My visit to Rochester College for their Sermon Seminar was extremely interesting and rewarding. The theme was Dare We Live in the World Imagined in the Sermon on the Mount. Several scholars addressed this theme and uncovered, at least for me, some fresh layers of the sermon. Their scholarship helped me to gain a better understanding of the rich context of the sermon, its tremendous scope and the great challenge it presents us.
I was led to consider the idea of empire against which the sermon is set and how Jesus through the sermon is calling us to boldly counter the “principalities and powers” of empire not through their language of violence but through the non-violent heavenly testimony of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile and praying for and loving our enemies.
I was led to reconsider the beatitudes as very literal and to rediscover the power in them to turn a culture upside down. In Christ’s kingdom the honored truly are the meek, the poor, and the hungry.
I was convicted to in my own feeble way apply better the teaching of the sermon and share its blessings and challenges with others.
There were- for me though- a couple of mildly surprising threads that seemed to run throughout the presentations.
A clear pacifist message was delivered. The presenters equated the meaning of the sermon’s non-violent response to empire as a call to pacifism. As you might guess during a scheduled panel question and answer session they were challenged. To me, their answers were inadequate to the questions- as is to be expected on any side of this issue.
There was also a political overtone to the lectures. The leap from Roman Empire to American empire was made rather easily complete with indictments on our current war and immigration policy. I do see the similarities between Rome and America. This makes the challenge of the sermon even more urgent. I believe Christians who dare live out this sermon in our world can make an incredible difference. I believe our “empire” will strike back (as one presenter put it) against such bold Christian witness. And I believe there will be a cost involved for all who dare to live so. But I questioned whether this seminar was a proper platform for political statements.
But then again, maybe I missed the entire point of the sermon. It is political. It speaks of the politics of the Kingdom and this politic inevitably will engage the politics of empire.
Overall the seminar was very stimulating. The hospitality of Rochester College was a blessing. The weather in Michigan was wonderful. And the opportunity to be challenged by those in the Word was needed.