Did Jesus Really Say… Persecution is a Blessing???:
A Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
An important key to knowing someone at the very depths of their soul is discovering their favorite Disney movie. So I hope you wont judge me too harshly to learn that my favorite is the classic Alice in Wonderland. I think I enjoy it so much because everything is crazy, illogical and out of order. Every attempt that Alice makes to figure out a way home only results in nonsense and frustration. The Chesire Cat is increasingly useful until he disappears only leaving behind a haunting smile. Then there is my favorite of all scenes where Alice encounters the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. Her attempts to find the white rabbit are flat out ignored in preference of being constantly served tea and singing the unbirthday song constantly.
Alice’s request for help was so basic and easy, but she was the one speaking gibberish in Wonderland. It was the bizarreness of such a world that always interested me, a bizarre world that thought itself normal. A 24/7 tea party makes more sense than a simple request for directions.
Perhaps it is because places like Wonderland intrigue me that I find myself to the teachings of Christ about the Kingdom of God. Jesus invited us to experience a similarily bizarre realm he called the Kingdom of God. Yet, today we lose the sense of Christianity as something strange or weird. Our culture is firmly shaped by Christianity, and most today are familiar with its basic tenets and many would agree that Christianity might be best described as normal, whatever that means. So we hear the words of Christ from the sermon on the mount. We hear it soaked in the waters of familiarity, its basic good sense, good advice. Care and love for others, and all that jazz. Being in the 21st century, we don’t hear Jesus as saying strange things. We don’t see the message of Christianity as what Paul would call “foolishness,” nor do we often think of how bizarre they seemed to the Romans and the Jewish authorities.
Jesus is baptized, tempted and now he teaches from the mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted. To these people belong the Kingdom of Heaven.
If you know anything about the Sermon on the Mount, then you know Christ makes some very high requirements for defining what discipleship is all about. These can be daunting and overwhelming. I’ve felt uncomfortable reading the sermon on the mount because Jesus asks a level of perfection I feel I just cannot achieve in my life. What was Jesus trying to accomplish with his brash talk and high idealism? Some scholars have theorized that the goal of the sermon on the mount is to push these idyllic, unreachable goals of perfection upon us with the goal that we might feel guilty about our own place in life, and maybe just rise a notch or two in our lives. In other words, that Jesus was trying to guilt us to be better people. I cannot believe that that is all there is too it.
If we understand salvation to be freely given to us without warrant and we believe that Jesus came to fulfill the law and not to abandon it, then I refuse to believe that we are to read the sermon on the mount as a list of advisable things for a Christian to do or be in order that they may be blessed.
Christians today read the sermon on the mount with the ears and eyes of today. I know what this says according to a 21st century reading. It’s a list of morals that we’ve repeated over and over to the point of being cliché, that we should try to follow, but lets face it we are going to fall short. But boy do they sound good, and look good on paper.
I challenge us to listen to these beatitudes with the ears and eyes of someone in the audience that day. Or even someone sitting down to read Matthews gospel 40-50 years after Jesus had died and the church was new. The sermon series we are starting today will take a close look at the sermon on the mount and examine some of the more outrageous claims of Christ, hopefully to breathe some new life into the passage.
The basic structure of the beatitudes starts each line with “blessed.” We use the word bless a lot in our language, but what exactly does it mean to be “blessed?” Jesus uses the greek word makarios, which is translated commonly as “blessed.” This is important because Jesus’ audience would have heard this as an ordinary common, everyday word. Quite literally it means “happy, fortunate or privileged.”
Some translations go so far as to go with this translation: “Happy are the people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (CEB). This does bring out some of the more controversial implications of what Jesus was saying. Indeed he was saying that the poor, the meek, the merciful were “happy.” However, it is a dangerous translation for us to read, for we begin to pull our own understandings into the text . The happiness is not the happiness of the world, an emotional contentment or lack of worry and struggle. Rather Jesus is redefining what it means to be happy. Happiness and blessedness do not reside in each of our own unique situations separated from one another, rather Jesus sees blessedness in the context of the whole. Jesus’ followers may be persecuted and suffer greatly, yet they are blessed because their life and witness is working towards that kingdom of God being made known.
This is not new to Jesus and we don’t have to look further that the first psalm to see that God has always redefined happiness: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
Therefore we can understand that when Jesus says people are blessed, it means that this list of people are living the way life is intended, they will be fortunate because they are living the life demanded by the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ message spoke into two opposing cultures: that of affluent Roman society and the elite culture of the Jewish officials. In neither culture would being poor, or persecuted be celebrated as a fortunate way of life.
One temptation is to hear the beatitudes as a checklist. These are the things Jesus wants of us, if we can somehow manage to check of a good half of them, we might actually be blessed like he says. Now, not only is that impossible, its also the opposite of what Jesus was saying that day on the mount. Giving us a checklist of things to do in order to receive the kingdom of God is the polar opposite of what the message of the gospel is. I believe Jesus was a pretty smart guy and did not openly contradict himself. If it was required for us to see the beatitudes or the sermon on the mount as a new written law to follow, it would betray the message of mercy and salvation by faith alone. Jesus came to write a law upon our hearts.
Afterall, Randomly imposed rules rarely have a good explanation. When a child is told to clean their room, they inevitably ask why? It sure doesn’t bother me, why should I pick up my clothes. And the exasperated parent says “Because I said so,” thus ingraining another generation to understand that rules have a logic, but it was forgotten long ago. As Americans, we can also understand the impulse to resist a foreign appointed sets of laws.
If not a checklist, then what is the beatitudes? It is a speech of hope to the people gathered there. We so often read the Bible and hear the words of Christ as though they are spoken directly to us. This is a product of reading the written word, and also a product of our culture. Everything is individualized and we are encouraged to be individuals in a world of other individuals. Jesus however was not talking to one person. He was talking to a gathering of people, including his disciples, followers and other persons.
There were those gathered there that day that were poor, that were persecuted, that hungered and thirsted. In fact, it is safe to assume that wherever Jesus is followed there will be those among us gathered that some will be in need, will be living hard lives, will be some of the lost and forgotten of our society. The proper audience of Jesus’ sermon on the mount is indeed the church. Matthew wrote his gospel for his community of believers.
As a personal checklist, the demands of the beatitudes is too great. But as a group of blessings directed to a people who love God, it is a stark reminder that we cannot do it alone. We must rely on one another and we must rely on God. Jesus shares a new way of life in the Kingdom, that is a topsy-turvy way of living life. Both now and today the picture of normal life in the gospel is quite foreign to the regular, expected way of living. Christ shares his blessings with us so that we may know that God chooses the meek and the merciful as part of his Kingdom. We may not possess each of the beatitudes like a checklist, but as a gathered church we are bound to encounter those among us that fit each of them.
Christ came as God in flesh, and showed us with his life what being a citizen of the Kingdom of God is all about. The beatitudes come not as arbitrary values, but each of them are ways that Christ himself lived his life. With this in mind, perhaps we can imagine the beatitudes as sounding something like this to the church gathering to read the sermon on the mount:
You saw in my life and ministry that I was always poor in spirit, for I depended upon God for grace rather than myself. In the coming age, God will care for us and we will not have to do it all ourselves.
You saw that I wept for the death of Lazarus, that I mourned the state of sinfulness in the world. In the kingdom of heaven, the brokenness of the world will be gone and there will be no reason to mourn.
You saw that I lived my life without any possessions or place to lie my head. In the kingdom of heaven all things will be given to us from God, even the very earth.
You saw that I thirsted for righteousness, praying to the Lord unceasingly and following his will in all matters of my life. In the kingdom of God, the water of life will freely flow and none will ever be thirsty.
You saw that I was merciful, curing the sick and lame, caring for the poor and rejected, giving mercy to those who others condemned. I will make the coming world one of mercy.
You saw that I was pure in heart in all that I did, living without sin. In the kingdom of God, I will make all pure.
You saw that I was peaceful, denouncing the violence of Peter in the garden. I did not bring revolution as many of you expected, but instead established the kingdom of God, where God’s true word and intentions are followed.
You saw that I was persecuted for my belief, nailed to a cross and put to death for my faith. This is an unfortunate consequence for being righteous in this world of darkness. Yet, I did not die, but rose in the resurrection. As will all those who die proclaiming my name.
I mentioned wonderland as a place where the vocabulary and morals simply don’t make sense and are utter nonsense to us. So too, the morals and vocabulary of the Kingdom of God are quite strange if we dare to seek to live them out with love. Christ promises us our earthly foolishness is God’s wisdom. The foolishness that the poor, meek and persecuted are privileged and blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.