Sermon :: January 29, 2017
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Drinking from a fire hose?” Well, that’s what preparing a sermon feels like this week. It’s virtually a greatest hits of justice. The gospel alone could be turned into an 8-part series, Micah’s exhortation would be great, and Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth steers us back to Christ crucified. I love scripture, obviously, but it’s usually fairly easy to pinpoint what I want to study and preach on. This week, though, I’m drinking from a fire hose. So, to keep me from keeping you here an extra 45 minutes, let’s jump right in.
The first thing, I think we need to talk about, is the idea of blessing. We often use the term “blessed” or “blessing” to mean something we like and enjoy – which is true in one sense of the word. For instance, family and friends are a blessing, food and luxuries are a blessing. But in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not talking about a blessing that you can measure or claim for yourself. You can buy a new couch or coat, for instance, but you cannot buy God’s blessing. In many places in the Bible, we see that blessing is something that is given, not earned. A blessing that is given, like the ones Jesus gives here, is a lot more complex than something we can simply see and claim.
To give a brief (I promise), nerdy glimpse into this complexity, we should take note of something small and unnoticed in English translations. Greek, which the New Testament is written in, has a lot of intricacies that would give the original audience a deeper understanding. Different verbs have different tenses, that’s true, but they also come in different forms. In English we miss some of this. The word “blessed” which we read over and over today is one of those examples. The word itself can mean also happy or fortunate, so if we read it the wrong way, we could easily say, “Well, in order to earn Jesus’ blessing and to be happy or fortunate, we must become poor or meek or persecuted.” That would be a prescriptive or a imperative reading of the word – we must to something in order to be blessed by God. But this was written in a descriptive or indicative form, meaning that Jesus is simply stating a fact. He’s indicating what is true. The poor in spirit, those who hunger for righteousness, those who practice mercy, those who are peacemakers are fortunate.
But that doesn’t make sense, does it? This is one of those stumbling blocks and foolish ways of God that Paul writes about in our 1 Corinthians text today. This doesn’t make sense. Why would the poor be fortunate? Why would the meek be powerful? It doesn’t make any sense unless we understand something very fundamental about who Jesus is. They are not happy because they have a good emotion; emotions fade away. They are not fortunate because they have been given a good roll of the dice in life; anyone who has experienced any of these afflictions will probably tell you as much. They are blessed because, with Jesus’ blessing, Jesus is staking his place with the poor, hungry, meek, merciful, and oppressed. He is placing himself on the side of the powerless. He is claiming them as brothers and sisters, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of God.
Jesus is saying that the gospel, the good news, is for them. The powerful don’t feel a need for a savior; they can rely on their might, their money, their status, their swords. And here comes Jesus claiming that he will not choose the powerful, but the powerless, to usher in the kingdom. And I think, in our minds, we understand this as a concept – we pray each and every week that God would unite the Church in mission, we claim unity with Christ and all believers in the words of Baptism and Holy Communion – but we sometimes forget that this is not just a spiritual or intellectual understanding, but a very real, subversive political statement.
Now, I’m using the term political as a way to indicate that our response to this good news, the gospel of Christ, the communal salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, is a public act. It is political, but it is not partisan. The rule of government and the actions of political parties can never bring about the kingdom of God. If you want to challenge that statement, look at who Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes. Jesus is offering his blessing and his presence with the powerless, but if you look at who runs governments, whether here or anywhere in the world, you will not find powerless people there. The empire carries a sword, but the Kingdom carries a cross.
Christ’s death and resurrection is not fire insurance for an afterlife, but is a calling to a new life now, a new way to act and be in the world. If you want to see what this new life looks like, see who Jesus is blessing here and follow him. By being present with the poor in spirit, you are being present with Jesus. By doing acts of mercy, you are acting with Jesus. By standing with the persecuted and the meek, you are standing with Jesus. This is public and it’s political. It’s how we live into the kingdom of God and it’s how we make the love of Christ known.
This is the work of Christ and so it’s also the work of Christians. Sometimes we don’t do it very well. Sometimes we mistake the sword for the cross. Sometimes God uses non-Christians to bring about the Kingdom of God. But the result is the same – God is continuing to be present with those who suffer, with those who mourn, with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And whether you count yourself in any of these categories, none of them, or all of them, how we live our lives in light of God’s grace and blessing, seen and experienced through Jesus Christ, makes Christ’s presence known.
Micah says it so eloquently in our Old Testament reading today. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. This is not to earn God’s blessing or love – you have that already. Christ’s love for you and all people was shown on the cross, the sacrifice made to make the kingdom of God known. Our response to that love is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly – not to make ourselves known, not to earn God’s love, but to show God’s love, to stand with Jesus on behalf of those who have been silenced, oppressed, and who need community. That is how the poor in spirit are given the kingdom of God. That is how those who mourn are comforted. That is how all of these Beatitudes are fulfilled – by God using God’s people to do God’s work, by people who experience the love of Christ to make Christ known, by the Holy Spirit driving us out of our comfort zones to do the Spirit’s work of reconciliation.
The last few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus’ call to follow him and see what he is doing. His love for humanity is boundless and we cannot even think about earning it, but if we have responded to that call, we are following him and we will follow him to stand with the poor, the grieving, the hungry, the meek, and the oppressed. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. Amen.