Matthew 5:1-12 NRSV
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:
“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.
“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 the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Outside the courthouse here in Thermopolis, like many courthouses across this nation, stands a copy of the Ten Commandments. To many, a symbol of the tie between the law and God. However, wouldn’t a monument listing Christ’s Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount make more sense? Why a symbol of the old covenant rather than the new? Matthew even has Jesus go up onto a mountain to deliver these “Blessed Are” verses to his gathered disciples and followers like a new Moses giving new rules to God’s people everywhere. After all, one New Testament scholar even described Christ’s whole sermon there as a “beginner’s guide to the kingdom of heaven,” a literal how-to on building the kin-dom of heaven if only we “take the words of Jesus in these chapters [of Matthew] to heart and live them.” Wouldn’t “Blessed are the merciful” read differently outside and inside our courthouses? However, maybe you are thinking that couldn’t be done because that would simply be impractical. It wouldn’t fit in a place dedicated to the law, rather than a place for grace. In fact, that describes the whole of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, a whole impractical guide to living in the kin-dom, and we’ll be spending time with this sermon over the coming weeks, starting with the Beatitudes. These nine “Blessed are” verses are less law, less a measuring stick, and more a picture of what the kin-dom, the community of faith, looks like. Jesus invites us to look at this picture and then to our own community to see how the kin-dom is present in our midst.
Jesus begins his teaching from the mountainside with a blessing. That is what Beatitude means, after all, blessing, as it comes from the Latin beati. The Latin beati is a translation of the original Greek word, makaroi, which can not only be translated as “blessed” but also as “happy” or “blissful.” Much like the Ten Commandments, there are many who have understood these as rules for living in God’s kingdom. That we need to be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted in order to be blessed and happy. In other words, some say Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with these blessings as a kind of measuring stick, somehow saying to us that we must be this merciful or this poor to gain entrance into the kin-dom.
I mean, after all, Matthew has Jesus go up onto the mountain to be some kind of new Moses, giving us a new Torah, a new standard of living with each and being faithful to God. At first, it makes all kinds of sense that Jesus would be giving us a new set of rules, a new set of commandments. Except elsewhere, Jesus complains about the impossible burden of excessive rules, accusing the Pharisees of tying “‘up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and [laying] them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them’” (Matthew 23:4 NRSV). Instead, Jesus describes following his new Torah, his way, as “‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’” (Matthew 11:30 NRSV). You see, Jews in Jesus’ day often described following God’s commandments as a yoke, pointing to the “submission and obedience” one needed to follow them. If these Beatitudes are so impractical as to be impossible then no one could describe them as a light and easy yoke.
Instead, what if these do not describe what is needed for each individual to get into the kingdom, but rather, what the kin-dom of God already looks like? Once again, we are so accustomed to making our religion a private and individual affair, that we make it so that every single one of us needs to possess every single condition described in this passage, but we would do well to remember we are in fact a body. We are always in community with each other, so instead of every one of us having every single one of these, what if we looked at these blessings differently. What if Jesus were actually saying, “Blessed is the community who makes room for the merciful?” What if Jesus was saying, “Blessed are the churches who make space for these people in their midst.” Look around the sanctuary today. You’ll see pages on the walls listing each of Christ’s blessings from this passage. Not before you as some kind of standard, but among you as a sign of what kind of community we are. Jesus offers us a blessing, an encouragement rather than more rules. Jesus gives us more grace, not more law.
What I mean by this is captured in the words of Christian author, Rachel Held Evans, who wrote in her book, Searching for Sunday, that the modern-day church likes “our people to function like walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished - proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS!” There is a pressure within Christianity that we as Christians have to be the best and happiest people in this world in order to prove our faith to a watching and disbelieving population. However, that’s law, not grace. Jesus captures that well when later in Matthew he describes the Pharisees and scribes, the evangels of impossible perfection, as “‘whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of uncleanness’” (Matthew 23:27 NRSV). The law sets an impossible standard in order to look good, but grace is what God’s kin-dom needs as it is full of messy people. We don’t need to be perfectly blissful all the time, rather we can live out our faith and build the kin-dom in confidence that Christ welcomes us all within its borders as we are.
After all, look around. Are there some here today who are poor in spirit? Now, I don’t mean weak in faith as many have understood this passage, rather, those who are humble enough to know that they have been blessed by God and their neighbor such that they now need to pay those blessings forward. Those are the poor in spirit, the ones who are not so prideful as to think all that they have was by their own doing. They in turn see where others need help and respond. In our church, we call them quiet disciples, those folks who bless others because they have been blessed. They do it without the need for recognition, as they know God has seen them doing the right thing, and that is enough.
How about those who mourn? I do not mean just those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, but rather those who look around and mourn that this world is far from God’s purposes. They see the brokenness, idolatry, injustice, exploitation, and violence of this world and weep. We see them after every tragedy, asking the rest of us, “How long?” How long will we mourn? How long will we stand the hurting without doing something? They are the enemies of apathy! They will not let us forget that this world is not what it could be!
What about the meek? Are they here too? This one can be a hard one to claim. Meekness is seen as a weakness today. These are the seemingly insignificant ones, the soft ones. However, Jesus, in those verses I quoted about his yoke describes himself as meek. The Greek word translated as meek is praus, the same word translated as “gentle and humble” in Matthew 11:29. Jesus isn’t insignificant, and neither is meekness. The meek are our servant leaders, the ones who look like Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7 NRSV). Jesus is the Son of God and became like a servant for you and for me. Christ is the model we are called to follow, so again, are those Christ-like leaders among us today?
We could keep going through every Beatitude, and we should, just not simply in my one sermon today. This is a constant invitation from Jesus, calling us to take a look at what the kin-dom is and see how our community reflects it. We do not need to pretend to be something we are not. Yes, one day those who mourn will be comforted and those who hunger and thirst will be filled, but that doesn’t need to be your reality today to enter the kin-dom. The God of our kin-dom will one day answer all these things with the promises Jesus gives us from the mountainside, but for now, we are called to make space for the messy people of God. We are called to see how blessed we are to have all these people and all of us in this body today. We can learn from the humble, the mourners, the servant leaders, the relationship builders, the merciful, the innocent, peacemakers, and those willing to suffer to love people as Christ first loved us. This is the snapshot of the church, the fullness of the body, blessed are those who see it! Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman