I was in the car a few hours today driving from Pensacola back to Birmingham. On the way I caught up on my usual podcasts and a little Prince – 40 years later Purple Rain is still a banger. I spent a little while in silence just thinking. Normally I listen to audiobooks but I’m currently in between books. So I opened up the YouVersion Bible app and listened to the Message version of the book of Matthew.
And y’all. It hits different.
Jesus was a revolutionary. I already knew that. I’d put the sermon on the mount up against any of the greatest religious teaching in the history of humanity. But somehow traditional Bible translations make it sound so religious, so proper. Eugene Peterson did a masterful job capturing the sharp edge of Jesus’s teachings in a vernacular that is quite disarming.
And he points that sharp edge right at us church folk.
“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” Matthew 6
Pure fire. I’ve felt this in my bones during some of those pray-for-the-pastor-before-church times. You know, that one guy who speaks in Christianese and answers “blessed” anytime you ask how he’s doing but you don’t trust any further than you could throw him. Every church has that guy.
Or this grenade.
“Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook.” Matthew 7
Please God don’t let me become that preacher.
Or finally, Jesus’s response to the faith of the centurion.
“I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.” Matthew 8
There’s no way to read the stories of Jesus and conclude it’s good to be in the religious circles. There’s a danger in that sphere, of becoming too sure of your dogma, too exclusive in your requisites, too good at being Christian.
Dear church friends. When Jesus said “those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.” HE’S TALKING TO YOU AND ME! If you read Matthew and think anything other than: “Oh shit! That could be me!” you’ve missed it. If you think: “You tell em Jesus. You get those hypocrites.” then you’re probably the hypocrite. Of course, you probably stopped reading this blog when I said shit so, never mind.
Jesus has no time for our pious theatrics, loveless prerequisites, or our hateful weaponization of scripture. Throughout the sermon on the mount he demands character shaped by grace and authenticity, unity of thought, word, and deed, and an integrity that exceeds religiosity.
That’s the Jesus I’m in love with. Thank you Dr. Peterson for reintroducing me to him.