of this sermon is to see the heart of Jesus. As disciples, our basic goal is to follow our Lord and be like him, to model ourselves after him in every way.
There has never before, or since, been a message like this one. The Sermon on the Mount is to religious thinking what the cross of Christ is to human effort. It towers above the best that people have to offer – or can even conceive. But like the cross, when it is lived, it will either be loved or hated. It is a double-edged sword, threatening and frightening to those who fight against it, but helping and healing to those who submit to its summons. Families will both be divided over it, and will be transformed by it. Some families may first be divided by it, and then later transformed by it (as was the case in Jesus’ own family).
One thing is for sure, this sermon will neither generate change nor controversy until there are those who will dare to put it into practice. But when even a few throw off fear, pride, and insecurity, and put on the climbing gear of grace and start up the mountain, the world will feel the impact. It did two thousand years ago and it continues to do so.