The Christian Life Is Impossible. Therefore…..

Every so often, I read the Sermon on the Mount, to get back to the basics of my faith.

I read it last week, and had a revelation: the Christian life is impossible.

First-century Israel had no internet, no phone service, no newspapers, no television, no magazines. Books – make that scrolls – were rare and precious and few people could read them, in any case. So in the biblical story of Jesus encountering a crowd of people on a hill, eager to hear him preach, that was his only chance to pass along his message. Whatever he said that day must have been the sum of what he wanted them to hear.

So it is striking to consider what was not in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). It had hardly any theology in it. It had no dogma nor doctrine. There was no reference to a virgin birth, to the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation, a doctrine of sin or of substitutionary sacrifice. He was vague about the question of whether or not he was divine. When he talked about hell, the word he used was Gehenna – the Jerusalem city dump, where unclaimed dead bodies were sometimes tossed. He made no reference to abortion or homosexuality – hot topics in American Christianity today. He didn’t ask the people to believe anything about him. He gave them no creed nor statement of faith. What he wanted was not belief, but action. He didn’t ask them to worship him, but rather to follow him, and do life as he did it. What we get in the Sermon on the Mount is the religion of Jesus – not the religion about the Christ that was created after his death.

He told the people on the mount how to treat each other, how to change their hearts. He told them to love their enemies. But the definition of an enemy is somebody you don’t love. What does it even mean to love your enemy? He told the crowd to give to anyone who asks, to lend to anyone who wants to borrow. How do we run a banking system, then? If we lend to anyone who asks, we’ll have nothing in no time. There is nothing about the Sermon on the Mount that defends the capitalist system, that’s for sure. But what’s the realistic alternative? He said that men should not lust after women who aren’t their wives. Now, heterosexual men can control themselves, channel their sexual desire, and avoid hurtful sexual relationships. But ridding ourselves of carnal attraction is way, way too much to ask. Jesus said that just having sexual desire for someone other than your spouse is the same as adultery, which in the first century, at least for women, was a capital offense. He said that anger was the same as murder. Good grief, if that were the case, we should all be rotting in solitary confinement right now!

He ended his list of absurd expectations with this shocking demand: be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. Well, we’re far from perfect, and we’re never going to get there. Maybe you saw the new Mr Rogers movie. So beautiful and inspiring – I wept through the whole thing. He might have been the nearest to perfect goodness that our country has ever seen, but he was married. His wife knew perfectly well that he was not perfect, as every wife or husband knows about their mate. Mine certainly knows it about me!

So as I read again the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, I was boggled as never before at its outrageousness. I wondered how this wild and crazy speech was passed down for all these generations. It’s so extreme, and the idea of succeeding in following it is so implausible.

Yet it has gripped the hearts of untold millions. At the age of sixteen, I heard the passage about loving one’s enemies read aloud, and there was an explosion in my soul. I felt love radiating out of my chest. I realized that it was incredibly hard to love one’s enemies, but it was beautiful to imagine being able to do it. “Challenge accepted,” my youthful heart responded, and that decision set me on the course of my life.

I was young and idealistic enough to think that I could actually do it. Now, at age 65, having amassed a list of enemies, I have awakened to the realization that it is impossible. This is my Fearless Sunday confession! But I’m still in. All in. Now I get it that the Sermon on the Mount is a list of ridiculous expectations. But I want to keep working at being perfect, even as the Cosmic Source of all life is perfect. Because God is at the center of my being, and as long as I’m awake to my divine nature, I can move in the direction of kindness, forbearance, forgiveness, humility, patience, restraint, and creativity. This perfection is already inside of me, yearning to come out. Becoming perfect is way, way too much to ask of me or you or anyone. But by asking it of us, Jesus attracts us toward it, awakens us to its presence already in our hearts. Jesus asks me to follow. While I may lag far behind, I’m sticking with this journey for the rest of my days.

You don’t have to believe anything to be a Christian. Believing stuff is easy for some folks. But religious beliefs are trivial compared to loving your enemies, which is insanely difficult for everyone. Just this one passage from the Sermon on the Mount would be enough to occupy a person for an entire lifetime. To be a Christian is to strive to be Godlike despite crazy obstacles. It is to say: “Challenge accepted,” and start the never-ending journey.

The Christian life is impossible. Therefore, let’s live it, following Jesus as far and as fast as our stumbling feet can carry us.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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