Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Radical Living: Part One--The Radical Teacher

The word "radical" has been overused to the point of utter exhaustion. We hear about radical surgery, radical uprisings, radical clerics. Radical feminism. Radical politics. Radical regime change. Generally, the word takes on a negative, militant subtext. Radicals are kids with bandanas over their faces who destroy things.

This often-abused word is the only way to describe one particular cleric/teacher whose words are still called some of the most powerful and impossibly strict teachings ever uttered. This man was a true iconoclast, bringing with him a new worldview, a new way to live. One that simultaneously completes and destroys the old way of doing things.

If you have an ounce of intuition, and any kind of Western-church background, you can guess who I'm talking about. You'll roll your eyes, shake your head, give me a forgiving chuckle. "Oh, he's just talking about Jesus."

How did we arrive at the point where Jesus is seen as tame? Commonplace? Even boring? Because Jesus was a dangerous radical cleric, who challenged religious teaching and tradition. He was despised, plotted against, and murdered because he sought to subvert the authority and teachings of the religious establishment.

Of course, Western Christendom has stopped viewing Jesus in this light, because, thanks to us, he has become part of the establishment. This happened when we stopped taking him seriously. Stopped taking his word seriously.

Not all of the Western Church has done so. There have been a few believers who have popped up from time to time to challenge the institutionalized form of Christian religion for being too lax, too passive. For taming the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and locking him in a stained-glass cage.

There was a movement in the last century, of Christian teachers and thinkers who were convinced that actually living out the teachings of Christ meant a drastic, even radical, change from the religious status quo. One of the most famous of these teachers was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book "The Cost of Discipleship" was a scathing critique of the church's version of Christianity, a religion girded up by "cheap grace."

Bonhoeffer's writings involved a serious and challenging study of (possibly) the most famous and powerful speech Jesus ever gave--the "Sermon on the Mount." Bonhoeffer believed that if we could learn to live out the teachings of the Sermon, we will have a pretty good grasp on how to live in the world.

In "God in the Dock," C.S. Lewis responds to a critic's statement that he clearly doesn't "care for" the Sermon, by saying,
“As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’
or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on
his face by a sledge hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual
condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.”

The Sermon on the Mount is so powerful and so shocking, that it becomes clear that the vast majority of Christians either don't take it seriously or haven't really read it. You can't read the three chapters in Matthew passively; because they don't deal with us passively. Jesus wasn't shooting the breeze one afternoon, and then decided to whip out this funny little speech; he was clearly and deliberately challenging everything that the religious people of his day were taught was the proper working out of their faith. And it still applies. Because every one of us falls short of the standard set in the Sermon.

So over the next week or so, I'm going to take this groundbreaking address apart, section by section, analyze it, and open up the floor for you to discuss it with me. I don't have all the answers, or the definitive interpretation of this passage. I'll never claim to. What I'll offer is how I understand what God shows me. You can do the same.

All I ask is that you really think about it. Jesus' words should never be taken lightly. And Christians do that constantly. Because we're so used to hearing what he has to say, that we've become calloused to it.

Hear him speak these words, as the crowd did. Full of wonder, confusion, perhaps anger. Who does this man think he is? Does he presume to challenge the authority of the church elders?

Yes, he did. And yes, he still does.


No comments: