The increasing darkness and cloudy gray gloom of November and December are always a temptation to depression. It is easy to understand why the Church Fathers seized upon the opportunity to cover the pagan feasts of the sun’s conquering the winter solstice with Christmas. The bright shining heavenly hosts announcing the coming of the Messiah to poor shepherds in the field by night fits the pattern.

The deeper joy of anticipating the advent of the King in all his ways makes walking by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7) possible and the ultimate joy. For many years I skimmed over the Sermon on the Mount as an example of Jesus’ hyperbolic teaching without engaging it as a key to a deeper relationship with God. St. Paul cured me with his vivid description of the eschatological hope of glory transforming the believer “into [Christ’s] likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Rather than being stuck in the perennial present of technologically assisted human relationships, we are capable of walking by faith and perceiving a panorama of the past, present, and future glory leading to God.

Neither Paul nor Jesus minces words in his eschatological outlook of the coming of the Kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount takes on a much greater importance than just ethical teachings. It is a compilation of expectations for those dedicated to the One who has communicated the Good News of the renewed covenant, who came to fulfill the Law, and calls all to renewed repentance and return to the Covenant relationship in the kingdom of God. The teaching of a more righteous way of life found in the Sermon “was preceded by the proclamation of the gospel; and it was preceded by conversion, by a being overpowered by the Good News.”[1] The joy of the Incarnation comes once more with the faith in the renewed Covenant. Established in Christ, we have a covenant relationship with God through a trinitarian bond of loving surrender within the irenic embrace of the Father and Son.

Of course, the natural objection of any disciple listening to such idealistic standards of behavior against anger, lust, lying, an eye for an eye, and hating enemies (Matt. 5:21-47) is their impossibility. Jeremias gives another understanding of them, which is a warning against what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call cheap grace.[2] He reminds us that mercy and divine forgiveness include God’s claim on the forgiven life. “Only if we begin with the greatness of the gift of God can we really understand the heavy nature of the demands which Jesus makes.”[3] We walk by faith that is open to grace, not sight and finite knowledge. These sayings of Jesus delineate a lived faith. They say: You are forgiven; you are a child of God; you belong to his kingdom. The sun of righteousness has risen over your life. You no longer belong to yourself; rather, you belong to the city of God, the light of which shines in the darkness. Now you may also experience it: out of the thankfulness of a redeemed child of God. A new life is growing. That is the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount.[4]

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The Sermon on the Mount is not an interim ethic until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, but an exciting, elevated glimpse into the reality of the kingdom of heaven. It shows us the telos of loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul and our neighbor as ourselves. C.S. Lewis proposed in his literary-critical concept of “transposition”[5] a useful descriptive for understanding the kenosis of the Incarnation, and, secondarily, these “kingdom ethics.” He used the analogy of God’s revelation of himself being like the translation of a higher, more sophisticated language with a tremendous vocabulary into a lower, more primitive language with only a limited vocabulary. Of necessity, one word in the primitive language would have to stand for multiple meanings and nuances in the higher language, with the resultant loss in clarity of understanding. This is the situation we find in a hierarchy of revelation breaking into the human sphere from the divine. The highest is the Word of God, Jesus Christ in his Incarnation, from whence he draws humanity into the Godhead. The Bible is also the word of God, revealed truth, but it is mediated through human instruments in both Testaments. Lastly, there is imagery within the natural world, God’s creation. The general and incomplete image of God’s chosen people, pagan premonitions, natural law, natural sensations of the numinous, and reactions to the physical world are all superseded by the particular and perfect Incarnation leading back to being made holy, sanctified, and set apart for God. The sermon illustrates the fulfillment of the law within the kingdom of heaven by both our emulation and our incorporation into Christ the King, the only one by nature perfected as the Father is perfect. The space-time continuum begins here and now, but is subsumed into eternity.

The desire for living the greater righteousness flows naturally from gratitude for the gift of grace. In our Western culture we have a lot of unlearning to do. In seeing implicit grace through Matthew’s emphasis on the covenant, discipleship, the greater righteousness — all fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah — we can counter the fallacy of “man making progress on his own” and the stereotype of the angry, punishing Father with the understanding of our true position before God, the Author of truth and Giver of life. He sees our acts clearly, allows their consequences with respect for our free will, but never gives up in calling, correcting, and shepherding those who will hear his voice. Character formation in humility allows us to acknowledge sin within ourselves and to see the possibility of restored relationship with God, which brings joy. Without the possibility of joy, why look beyond self? The Sermon on the Mount gives us snapshots of heaven: being cared for like the lilies of the field, being like a house built upon the rock, being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, following the one best equipped to pray as God wants to hear, bringing peace and reconciliation where there is enmity and strife, and accepting persecution from those not reconciled with God. Advent is a good time to start all over again.

Footnotes

[1] Joachim Jeremias, Sermon on the Mount, Norman Perrin, trans. (Fortress Press, 1963), pp. 12–23.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, R.H. Fuller, trans. (The MacMillan Company, 1949), p. 37.

[3] Jeremias, 32.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] C.S. Lewis, “Transposition,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (William B. Eerdmans, 1949), p. 27.

About The Author

Mother Miriam, CSM is the ninth Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of Saint Mary.

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