Beginning this morning, and extending through the next four weeks, we will be hearing and reflecting on about three-fourths of what is remembered as “The Sermon on the Mount.” Elements of this sermon can be found in all three of the synoptic gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke (as well as the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas); which indicates to biblical scholars that what we have here isn’t really the text of one discrete sermon, but instead a sort of anthology of memories of some of Jesus’ most powerful sayings edited together by the gospel writers to present the essence of Jesus’ teaching.
The thing that strikes me about the Beatitudes this morning, given the context of the baptism that we have just celebrated with Rebecca and her family, is how the church has incorporated these values and priorities as God’s values and priorities, and has made them so central to the life of discipleship to Jesus the Christ that to be baptized into the body that bears his name is to make promises to restructure our own lives in accordance with these values.
The Beatitudes begin with four blessings for those who suffer upon the earth, listen:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
The Beatitudes then continue with blessings for those who minister to the suffering, listen:
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Now hear once again to the promises Paul and Lisa made on behalf of, and to, their daughter as she was baptized into the body of Christ, listen:
“As you bring Rebecca to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities: to live with her among God’s faithful people; (to) bring her to the word of God and the holy supper; (to) teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments; (to) place in her hands the holy scriptures and nurture her in faith and prayer, so that she may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ in word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”
To be baptized is to be brought into the body of Christ that shows mercy to the weak, that acts with pure heart and intentions toward the vulnerable, that wages peace where there is violence of word or deed, and that risks even one’s own life for what is right over what is easy. To be baptized is to be sent into the world on behalf of the poor, the grieving, the meek and the hungry.
So, baptized people of God, how are we doing at that?
That is the terrifying edge to the Beatitudes, isn’t it? If these are the traits of those whom God blesses – what then of those of us who are not poor, or sorrowful, who have already inherited perhaps too much and are never hungry? What of those who personally or professionally press the advantage at the expense of the other, who live by the law of might over mercy? What of those who use hurtful words or violent actions to manipulate or control others, or to secure a place for themselves in the world? And what about those who allow injustice to persist because the cost of confronting it is just too high?
In other words, what about us? Are we blessed?
One of the commentaries I read in preparation for this morning addressed this tension, asking
“how can we say these words with integrity? We know Matthew’s understanding of the coming of the kingdom: it is now and not yet. Jesus’ sermon not only commands but, in the way of promissory speech, effects what he says. In promissory speech the act, for example, of declaring a couple [united in marriage] makes that obligation actual as they become [spouses] to each other. In a similar way, when Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’ he is speaking of how the disciple should be as well as naming an actuality that, by God’s eschatological grace, the discipling community now inhabits.”[i]
As someone who has married a few of the couples in this congregation over the last year, this immediately made sense to me. Having spent time with you in pre-marital counseling, having heard the stories of how you each met and fell in love and decided to be married, it was clear to me that the marriage declaration was only one point in a long process – a process that began before you were married, and that has continued since that day. Like the kingdom of heaven, you were already committed to one another, and you were not yet complete in your relationship. And, if we are really honest, Ryan and Gina and Ben and Heather and all the rest of you who know what I’m talking about, you are still not complete in your relationships, right? You are still growing into the promises you made on the days I pronounced you husband and wife.
So it is, I think, with the Beatitudes. If we hear them only as a listing of those whom God blesses, and by inference those whom God does not, then we are only hearing them with the ears of the law, which serves a valuable function as it makes us aware of our own shortcomings and our need for God’s grace, but heard alone can leave us despairing that God could never love one such as each of us, who does not live up to these high ideals.
But the grace of God is this: that in baptism each of us has been joined to each other, so that we do not do this alone. This may be one of the most difficult things for Christians living in the modern age, which is incessantly preaching a gospel of self-help and rugged individualism and do-it-yourself salvation. That is not the good news of God in Christ Jesus. We are not baptized into a solitary saving relationship with God, just God and me, or God and you. We are baptized into a body that makes us one with one another. Sinking beneath God’s waters we die to that isolated way of being and we are saved as a whole, along with all of creation, not in parts.
Try then to hear the Beatitudes with the ears of the baptized, which might sound something like this:
- Blessed are the poor, who are among you, who are a part of you, who are you – God’s reign is already among you here and now. Be merciful to one another, just as God has shown mercy to you.
- Blessed are those who mourn, who are among you, who are a part of you, who are you – I have given you to each other to be of great comfort. Let your hearts stay open and loving and pure as you deal with each other’s deep woundedne
ss, even as God has shown infinite love and patience with you.
- Blessed are the meek, those who have been given too little in this life, who are among you, who are a part of you, who are you – your inheritance is theirs, and theirs is yours, and together you have all the earth to share with one another. Stand up to the violence and wars of this world that keep too many living with too little so that too few can have too much. Wage peace.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, who are among you, who are a part of you, who are you – for I know that you will feed each other and no one will go away empty. This will put you at odds with the spirit of this world that is always hungry for more, and you will pay a price for your refusal to submit. People will call you dreamers and sell outs. They will question your intelligence and your worth. Do not yield to that spirit, but rejoice in the love of God that has seen you and known you and loved you – just as you are – and do not rest until all the world is rejoicing with you.
Finally, know that you are not called to do this alone, but that you have been called away from lives of isolation for a greater purpose – you are to be a light heralding the in-breaking reign of God, here and now though not quite yet; you have been commissioned in baptism, all of you, to open your hearts to the world’s great need and to sing a new song anticipating the day when all will be well and all will be one.
[i] “New Proclamation: Year A, 2010-2011 Advent through Holy Week” (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2010), p. 98.