Perhaps the most famous teaching of Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount, with its Beatitudes and warning against judging. Spanning three chapters early in the Gospel, Jesus’ teaching challenges then-standard understandings of how life is supposed to work. This section includes the Lord’s Prayer, loving enemies, the Golden Rule, and the basis of the children’s song “The Wise Man Builds His House Upon the Rock.”
Take a moment and read chapters 5-7, and notice what is not in this discourse. Among discussions of humility, anger, sexual purity and personal integrity, prayer, fasting, security, and following Jesus, there is no mention of things “church” – except in 5.23-24. Jesus’ interest in this section is teaching about character in the midst of real life and he challenges the popular (then and now) notion that the right way to live is to look out for Number One. Jesus clearly teaches that looking out for Number One is antithetical to life in the kingdom.
The culmination of the Sermon includes three versions of what Jesus is trying to say to his hearers and us. The first is an illustration about a tree’s fruit with the clear implication that the sorts of things Jesus has advocated are a natural consequence of people who are aligned with, and members of the kingdom. If we claim to be Jesus followers and yet our lives don’t look like the description Jesus provides, then we are not in the kingdom. The middle application makes a distinction between public demonstrations of “faith” (prophesying, exorcisms, and other “mighty works”) and doing the will of God. The will of God in this discourse is that God followers would reflect the sorts of lives Jesus has illustrated. The third conclusion Jesus makes concerns those who can hear. Those who are of the kingdom are those who have heard God and do the sorts of things that Jesus has described in his teaching will have established his life on a sure rock – life in, and defined in God.
When Jesus speaks of anger in chapter five, it is in the context of the community and significant disruptions between disciples. This is the only place in this teaching that places itself in the context of worship and it makes the point that worship is of less importance than character. After discussing anger, Jesus says that if someone has something “against you” – not, “you have something against someone else,” that you should interrupt your worship and appeal to that person. This is not just a teaching about anger, nor about relationship. It is rather about being able to release your right, or not defaulting to “it’s their problem.” It is about living a life that is open and humble.
This discourse, early in Matthew’s description of the Messiah sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel and what God wants from his people. The rest of the Gospel is going to expand upon this central message and will largely ignore any consideration of “church” as a primary consideration for God. This is because God is after a people rather than a church as we understand the idea. He is after a people who live as though they are in the kingdom on Thursdays simply as a matter of course. Worship then, rightly understood, arises from the people of God who are living in the image of God rather than as a devotional act imposed or demanded by God as the principle mark or purpose of his disciples.