As a teenager I came across In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. This is a novel in which a handful of Christians decide to ask what Jesus would do before they make each decision. Their community is transformed. I thought, ‘I need to do that’. Well, I made it about three days before giving up. It turned out following Jesus is not an easy thing to do.
Have you ever had an experience where you tried to follow Jesus fully, only to discover how difficult it really was?
I soon discovered another guide to living the life of ethical discipleship. It was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). Here, Jesus turns everything we thought we knew upside down. It is the poor, the meek and the persecuted who are blessed. It is our enemies that we should love, and disobeying God’s law in our hearts is just as bad as doing so physically.
The crowds gathered on the hillside must have felt uncomfortable as they heard these words. They thought they knew what it meant to live ethically. Keep the Ten Commandments, pray at the right times, give to the poor. But it turns out that ethical living is more challenging than that.
Consider some examples from the Sermon on the Mount.
Read Matthew 5:43–48. Think about someone who really doesn’t mean you well. Consider how you might pray for them. Consider what you might do to encourage them or help them out.
To be honest, I find loving my neighbour hard enough. How could I begin to show love for those determined to cause me harm? What kind of crazy command is that? Yet that is exactly what Jesus asks us to do.
Consider also the famous ‘Golden Rule’, which calls on us ‘in everything, [to] do to others what you would have them do to you’.
Read Matthew 7:12: How often do you seek to apply this rule in everyday situations you face in your life?
Jesus simplifies the entire ethical teaching of the Old Testament into a single sentence. It sounds easy enough, but we are by nature self-centred, or as Luther described it, ‘curved in upon ourselves’. Putting others first in our thoughts and actions does not come easily, even in simple things. Which scone do we give our guest? Deep down, we want the tastiest looking one for ourselves. When it comes to things bigger and more important than scones, it gets even harder. But that is the challenge Jesus sets before us, to treat others as we would hope to be treated by them.
What Jesus asks of us is not easy. But we have a God of grace who hears and helps us. In the verses preceding the ‘Golden Rule’ we find the promise that if we ask for help, it will be given.
Read Matthew 7:7–11. How often do we think to ask God for what we need? How often do we ask for help in making tough choices?
Ethical living as a Christian is not easy. Following the path Jesus set before us in the Sermon on the Mount is not easy. But we have a gracious God who guides us along the difficult paths he calls us to follow.
Pray for God’s help with decision-making. Ask God for help to live as Jesus called us to live. Ask for help to truly learn to love our enemies, and to treat others as we would have them treat us.
Mark Worthing is a pastor of the LCANZ at Immanuel North Adelaide in South Australia. He is the author of When Choice Matters: An Introduction to Christian Ethics and Martin Luther: A Wild Boar in Lord’s Vineyard.