St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Blessed are

 Blessed are

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Epi­phany 4, Janu­ary 29, 2017

Read­ings: Micah 6.1–8, Psalm 15, 1 Cor. 1.18–31, Mat­thew 5. 1–12

The Ser­mon on the Mount as we have come to call it is Jesus’ first sig­ni­fic­ant act in the book of Mat­thew. It is inter­est­ing to com­pare each of these first events in the dif­fer­ent Gos­pels because they gave us some insight into the pic­ture of Jesus that the indi­vidu­al writers wish to paint. Mark’s Jesus is the man of action who comes to set people free from the chains that bind them, so in his Gos­pel Jesus’ first pub­lic action is the heal­ing of a demon pos­sessed man who has come into the syn­agogue.

In Luke’s Gos­pel, Jesus returns to his homet­own of Naz­areth and preaches a ser­mon. In the ser­mon he quotes from the proph­et, Isai­ah: “the Spir­it of the Lord is upon me, because he has anoin­ted me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to pro­claim release to the cap­tives and recov­ery of sight to the blind.” Jesus then claims that he has come to ful­fil those very words. This does not go down well. In the riot that fol­lows Jesus only just escapes with his life.

John has a very dif­fer­ent open­ing event. Jesus goes with his moth­er and his newly appoin­ted dis­ciples to a wed­ding where the wine runs out, a ser­i­ous situ­ation in a soci­ety where a wed­ding feast went on for a few days. Jesus comes to the res­cue and turns water into ‘Grange Her­mit­age’ qual­ity wine, enough to keep the party well hydrated for days. For John, Jesus is the mani­fest­a­tion of God’s abund­ant grace and pro­vi­sion for his people.

So we come to Mat­thew. Who is Jesus for Mat­thew? He is the teach­er of all right­eous­ness. And whom does he teach? First and fore­most his dis­ciples. Being a dis­ciple, a fol­low­er of Jesus in Mat­thew means recog­nising Jesus as teach­er and being will­ing to learn. Mat­thew will go on to give us five blocks of teach­ing in his Gos­pel, The Ser­mon on the Mount being the first. If you time your­self read­ing the actu­al words of Jesus in each Gos­pel you will find the Mat­thew gives you the most words by far: roughly an hour and twelve minutes. (Mark, by con­trast has only 22 minutes).

It is easy to read the beatitudes as we have today and to come away with the impres­sion that Jesus is giv­ing a list of require­ments, a new set of mor­al guidelines to live by. A kind of upgrade of the Ten Com­mand­ments – if you thought they were dif­fi­cult, try these for size. Read that way we are left think­ing, I must try harder to be more ‘pure in spir­it’ or I must work harder to be a peace maker. And while it is com­fort­ing to be told “blessed are those who mourn” par­tic­u­larly if you have just lost someone you love, the real­ity is that we are not eager for addi­tion­al mourn­ing.

But to read the beatitudes in this way is to mis­un­der­stand what Jesus is say­ing. Jesus is not set­ting up the con­di­tions for bless­ing rather he is announ­cing that these people are already blessed. If our pic­ture of God is a demand­ing law giver then we find it hard to ima­gine that God should want to bless us without con­di­tions. Most of us are well aware of our faults, weak­nesses and lim­it­a­tions so we are chal­lenged by the idea of a God who loves us uncon­di­tion­ally.

The beatitudes, of course, are the intro­duc­tion to the Ser­mon on the Mount and help to make sense of what is to come. It was Bon­hoef­fer who stated most clearly that this ser­mon only makes any sense when it is remembered that the preach­er is the Son of God, the Mes­si­ah who makes all things new. He said that the Ser­mon on the Mount “is to be under­stood and inter­preted as the Word of God who became human.” So the ser­mon becomes not a list of rules but a descrip­tion of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. Jesus did not sug­gest that every­one who fol­lows him will pos­sess all the Beatitudes but we can be sure that some will be meek, some will be poor, some will be peace­makers and some will mourn. Many of the char­ac­ter­ist­ics lis­ted in the beatitudes are rather over­looked in our world which so often exalts and val­ues the rich, the fam­ous, the power­ful and the well con­nec­ted.  Jesus did not sug­gest that his beatitudes were time­less truths about the way the world is: clearly they are not. We live in the world where those who mourn are not always com­for­ted, where the meek rarely seem to inher­it the earth, where those who long for justice don’t always see it real­ised and where a miso­gyn­ist, racist, tax- evader can become the Pres­id­ent of the U.S.A.

The beatitudes are an announce­ment, not a philo­soph­ic­al ana­lys­is of our world. It’s about some­thing com­ing into being, some­thing new and rad­ic­al. It is gos­pel, good news, not good advice. The ser­mon Jesus preached on that moun­tain was about life in God’s new king­dom. The king­dom that was being revealed in the life of Jesus and that would be fur­ther revealed through his death and resur­rec­tion. It is also worth remem­ber­ing that Matthew’s Gos­pel was first addressed to a com­munity that was exper­i­en­cing per­se­cu­tion and even­tu­al expul­sion from the syn­agogue-for these early Chris­ti­ans these words had a sharp focus.

The term, “poor in spir­it” actu­ally referred to the per­se­cuted people of God in the Qum­ran lit­er­at­ure. In God’s new, ‘upside down king­dom’, a new iden­tity is gran­ted each group of indi­vidu­als. The poor in spir­it become king­dom mem­bers, those who mourn become the com­for­ted, those who are gentle, become the inher­it­ors of the earth and those who hun­ger for right­eous­ness and justice are sat­is­fied.

The fifth bless­ing or bene­dic­tion – ‘Blessed are the mer­ci­ful for they will obtain mercy’, marks a change in that it is a bless­ing con­ferred not on one of the suf­fer­ing groups but on the mer­ci­ful. The concept of mercy, (hesed in the Hebrew) is the defin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ic of God found in the Old Test­a­ment. It was a word asso­ci­ated with God’s cov­en­ant faith­ful­ness- God con­tin­ued to show mercy to his people des­pite their unfaith­ful­ness and break­ing of the cov­en­ant. It is the word God uses to define him­self in sev­er­al pas­sages in the Old Test­a­ment. (Ex.20.6; Deut 5.10; Num.14.18–19). Twice in Matthew’s Gos­pel Jesus will chal­lenge the Phar­isees with the words, “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sac­ri­fice,’ quot­ing Hosea 6.6. Mercy is always recip­roc­al; if you are shown mercy, you are expec­ted to respond with mercy. In Jesus’ ser­mon, the prom­ise is giv­en that in the king­dom those who show mercy will become the recip­i­ents of mercy. Mercy also makes an appear­ance in our Old Test­a­ment read­ing today where we have those well- known words, What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kind­ness and to walk humbly with your God. The word trans­lated kind­ness is the Hebrew word, hesed.

Time pre­vents us from look­ing at all nine of the bless­ings but what is com­mon to them all is that they are sub­vers­ive words which stand on their head many of the val­ues of our soci­ety. When Jesus called his little band of fol­low­ers togeth­er he gave them a new way of life to live. He summoned them to live in the present in the way that would make sense in God’s prom­ised future, because that future had already arrived in the per­son of Jesus. Jesus brings to life all the beatitudes he speaks in the Gos­pel and in Origen’s words, “he jus­ti­fies his teach­ing through his own example.”

In the troubled and uncer­tain world of 2017 Jesus calls us to fol­low him just as he called those men and women gathered around him on that moun­tain two thou­sand years ago. It was a chal­lenge then and it remains a chal­lenge today to be peace­makers in the face of pro­voca­tion; to be mer­ci­ful, not venge­ful and to hun­ger for justice and right­eous­ness rather than wealth and prestige.

Philip Brad­ford