Of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, Matthew is often called the “Jewish Gospel” not in its attempts to convert Jews or refute “outsiders” to Christianity. Matthew’s intent was help members of his own Christian community to understand and connect their past to their current and ongoing religious life. Judaism at the time Matthew was written, about 75-80 CE, was experiencing major disruption and change. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 CE bringing political and social change to the region. Matthew’s community was finding itself more in line with the Gentiles of the day than the new direction Judaism was heading. Matthew’s gospel sought to help Jewish Christians adapt to this social change and remain faithful to scripture and tradition.
Not to be overly dramatic or to make anyone upset, I need to confess that I observe social change in our country today. With the most recent election cycle and the beginning of the Donald Trump presidency, Americans are sensing change in our political climate, which has implications for our social interactions. I’ve noticed the changes as I drive in my car. I’ve noticed the changes as I watch my children’s basketball and soccer games. I’ve noticed the changes in simple interactions with others in the grocery store.
As I listen to people talk, the atmosphere is ripe with anxiety and uncertainty. Change is inevitable as we live — nothing stays the same. Yet, in most cases, the change we experience is somewhat predictable. Except for big, life changing events, most of what changes in our experience is small, gradual change to which we can easily adapt.
I have a fear (and I’ve had it for about 20-25 years) that the Church in America, the expression of the Christian faith in the United States, is more consistent with an American Civil Religion than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What I mean is that the image of God and Jesus Christ is being more and more equated with the values of American society. As we develop a picture of God, we are more likely to develop the “Ideal American” over the “Creator of All.” Examples include purely patriotic expressions and songs in worship during national holidays like the 4th of July and Memorial Day and Veterans Day, churches openly expressing American patriotic and nationalistic pride as a way to live the Gospel, and more and more churches being active in political causes and issues.
Hear me clearly, there is nothing wrong with expressing pride in being American, being patriotic. My concern is purely about the blurring of the lines between worship of God and worship of country. I believe the church loses its ability to speak to the ills of our society when we are too actively participating in them. The Church has a clear and distinct voice. Instead of allowing it to blend with the other voices of our culture, we need to maintain its distinctiveness — often at the cost of acceptance.
The Gospel of Matthew contains the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The Sermon is three consecutive chapters of only Jesus’ voice and teaching. Here is a link to an article that was recently published by the Baptist News Network. (https://baptistnews.com/article/the-sermon-on-the-mount-is-counter-cultural-thats-the-point/#.WMrH7BiZNuU) This article is talking about the experience of one preacher that stood in the pulpit one Sunday and read Jesus’ words as if it were her sermon. The feedback the preacher received on the content of “her” sermon was hostile, maybe grounds for being fired. (I am hyperbolizing a bit. But from personal experience, I believe the author of the article softens the exchanges she had with her congregants.) What does that say about the Church (Universal, not the congregation) when the words of Jesus are so offensive to some that the preacher should be fired? Have disciples of Jesus become so immersed and enmeshed in our culture that we don’t recognize our Leader’s own words? While author of the article talked about the countercultural nature of the Gospel is the point, I wonder if the Church (again, Universal, not congregational) no longer values being something different to the culture. After all, it’s easier to swim with the current than it is to swim against or across it.
Again, offering the Gospel of Matthew as a guide to living in turbulent times and the special role the Church plays today, I have included a link to an article about preaching in these days of rapid change and helping the Church to maintain a voice in our culture. Earlier this year, in the Season after Epiphany (January 7 – February 28), except for one Sunday, the Lectionary scriptures in the gospels followed Matthew. Had I not been following the schedule for reading through the Bible in a year, I would have spent more time in Matthew. Here’s the link to another Baptist News Network article: (https://baptistnews.com/article/president-trump-you-could-make-things-a-little-easier-for-preachers/#.WMmxuRiZNuU )
A common saying, attributed to Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, DL Moody and others, ascribes that good Christian preachers must have a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. This article walks us through events in 2017 politics as they coincided with Lectionary scripture texts. Most of these political events cut across common Christian understanding of human relationships and calls to serve our neighbor.
In these days of rapid change, the voice of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is a great help to keeping our faith grounded in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Matthew is not out to reinvent 1st Century Jewish thought and life for who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Matthew was about offering a map of what had been known to them to a new life in Christ Jesus. I wonder if we can find the roots Matthew articulates helpful to keeping us faithful to following Jesus in these days.