“To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as ell as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and to be manifested in us. Christ’s work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarnate, crucified and glorified. Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man, so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.” Cost of Discipleship
This evening, we’ll be looking at Matthew 6, especially vss 1-14. I’m always struck when I encounter texts in different contexts and the liturgical uses of these verses are powerful and foundational for the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer is also our prayer, recited in the Daily Office and at every Eucharistic celebration. Its familiarity is both blessing and problematic. When said consciously and meditated upon regularly, it offers the possibility of helping us shape our discipleship and faith. It helps to create a relationship with God that stresses our dependence on God for the necessities of life as well as our purpose and end (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done). But it’s also easy to allow the words to roll off our tongue unthinkingly. Sometimes that’s OK; for example when we need to pray but can’t find words of our own. Sometimes it may be an example of the sort of external piety that Jesus criticizes in the first verses of the chapter.
Those verses are always the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. In that context they are problematic and challenging, especially of the piety we display on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard not to think about how our actions look to others, whether we’re walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our forehead or attending church on Sunday morning when our friends and neighbors are drinking coffee and reading the paper or out on a bike ride or run. But hiding our piety for the wrong reasons is also a problem. Jesus criticizes “hypocrites” for wanting others to know about their donations and fasting. He isn’t addressing those of us who hide our actions or faith because we are slightly embarrassed of our quaint habits.
Perhaps most important is something implied rather than directly stated here: that our prayers and other practices should be sincere and come from the heart. Prayer is not about others or about ourselves; it is about God. Bonhoeffer has this to say:
Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action
I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as I prepare for our Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure when I last spent any time with this Christian classic (25 years, 35 years?). Coming back to it after all those years, it’s striking both in the way it reflects its historical context and the ways in which it transcends its time and still speaks to us decades later.
For example, after going through the beatitudes, explaining them and showing how they speak immediately to the situation of Jesus’ followers in the first century, Bonhoeffer asks whether the community described in the Beatitudes exists anywhere on earth. His answer:
Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the Cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it is found all. From the cross there comes the call “blessed, blessed.”
The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified!
Earlier, he points out that Jesus called his disciples blessed in the crowd’s hearing and that “the crowd is called upon as a startled witness.” From this he posits the essential unity of disciples and people. In his discussion of the Beatitudes, Bonhoeffer tends to emphasize the tension between Jesus’ followers and the world but here he stresses the commonality. It’s easy to read him (and to some degree the Beatitudes themselves) and place ourselves on that same grid. We hear a lot these days about the persecution of Christians in American, for example. But I wonder whether the perception might change if the emphasis were on the ways in which the people of God are meant to be a blessing to the communities and world in which they live.
In this week’s lectionary reading from Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai out from Haran into the Promised Land, telling them, “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” It’s easy to recoil, raise our defenses, withdraw or try to fight back when we encounter opposition. The world sees plenty of that from Christians. What might it be like to offer oneself and one’s community of faith as a blessing to its neighborhood and the world?