Alive in a Global Uprising
Joining the adventure of Jesus is a starting line, not a finish line. It leads us into a lifetime of learning and action. It challenges us to stand up against the way things have been and the way things are, to help create new possibilities for the way things can and should be. It enlists us as contemplative activists in an ongoing uprising of peace, freedom, justice and compassion. In Part 3 we focus on what it means for us to join in his adventure.
The first five chapters have been written for use in the traditional season of Lent. They are dedicated to Jesus’ most concentrated teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). Rather than having multiple Scripture readings during this season, we will read one passage multiple times to encourage deeper reflection. Then, for Passion Week, we will imagine ourselves in and around Jerusalem.
Beginning with Easter, we’ll travel with the growing company of disciples as their uprising spreads across the Mediterranean world.
A New Identity
(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing town called Capernaum. Flocks of birds circle and land. Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcrops. The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.
A small group of disciples circles a young man who appears to be about thirty. He is sitting, as rabbis in this time and culture normally do. Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples, in a sense eavesdropping on what he is teaching them. This is the day they’ve been waiting for. This is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the heart of his message.
Jesus begins in a fascinating way. He uses the term blessed to address the question of identity, the question of who we want to be. In Jesus’ day, to say ‘Blessed are these people’ is to say ‘Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.’ It’s the opposite of saying ‘Woe to those people’ or ‘Cursed are those people’, which means ‘Take note: you definitely don’t want to be like those people or counted among their number.’
His words no doubt surprise everyone, because we normally play by these rules of the game: Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness. Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.
But Jesus defines success and well-being in a profoundly different way. Who are blessed? What kinds of people should we seek to be identified with?
- The poor and those in solidarity with them.
- Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss.
- The non-violent and gentle.
- Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
- The merciful and compassionate.
- Those characterised by openness, sincerity and unadulterated motives.
- Those who work for peace and reconciliation.
- Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.
- Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quieten down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened and harmed.
Jesus has been speaking for only a matter of seconds, and he has already turned our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down. He advocates an identity characterised by solidarity, sensitivity and non-violence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion and manifest integrity and non-duplicity. He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives or politicians, but brave and determined activists for pre-emptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.
Our choice is clear from the start. If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society.
We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.
Jesus promises we will pay a price for making that choice. But he also promises we will discover many priceless rewards. If we seek the kind of unconventional blessedness he proposes, we will experience the true aliveness of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction of seeing God’s restorative justice come more fully, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence, the honour of association with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity he invites us to seek.
That identity will give us a very important role in the world. As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change. Like salt that brings out the best flavours in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society. Also like salt, we will have a preservative function – opposing corruption and decay. Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us. Simply by being who we are – living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our ‘saltiness’ or try to hide our light.
We’ll be tempted, no doubt, to let ourselves be tamed, toned down, shut up and glossed over. But Jesus means us to stand apart from the status quo, to stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. He means our lives to overcome the blandness and darkness of evil with the salt and light of good works. Instead of drawing attention to ourselves, those good works will point towards God. ‘Wow!’ people will say. ‘When I see the goodness and kindness of your lives, I can believe there’s a good and kind God out there too.’
The way Jesus phrases these memorable lines tells us something important about him. Like all great leaders, he isn’t preoccupied with himself. He puts others – us – in the spotlight when he says, ‘You are the salt of the Earth. You are the light of the world.’ Yes, there’s a place and time for him to declare who he is, but he begins by declaring who we are.
It’s hot in the Galilean sunshine. Still, the crowds are hanging on Jesus’ every word. They can tell something profound and life-changing is happening within them and among them. Jesus is not simply trying to restore their religion to some ideal state in the past. Nor is he agitating unrest to start a new religion to compete with the old one. No, it’s abundantly clear that he’s here to start something bigger, deeper and more subversive: a global uprising that can spread to and through every religion and culture. This uprising begins not with a new strategy but with a new identity. So he spurs his hearers into reflection about who they are, who they want to be, what kind of people they will become, what they want to make of their lives.
As we consider Jesus’ message today, we join those people on that hillside, grappling with the question of who we are now and who we want to become in the future. Some of us are young, with our whole lives ahead of us. Some of us are further along, with a lot of hopes left and not a lot of time to fulfil them.
As we listen to Jesus, each of us knows, deep inside: If I accept this new identity, everything will change for me.
Everything will change.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about someone who has impressed you as being the kind of salt and light Jesus spoke of.
3. How do you respond to the reversal of status ladders and social pyramids described in this chapter?
4. For children: Lots of people ask children what they want to be when they grow up. But what kind of child do you want to be right now?
5. Activate: This week, look for ways to be a non-conformist – resisting the pressures of your environment and conforming your life to the alternative values of the beatitudes.
6. Meditate: In silence, imagine darkness, and into that darkness, imagine light coming from a candle, a sunrise, a fire or a torch. Hold these questions open before God: Which is more fragile and which ismore powerful, light or darkness? How can my life become like light?