Rabbi Jesus, by Pastor Kinsey
Jesus has been baptized. He’s made his home base in Capernaum and called his first disciples there from their fishing boats. And he’s visited all around Galilee teaching and preaching, and healing every disease. And now he climbs up the proverbial Old Testament mountain, where close to the presence of God, he sits down in good Rabbinic fashion, to teach the Beatitudes, the core curriculum of his faith-filled vision and movement.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is, the great Teacher and Rabbi. He is a messenger like the great Moses, who brought his people out of Egypt, through the waters, and met God on a mountain, sitting down to receive the 10 Commandments. Teaching, for Matthew’s Jesus, is what initiates our faith. And the Sermon on the Mount is his very first class!
Who was your favorite teacher in school? Someone who made a difference for you, an impression on you, perhaps even to this day? These days, teachers are too often maligned, and yet, most have the students’ heart, and best interest, in mind, and are still willing to suffer and make sacrifices to teach and inspire them.
I had a lot of good teachers growing up, but oddly enough the one teacher that sticks out in my mind was my music teacher in high school, Mr. Orville Matthias. He was probably mid-career when I was there, and he had already acquired a nick-name, Boss! No one seems to know the definitive story how that came about. He was strict in some ways, but never mean or bossy. And when you got to know him, he was actually extremely big hearted. But he did get things done, and part of that was by demanding the best of you. He also created a safe space for us. The band room was a place you could hang out, it was open, though during school hours, you were also expected to be there to practice. It was a pretty good sized high school, and Boss was singlehandedly in charge of the Concert Band, the Pep Band, the Jazz Band, and the Marching Band. And nothing ever got past him. He knew his students, not just their talent and commitment, but if they had personal challenges and problems that might affect the band as a whole, too. Nothing got past him, not because he was nosy, but because he was compassionate and caring.
Truth be told, I was not the greatest musician in the band! At least not first chair good. I was accomplished, and was in the Concert Band, which was for credit and where everybody started, but I also got to be in Jazz and Marching Bands, which were extra-credit. The cool thing about Marching Band was that we got to be in the Rose Bowl and Macy’s Day parades!
But I was never under any illusion that I would be advancing my career after high school as an alto saxophonist. It just wasn’t in the cards. But that’s not because Boss, Mr Matthias, wasn’t a good teacher. To me, he was the best! I felt like I learned life lessons, well beyond the music lessons – like I belonged to something bigger than myself. The tension of concert band, of being held accountable by Boss as the conductor, to play well technically, and in harmony with dozens of other musicians, my peers, made me feel alive and full of purpose. We practiced hard, and when we brought all that tension-filled work together in a concert, well performed for our school and families, it was a triumph!
Jesus brings his disciples together to deliver the Sermon of the Mount, and it changed them. He began with what we call the Beatitudes, the “blessings.” And they filled the disciples, and crowds surrounding them, with a creative tension we can still feel today: blessings that surprisingly turn the tables on the dominant culture they lived in. Not blessing for the rich and powerful; not an affirmation of the elites who fill the swamp. But blessed are the poor in spirit and the oppressed; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek, gentle, and non-violent; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; blessed are the merciful and compassionate; blessed are the pure in heart and contemplative in mind; and blessed are the peacemakers.
In the first and last blessing – for the poor in spirit and oppressed, and for those who are persecuted for the sake of justice – Jesus promised the kingdom and realm of God was already theirs! While the other blessings were promises of comfort, satisfaction, mercy, and so on, which were being initiated now, but were not yet fully realized in their lives. The kingdom and realm of God had come near in Jesus, heaven was overlapping the creation on earth, and Jesus invited them into it already, to make it theirs forever!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, Discipleship, called the Beatitudes, “programmatic value statements.” They were addressed specifically to the disciples, said Bonhoeffer. The beatitudes are only understandable to the converted, to the faithful, to “disciples.” One must have had a change of heart, have repented, in the sense of turning around from the ways of the world, to be able to enter into the mindset, and kingdom, where the beatitudes exist. The power and blessing of God, resides in the hurting and neglected and downtrodden. But, said Bonhoeffer, that does not mean that suffering, is itself, the good that we seek. Even though the call the Disciples received from Jesus has resulted in more poverty, temptation and hunger, that wasn’t what made them blessed! Suffering, in and of itself, is not a blessing, but only the call to follow Jesus, and the promises, make the “life of want and renunciation” meaningful, for Disciples of the Great Teacher.
Jesus calls 12 Disciples and teaches them, converts them to the kingdom message and kingdom thinking. As the believers, Jesus will entrust them to carry on the mission he is inaugurating through God’s Holy Spirit. (Teaching initiates faith, and) “They have to know who they are in order to be able hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be,” says Karoline Lewis (my emphasis). “This first sermon has to be delivered to them so that the Great Commission, [the spreading of the good news,] might actually come to fruition.”
This is the beginning and all important first step of Christianity, and any religion – this transformation of the mind, a conversion, a change of heart. It is where we discover our true selves, and find meaning in our everyday lives.
The Franciscan teacher of spirituality, Richard Rohr has said, “Until someone has had some level of inner religious experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand Christian doctrines beyond the formulaic level. In fact, moral mandates and doctrinal affirmations only become the source of deeper anxiety and more contentiousness! …You quite simply don’t have the power to …follow any ideal—such as loving others, …or humble use of power—except in and through union with God. Nor do doctrines like the Trinity, …have any meaning that actually changes your life. They are merely books on shelves.”
Jesus offers an inner experience and union with God, and inspires disciples and crowds of followers, who transformed many others, creating a new movement that became Christianity. He is our greatest teacher, a Rabbi who taught in the Hebrew tradition as it was handed down to him, but also with new power, anointed with the Spirit, fulfilling and reforming tradition, and changes the hearts of many disciples, then and now.
We will hear more of this, Sermon on the Mount, from Rabbi Jesus, in the coming weeks, a teacher who encourages us to hang out with him, who doesn’t teach in a “bossy” way, but who holds us accountable to our conversion and our faith, and promises Blessings to (Brian McLaren’s list):
The poor, and those in solidarity with them.
To mourners, feeling grief and loss.
(to) The nonviolent and gentle.
(to) Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
(to) The merciful and compassionate.
(to) Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and unadulterated motives.
(to) Those who work for peace and reconciliation.
(to) Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.
(and to) Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed.
It’s a list that includes our whole congregation (and wider church), all the followers and disciples of Rabbi Jesus! Blessed are you!