Grace Presbyterian Church
February 2, 2020, Epiphany 4A
The Teacher’s First Class
I think most everybody in this church is at least vaguely aware that I was a professor, specifically a music history professor, before changing vocations and heading off to seminary. That is in some ways a particularly challenging subject for teaching on the college or university level. Early in your career, as I was, the core class you’ll end up teaching the most is the full music history sequence for majors, the one that over some number of semesters covers the full sweep of the development of music in the European classical tradition from the Middle Ages up to the current day.
The reason that the courses in this sequence can be the most challenging of all to teach is that inevitably, you’re going to have some substantial chunk of the population of that class coming to it pre-prejudiced with a particular bias, one that is summarized “why do I have to take this?” You see, a great many music students come to higher education with the assumption that the only thing that matters is their applied study – the lessons they take on their instrument – and any other ensemble playing or singing that they do. As a result, they have a habit of viewing anything that “distracts” them from those studies as a “waste of time.” Whatever core classes the school requires fall into the same category too.
You can spot these performers out in their careers. They are often technically brilliant performers, befitting the time and energy they have spent in that practice room. They are also, very often, bereft of anything beyond that technical brilliance. It might be described as having “no feel” for the music, or being aesthetically dull or lacking in interpretive nuance or skill, the kind of ability that is formed not only by knowing the notes but knowing the music, the in and out and how and why of how Bach or Beethoven or Brahms came to write the way they wrote, the kind of learning formed by classes such as music theory and, yes, music history.
I am convinced that something like this applies in the life of the Christian faith as well. For an awful lot of Christians, what matters is the death and resurrection of Jesus. There might also be space for the Incarnation – the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, God-with-us, God in the flesh. But beyond that, these Christians (some so-called Christian “leaders” even) seem strangely disinterested in all the things that come in between those two events in the life of Jesus.
Matthew would be aghast at that.
After the baptism of Jesus, the temptation in the wilderness, and the initiation of his public ministry and calling of his first disciples, we read in 4:23-25 that Jesus began to minister to great crowds of people, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven come near and healing all manner of diseases. His fame spread as a result, to the point that people were coming from far and wide to hear him and be healed.
And we then read in 5:1 that “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…” Specifically he began by teaching them these thoroughly upside-down lessons known as the Beatitudes, continuing with what we call the Sermon on the Mount.
Notice about these Beatitudes: on some level all of them are formatted “Blessed are … for they will …”. Good thing, because we can easily look at all of these and, without that “will” qualification, think the poor in spirit, blessed? the ones who mourn, blessed? the meek, blessed? None of those things look at all “blessed” to us. Yet in sitting down to hear what Jesus teaches we learn what it is, as in last week’s reading, to repent – to “turn around” and see not from the world’s perspective, but from Christ’s own view.
And yet so many self-proclaimed Christians proceed as if Jesus never said such things. Going on according to the world’s idea of what “blessed” means, what the world says is important – gaining and wielding power, getting ahead no matter who gets hurt. Self-proclaimed Christians – even pastors with all the fancy titles and great big pulpits in great big churches – treating with utter contempt those with whom they come into conflict, as if Jesus never said a word about hungering for righteousness or being peacemakers.
Or there is the tendency observed by the late Rachel Held Evans in many Christians, described as follows:
“Jesus came to die,” they often say, referring to a view of Christianity that reduces the gospel to a transaction, whereby God needed a sinless sacrifice to atone for the world’s sins and thus sacrificed Jesus on the cross so believers could go to heaven. In this view, Jesus basically shows up to post our bail. His life and teachings make for an interesting backstory but prove largely irrelevant to the work of salvation.
That is, suffice to say, a woefully incomplete theology. What Jesus said and taught matters. No less a figure than Pope Benedict XVI, of all people, summed up the alternative thus: “Jesus himself, the entirety of his acting, teaching, living, raising and remaining with us is the ‘gospel’.” All of it, beginning right here with these backwards “blessed”s, is our good news. The Christian faith is not a get-out-of-Hell-free card; it is no less than a call to repent and see the world from a turned-around perspective, and these Beatitudes are a beginning – but only a beginning – to understanding what that means.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #419, Lord, Who May Dwell Within Your House; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #700, I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me
[Image: Hendrick Goltzius, The Eight Beatitudes]
[Quote: Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, 154.]