Approaching Life: Inside Ourselves
This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, February 2, 2014.
Reading: Matthew 5:1-12
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear so that together, we might be inspired to speak and live your Word in the world starting today. Amen.
I heard a story once about a family that had identical twins; however, the only resemblance shared was their looks. No sooner than one was hot, the other was cold. If one said the television was too loud, the other argued that the volume needed to be turned up. One liked Indiana University basketball, the other Purdue. One could see the good in everything; the other could only see the bad. They were opposite in every way—one the eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist.
Curious to see what would happen, on their birthday their father loaded the pessimist’s room with every game and toy the child had ever mentioned he wanted. The optimist’s room he loaded with horse manure. That evening the father passed by his pessimist son’s room and found him surrounded by his new gifts, bawling.
“Why are you crying?” asked the father.
“Because my friends are going to be jealous, I’m going to have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with all this stuff, I’m going to constantly need new batteries and eventually all my toys will get broken,” cried the pessimist twin.
As the father passed his optimist son’s room, he found him dancing for joy in the manure pile. “What are you so happy about?” asked the father.
“I just know there has to be a pony in here somewhere!” answered the optimist twin.
The attitudes we cultivate and the actions we take influence our outlook on life. The things we think, say and do can either help us see the best in every situation or the worst. Our actions and attitudes—the way in which we approach life affect who we are and what we might become.
Our Approach to Life Matters
Writing over 80 years ago, E. Stanley Jones, an influential Methodist missionary to India, a dear friend of Mahatma Gandhi, and a global leader in the Methodist Church wrote:
[People] need nothing in these modern days so much as they need a working philosophy of life—an adequate way to live.
I think Jones’ assessment is as true in 2014 as it was in 1931. We live in a time where we need an adequate way to live that brings about the life God originally intended for us and the world: a way of life that demands the best of us and transforms the world into the Kingdom Jesus came to show. We need a “philosophy of life” because all too often we fall short of greatest ideals. As Christians, we are divided among ourselves over opinions about marriage equality, human sexuality, gun control, immigration reform, and a host of other topics (like the best recipe for fried chicken and the infamous “hot-dish”). As Christians in the western world—and, in particular, in the United States—our lives do not look very different from non-Christians. We are just as polarized as the culture around us. Sure, we call ourselves Christians. We claim to believe the right things (orthodoxy), but we forget that end result of faith is more about being than believing. Faith is about what we might become, through the grace of God, and how we live that grace into the world (orthopraxis)?
Over the next four weeks, we’re going to explore the Christian approach to life: the way in which we who claim to believe in Christ are called to live and be like Christ. For, it is only in living like Christ that we can come to truly approach life and live it to the fullest.
Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, Common English Bible). He (God-in-the-flesh) came in order that we “could have life—indeed, so that [we] could live life to the fullest” (John 10:10, Common English Bible).
Jesus’ most extensive teaching on what it means to truly live life is found in what is commonly called the “Sermon on the Mount.” It’s Jesus’ first recorded discourse in Matthew’s Gospel, but it isn’t a sermon in the traditional sense.
In a sermon we take a text and expound upon it. There is nothing of that here. This is not a sermon—it is a portrait, a portrait of Jesus himself, and of the Father and of the [person]-to-be… We have here not the lines of a code but the lineaments of a Character.
It’s in this discourse that we find the defining characteristics of Christ and those who, through the grace of God, seek to be like him. The Sermon on the Mount is much more than a series of rules and “ethical exhortations.” In fact, to view as such will only leave one exhausted. Far from a checklist of things to do, it is a glimpse of the best humanity can be as we—in the words of Jesus—seek to “be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, New Revised Standard Version).
Over the next four weeks we are going to be looking at the ways in which our striving for perfection—being like Christ, “complete in showing love” (see Matthew 5:48, Common English Bible)—works both an inner and outer change that affects our relationships and brings about a new community marked by the love and grace of God. As we grow in God’s grace we are transformed from the inside out; and, that change affects the world around us including our relationships.
It starts on the inside.
Jesus starts his discourse—our lesson for today—by describing the change made at the center of our lives. Jesus knew that in order to make lasting change, one cannot simply change the superficial aspects of one’s life. Jesus knew that in order to invoke lasting change, we would have to change our hearts and lives. Real change starts on the inside at the very center of our lives. So Jesus sits on the side of a mountain and addresses any who would dare follow.
It is important to point out yet again that Jesus
spoke of what [his followers] were to be (verses 2-13) before he spoke of what they were to do and not do (rest of Sermon). He begins by saying, “Blessed [or Happy] are”—what you are in yourselves determines life for you. You are your own heaven and you are your own hell. He knew that “hell often breaks out within [a person] by spontaneous combustion,” and that heaven is a state of mind before it can be a place. He came, therefore, not to get [people] into heaven but to get heaven into [people]; not to get [people] out of hell but to get hell out of [people].
Jesus came to offer us immediate and eternal beatitude.
Each of the 9 sayings in our lesson for today are known as “beatitudes,” but do you know that the word means “supreme blessedness; exalted happiness.” It’s an apt term. Jesus came to offer us supreme blessedness and exalted happiness. Jesus comes to transform our inner selves so that, like the optimistic brother who was ecstatic to receive a room full of manure, we might be content and find supreme blessedness, “divine joy” in all things (even in the midst of the crap that surrounds us). It’s a happiness that transcends the world around us. It is not dependent upon external happenings or things. Rather, it is a joy that comes from within: a joy that is fueled by the assurance of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness in our lives. That assurance of knowing and experiencing God’s love transforms us on the inside.
Therefore, allow God’s love into your life. Allow the love, grace, and forgiveness of God to permeate all that you are and you will find that you are supremely blessed. You’ll find that your approach to life is quite different.
You’ll find blessedness and happiness in the midst of hopelessness, grief, and self-sacrifice. You’ll find that you have an insatiable hunger and thirst that can only be satisfied by God. Relying upon God’s mercy, you’ll become more merciful, pure of heart, and willing to seek the path that leads all people toward peace. And, you’ll find that doing all of this will make some people angry—it’s amazing how afflicted and addicted people are to derision and division. People will harass, insult, and gossip about you, spreading all kinds of false rumors about you. But, none of that will matter. You will “be full of joy” for you have been comforted in knowing and experiencing the transformative power of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness.
As Christians our approach to life is rooted in the love of God that transforms our inner life. We find beatitude—divine joy, supreme blessedness—based on the inner conviction that “nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not power or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” With this inner conviction, we can be at ease no matter what might be going on around us. Therefore, in the words of the apostle Paul:
16 I ask that [God] will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. 17 I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, 18 I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. 19 I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.
20 Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; 21 glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen.
 I envision the son jumping up and down in the manure saying with joy, “Look at all the crap my dad gave me!” It’s a shame that this punch line would be deemed inappropriate in my current (and most any other) context. I mean, that’s just funny.
 E. Stanley Jones, Christ of the Mount (Nashville: Abingdon, 1931), 9.
 Ibid., 27.
 Ibid., 52. Emphasis added.
 Matthew 5:12a, Common English Bible.
 Romans 8:38-39, Common English Bible.
 Ephesians 3:16-21, Common English Bible.