I am quite certain that many of you might remember a quirky, ridiculous, absurd film that was made by the British Monty Python comedy troupe called “And Now For Something Completely Different”. The movie was made up of sketches drawn from the comedy troupe’s television program, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, and included various scenes that have now become iconic in comedy history. The Dead Parrot, the Lumberjack Song, the roving band of rather frightening elderly women known as Hell’s Grannies, Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit, well…those who have seen the film will know how strangely funny it was; and those of you have not seen it will not benefit from any further description that I could ever hope to make of it.
The reason that I found myself thinking about the film was simply because of the title. Throughout the film, and usually interspersed between the strange antics of the Monty Python troupe, a narrator would suddenly appear in the film and, addressing the camera, signal a shift from one of the comedy sketches to the next with the words, “and now for something completely different”.
Which, as I read today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of Matthew, would have been a fairly accurate way for Jesus to begin the Sermon on the Mount.
And now for something completely different.
Over the next few weeks, the suggested Gospel lessons each week will invite us to make our way, consecutively, through a series of readings from the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. If you have an opportunity to read the entire sermon – which is located in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 – I would encourage you to do so, since it sets out some of the most powerful, profound, challenging, incredible teachings that Jesus offered to those who would follow him.
Matthew’s account of the Sermon begins, as we read today, “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them…”
These opening verses actually contain a few important signals about how we are to read, to receive and to interpret what comes next.
Specifically, the author of Matthew sets the scene on a mountain. In that ancient worldview, mountains were often understood as places of human and divine encounter, as places of divine revelation. Moses had received the Ten Commandments on a mountain; Elijah had heard the still small voice on the mountain; the Psalmist had celebrated that he sought God’s presence when he “lifted up his eyes unto the hills”; in these, and in many other places, high hills and mountains were seen as places where the human and the divine interacted. As such, to read, as a preface to the Sermon, that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” serves to signal that something important, something revelatory was about to happen.
But this opening verse also introduced the audience. “And after he sat down, his disciples came to him” — again, this little phrase sends an important signal to us. They signal to us that these are words that are supposed to be of particular relevance not simply to the gathered crowds, who were not even initially present since Jesus had been retreating from them; but that they were to be taken especially seriously by his closest followers, those who he had called to come and follow him. “and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them…”
These were not words of initial introduction to the ideas and teachings of Christ, but were words of deeper insight and greater challenge to those who were his closest friends, his committed followers, his disciples. To put it in a more modern idiom, this reference to the intended audience signals that this was not Christianity 101, but discipleship 2.0.
And what he had to say to those who were following him was that life in his presence, life in the kingdom that he had come to inaugurate, was going to turn everything that they knew upside down.
In a book about the Sermon on the Mount, first published in the late 1970s, the British author, priest and theologian John Stott once argued that the Sermon was a profoundly counter-cultural document, a manifesto intended to set Jesus’ followers apart from the world, just as the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai was intended to set the children of Israel apart.
the followers of Jesus are to be different – different from both the nominal church and the secular world, different from both the religious and the irreligious. The Sermon on the Mount is the most complete delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counter-culture. Here is a Christian value-system, ethical standard, religious devotion, attitude to money, ambition, life-style and network of relationships – all of which are totally at variance with those of the non-Christian world. And this Christian counter-culture is the life of the kingdom of God, a fully human life indeed but lived out under the divine rule.
And this different way of life, this different perspective on the world was woven through the rest of Jesus’ words in that famous Sermon – challenging words about an inner as well as an outer form of obedience, a call to a seemingly impossible standard of love, even for enemies; a holiness and purity of thought as well as action; a radical generosity to the point of self-sacrifice; a complete dependence on God which would lead to trust and to a startling freedom from worry.
The life that would be lived, according to this vision, would a life completely different from anything that his followers would have known up to that point. But it would be, as Stott so eloquently envisioned it, “a fully human life indeed but lived out under the divine rule.”
Things would never be the same for those who responded to him, and took the words of this Sermon seriously.
Which is why Jesus could honestly have started this famous Sermon, “and now for something completely different.”
The first section of the Sermon presents a series of strange sayings which are commonly known as “The Beatitudes”.
Although the term “beatitude” is not found in the text of Matthew itself, the word refers to a state of blessedness or happiness. The common summation of these verses as “the beatitudes” highlights the term that is repeatedly translated, in today’s passage, as “blessed”, which in the Greek is “makarios” and which can also be translated “happy”.
Which only serves to make Jesus’ words sound even stranger in our ears. “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
They are strange descriptions. To link being poor in spirit with being blessed, or to link being happy with those who are in times of mourning seem like strange suggestions for what makes for happiness or blessedness!
And the rest of the Beatitudes only seem to continue this strange vision of what the full life under the divine rule might look like. Jesus spoke of meekness; of hungering and thirsting for right relations and for justice; of being dedicating to making peace in times of conflict; of being persecuted for doing the right thing. When we pause to consider just how strange these claims are, we begin to realize how absurd, how bizarre, how ridiculous Jesus’ words must have sounded in the ears of his disciples.
Something completely different, indeed.
The beatitudes have been, and can be, understood and explored and pondered in a number of different ways, but one of the common threads that seems woven through them is that they suggest that blessing, in life, is to be sought, — and will be discovered — in moments when the world’s definitions of what makes for blessing and happiness seem absent, when we are in those moments that the world suggests reflect failure, loss, brokenness and weakness. It is in such moments, Jesus seemed to be suggesting, that God’s presence and God’s power might be most fully experienced – if we have the eyes to see and the hearts to respond.
When we find ourselves worn out, weary, broken down – or what the Gospel writer called “poor in spirit” – but then find that faith lifts us into a place of grace and wholeness that we have done nothing, on our own, to acquire or earn or deserve, we begin to realize that blessing is resting upon us.
When we find ourselves in a time of loss and sorrow, and discover that faith lifts us into the presence of a comfort, a consolation, a peace that passes all human understanding, we realize that blessing is resting upon us.
When we find ourselves wondering about the state of the world, and wrest our eyes away from our preoccupations with the powerful, and begin to catch glimpses of ways that those who are walking in meekness, in humility, in powerlessness, in weakness actually have something to show us about the well-lived life, we realize that blessing is resting upon us.
When we learn of situations in which someone has actually acted mercifully, and in turn received mercy; or who set out to be a peacemaker in a time of conflict, and unexpectedly transformed the situation; or when we hear about someone who suffered for doing the right thing, or spoke out against some form of injustice or oppression or cruelty – as the prophets of old did — and suddenly things began to change, if ever so slightly, for the better, we realize that blessing is resting upon us.
And over time, those small, seemingly insignificant acts begin to make a difference, and the world becomes a slightly better place.
Which is what Jesus was asking his disciples to be and to do – and what he asks those who have chosen to follow him to be and to do – to allow our hearts and minds to be challenged by his sometimes strange words, and to begin to reorient our lives to the principles and priorities of his kingdom, to allow ourselves to be changed and transformed from the inside out.
As such, we are called to ponder the words of the Sermon on the Mount not as a description of what is, but as an invitation to what can be, when we turn toward him and come to realize that Christ’s presence in this world was ushering in a new reality, a new way of being — and that each and every one of us, and this world itself, is invited – now — to become something completely different.
Thanks be to God.
Because when we do, not only our lives, but our world begins to change.
And now, for something completely different.
Here is my Body.