If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? That is a familiar sermon question that strikes at a root issue: our identity in Christ is to be evident in our actions and practices. But what are the practices that Jesus calls us as his followers, and as the church, to embody? This passage explores that question.
BEING PROVOCATIVE PEOPLE
In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, scores of people gather around Jesus. The crowd includes Jesus’ closest disciples, other disciples, and “a great number” of people who have traveled great distances to hear Jesus teach and to be healed of their diseases.
Jesus is becoming quite popular. To regular people, he is becoming an ancient version of a celebrity. Spectacle attracts. Good news, subversive news, draws crowds. Transforming power, giving people a sense of hope, yields more people seeking to have their lives turned in a new direction.
The gospel does offer new life and hope, but the gospel becomes attractinge and provocative not only in the spectacle of a preaching and healing tour. The gospel becomes attracting and provocative because of the different way Jesus’ followers act.
So Jesus says—Blessed are the poor who recognize their only resource is God; blessed are those who hunger sensing their deep need; blessed are those who weep for the condition of this world, for the suffering that takes place, in this world loved by God; blessed are those who are excluded and insulted because they demonstrate and proclaim the ways of Jesus. These words are contrary to our normal understanding of success.
To live out, to be representative of the ways of Jesus is not easy. We would like it to be as easy as having a big Bible, or a fish symbol on our car or in our Yellow Pages ad, or putting an invitation to a Christ-oriented film on the neighbor’s doorknob. No, being a representative of Jesus means living a very different life, having a different orientation and stance in life. It means living like Jesus not only in extraordinary ways, spectacular ways, but also, and more often, in the very ordinary, commonplaces of life. Lesslie Newbigin writes in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:
How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which as the last word in human affairs, is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.
The church is called to be a contrast society, outside of the norm, different, even odd: Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who hunger; blessed are those who weep; blessed are those who are excluded and insulted. Luke continues throughout chapter 6 to show what this upside-down kingdom living looks like.
GOING AGAINST THE TIDE
Unlike Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, Luke adds a corollary section of woes which pronounce a verdict on qualities we often find desirable. Woe to you who are rich, who are well fed, who laugh now, who receive the applause of others.
The church is called to be a contrast society, and yet too often the church in North America buys into the values of culture. Alan Wolfe in his book The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live our Faith theorizes that too often culture has shaped the church rather than church impacting culture. Wolfe writes: “…in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed” (pp. 2-3).
Contemplate how this works out: what makes a church successful or influential in our culture? Too often its success is measured by the number of people who show up on a weekend, the size of the budget, the number of buildings and staff. Have we bought into a cultural success model that mirrors Wal-Mart and Starbucks? Our free market economy spurs a sense of competition among churches. Some say, well fed sheep cannot be stolen, but our premise of marketing the church undercuts a sense of church as a community of faith, a family. I would rather see sheep stay with their family whether well fed or not.
Jesus’ message to the church: blessed if you are contrary, following the ways of my upside down kingdom. Woe to you if you, without critique, buy into the ways of the predominant culture.
An additional resource: Philip Kenneson, Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Chirstian Community (IVP). A great book that explores how to be a contrast people in our Western culture.