This is the first in a series of 4 sermons focusing on The Sermon on the Mount
Who are the Disciples?
Rev. Julie Jensen
Nineveh Presbyterian Church, Nineveh, NY
Jan 29, 2017
Do we have any Monty Python fans here? The movie The Life of Brian offers a glimpse into a comedic view of what Jesus life and ministry could have been like – if the British sketch writers had written the gospels. The movie opens with Jesus’s first public act of ministry in the book of Matthew – the Sermon on the Mount. We see Jesus on a mountain preaching to a large crowd. Not all of them can hear his words, and when he reaches what we know of as verse 9 those gathered don’t hear “blessed are the peacemakers”. What they instead hear is Jesus saying “Blessed are the Cheesemakers”. A spectator looks at her husband and says “what did he say?”:
Spectator I: I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Mrs. Gregory: Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
And then the movie begins.
This movie clip not only makes me laugh, but it also makes me remember that things are not always what we think they are at first listen. I tend to be what’s called a “lectionary preacher”. The lectionary is a 3-year cycle of common readings that many mainline protestant denominations follow through the church year. These readings tell the story of Jesus and our faith, and are usually thematically connected. For the next few weeks, the Gospel readings are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and we will be listening to his words and seeing how they apply to our lives as disciples today. At the end of the series, I will be doing something I have never done before, and invite you to join in.
One of my preaching professors recommended we memorize the Sermon on the Mount and always have it ready in our back pocket “just in case we needed it.” It is Jesus’s most well known sermon and one that can be preached almost anytime. Her advice was to have it ready for the day when you may need to preach without notice or warning. Looking at the lectionary readings for the next few weeks from the beatitudes, I thought it would be interesting for us to study the sermon with the readings for each week, and then listen to it in it’s entirety, preached as a sermon. So in a few weeks, we’ll do just that. The hope is that the preaching and reading we have done from now until then will let you hear this passage with new ears, and gather something from it as a whole. We can put ourselves on the mountain with the disciples and hear this familiar sermon through new ears with fresh insight, focusing on discipleship – who are the disciples, what are the responsibilities of discipleship, and what does discipleship look like in the community and the world.
The fact that Matthew places this sermon as Jesus’s first public act of ministry in this gospel is important. When you consider what Jesus’ first public act was in each Gospel, you see how that author of that Gospel saw Jesus, and how they want us to see Jesus. In Mark, Jesus performed an exorcism setting him up to be the ultimate boundary crosser. The subtext of this gospel is the tearing apart of that which separates us from God – the tearing of the temple curtain is a stunning visual reminder that the things that keep God at bay, or keep us separated were torn apart when Jesus entered the narrative.
In Luke, Jesus goes home to preach a sermon and tell his hometown what his ministry will be like. He lays out that his ministry is for the unseen, the marginalized, the outcast. Jesus’ people rejected his message and wanted to toss him off a cliff. The subtext here is that those who listened were just fine with God as long as God was for them and not for those they dislike or want to oppress. Jesus is telling him that he is here for everyone, including those whom we despise.
In John, Jesus attends a wedding and helps out with the bar tab by turning water into wine. But the point is not the act itself, but that abundance – 6 jars of 20-30 gallons brimming with the best wine. It is the way John sees Jesus – overflowing and brimming with grace. Grace that overflows, grace that pours out, grace that flows abundantly.
So what about Matthew? How does his sermon tell us who Jesus is for him? Throughout Matthew we see Jesus as a teacher. And who is he teaching? His disciples. What that says to us is that to be a disciple is to be a student of Jesus. To quote Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary, Jesus being a teacher means that “being a disciple is to be the consummate student, a learner. Being a disciple in Matthew demands that our first act of discipleship is to recognize Jesus as teacher.”
Who are the disciples? They are those who followed Jesus, those who were with him while he fulfilled his ministry. Those who listened to his teachings and followed them. As Dr. Lewis continued, she named something that is important in how we learn from what Jesus is teaching in this passage. How we think of who Jesus is reveals who we are too. In hearing the Beatitudes, we are hearing that we are blessed, that we are children of God. Jesus wants us to not only hear that, but also feel it.
In the beatitudes the characteristics of disciples are named. Characteristics of the faithful, the attributes of those who believe. They name the truth about who we are, and what we will encounter when we follow Jesus. And we, the disciples of Jesus, need to hear them on the front end of Jesus’ ministry. Those who heard these words first needed to know what was at stake in the blessings of Jesus, in their identity as disciples. “They have to know who they are in order to be able to hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be”. And who he needs us to be. They need to hear this first sermon so that they might live out the Great Commission.
This sermon is an identity piece for the disciples, and for us. The disciples are learners, students, listeners. All that learning happens covered by the promises of God. The promises that we are bless-ed. That we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Once we claim the identity that Jesus gives us then we can live out what we have been asked to do as disciples.
So who are disciples? The disciples are those who are blessed. This is not the #blessed that we see in social media or other facets of modern life. This is not the prosperity gospel where we are blessed because we ask God for wealth and God complies. God is not a celestial vending machine dispensing winning lottery tickets. When you think of being blessed, what comes to mind? If someone did not have a faith vocabulary, how would you respond when they asked you “what does it mean to be blessed?” The greek word makarios can take on many meanings and interpretations. It can include facets of happy, well off, fortunate. It can indicate special favor, unique standing, permission, empowerment, endowment.” David Lose reframes the question as to “what does it feel like when you are blessed?” You cannot pursue a blessing, he writes, but you receive it as a gift. By thinking of blessing in these terms, we begin to get a sense of Jesus’ promise. Being blessed feels like “you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth – not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are…”
So Jesus says that if you are poor in spirit, if you are meek, if you mourn, you are blessed. You are accompanied, you are not alone. If you are meek, if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, if you are merciful you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances. If you are a peacemaker – or a cheesemaker – if you are pure in heart, if you are persecuted, or reviled, you have worth. If you are a disciple, you have the promises of Jesus to be accompanied, to know you have worth, to move forward from the past into the future. That is an important message for the disciples to hear as they begin to minister with Jesus. And it is an important message for us as modern day disciples who need to hear these promises as we live out our lives of faith and live into the Great Commission and the work Jesus has called us to do.
I invite you to claim your identity in Christ as a disciple. To hear the claim that Jesus has placed on you. To hear the comfort offered as we listen to his teachings as students who want to learn. To hear these familiar words in a fresh way. I receive a daily e-mail from Steve Garnaas-Holmes entitled Daily Light. In this week’s, he sent a poem/prayer I’d like to share with you:
Beloved, by your grace
I willingly accept my poverty of spirit;
for you bless me with your Realm of love.
I honestly mourn,
for you bless me with your comfort.
I will be gentle,
for you bless me with the gift of the earth.
I continue to hunger and thirst for you,
for you fill me with yourself.
I will show mercy,
for you shower me with mercy.
I seek to be pure in heart,
that I may see you.
I will be your peacemaker,
for I am your child.
I will accept persecution
for you bless me with your Realm of grace.
I gladly accept that justice and peacemaking
attract persecution and resistance,
for so people treat all those
who do justice, who love kindness,
who walk humbly with you.
In my poverty I will stand unbowed,
for in your grace you bless me.
You, disciples of Jesus, are blessed. You are loved. You are accompanied. You are more than the sum of your past, and you are a child of God. Claim these promises and live into them as you follow the teachings of the Great Teacher. Be reminded of them today and everyday. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Lewis, Karoline. Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3155
 Lose, David. On Beatitudes and Blessing. Dear Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3020
Image from: http://www.wciujournal.org/uploads/photos/beatitudes.jpg