(Micah 6, 1-8; Matthew 5,1-12)
We very rarely watch TV programmes live on any of the commercial channels. We tend to record them, then watch them at a time convenient to us.
One great advantage to doing things this way is that you don’t have to watch the advertisements! I find I get more and more annoyed by ads. which imply that if only I use the right washing powder, or drive a particular car, or have a particular vacuum cleaner, or holiday in a particular place, I will be forever happy, and my life will feel fulfilled.
Our Gospel reading today is the Christian equivalent of those advertisements. If the Sermon on the Mount contains the essence of Christian life and faith, then verses 1-12 of chapter 5 (usually known as the Beatitudes) contain the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, and give a definitive statement of what being a Christian is all about.
And, just in case we fail to appreciate this, Matthew signals its importance with three phrases in the introduction to the passage. He tells us that Jesus sat down; that is, he took up the characteristic position of a Jewish rabbi who was giving official teaching. He says that Jesus ‘opened his mouth to speak’ which seems obvious, but which is a phrase that signals that this is a formal, weighty utterance, where nothing is kept back; and when he says ‘he taught them’ he uses the imperfect tense, which speaks of something that continues, signally that Jesus taught here what he always taught.
So, I f you want to know what your baptism promises committed you to; if you want to understand what you are taking on when you are confirmed or take membership; if you worry about why the Covenant service is so demanding, then come back to the Beatitudes.
The Authorised Version of the bible begins each Beatitude with the words “Blessed are”; some modern versions say “happy are they”. As so often is the case with words that have been translated, the actual meaning is somewhere in between. The Greek of the New Testament reproduces a Hebrew exclamation found often in the Old Testament which means something like “O the bliss of those who…”
‘Bliss” is not a word we hear used much nowadays. It is a combination of happiness and holiness. It talks of a state of intimacy with God, of knowing oneself to be in God’s presence, and to share God’s purposes. And the Beatitudes and Micah tell us that the way into bliss is not the way the world expects. It’s not about separating ourselves from the impure and the nasty side of life. It’s not about engaging in spiritual exercises or making lavish gifts to religious institutions. It’s not about getting ourselves ready for another, better world to come. It’s about following Jesus in engaging more deeply in the sorrows and injustices in this world, and working to conform this world to the standards of the Kingdom. Against all human reason, that is where we will find ourselves in the divine presence.
Micah tells us we need to walk humbly with our God. The Beatitudes spell out how we find God in order to do that.
First we will find God among the poor. The word used can mean both those without material possessions, and also those who do not rely on wealth for status or power; but it is a word also used in the Bible for the humble, faithful believers who put their whole trust in God, rather than in human structures or institutions.
Second we will find God among the broken-hearted, those who mourn with the devastation of those who have lost their closest companions, those who feel in the depths of their being (in their bowels, as the Greek puts it) compassion for others in torment. We will encounter God not only in our own tragedies, but also as we empathise and stand alongside others in their tragedies and losses.
The third group who know bliss (as Micah indicates) are the gentle or meek or humble. This word doesn’t indicate people who are cringing or feeble; rather those who have strength, but use it with self-discipline and restraint, to defend the rights of others, rather than advance their own self-interest: those who listen to God, and submit to God’s guidance.
Fourth on Jesus’ list of those who are blessed are those who long for righteousness to prevail; those who await with the hunger of the starving or the thirst of a person lost in the desert, for the rule of God to come on earth. These are the ones who work and pray for justice in society and between nations, for good relationships between themselves and everyone in their society, no matter what the cost to themselves. This is a demanding task; in effect, it says you will only encounter God if you follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
Bliss is also found when we are merciful; this is also a demand we hear through Micah’s prophecy. The Hebrew word for mercy “chesed” is impossible to translate with one English word. It means love, kindness, faithfulness, mercy, faithfulness, steadfastness, forgiveness. In the Bible, is is one of the most constantly emphasised attributes of God. So this Beatitude tells us that blessing is found when people act as God acts towards other people – and especially towards those we regard as sinful. To be merciful is to identify with the heart and mind of God.
The word that is translated as ‘pure in heart’ in the 6th Beatitude comes from the same root as our word ‘cathartic’. In contrast with the external purity which some faithful Jews thought was the way to approach God, involving sacrifice, ritual washing, and avoiding contact with unclean food and people, Jesus tells us we will only be close to God when our hearts, thoughts and minds are clean, wholly aligned to what God wants.
The seventh group who will know the bliss of God are the peacemakers. You may know that the Hebrew word for peace, ‘shalom’, means more than an absence of war. It also covers right personal relationships, prosperity and justice for all, and especially the welfare of the underprivileged. This Beatitude promises bliss not to those who enjoy this situation for themselves, but rather to those who actively struggle to achieve it for others. It is relatively easy to be a peaceful person, and to live in peace, whilst ignoring the things that make this impossible for others less fortunate than ourselves. It is easy to do nothing for the sake of peace. What this Beatitude says, however, is that we should be ready to face the difficultly, the unpopularity, the unpleasantness and the trouble that being involved in difficult situations brings, in order to bring about the resolution that can only come when the underlying problems are honestly faced. These problems may be within the self, in families or neighbourhoods, between Christians with different interpretations of the faith, or between races, genders ethnic groups or nations. In all these cases, someone who will put themself at risk to break down the barriers is the person who brings God into the situation..
The last group of the blessed are the strangest of all to modern minds: those who are reviled, persecuted and even martyred for following the Way of Christ. This Beatitude follows from all the others, because only the person whose life shows the humility, empathy, gentleness, longing for righteousness, mercy, pureness of heart and commitment to peace that Christ showed is likely to be persecuted in the way that he was.
I think it is important to remember that the Beatitudes don’t say that the people who follow this path with be blessed in the future. So much of Christian teaching has tended to be what Brian McLaren called ‘evacuation theology’ – you should live in this way in the present, in order to reap rewards in the future, in the world to come. Rather, the Beatitudes say that people who live this way will know bliss in this world, because they will know the presence of God in the here and now as they work to transform it into the Kingdom of God.
Jesus didn’t just open his mouth to teach his disciples about the way of the Cross. If he had done that, he probably wouldn’t have been crucified. He dies because he lived it, every day. He didn’t just speak the truth; he was it. He didn’t just promise eternal life; he demonstrated it. And he continued to do that, even when the religious authorities accused him of getting God’s will wrong, and the political powers saw him as a threat to good order and economic stability and even when his family thought him mad.
The world will not listen to us present day Christians until we too are willing to take the risk of living out the Beatitudes in our personal, social, economic, political and religious lives. Today’s world is not interested in theology or the niceties of belief; but many are searching for a way of life that doesn’t destroy our planet, that treats all people with love and respect and that brings them inner peace.
I pray today that in the strength of the Spirit, we may all do what the Lord requires of us: live the Beatitudes, seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.