Well, our Sermon on the Mount series began last night at Bloom (the podcast should be up either later today or sometime tomorrow, so those of you that are interested can head over there to give it a listen), and after wrestling with the text for a week, here’s basically where I went:
The beatitudes “name” the way the Church is visible to the world.
The more I grappled with verses 1-12 of Matthew 5, the more I realized that they made no sense unless you read them through the lens of verses 13-16 (“you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city set on a hill…” etc). Jesus expects that the community of his followers will be visible to the world precisely because of their distinction from the world. A new reality has been inaugurated by Christ (“the kingdom of the heavens”) and now, those who have been gripped by that reality are and will increasingly be transformed by it. And they are the “fortunate” ones; the “well off” ones; the “blessed” ones. One of the ways we phrased it last night was, “When the kingdom of the heavens arrest the human life, the beatitudes are the result.”
This helps solve the knotty problem of whether the beatitudes are NEGATIVE states of life (which are then answered and outmatched by the reality of the kingdom now present in Jesus) or POSITIVE character qualities (which come to bear in us as we follow Jesus). Seeing them as “results” of the kingdom of heaven breaking forth in the human life; or more specifically “descriptions” of what the life of devotion to Jesus will look like, helps get us past that impasse. It is not that Jesus is recommending that we all become “poor in spirit” (what even does that mean?) or “mourn”; rather, he would have us know that in following him, we’ll often have moments of deep poverty of spirit and sadness. If and when that happens, we should know that we are makarios – “blessed”, for we’re among the visible community of the followers of Jesus whose lives spring out of the reality of the wonderfully new, surprising, threatening, subversive, alternative reality of the kingdom.
As an example, I cited something that happened to me while I was serving as an associate pastor in Tulsa. A woman called the offices one day, and I answered the phone. She was upset, and asking if we provided counseling services. When I asked her what was wrong, she replied:
So I’m at my job and I started noticing all this stuff that was happening that was not ethical. It really bugged me. So I blew the whistle. When I did, those coworkers (and bosses) who were party to what was going on started making my life miserable. I was anxious and depressed every day. Eventually, when the hostility grew to be to great, I realized that I couldn’t work there any longer without it destroying me. So I left. But now, I’m having trouble finding a job, which means I’m running out of money, and with the economy being what it is, I’m not sure what the future holds for me… I really could use someone to talk to.
She obviously thought her situation was wretched. And from the standpoint of “the world” it clearly was. Yet when I talked to her, I couldn’t help but think, “I am talking to a living saint. She is a hero of the faith. She knew what was right, saw something wrong, and took a stand and then paid the price for it.” So I said to her, “Listen, I know this whole thing sucks right now. But you have to understand that God sees you and loves you and knows you situation, and you will not lose your reward.”
Perhaps that helps put it in perspective. It’s not that this lady set out to be poor in spirit, or mourn, or be persecuted for righteousness. Rather, her following of Jesus (this is what being “arrested by the kingdom of the heavens” looks like) SHAPED her in a such a way that she would RATHER NATURALLY be put in situations that would set her at odds with the world and hence MAKE THE REALITY OF WHICH SHE IS A PARTICIPANT visible. Again: The beatitudes “name” the way the church is visible to the world.
More examples could be cited… I mentioned a few last night: Martin Luther King Jr.’s absolute commitment to nonviolence in the civil rights struggle, Pope John Paul II’s extension of grace and forgiveness – even friendship! – to the man who nearly succeeded in assassinating him in 1981, the Amish community’s mercy which they showed the family of the man who invaded an Amish classroom and executed 10 girls before taking his life in 2006, etc. In each case, it was the CONCRETE COMMITMENT TO FOLLOWING JESUS THAT CREATED THE REALITIES EACH OF THESE EXAMPLES BEAR WITNESS TO AND MADE THE PEOPLE OF GOD “VISIBLE” IN WAYS THEY WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN OTHERWISE.
And here’s where this gets really compelling (and scary). The truth of the matter is that in the Divine economy of things, the visible community of the followers of Jesus are the only way the world will know what God is like. (I told you, scary). Jesus says as much when he says that the world will “see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Just to the extent that our life is an accurate reflection of the character of God, the world will know. There is no other way. You, me, us… WE ARE GOD’S LAST, BEST HOPE FOR THE WORLD. He has put much on our existence as his people. It is not through heavenly messengers or divinely inspired books that the world will know… but through us. Again, just to the extent that our lives are an accurate reflection of the character of God.
That is, the God revealed in Jesus… Who is himself the ultimately “poor in spirit” and sorrowful and meek/gentle and hungry for righteousness and unremittingly merciful and pure in heart and peacemaking and persecuted for righteousness. He is the living embodiment of his Father, and we are the living embodiment of Him whose character is only finally, fully revealed as he bled to death on the cross… So Bonhoeffer writes, in a memorable passage:
“Having reached the end of the beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, the meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified One.” – Bonhoeffer
Or as Hauerwas puts it: “The Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ ethics; the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus.” It is from Him, most fully in his cross, that we learn any of the characteristics named in the beatitudes. And we come to realize then that participation in the life of the kingdom of the heavens will often, sometimes in small and sometimes in large ways, eventuate in a clash with the powers-that-be… That is, we’ll “take up our cross” too.
But it’s all good. We’re “blessed”.
Praying you know and live faithfully through the One who discloses to us the deep meaning of the Sermon in his Cross today. May you dwell in and be shaped by your fellowship with the Crucified One.