02 February 2014

What It Means to Be Blessed

Matthew 5: 1-12

Fourth Sunday in Epiphany/ 2nd February 2014/ Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

“For some reason,” the novelist Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) once remarked, “the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5).” He’s probably right. But why? Time and again, in various locations across the United States, we hear of demands, requests from a segment of the Church asking for the Ten Commandments to be placed in every courthouse.  Time and again we hear of protests in places where people want the Ten Commandments removed from courthouses.  There was one such incident in Florida just last summer.

The controversy over the Ten Commandments is viewed, by some, as a sign of the increasing secularization of American society, as a liberal attack on religion or on Christianity specifically. But why the emphasis on the Ten Commandments or Decalogue?  Sure, we as Christians are called to be guided the Decalogue.  But isn’t it odd that so much stress is placed on these ten laws, when, from a Christian perspective, there are plenty of other Bible verses and teachings they could turn to, be inspired by, such as the Beatitudes? Shouldn’t the Beatitudes be given a prominent place in our communities?  What about them?  I’ve never seen the Beatitudes carved in bronze on a courthouse wall.  There might be, but I’ve never seen one.  Perhaps you have.

            Maybe the Decalogue is better suited to the running of society, whether one is Jewish or Christian or Muslim.  Take away the references to God and graven images, they’re pretty good rules to follow. What about the Beatitudes, then? The same might be said of them.  Here we have Jesus’ teaching on mercy and peacemaking, good teaching for any society. 

            The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) is often viewed as the Constitution of the Church of Jesus Christ.  This is the core teaching of Jesus and his followers; this is what the work of the Church entails.  If the Sermon on the Mount is the Constitution, then the Beatitudes make up the Preamble.[1]  It’s through these verses that the rest of the sermon must be viewed; indeed, it’s through the sermon that we find Jesus’ core message of what it means to be involved with the Kingdom of God. 

            So why aren’t the most vocal Christians eager to promote the Beatitudes? Why aren’t we?  Maybe because we sense at some level that what Jesus is talking about here is just too blasted difficult.  Maybe because what we think Jesus said about being blessed is just too tough, too demanding an ethic, an ideal that is simply unrealistic.

My allusion to Moses and the Decalogue is intentional here because that’s what Matthew is doing.  Matthew compares the teaching Jesus gives through the Sermon on the Mount with the teaching Moses received on Mt. Sinai, and Law he later shared with the people. Jesus is a new Moses who teaches with authority. But there’s a difference. What we have here in Matthew, in Jesus’ teaching, is not more laws to follow, more demands, indeed higher demands placed upon believers in God and followers of Jesus. Instead, what Jesus gives us here is something else.

            You see, it’s easy to misread these verses when we view them only as commands.  They’re not.  They’re not laws.  And it’s easy to misread these verses if we view them as an ethic, in other words, things we must do.  We misread these verses when we view them as some kind of ideal toward which we should all aspire.  Because if we hear them as command or ethic or ideal, and treat them as such, we will very quickly come up against the fact that what Jesus is talking about here is impossible for us to attain.  They will break us every time. They will defeat us every time. It’s then easy to believe that we’ll never know what blessing is like because getting there is just too difficult.  So what is one to do?

            The wise theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) once said: “Action in accord with Christ does not originate in some ethical principal, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.[2]  In other words, Christian action is not dependent upon an ethical principal, that is, it’s not dependent upon our capacity to do good or our desire to be good. 

It might come as a surprise to many that being a Christian has very little to do with acting or trying to be good. It’s not a heroic ethic.  It’s not an ideal.  The Christian life is more than an ethic; it’s more than an ideal.  To be a Christian means that we are following in the steps of a person who gives us a particular vision of what it means to be human, who shows us what it means to be children of God, and what it means to be alive—now— in the kingdom of God. Following Jesus, walking in his steps, will lead us to behave in in ways that the right of society might consider as the opposite of good, or at least strange or odd.  Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”[3]  She’s right.  That’s what happens when we follow him.  Don’t get me wrong, following him will yield an ethic, but we don’t start there because we have no ethic void of him.  To have an ethic apart from Christ means we’re not following him.  And there’s no way anyone or any church can even begin to know what Jesus is talking about here apart from him.  Apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5).  We can’t do any of this on our own.  Because what Jesus offers here is demanding and, that, too, is the point, “The demands of the sermon [on the mount] are designed to make us depend on God and one another.”[4]

            The sermon “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.”[5]  When we gather around him, then we will live in a different way. “To be saved is to be so gathered.”[6]  The Beatitudes become the interpretative key to the entire sermon.  Jesus is actually describing his own life, his way. This is a description of his life.  He’s describing what happens when we, like him, seek and live in the Kingdom of God.  “No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek.”  Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of [God’s] Kingdom breaking into the world in Jesus, those who follow him are those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. 

For it’s those who are poor in spirit—meaning, when we’re spiritual beggars, when we have nothing left in us to give or to trust or believe, when we’re at the end of our resources and have nowhere else to turn, when we’re completely dependent upon God and have to trust in God, when we live this way, then we will discover what it means to be blessed. 

And when we mourn because we have seen a glimpse of the Kingdom—when we really know what God’s love and mercy and grace feel like and then look at the world and see how broken and screwed up the world is, when we see how starved people are for love and mercy and grace, and then you begin to cry for the world, begin to lament over the hurt of the world, when you can grieve for the world, then you will know what it means to be blessed. 

It’s the meek and gentle soul who has no malice or a desire for revenge, who hungers, like Jesus, for righteousness, which means justice, who knows what it means to be blessed.  When we hunger for healing and thirst for wholeness, like Jesus, and allows these passions to drive us, then we will know what it means to be blessed. 

When, through Christ, you know personally just how merciful God has been toward you, then (and only then!) can you be free to be merciful to your neighbor or stranger or enemy or even oneself, when you live from God’s mercy, then you know what it means to be blessed—to receive mercy and then to share mercy.

When we know personally the kindness of God toward us, within—in our inner hearts—and then live from it, share it, become generous with our lives, then we will know what it means to be blessed. 

And when we know the shalom, the deep peace of God in Christ, then we will work for that shalom, share that shalom, we will work to end violence and war and not stand in the way of shalom, when we work to mend shattered, broken relationships, then we will know what it means to be blessed. 

Now here comes the especially tough part…when we are persecuted, mocked, ridiculed, excluded, shamed, and judged by the world for being troublemakers because we’re following an alternative vision of the world, because we’re serving the Kingdom and walking with Jesus, and there persecuted for pursuing righteousness, God’s justice, then, we, too will know what it means to be blessed.  Rejoice and be glad, Jesus said, for you’re in good company. This was the life of the prophets. They, too, knew what it means to be blessed.

            This is what it means for a life to be blessed in the eyes of God.  Not in some far off future, says Jesus, but right now.  We don’t have to have all of these blessings occurring in our lives at once in order to be blessed.  Just to know one or two or several is all it takes.  To be called into God’s Kingdom, to work for the Kingdom, to seek after God’s Kingdom, with Jesus, for Jesus, in Jesus, through Jesus, this is what it means to be makarios, blessed.  Some translate this word as “happy.” But it’s more than happiness.  It means “exceedingly happy.”  Or, the better word is “joyful,” deeply joyful, profound joy.  This is what Jesus’ life calls us to experience, deep, profound joy.  “The poor in spirit know profound joy for theirs in the kingdom….”

            This is what he calls us to when he invites us to follow him into the kingdom of God, which is all around us.  And this table is the joyful feast of the people of God, people will come from north and south and east and west to sit at table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).  Here is bread and wine to strengthen us for the journey, for the work God calls us toward.  Here in bread and wine we remember his presence within us and among us.  Apart from him we can do nothing.  With him, in him, through him, and for him, we are blessed, with joy too deep for words.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 46.
[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, cited in Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids:  Brazos, 2006), 61.
[3] Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955).
[4] Hauerwas, 61.
[5] Hauerwas, 61.
[6] Hauerwas, 61.