Galatians 5:22-26; Matthew 5:1-12
12th Sunday after Trinity
03.9.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
If I was to ask the average person in Earlsdon Street what they knew about the sermon on the mount they would more than likely look at me blankly. They may have some vague recognition that it was about Jesus, but couldn’t tell me much more. If I was to ask them to finish the quote: “blessed are the…” they would more than likely struggle, or if they were from around my generation, they would be more likely to quote from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian than from the Bible. The beatitudes, the eight statements of blessing that begin Jesus’ sermon on the mount – “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek…” -have drifted out of popular consciousness.
They may also have drifted out of the consciousness of the church too. At one time, Christians were expected to learn the 10 commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Beatitudes. Most of us may still be able to make a fair stab at the first three – we say two of them most weeks in church – but how many of us can recall all eight beatitudes?
Why does it matter? Well, listen to what John Donne, the great 17th century writer wrote: “All the articles of our religion, all the canons of our church, all the injunctions of our princes, all the homilies of our fathers, all the body of divinity, is in this sermon on the mount”. Or a 21st century Anglican Bishop, Stephen Cottrell, wrote: “The beatitudes are the most important, subversive and revolutionary text in the Bible!” Why are they so important? Well over the next four weeks we are going to spend some time finding out.
Matthew clearly saw them as important, as crystallising Jesus’ teaching. They are the first words of teaching that Matthew quotes in his gospel. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ first words of teaching are known as the Nazareth manifesto – “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…” He is setting out his stall of who he is, and what he has come to do. Its the same in Matthew. Here is Jesus, drawing on the words of Isaiah 61 again, to proclaim: “This is what it means to be a child of God’s kingdom. Listen up! this is important!” If that is not enough, we are told Jesus teaches from a mountain (like Moses did when proclaiming the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai), and he teaches sitting down, the traditional position of a rabbi when wanting to teach officially, not just off-the-cuff, throw-away lines while wandering along. Jesus and Matthew are telling us: this is important.
Jesus looks at those gathered around him on that mountain. These are people who do not live easy, comfortable lives. They are people who for the most part live in poverty, for whom hunger, starvation even, is only one bad harvest away, for whom sickness and disease can all too readily lead to suffering and death, who are weak and vulnerable to the rapaciousness of the rich, to the violence of the powerful. He looks at them and tells them that if they follow the way of the kingdom, they will be blessed. To say to this group of poor, struggling people that one day they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will see God, they will be called children of God, is just an extraordinary promise. Its a startling statement to make to such an audience.
And yet, Jesus goes further: “If you follow me, you are blessed”. Each one of these eight remarkable statements begins with: “Blessed are…” In other words “happy are you…” or “you are in a good place when you are poor in spirit, when you mourn, etc…” You are in a place of hope, of life, of truth, in the here and now. Jesus tells those listening whose lives are so tough, he tells us too, “when you follow me, you are in that good place”. Its the promise that in the midst of struggles we can be in a place of current hope, peace, joy, life. The beatitudes point us forward to an even better future but there is the promise that we can experience the taste of that future now.
So how do we experience that place of current and future blessedness, that place of hope, of joy, of peace, of life, in the midst of the turmoil and struggles of life? Jesus tells us. It is about living the life of the kingdom. That life is not about rules and laws. It is about attitudes and behaviours. It is about how we live and who we are.
The first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit was a phrase used throughout the Old Testament to describe those who had come to acknowledge that they were totally in need of God’s help. It was often associated with those who were economically destitute, those who had nothing left to rely on – no money, no power, no influence – and so could only trust in God. The strongest Christians I have ever met have not been found in theological colleges but amongst the poorest communities I have ever visited in Africa and Asia. I remember talking to one old African lady – I say old because her body was bent and wizened way beyond her years – she may only have been in her 40s – her thin hands holding on to mine, and telling me that she only had one more meal left, and yet in God she put her trust. Her trust in God was total – she had nothing else.
It is that sense of utter dependence, of acknowledging that only God can meet our need, that is meant here. We are not to rely on our own wealth, or status, or abilities. We are to humbly acknowledge that we need God in every aspect of our lives. Christ himself shows us what that looks like. We read in the Gospels of him withdrawing from the crowds on a regular basis to pray, to seek strength from his father. And in the moment of greatest crisis in his life, the night before his crucifixion, he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, to confess his need of God. If Christ did that, how much more do we need to.
So the first beatitude could be re-phrased: “You are in a good place when you acknowledge that you totally need God, that you cannot do it by yourself.” That leads us to prayer and to a humble heart.
The second beatitude Jesus teaches is: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The word for mourning here is not that of a brief sadness, as when your football team loses, but one that we would use to describe a huge grief and lament, most commonly for the loss of a close loved one. It is a grief that shakes us to the core. How can such grief be “blessed”? It seems a contradiction in terms to talk of “happy are those who mourn.”
There seem to be at least three aspects to what Jesus means here. Firstly there is a sense that those who deeply mourn, like those who hit abject poverty, often have nowhere else to turn but God to make sense out of their loss and grief. I am often struck when spending time with bereaved families how many of them seek comfort and hope in God, and begin to see a deeper meaning and purpose in life. The cause of mourning is rarely one that any of us would choose, but the act of mourning can lead us to a place of healing and hope. We see that even of Jesus, as he mourned the death of Lazarus.
To mourn is also to mourn our own failings and sinfulness. The Book of Common Prayer puts it in memorable language: “we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”. We are sorrowful, remorseful, for the way we have hurt others, for the times we have let God down. This does not mean we are to wallow in our inadequacies and failings, but nor are we to simply shrug them off as if they didn’t matter. The place of blessing, the good place, is when our sorrow, our contrition, for what we have done, leads us to the realisation that despite all of this, God loves us and forgives us. We cannot appreciate the fulness of that if we gloss over our sins.
So, Jesus says, you are in a good place when you grieve for loved ones rather than try and gloss over your grief, when you sorrow over your sins rather than try and brush them under the carpet, because in doing so you will know the comfort of God.
There is a third aspect to “blessed are those who mourn”, of sorrowing over the impact of sin in the world, but we will look at that next week.
These first two beatitudes encourage an upside-down view of what leads to being in a good place, a place of blessing. We may be tempted to think that it is when all our needs are met, when we are self-reliant, that we are happy. Instead, Jesus calls us to humbly acknowledge that we are always in need of God, and to live that out by living lives of prayerfulness. And we may be tempted to deny real sorrow or to avoid recognising the impact of our own failings. But instead, Jesus calls us to acknowledge the depths of our grief, and the extent of our failings, for it is in doing so that we discover God as healer and comforter.
Thus the first two of our beatitudes – Jesus’ manifesto for Christian living, if you will – call us to humility and sorrow, to prayerfulness and confession. In doing so we will come to know the fulness of God.