Today is the last day of Lent, the 40 days of preparation (excluding Sundays) before Easter. We are able to mark it on a calendar and know that a change happens tomorrow. Those of us in the church business—typically—have been planning for weeks. We know in advance that there is a surprise in store.
But for the disciples, dead is forever, and they face a future without Jesus. Saturday, for them, feels like forever. Jesus is gone and he is never coming back. They sit with the trauma and the pain, believing that they will have to endure it for the rest of their lives. In such times, it is hard to hear “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
In the face of such grief, does the Sermon on the Mount have anything worth teaching? After all, it begins with “happy are the hopeless and grieving.” I picture the disciples sitting there, some weeping, some staring into space. One holds his head in his hands and another seems to be asleep. They do not look happy to me.
Jesus had said, “Y’all are the light of the world.” He told them not to hide their light and let it shine before others. But they sit in the same dark in the room where two days earlier, they had celebrated Passover. All the windows are closed against the light outside, and they startle whenever there is a noise in the street. They are terrified that the authorities may come after Jesus’s followers next.
Jesus had said, “Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.” Peter bitterly recalls the last three lies he told, claiming no, he didn’t even know his friend.
A few disciples are furious. I imagine them muttering that when they find Judas, they will kill him with their bare hands. (They don’t know yet that he has saved them the trouble). They recall the way Judas shared bread with them all right before he betrayed Jesus—the way he betrayed all of them—and they recall Jesus saying that there would be wolves dressed as sheep among them.
They find it harder to remember Jesus saying, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
The true test of the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount happens on Saturday. The man who said those beautiful words about the transforming power of God’s indiscriminate love—that same prophet—had been tortured to death by people defending religion-for-show. The man who told his followers to be different from both religious hypocrites and gentiles was put to death by religious hypocrites and gentiles. He told us that a house built upon the firm foundation of his words would stand up to the storms. But on Saturday, his own house lay in ruins. He said we would know true prophets from false ones by their fruit—and he was lynched for his words. Strange fruit indeed! The disciples must have wondered, even if they were afraid to ask: Was Jesus a false prophet after all?
Jesus preached his Sermon, and the world answered with a teaching of its own: “This is what we think of your pretty words.” I think this is one of the hardest lessons of the Sermon on the Mount: What do we do with the teachings when they seem to have failed us?
It seems we’ve all been cooped up with the disciples during this pandemic isolation. I relate to them in their fear, in their grief, in their anger and helplessness. Two thousand years later, on this side of Easter, I believe that the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are a true and worthy way of shaping my life. I believe that they are gospel, good news. But I know that I sometimes find myself on Saturday, believing Jesus is dead forever, and his words an empty dream.
It is important to go through this time of disillusionment and dread. It is a lesson that needs to be learned, otherwise all of those pretty words are simply trite clichés. This is where the Master steps back and lets the students practice the lessons on their own. It is a vital part of learning this teaching not just with our heads, but deepest selves.
Holy Week Prayer:
Wait with us, Lord, as we wait for you.