Every once in awhile someone will ask me, “Pastor, what is your favorite Bible verse?” My answer almost always disappoints: Asking me to identify a favorite Bible verse is like asking me to identify my favorite car part; the parts, alone, don’t fulfill their designed purpose.
Taken out of their greater context, individual bible verses are often misapplied, misunderstood, and not nearly as inspirational as one might otherwise think. For example, I once saw an inspirational daily calendar quote a single verse of New Testament scripture:
“If you, then, will worship me, all will be yours.” Luke 4:7
This might sound very uplifting and encouraging, until you discover who actually said these words.
Interestingly enough, the chapter and verse numbering we see in our scriptures is a rather recent addition (mid 16th Century!). Being able to cite chapter and verse was never very important to the vast majority of Christian laity – many were illiterate and bibles weren’t yet widely distributed anyway. Instead of “memory verses,” earlier Christians were content to know the stories or narratives told in the scriptures. These stories were often told in the form of paintings, mosaics, and sculptures – visual tellings of the stories of our Faith.
I do have favorite stories or narratives in our Holy Scriptures. One of them is the Sermon on the Mount – the first of five discourses or talks Jesus gave during his ministry in the ancient Near East (chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel). The scene, as I paint it in my mind, is an intimate gathering – Jesus sitting on the hillside with a small handful of disciples and other followers gathered around. There were no sermon notes or outlines. No study guides or resource sheets. No commentary from religious scholars. Just a devoted rabbi of divine origin speaking plainly, sharing God’s vision for the world.
Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount remains such an influential piece of literature because of its relevance in today’s world. The teachings of Jesus, even to non-Christians, inspire and promote peaceful living among the various classes of society. They encourage social justice on behalf of the poor and marginalized. They decry the evils associated with materialism and consumerism. They advocate pacifism and resisting the tempting urge for violent retribution and retaliation. And these teachings were just as radical and counter-cultural then as they remain today.
And yet, despite our professions of faith, confessions, and creeds, we still haven’t lived into this divine vision for the world.
Mahatma Gandhi is reputed for saying to theologian Howard Thurman, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Whether or not Gandhi actually said this is still debated. Regardless, the lifestyle and teachings prescribed by Jesus of Nazareth, the man whose life and teachings we profess to emulate, remain unpopular – even downright undesirable – in our culture.
The Sermon on the Mount will guide our worship services and adult discussion groups during the next several Sundays. We’ll reexamine these ancient teachings of Jesus and, humbly, evaluate our willingness to follow as he leads. And we’ll do this together – in community – remembering that we are called to support and encourage one another as we strive to live into God’s vision for the world.
And may the teachings of Christ inspire and guide us.