So today we continue our series A Third Way to Follow Jesus. We have been exploring some foundational ways, beliefs, values, and ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. We’ve explored together concepts such as a high view of Scripture, emphasis on the New Testament, Jesus as central to all else, the necessity of believers church, importance of discipleship, church without class or division, church as covenant community, and being separate from the world.
Today our exploration is, I believe, closely aligned with our last topic, of being separate from the world, or put in other terms, in the world but not of the world. Today we are gong to explore together what it means that following Jesus as individuals but even more so as a community, means that we are to visibly be counter-cultural. We’ll jump into Scripture together, we’ll also talk about the ideas of being a subculture vs. being countercultural, and spend time talking about how to live countercultural as a community of followers of Jesus together.
So before we jump into the deep end, so to speak, let me ask you a question. What words, images, thoughts, feelings, etc.. do you get, have, etc.. when I say the word countercultural?
So often when most of us hear the word countercultural, images of the 60’s come popping into our heads. Images of hippies, the drug culture, the Vietnam war and protesting it, and the free love culture. But honestly, the countercultural movement, in my opinion started way before the 1960’s and I believe it was Jesus who truly started the countercultural movement, but we Christians haven’t done a great job of being countercultural and living out the upside down kingdom. Instead all too often we are not countercultural but a subculture.
So let’s take another moment before we jump into today’s Scripture to talk about and define what I mean by subculture and counterculture. I found these definitions somewhere on the internet and I believe they are helpful. A Subculture is a cultural group within a larger or predominate culture but distinguished from it by factors such as class, ethnic background, religion or residence, unified in shared beliefs or interests which may be of variance with that of the larger culture. A group within culture distinguished from it by factors of custom, conduct, etc.. Think about the idea of marching in the same direction but wearing a different uniform and to a different drummer. Counterculture is a culture having values, lifestyles that are in opposition to those of the current accepted culture. A movement that actively rejects the values of the prevailing culture in favor of other ones. Think about the idea of marching in a different direction, in a different uniform and to a different drummer…and that would be counterculture. I believe all too often our modern American evangelical expression of church wants to be seen as countercultural, when in reality most of the evangelical world is actually a subculture. For instance, the evangelical church fights to be countercultural when it comes to issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and homosexuality. But issues like consumerism, militarism, and nationalism get a pass, even though these are definitely not Kingdom values and actually run counter to the Kingdom and following Jesus.
By and large the conservative evangelical church is not seen as countercultural but a subculture and even more so a voting block. A voting block courted usually by the Republicans, and whose values don’t line up perfectly with the Kingdom (but neither does the Democratic party).
And just to be an equal opportunity offender, the mainline/progressive church desires to be countercultural and so they oppose things that the evangelical church misses like consumerism, nationalism, and militarism, but at the same time they desire to be part of the culture.
So the extremes would be to be a subculture (maybe like the evangelical church) or to be just part of the culture and not stand out at all (some of the mainline/progressive church). The third way then to follow Jesus would be to be countercultural. As a united community of followers of Jesus, every third way community of faith should model an alternative community. Such a covenant community should function as an authentic counterculture. Following Jesus is countercultural, radical and disrupts the status quo- or it should, and if it doesn’t it might mean that maybe we aren’t following the real Jesus.
And to look at what it would look like to follow Jesus into being countercultural let’s look at one of the sections of the most countercultural, upside down teachings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount. We’ll look together at Matthew 5:1-12, which is known as the Beatitudes.
Matthew 5:1-12 says, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Talk about an upside down, countercultural teaching. Everything that Jesus talks about in this passage is co counter to the world in which he lived in, but also runs counter to the world system that we find ourselves in. These 12 verses are an announcement of a new kingdom and the values that this kingdom is living out and bringing to reality. If Jesus ran for president this would be his platform, along with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are the summons for followers of Jesus to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future. To live the way heaven is in the here and now, and not just wait for it in some future time. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven- the life of the realm where God is already ruling and reigning. Where Jesus is King. Followers of Jesus are to begin living by this rule and reign now.
Jesus uses the word blessed to describe these kingdom values and traits. But when we look at them, they seem to be exactly opposite of how the world and the world systems would define blessed. Just do a quick search on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #blessed and you’ll see all kinds of ways people believed they are blessed (and not all bad) but so often what you’ll find is pictures of status, money, jewelry, etc… Hardly ever (if ever) would you find a hashtag #blessed and then a picture of being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, etc… In fact, that might be an interesting assignment this week. Post something with the hashtag #blessed with a picture or something that represents one of these beatitudes and see what the reaction is to your post.
Jesus says that you are blessed when you are poor in spirit. This doesn’t necessarily mean poor in money, but realizing our own shortcomings, weaknesses, and need for something or should I say someone beyond ourselves. All too often our world calls those who are rich in spirit, those who think they have it all together, those who really don’t need anyone else, as blessed. Eugene Peterson states this verse as “You’re blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule.” It is actually a good thing, a countercultural thing, to realize that it is blessed when we realize that we can’t do it alone, and that the sooner we find that out, the better it is. Whether this means not doing it without other people, but most importantly with God. To remember that prayer is the first option and not last resort. All too often I know that I try to do something with my own power, strength, wisdom, and ingenuity. And then when I come up short, as I always seem to, that is when I finally come to the end of my rope, I pray for God to intervene. Prayer, as Lisa Simpson, is sometimes the last refugee of a scoundrel.
Jesus says you are blessed when you mourn, for you will be comforted. This doesn’t seem to make sense to our world system. And what are we actually mourning? Peterson sheds some light in this translation when he says, “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” All too often, in the world system and even within the Christian subculture, people are very uncomfortable around pain, grief and suffering. They want to be over it quickly, or they say things out of being uncomfortable. In fact, all too often Christians are the ones who think you should always wear a smile on your face, and put on a “joyful” disposition. In fact, I remember a Kid’s VBS CD that my kids used to listen to with these words,
So, let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Smilers never lose and frowners never win
So, let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in
When you are unhappy, the Devil wears a grin
But oh, he starts a-running when the light comes pouring in
I know he'll be unhappy 'cause I'll never wear a frown
Maybe if we keep on smiling he'll get tired of hangin' around
In the midst of the pain, struggling and mourning, I truly believe you are blessed because God is truly present in the suffering. He comes alongside of you and weeps and mourns with you.
Jesus calls us blessed when we are meek, because we will inherit the earth. Now that just seems so counter to what we have always been taught, and always have seen. It isn’t the meek who inherit and rule the earth, but the powerful, the privileged, the violent, the ones with the biggest army. The world believes that meek equals week as shown by the definition that I found that says, “deficiency of spirit or courage.” I would have to say that I totally disagree with that. it takes courage not to fight fire with fire. Not to respond to violence in a violent way. Think about those who lead movements that changed the world. People like Gandhi, MLK Jr. and Mother Teresa. Yes they were meek, but they weren’t definitely not weak. They were probably some of the strongest people our world has ever known.
Jesus calls us blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for we will be filled. I believe the word righteousness there can be really misleading. The word probably should better be translated as justice. Because too often we think righteousness as something that is personal- just being right with God. But justice, is something that is both personal- between God and myself, but also expands beyond just my own relationship with God, into my relationship with all of humanity and creation itself, and setting the world right. Following Jesus means that we should hunger and thirst, and dream and work for justice in the world, and to long to see the world the way God intended it to be.
Jesus calls us blessed when we are merciful for then we will be shown mercy. Now all too often, just like the other beatitude of meekness, mercy is actually, in our world and our world system, seen as a sign of weakness. Until you are on the receiving end of it, and your beg for the other person to show you mercy. It actually takes courage, strength and convict not to buy into the lie that all you need is revenge. When we show mercy to those who “deserve” our judgement and revenge we are showing that we are countercultural followers of Jesus, who seek to live as he did, who showed mercy even to those who were nailing him to the cross, when he prayed, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Jesus calls us blessed when we are pure in heart, for then we willsee God. All too often in our world being pure is seen as old-fashioned, straight-laced, and uptight. but here Jesus is calling us to single hearted devotion to Jesus and his Kingdom. Or as Soren Kierkegaard said “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
Jesus calls us blessed when we are peacemakers, for then we will be called children of God. So often, even in the church, this one is probably seen as the most countercultural and also the one that people struggle with the most. I won’t spend a great deal of time on it, as it is really the focus of our discussion next week. But suffice it to say in this world and the world system violence is seemingly the answer to every question, and even how we have and maintain peace, through the use of the sword. But God calls us to work for Shalom in the world, to actively make peace, and not breed the violence that is so prevalent in our world.
Lastly, Jesus calls us blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness. All too often the church, and typically the evangelical church thinks it is really countercultural with this, because they believe that when they take a “stand” against immorality, etc.. and they get push back they believe then that they are blessed. But sometimes the evangelical church is not persecuted because of righteousness, they are “persecuted” because they can be jerks, as all of us can be. But the American church at times has a persecution complex. We are not being persecuted here, yet. But let’s take time to pray for those brothers and sisters in other countries who truly are persecuted and they, in some upside down countercultural way, are truly blessed.
So let’s spend some time looking at the Scripture together, seeing what stands out to you, what it might look like to live these upside down countercultural values out together in the world, sharing which one(s) we struggle with the most, and what God might be saying to each of us and our community about being third way upside down countercultural followers of Jesus.