The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn
Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 4: The Cost of Discipleship
From the Sermon on tile Mount read Matthew 5:10-12. For the parallel passages see Luke 6:22-23, 26. To follow up the theme look at I Peter 4:12-19; Romans 8:35-39; Revelation 3:14-22.
In a stroke of accurate wit Dean Inge of St. Paul's Cathedral in London once described the common longing for comfortable religion. Lie referred to a stanza of Reginald Heber's hymn, "The Son of God Goes Forth to War" -- a stanza inspired by past Christian heroes:
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven
To all this a Christian might say: Welcome to comfortable Pullman cars and pew cushions if they remove some inconveniences and thus enable us to use our powers to conquer real difficulties. But God help us if we think that Christ offers us a path of comfort.
Suffering for Christ's Sake
Most of the Beatitudes are single, short sentences. They are cogently stated -- originally in poetry -- and could scarcely lose a word without losing the meaning. But when it comes to the blessing on the persecuted, Matthew records three sentences, each longer than any of the preceding Beatitudes. All this is no accident.
Recently biblical studies have shown us much about how our New Testament came to us. Obviously we do not have every. thing that Jesus ever said. If we take all the sayings of Jesus in the Bible (eliminating duplications in the different Gospels) we have a small quantity. A talkative person says more word in one single day.
What we have are those sayings which struck men so forcible that they could not be forgotten. They spoke to burning needs. So Christians memorized them and passed them on, used them in sermons and letters and conversations, preserved them through the transition from the Aramaic to the Greek language until the days when they collected them into our Gospels.
Christians, facing death for their faith, treasured the saying of their Lord about persecutions and sought to pass on promises without losing a word. Here was a source of strength. Christ, their risen Lord, had also known persecution. His words and spirit were a living power. With Paul these Christians gloried that -- whether in persecution, famine, or violent death -- they were "more than conquerors through him who loved" them (Romans 8:3-37).
We sometimes hear a parent say: "I want my child brought up in a Christian atmosphere, so that he will stay out of trouble." There is a grain of truth in that idea. Christian character does overcome or bypass some troubles in life.
But can you imagine a parent bringing a child to Jesus with the words: "I want my boy to go with you, because you will keep him out of trouble"? How might Jesus reply? Perhaps he would say: "What are you talking about? Foxes have their holes, but I have no place to lay my head. This is no way to avoid trouble." (See Luke 9:57-58.) Or he might say: "Trouble is one thing I can guarantee. If your boy comes with me, he'd better prepare for self-denial, persecution -- yes, cruel death." (See Matthew 16:24 and Mark 13:9-13.)
Once again Jesus upsets our ways of thought. Often in the Testament, and often today, people think of prosperity esteem as a reward for goodness. With deep irony Kierkegaard says of a bishop of Denmark: "Without doubt, he would not hesitate to die for Christ, in the case of necessity, but he takes care that the case of necessity does not occur." And don't we all.
But Jesus' advice is the opposite. Not only does he bid us at up under suffering. In bold and striking language he says: "Rejoice. . . and leap for joy!" (Luke 6:23) So, following Jesus,
Paul wrote: "We rejoice in our sufferings (Rom. 5:3). But why? One reason that Jesus gives is that men persecuted the prophets of old and spoke well of the false prophets. We might think a poor reason. Factually, of course, it is true. The stories of Amos and Jeremiah tell us how the prophet must often speak pleasant words, while the false prophet yields to social pressure, salves guilty consciences, and adjusts his message to make people feel good. Naturally, men speak well of him.
What Jesus Promises
Hence we should rather -- so Jesus thinks -- accept persecution with the prophets than enjoy human approval with the false prophets. This logic may be unconvincing. But it may -- if we are touched by Christ's spirit -- command agreement. It promises us a place in what a great liturgical prayer calls "the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs." This, says Christian faith, is reason to rejoice. But there is more to the promise. Jesus offers "the kingdom of heaven" and a great "reward" in heaven. What does he mean?
We can easily misunderstand this promise of reward. We may take it as an offer of a bargain: Be good now and you'll get paid off later. Accept poverty and suffering here, and you will be given "a pie in the sky by-and-by." But Jesus often warns men that they cannot bargain with God. He tells us that the best of actions, when done with impure motives, are worthless. (We will see more of this in chapter 6.) There is no room here for selfishly playing the game for the highest stakes -- giving up a payoff now for a bigger one later. Jesus does not say: "Blessed are you who accept persecution for the sake of future reward." No, he talks of persecution for righteousness' sake or for his sake. Rudolf Bultmann, one of the foremost New Testament scholars, says:
"He promises reward precisely to those who obey not for the sake of reward."(Theology of the New testament by Rudolph Bultmann, vol, 1, p.14. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, Used by permission)
In Alan Paton's magnificent novel Cry, the Beloved Country, one of the natives of South Africa, a simple man with work calloused hands, a member of a persecuted people, says this: "I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering. . . . For our Lord suffered. And I came to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For be knew there is no life without suffering." (Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, p. 227, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948. Used by permission)
So the reward is the sharing in the life and love of Christ.
This reward is not something for the future alone. It comes in "the kingdom of heaven," which, we remember, has come among us in Christ, although we wait for God to complete it. For the apostle Paul, the love of God in Christ is already so tremendous an experience that he is sure "neither death, nor life" can separate him from it (Romans 8:38-39).
Our Situation Today
Of course, all this can be very remote -- something for ancient times only. We cannot go back to live in Palestine or the Roman Empire. Does Jesus really have anything to say to us today?
The answer is that the promise of Jesus has spoken as clearly to men in our time as it ever spoke in the past. The testimonies come from countless sources. From missionaries in foreign lands, from Christians scorned by their own kinsmen in non-Christian areas, from loyal churchmen persecuted by totalitarian governments come declarations of Christ's blessing and Christ's love.
Consider just one situation. We all know of the bitter persecution by Soviet rulers of the Fast German Church in 1952-53. Faithful pastors disappeared into the night. Young people met ridicule and exclusion in the schools because they acknowledged membership in the Junge Gemeinde (the youth fellowship) of the church. Laymen lost jobs and brought suffering upon their families because they confessed church membership. Yet out of that situation came testimonies of God's love that cannot be matched in America. Here are a few of the many responses:
1. A Christian, even while admitting his perplexities, said: "Perhaps God wants to bring suffering to hundreds and thousands of Christians, because he wants them." Another, feeling that in the suffering God had found persons, spoke of "God's beloved East Zone."
2. In the persecution a Christian wrote: "Hate and fear have been vanquished by him who loved us. He himself is the peace, who has given us true and lasting peace with God and with our enemies."
3. A woman whose husband had been arrested said this: "Yes, the great joy and happiness which come from the freedom of the heart, they were the chief characteristics of my dear husband. And this joy cannot and will not be destroyed by any external calamity. This is my confident hope. For it is striking that this joy comes out only the more brightly in misery and darkness.
Truly, God does not demand any sacrifice from us which he is not willing to bless a hundredfold in our hearts."
Coming Closer to Home
What does this all mean for us in our comfortable, casual American churches? Is there any blessing of Christ here?
One false answer we can quickly get out of the way: We are not serving Christ if we simply seek to generate hostilities against ourselves. Such is not persecution for Christ's sake. Perhaps this warning is not necessary. But we all know what I meant by a martyr-complex, and probably we all feel this temptation in minor ways. We can make ourselves miserable, simply out of egoism. Paul knew that one might even give his body to be burned -- without love (1 Corinthians 13:3).
But when all this is said, we must recognize that Christ expected his followers to be persecuted. Why are we not being persecuted? Is it because the world has chosen to follow Christ instead of persecuting him? Surely the spirit of Christ through the centuries has made some difference. But there is a m cogent, perhaps a more honest reason. Even in New Testament times, some churches avoided the troubles that others were meeting. Are we like the church of Laodicea (Revelation 3: 22) -- so lukewarm that we offend no one, except our Lord? Do men "speak well of" us because we are soft?
There is persecution in America. In the 1960's citizens and churchmen, believing that God's love includes persons of all races, have been battered and jailed. Men have endured bitter public ridicule because they believed in civil liberties for others.
There are other forms of persecution, too. A man loses a promotion because he refuses to play the game in cheap ways. A politician loses an election rather than lie to the voters. A pastor loses the call to a distinguished church instead of becoming a flatterer. In school, in business, in society at large someone earns corn because he refuses to take the easy way.
If these things happen to us, not because of stubborn egoism or a self-righteous complex, but because of our love of God, Jesus tells us to rejoice. For then we are blessed of God.