After Sunday worship at one of the congregations in my diocese, I met with the church’s leadership for the standard review of finances, attendance figures, evangelism strategies, and the like. One of the leaders was visibly angry. He said nothing until we came to the “Other Business” item at the end of the agenda. Referring to my sermon, he said, “Where do you get off telling us to love our enemies? They’re our enemies! They’re dangerous. We have to defend ourselves.”
Taken aback, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Several seconds passed. The priest of the parish broke the silence. “The Bishop was quoting Jesus. Those words are from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s in Matthew’s Gospel.” My critic didn’t respond, but he was still fuming and remained unconvinced.
This exchange came to mind recently as I listened to an interview with Christianity Today’s editor-in-chief Russell Moore. Here’s what he said:
[Multiple] pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching — “turn the other cheek” — [and] to have someone come up after to say, “Where did you get those liberal talking points?” And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, “I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,” the response would not be, “I apologize.” The response would be, “Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.” And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.
In other words, Christianity is in crisis because self-identified Christians are using their own political, social, moral, and cultural views to assess the soundness and relevance of Jesus’ teaching. Strictly speaking, for Christians it should be the other way around. We should test the validity of our thoughts and the trustworthiness of our passions by whether or not they adhere to what Jesus says.
It seems to me that Jesus was getting at something like this when he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-20) He was challenging his followers to examine where he really fits into their lives? To use a common way of putting it here in the South, is Jesus really their Lord and Savior?
In a previous essay I discussed what it means to lean on Jesus as savior. In this context let’s consider what it means for Jesus to be our Lord. Jesus is neither a coercive drill sergeant nor a micromanaging boss. He is a wise friend.
Wisdom is the art of navigating life’s complexities. Nobody is born wise. And advanced age does not guarantee wisdom. Nevertheless, we acquire wisdom over time if we acquire it at all.
Opening our heart, mind, and soul to a person who possesses wisdom is crucial to learning it. We become wise by patterning our lives on how a wise person walks through this world on their ordinary days. How they think, feel, and act in a variety of situations.
The Bible teaches us that the wise don’t merely observe the world around them and figure out its patterns all on their own. Instead, they spend a lifetime connecting with the very source of the creation’s deep, governing algorithm. Their lives are shaped by the habitual practices of worship, prayer, study, works of mercy, and the pursuit of justice. These practices open us to God’s presence in our everyday lives.
Jesus is wisdom incarnate. Accepting Jesus as our Lord means that we turn to him to teach us how to navigate our often messy, confusing life. As Proverbs instructs us, we don’t get this life thing right by relying solely on our own cleverness and wit. We need a mentor. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
In other words, Jesus shows us how to live. What he teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount and in his many parables and by his personal example may upend some of our fiercely-held assumptions or rein in some of our strongest impulses. But when we recognize that we need a mentor to be fully human—to live into being the image of God we were created to be—we’re admitting that there’s much that we do not know and more than a few things that we’ve gotten wrong along the way.
God knows that we’re a work in progress. That’s why repentance is one of Christianity’s traditional practices. We need to admit our missteps and shortsightedness to ourselves over and over. Not to get God off our backs. But to accept the helping hand we’re always being mercifully offered. Besides, once we finally realize that God has accepted us all along, loving our imperfect self gets a lot easier.
In short, I suppose that we say who Jesus is by living a Jesus shaped life. By passing on to our neighbor the love that God keeps giving us no matter what.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 16:13-20 from Proper 16, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up August 27, 2023). As usual, I’m posting one week in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.
 Scott Detrow, Gabriel J. Sanchez, Sarah Handel, “He was a top church official who criticized Trump. He says Christianity is in crisis,” NPR, August 8, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/08/08/1192663920/southern-baptist-convention-donald-trump-christianity