Within Churches of Christ, Randy Harris is well known…even infamous in some circles – which makes him all the more likable in my book. 🙂 Quirky would be a fair, though insufficient descriptor. He chooses to dress simply in black pants and black shirts everyday in order to clear away one more materialistic anxiety from his life – what will I wear today? Strangely enough, though dressing in one color, he often still manages not to match – quirky.
He has also managed to order his life as a missional monk while remaining within the Church of Christ tradition – and he far surpasses me on both accounts.
Randy teaches undergraduate theology students at Abilene Christian University, travels around the country speaking to and working with churches, and has played an integral role in shaping Mission Alive’s theology lab for church planters.
We interviewed Randy for the podcast – check it out on the page or listen here.
In his latest book, Living Jesus, he addresses the Sermon on the Mount – a section of teaching which has captivated folks, and often left them scratching their heads, for the past two thousand years.
Over time there have been countless expositions and interpretations of the text and many of them seem to fall into one of two (mis)readings of the sermon. Some see Jesus as teaching us to “out Pharisee the Pharisees” – a harsh and legalistic reading which beats the life out of its adherents. Others have basically said that the sermon is intentional hyperbole or an impossible standard. This reading tends to come from the “all people suck” camp and sees the passage as a reminder of our total depravity and need to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. We can’t live up to this message, and Jesus knew it.
The problem with both of these readings is that we have to basically ignore the text itself to get there. Jesus directly and fearlessly critiques the Pharisee’s tendency to dwell in harsh legalism to ensure their elite awesomitude. And yet Jesus also speaks very directly about how his disciples will actually live – a deeper, more significant righteousness which grows from our identity rather than one which forms the basis of it.
I’m pretty convinced that one reason the Sermon on the Mount is often seen as unattainable is that we continue to read it the same way the Pharisees read the Law. We see a set of external rules to be obeyed rather than the description of a transformed self and society…which have come about because God is at working reconciling and restoring creation.
The bulk of Living Jesus takes us through the sermon passage by passage, considering how each piece serves to show us how to live as citizens of a new kingdom – in ways which neither legalism nor “woe is me” are capable. This reading makes considerably more sense in the context of forming a people and describing a new community…beyond just heaping expectations on the isolated individual.
Within the publishing world there seems to be a growing expectation that when we read about church or faith, we’ll do so in conversation with others. To this end, it has become common practice to include a mini study-guide at the end of each chapter or section of a book. Though the questions are often overly elementary – less challenging than I would have used with a junior high discipleship group back in the youth ministry days – I very much love what they imply.
Their presence may be a marketing strategy, but it is a strategy that suggests we’re beginning to take communal practices more seriously…even in the case of something as private as reading a book. The reminder is constantly before us – this isn’t just for you, its for us.
One aspect of Randy’s study guide is particularly exciting. Beyond just discussion questions or very general application moments, there is a specific suggestion for practice associated with each chapter. It doesn’t just say, “look for ways to be forgiving.” Instead he calls us to make a list of people we have wronged and contact one person a day for the next week (or however long it takes). Specific practice in the reader’s actual context is a powerful and needed tool. In the closing section of the book we see why this is important for Randy as well.
If you listen to the podcast you’ll notice that one of the main reasons we wanted to talk with Randy was to hear more about his work in developing a “quasi-religious order” among college-age men at ACU. This monastic community is ordered around a shared Rule of Life and covenant to living out the Sermon on the Mount.
Randy suggests – and I whole-heartedly concur – that the lack of covenanting community is a significant part of what hinders the development of discipleship in our churches and makes living according to the teachings of Jesus infinitely more difficult. He encourages Christians to consider ordering their lives more intentionally regardless of where they live or in what stage of life they currently dwell.
He recommends several excellent books to help those who wish to pursue this idea. I’d add to that a short book by Elaine Heath: Longing for Spring. Though written for a Methodist audience, it is broadly applicable for any who are looking to form intentional communities of discipleship, prayer and service – and also describes ways in which established congregations can partner with (rather than compete with or fear) these communities.
And of course, helping people form these kinds of communities in their context is exactly what we do in the Academy for Missional Wisdom…so there’s that (shameless plug).
The Sermon on the Mount is a foundational passage and it has consistently held an integral role in monastic communities throughout history. I have no reservation recommending Living Jesus as an accessible resource for groups who are currently wrestling with what it might look like to pursue more intentional community in the way of Jesus.
There is also an accompanying dvd series available from Leafwood Publishers. I haven’t seen this series, but you can check out this intro video: