A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:1, 2. What is this Sermon?
The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do. To my mind no two words sum up its intention better, or indicate more clearly its challenge to the modern world, than the expression ‘Christian counter-culture’. Let me tell you why.
The years which followed the end of the second world war in 1945 were marked by innocent idealism. The ghastly nightmare was over. ‘Reconstruction’ was the universal goal. Six years of destruction and devastation belonged to the past; the task now was to build a new world of co-operation and peace. But idealism’s twin sister is disillusion – disillusion with those who do not share the ideal or (worse) who opposed it, or (still worse) who betray it. And disillusion with what *is* keeps feeding the idealism of what *could be*.
We seem to have been passing through decades of disillusion. Each rising generation is disaffected with the world it has inherited. Sometimes the reaction has been naive, though that is not to say it has been insincere. The horrors of Vietnam were not brought to an end by those who gave out flowers and chalked up their slogan ‘Make love not war’, yet their protest did not pass unnoticed. Others today are repudiating the greedy affluence of the west which seems to grow ever fatter either by the spoliation of the natural environment or by the exploitation of developing nations or by both at once; and they register the completeness of their rejection by living simply, dressing casually, going barefoot and avoiding waste. Instead of the shams of bourgeois socializing they hunger for the authentic relationships of love. They despise the superficiality of both irreligious materialism and religious conformism, for they sense that there is an awesome ‘reality’ far bigger than these trivialities, and they seek this elusive ‘transcendental’ dimension through meditation, drugs or sex. They abominate the very concept of the rat race, and consider it more honourable to drop out than to participate. All this is symptomatic of the inability of the younger generation to accommodate themselves to the status quo or acclimatize themselves to the prevailing culture. They are not at home. They are alienated.
And in their quest for an alternative, ‘counter-culture’ is the word they use. It expresses a wide range of ideas and ideals, experiments and goals. Good documentations are given by Theodore Roszak in *The making of a counter-culture* (1969), by Os Guiness in *The dust of death* (1973) and by Kenneth Leech in *Youthquake* (1973).
In a way Christians find this search for a cultural alternative one of the most helpful, even exciting, signs of the times. For we recognize in it the activity of that Spirit who before he is he comforter is the disturber, and we know to whom their quest will lead them if it is ever to find fulfilment. Indeed, it is significant that when Theodore Roszak is fumbling for words to express the reality for which contemporary youth is seeking, alienated as it is by the scientist’s insistence on ‘objectivity’, he feels obliged to resort to the words of Jesus: ‘What does it profit a man that he should gain the whole world but lose his soul?’
Yet alongside this hope which this mood of protest and quest inspires in Christians, there is also (or should be) a sense of shame. For if today’s young people are looking for the right things (meaning, peace, love, reality) they are looking for them in the wrong places. The first place to which they should be able to turn is the one place which they normally ignore, namely the church. For too often what they see in the church is not counter-culture but conformism, not a new society that embodies their ideals but another version of the old society which they have renounced, not life but death. They would readily endorse today what Jesus said of the church in the first century: ‘You have the name of being alive, and you are dead’ (Rev.3:1).
It is urgent that we not only see but feel the greatness of this tragedy. For insofar as the church is conformed to the world, and the two communities appear to the onlooker to be merely two versions of the same thing, the church is contradicting its true identity. No comment could be more hurtful to the Christian than the words, ‘But you are no different from anybody else’.
For the essential theme of the whole bible from beginning to end is that God’s historical purpose is to call out a people for himself; that this people is a ‘holy’ people set apart from the world to belong to him and to obey him; and that its vocation is to be true to its identity, that is, to be ‘holy’ or ‘different’ in all its outlook and behaviour.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:1, 2. What is this Sermon (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.