Several weeks ago I sat in a circle of men at the Starbucks in West Amman, listening as a veteran Christian worker poured out his frustration with what he seemed to see as a phony, ineffective, and powerless Church. â€œDonâ€™t talk to me about the Sermon on the Mount,â€ he said. â€œNobody lives the Sermon on the Mount. Show me someone living the Sermon on the Mount.â€
That conversation came back to me last night as I read in Leo Tolstoyâ€™s A Confession the description of his search for faith in 19th century Russia:
Naturally I first of all turned to the orthodox of my circle, to people who were learned: to Church theologians, monks, to theologians of the newest shade, and even to Evangelicals who profess salvation by belief in the Redemption. And I seized on these believers and questioned them as to their beliefs and their understanding of the meaning of life.
But though I made all possible concessions, and avoided all disputes, I could not accept the faith of these people. I saw that what they gave out as their faith did not explain the meaning of life but obscured itâ€¦I was repelled by the fact that these people's lives were like my own, with only this difference--that such a life did not correspond to the principles they expounded in their teachings. I clearly felt that they deceived themselves and that they, like myself found no other meaning in life than to live while life lasts, taking all one's hands can seize. I saw this because if they had had a meaning which destroyed the fear of loss, suffering, and death, they would not have feared these things. But they, these believers of our circleâ€¦feared privations, suffering, and death, and just like myself and all of us unbelievers, lived to satisfy their desires, and lived just as badly, if not worse, than the unbelievers.
No arguments could convince me of the truth of their faith. Only deeds which showed that they saw a meaning in life making what was so dreadful to me--poverty, sickness, and death--not dreadful to them, could convince me. And such deeds I did not see among the various believers in our circle. On the contrary, I saw such deeds done by people of our circle who were the most unbelieving, but never by our so-called believers.
In our Shevet Achim community we hope to show our faith through our deeds (click here to meet two new children who reached Israel this week), but I often have to confess that weâ€™re hard pressed even to keep up with the example of our largely secular/humanitarian Israeli medical partners. Do we really have the power to live differently from those around us? As Tolstoy put it, without fear of loss, suffering and death? In other words, can we live out the Sermon on the Mount? Give up our possessions. Bless those who hurt us. Lay up our treasure in heaven.
When an individual does lay hold of these truths it changes everything. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the rare friend of the Jewish people in wartime Germany (â€œonly he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chantsâ€), who paid for his convictions with his life, dates his own transformation to his encounter with the Sermon on the Mount:
We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright? Jesus gives the answer at the end. He does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his sayings what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful, and testing them to see if they work....Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it....Jesus has spoken: his is the word, ours the obedience (from The Cost of Discipleship).
Bonhoeffer, like Tolstoy, like my friend at Starbucks, searched long and hard to find anyone actually living in obedience to these words of Jesus. Right up to the outbreak of the war Bonhoeffer dreamt of going to India to see Gandhi, who did not acknowledge Jesus as Lord but still claimed to organize his community by the Sermon on the Mount. It was Gandhi who famously said, â€œYou Christians have in your keeping a document with enough dynamite in it to blow the whole of civilization to bits; to turn society upside; to bring peace to this war-torn world. But you read it as if it were just good literature, and nothing else.â€
Friends, shall we ask ourselves today, while we still have time for our own transformation: what is our response to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?