Monthly Archives: August 2014

What lurks in the cellar?

Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 5 verses 17 – 26

We should be like cows grazing in the meadow. Coming to a thistle, it is best not to get upset: just move gently on to some fresh green grass. In this sermon on the mount meadow I come to verses 17 – 20: several thistles! Some scholars think these verses represent the struggle of those very first Christians in Jerusalem (Jews, remember) as they tried to reconcile their profound experience of Jesus with their Jewish upbringing. Since I am not attempting a scholarly blog I can quietly let the scholars get on with their (important) discussions and move on.

The grass gets greener in verse 20:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom.”

It looks like a thistle at first sight but look at what follows in the rest of this chapter 5. We get a series of sayings each beginning with, “You have heard it said…..but I say to you…..” Each one highlights a practical outcome of the shift in consciousness I talked about in my last post. If they look impossible to achieve that’s because we haven’t ‘repented’: we haven’t made the shift into the kingdom consciousness. We haven’t learned how to ‘let go and let God’. Therefore we don’t know who we truly are.

Perhaps Jesus got a bit frustrated with people who asked him for a ‘sign’ (see Matthew 24: 23-27; Luke 11:29; John 4:48). They were looking everywhere for the truth except inwards. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was already an Anglican priest when he heard a sermon in a Moravian church in Fetter Lane, London. He reported, “I felt my heart strangely warmed”. Now, I cannot ‘strangely warm’ my heart to order. Such an experience is not mine to manipulate. It is a gift. I can receive it. I can ignore it, or even reject it. I cannot make it happen. I can put myself in the way of it, hope for it, ask for it. If I have eyes to see, ears to hear, if I let go of all that I think I know, I discover that the gift has already been given. I discover that it was lying there within me, unopened, all the time. It might be hidden amongst the junk I have collected in my search for meaning and truth but it was there from the beginning.

What follows in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount are examples of how the junk gets in the way: anger, for example, in verses 21-26. Here I am, feeling angry with someone, just at the moment when I want to do something good: to offer my gift at the altar, as Jesus puts it. What to do? Deal with the anger first, says Jesus. That means first, accept that I am feeling angry. Trying to ignore it, push it away, won’t help. That’s just pushing around the junk in the cellar of my mind, disturbing a lot of dust maybe, anything but finding the gift that lies there in the depths of my being. So step one is, accept that I am feeling angry. I’ve picked up a piece of my mental junk. Step two: don’t throw it away in disgust. That just raises more dust and disturbs the other junk that’s lying around. Put in down gently and wait. What then becomes clearer is the next step. That’s the wonder of the gift of the strangely warmed heart. The next step may indeed be to go and say sorry, or explore gently with the other person why I’m feeling angry with them. Quite often, though, such a step becomes unnecessary once I have gently put the anger junk down. It simply subsides. Notice I keep using the word ‘gently’. Getting agitated about feeling angry is, well, more junk! It’s like worrying about being worried.

So where is this gift of the strangely warmed heart? Why can’t I find it? Well, I’ll never find it so long as I keep poking about amongst the junk in the cellar. It’s not just another package. Stand still amongst all the clutter. Wait, quietly. Look! It’s the whole cellar!! And here’s the astonishing good news. If dealing with the junk takes me down into this wonderful cellar then even the junk is useful. Tempting junk? Bring it on because it can help me discover who I truly am in the depths of my being!!

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Salt and light

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5 verses 13-16

How did Jesus read the scriptures (what we Christians now call the Old Testament)? The answer must surely be: with an entirely fresh and startling (not to say revolutionary) insight. There are clues, for example in Luke’s gospel 4: 14-21 when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue and comments on the passage. Or think of Psalm 37 verse 34: “Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land,” and compare that with, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”

So what are we to make of, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil….” (verses 17 – 20). Jesus is inviting us, not into an ever stricter legalistic approach; he’s saying make the shift from your head to your heart, see into the heart of things. In other words, repent, that is enter into an entirely new and revolutionary way of being in the world. When we make this shift, this change of consciousness, we become those who are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

That’s why those who make this shift are blessed. They (we) become part of a much wider shift in human consciousness, a river you might say, that is sometimes little more than a trickle, sometimes a broad steady flow. It is not confined to any one religious tradition. In my tradition today some call it emergent Christianity.

The collection of pithy sayings we call the Sermon on the Mount explores some practical consequences of this shift in consciousness. Whether or not Jesus actually uttered them in this order as one sermon doesn’t matter. What really matters is to read them as clues to what happens when we discover who we truly are. Of course they often show us how we have forgotten who we truly are; when it comes to anger, for example, or our ‘enemies’. The good news, the gospel, that also emerges in these chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is that failure is always an opportunity, an invitation to return home to that centre and ground of our being. More on the sermon on the mount next time.

The silent revolution

Matthew chapter 5 verses 1 – 9.
Here we are at one of the most familiar passages in the Bible: these few short verses, known as the Beatitudes, followed by the longer sequence of teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount. Impossible to put into practice – right? That’s what most of us think, especially if we have sincerely tried. But suppose we are not reading it right. Suppose we have always heard this teaching as a list of very difficult demands. Jesus often talked about ‘those who have ears to hear’ or ‘eyes to see’; and certainly we can be both deaf and blind to the truth he wants us to see and hear. Why? Because we think it is head stuff, but actually it’s heart stuff. Do I mean it’s mostly about feelings? No. It’s deeper than feelings. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

“In these eight familiar sayings we can now see that Jesus is talking about a radical transformation of consciousness, embraced through an attitude of inner receptivity; a willingness to enter the flow; a commitment to domesticate those violent animal programmes within us; and above all a passionate desire the unify the heart. This is a very powerful fourfold path…..not unlike the teaching you would hear today from the Dalai Lama and other great spiritual masters who have dedicated their lives to increasing the quality and quantity of human consciousness.” The Wisdom Jesus, page 47.

For most of Christian history only a few outstanding people have understood this teaching. We have called them saints, so unusual have their lives been. But now, perhaps, we find ourselves in the midst of a silent revolution in which more and more ordinary people do have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth Jesus is pointing to. Curiously, many of them have little connection with religion, with the churches. Those of us who stay connected to organised religion can find it pretty frustrating. This silent revolution has been gathering pace for more than a hundred years now. I began this blog last year on the hundredth anniversary of a book by Evelyn Underhill in which she wrote:

“The energising Spirit of Life cannot be communicated in a sermon. Hence the greater number of Paul’s converts quickly degenerated into mere formal believers, once the stimulus of his great personality was withdrawn. Thus the distinction between the inner and the outer church, so strongly marked in the Synoptic gospels, was, if not acknowledged, at once established; the outer church of new creed, the inner church of new creatures, of organic change and growth. We must…..sharply distinguish ‘Christian Mysticism’, the transcendent yet biological secret of Jesus, from the compromise which is commonly called ‘Christianity.” The Mystic Way, page 214/15

In 1936 Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit palaeontologist, wrote:


”We now have to accept it as proven that mankind has just entered into what is probably the most extensive period of transformation it has known since its Birth… Today something is happening to the whole structure of human consciousness: a fresh kind of life is beginning to appear.”(Science and Christ)

I can offer just a few clues about what these verses have come to mean for me. I do this very cautiously because, unless you come to see for yourself, hear for yourself, you will be in danger of staying in your head instead of shifting to your heart. When the shift happens you will see and hear and understand.

Verse 3. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Sometimes I feel I am a failure in spiritual matters: forever coping with unloving thoughts and attitudes.
Verse 4: Blessed are those who mourn. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the images on the television screen showing the folly and dysfunction of the world. As I write this, aren’t we all deeply affected by yet another outbreak of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
Verse 5. Blessed are the meek. Someone once added, for they will inherit the earth, er….if it’s all right with you!
Verse 6. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Again this speaks to my sense of helplessness and weakness, when confronted with human folly and dysfunction, of which I am part.
Verse 7: Blessed are the merciful. The root of the word merciful means something like exchange, as in merchant and commerce. The French for ‘thank you’ – merci – has the same root. Resolution of any conflict involves compromise and that means some form of exchange.
Verse 8: Blessed are the pure in heart. For me this has little to do with impure thoughts. Rather it’s about singleness of heart: returning to centre when suffering the afflictions of the first five beatitudes.
Verse 9: Blessed are the peacemakers. That is people whose language reflects meekness, mercy, poverty of spirit; people who are likely say ‘in my humble opinion’; people who are non-violent communicators.
Verse 10. Blessed are the persecuted. How fortunate I am! Here in the UK I am extremely unlikely to be persecuted in the way that, for example, Christians in Syria are. Yet persecution happens all around me. We call it abuse. I can even persecute myself: accuse, threaten, berate myself!