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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 14: Worship and Work


From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 7:21-23. For the parallel passages see Luke 6:46; 13:25-30. To follow up the theme look at Matthew 12:46-50; 21:28-31; 25:31-46.

The world has tried to get rid of Jesus in two ways, Someone has said. The first was to crucify him. That failed. The risen Lord could win more people than the man of Nazareth. The second way was to worship him. That has almost worked.

But how can it almost work? How can people get rid of him by worshiping him? Will not every thought of Jesus, every bit of devotion toward him, draw us closer to him?

No. Not necessarily. The ways of the human personality are subtle and devious. The mind knows a thousand tricks to dodge an issue.

It takes a certain amount of bravado to stand up and defy God. That is occasionally done, usually by people trying to attract attention. But the more common device, which takes no nerve at all, is to adapt God to our petty thoughts and desires. We can do this without ever letting on to our closest friends or to ourselves that we are doing it.

Hence that disturbing Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, could say: "The Christianity of the New Testament simply does not exist." Instead, millions of people through the centuries have cunningly "sought little by little to cheat God out of Christianity, and have succeeded in making Christianity exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament." (Attack upon Christendom by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by Walter Lowrie, pp. 32-33. Princeton University Press, 1944. Used by permission.)

Does Kierkegaard exaggerate? Certainly we hope so. But as we have studied the Sermon on the Mount, we must frequently have had an uneasy feeling that led us to a judgment something like Kierkegaard's.

The Problem in the New Testament

The process started early. In the short ministry of Jesus it got under way. With his typical directness -- some would call it tactlessness -- he met it head on.

Look at the record in the Bible. There, in the next to last paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount, is the unmistakable warning: It is not enough to say, "Lord, Lord." The need is to do the will of the heavenly Father. Luke's version is still more direct and poignant than Matthew's: "Why do you call me Lord and not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)

The next two sentences (in Matthew) carry us in imagination to the Day of Judgment. (Compare them with the more detailed parable of judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.) Once again we see that the Sermon on the Mount is not merely moral advice. It is the Good News of God's kingdom for those who accept it, and the fateful news of doom for those who reject it. We see the vivid picture of despairing, painful response from Jesus, "I never knew you," and the command (quoted from Psalm 6:8), "Depart from me, all you workers of evil."

The words are still alive today. We think of the Easter throngs crowding the churches to sing, "Christ the Lord is ris'n today" -- many of them there merely because church is the place prescribed by American folkways for the display of spring finery. We think of ornate church buildings where people go to forget their troubles -- and to hear sermons which never remind them of the slums in the shadow of the sanctuary. We think of uneasy folk engaged in the "return to religion" because they yearn for "peace of mind" -- never realizing that Jesus grants peace only to those who follow him along the path of lowly service. As vividly as did Jesus himself, we hear the words, "Lord, Lord," and see the refusal to do the will of God. We too are guilty.

The Perils of Worship

The life without reverence is barren and insensitive. And worship is the proper expression of reverence. The Sermon on the Mount leads to adoration, thanksgiving, and prayer as truly as it leads to acts of service. But there are perils in worship.

Some of the worship that goes on in our churches is merely lip service, talk takes the place of activity. True worship is the expression of the reverence of a human personality for his Lord and Creator. Reverence makes us eager to serve and obey. But false worship and lip service can be worse then open defiance.

The story is told of Mark Twain's encounter with a man who managed to combine the appearances of piety with a predatory career in business. "Before I die," said the hypocrite, "I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb to the top of Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud." "I have a better idea," answered Mark Twain. "Why don't you stay right at home in Boston and keep them?"

After the warmth of the worship that says, "Lord, Lord," there is a chill in the words, "Do what I say." But if we do not meet the chill, the warmth is not the warmth of life. Bishop Gore ended his book, The Sermon on the Mount, by saying: "Many will come to him in that day with a record of their orthodoxy and of their observances, of their brilliant successes in his professed service; but he will protest unto them, 'I never knew you.' He 'knows' no man in whom he cannot recognize his own likeness." (The Sermon on the Mount by Charles Gore, p. 188. John Murray Ltd., London)

His own likeness? If we understand the Sermon on the Mount, we will never claim that. But if it sinks in, it does begin to remake us.

 Doing God's Will: Evangelism

What happens when we take seriously the Christian opportunity and responsibility to do the will of God and the things that Jesus taught? Probably it means more than we usually think. God asks of us a whole life. He is not satisfied with a few externals that do not touch the heart. Nor does he want some religious emotionalism that generates no activity.

This seems obvious. Yet church people misunderstand it every day. To accept the Sermon on the Mount will require some changes in several areas of our Christian living.

One of these areas is evangelism. The word is what the experts call a "loaded" word. It carries an emotional load beyond its literal meaning; it obscures our thinking because we respond favorably or unfavorably to its sound, before we think what it means.

Two common meanings of the word are mistaken. (1) Some church literature gives the impression that evangelism is identical with increasing the number of names on the church rolls. This meaning is obviously too shallow. Of course, the follower of Christ belongs in the fellowship of followers. But, as Jesus keeps insisting, you can take part in the organization and never really meet God. Perhaps the biggest evangelistic job today is within the churches.

(2) Some people think of evangelism as a campaign that stirs up an emotional turmoil and produces a dramatic experience of being "saved." Let's not deny that some people can come to God in that way. But such an experience may leave a person as far as his pagan neighbors from the Sermon on the Mount. In some religion, as Phillips Brooks said, the boiler has no connection with the engine. The words, "Lord, Lord," are there. The service of God throughout the whole of life is absent.

When we understand what evangelism is, we recognize it as the responsibility of every Christian. Evangelism is the carrying of the gospel to men. It is no job to be left to the professionals. It is one of the things Jesus bade us do. If we say, "Lord, Lord," but do nothing to help others find his gift and know his will, we may expect to hear that he does not know us.

Stewardship and Vocation

If we do the things Jesus tells us, we make all of life a part of his service. We recognize ourselves as God's stewards. Life and all its benefits are God's gifts, entrusted to us for a time. In the earning of our daily bread we are conscious of a calling to serve our fellowmen. In the use of our abilities and our wealth, we can honor God and do his will. The purpose of life becomes, in the phrase of the Calvinists, "to glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Yet how seldom does it occur, even to faithful churchmen, to consider the new job offer, with its increased salary, in terms of religious opportunities? And how seldom do we think of spending or investing our incomes -- apart from the fraction given to worthy causes -- in terms of serving God?

A paper published by a religious agency in the Philippine Islands justifies gambling with the argument that "we are entitled to set aside a fair share of our money for entertainment, and if we think it is all right to spend that money on gambling, God doesn't care." Note how the argument avoids the whole issue of stewardship. But no more so than the common statement we often hear, "I earned the money, and I'm entitled to spend it as I please." The man who says that, though he might be a tither, is not a steward. Not that religion leaves no place for enjoyment. We can enjoy our work, our worship, our recreation. What we cannot do is divide life into segments, saying "Lord, Lord," in some activities and assuming that "God doesn't care" about the rest.

The Life of the Nations

We have seen that the Sermon on the Mount gives no direct advice about the activities of government. But we have seen, too, that it gives us no right to divide life between "religious" and "secular" spheres, saying "Lord, Lord" in one, and going our sinful way undisturbed in the other.

Therefore we cannot help asking why centuries of Christian worship have not made more difference in the life of the nations. The bitter but deeply troubled Thomas Hardy once wrote:

"Peace upon earth!" was said, We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.
(From "Christmas: 1924" in Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres. The Macmillan Co., 1929. Used by permission.)

The history of the twentieth century is a bitter one for us to acknowledge. It embarrasses our missionaries when the so-called heathen nations ask about the behavior of the so-called Christian nations. Granted, plenty of the misery of this century has been the work of men who were defiantly anti-Christian. But much of it came from men who worshiped but did not obey.

The sessions of the United States Congress regularly open with prayer. No doubt there would be protests if the chaplains ceased to say, "Lord, Lord." But there might be real cries of pain if the prayers made a difference in the national life. Powerful lobbies would interfere with the public interest less often. Nationalism would give way before the needs of this one world.

But this, say some, is politics and economics, not religion. As though Jesus had said, "Do the will of my Father -- except in some areas of life." What is left for religion, says Lewis Mumford, if political and economic life are unaffected?" Little more than a brief code for mating, a ceremonial for marriage, chicken broth and visitation for the ill, and a few seemly words and gestures at the burial service." (Faith For Living by Lewis Mumford, p. 152, Harcourt, Brace & World, In., 1940, Used by permission) What is left? Mainly the chance to say, "Lord, Lord."

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