The Sermon on the Mount, by Neil Thompson
The Gospel today, as you have all just heard, is the beginning of what has become to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is fairly early on in Jesus’ Ministry and word has got around about this new preacher who can not only teach but can heal people as well. Jesus has begun to draw the crowds so he goes up onto a mountain, (we don’t know which mountain), with his disciples and the crowd follow and sit around him and he begins to preach to them.
Now as a lot of you no doubt know from personal experience preaching or giving a sermon is not an easy task. To some it means a lot of hard work in preparation while to others, perhaps the gifted few, it just comes naturally. (You could say it is a gift from God). Sermons by definition are a means of giving advice. In my dictionary one definition is “to give advice in an offensive, tedious or obtrusive manner, a harangue”.
Well I wouldn’t go quite as far as to agree with that definition although no doubt, in the past, sermons may well have been delivered in that manner but nevertheless a sermon is a way of getting your point over and Jesus on this occasion has lots of points to get over. In fact the next three chapters in Matthews’ Gospel are devoted to what he has to say. There is still debate amongst scholars about the exact theological structure and composition of the Sermon but it is generally acknowledged as containing the central tenets of Christian discipleship. Notable amongst what he has to say is his presentation of the Beatitudes focusing on love and humility rather than force and mastery and for his teaching of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ as a way for all of us to pray.
He certainly seems to have got his points over and kept the attention of the crowd as it says at the end of chapter seven, “When Jesus had finished this discourse the people were astounded at his teaching; unlike their own teachers he taught with a note of authority”. That is another point about sermons or speeches. If you give them with an ‘Air of Authority’ then people are much more likely to believe that you are telling the truth and will listen and follow your guidance. Jesus, of course is not the only one who has given a rallying sermon or speech with great effect on the people and not always for the good. Hitler was a great orator who coerced and bullied the people of Germany into many despicable acts. On the other hand Churchill rallied the people when they were at their lowest ebb by his stirring speeches to resist the Nazi enemy. Martin Luther King taught black and coloured people to stand up for their rights and protest against inequality and paid with his own life.
Free speech, of course, is one of the most treasured freedoms that we have in this nation of ours. The right to express ones views freely without fear of imprisonment is considered a basic human right and is much envied by those countries where to speak out risks arrest and beatings. In the sixties when a student in London we sometimes went along to ‘Speakers Corner’ at the edge of Hyde Park where anyone could get on their ‘Soap Box’ and preach about anything they liked (as long as it was not obscene, blasphemous or insulted the Queen). Many famous people in history have spent time there putting over their views including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, Kwame Nkrumah and the Revd Donald Soper. Jesus of course when he was giving his sermon on the mount was using the opportunity to exercise free speech but was already beginning to come to the attention of religious leaders who were jealous of his success and were beginning to plot against him, leading of course to his eventual arrest and crucifixion.
So how does today’s Gospel relate to the theme of ‘All Saints’ and for that matter ‘All Souls’. Well in those first few lines of Jesus’ sermon many of the attributes he talks about are exactly what someone who has been raised to Sainthood possesses. Righteous, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker and of course many were persecuted because of righteousness, were falsely accused of evil and lost their lives. Also Jesus says ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted’ telling us that God will be there to help us in our grief for our loved ones who have died
So as we commemorate the Saints and all that they did and we remember those who have gone before us we can be comforted and can rejoice in the fact that God is with us every step of the way.