Sermon: The Beatitudes

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church

The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 2nd of February 2014

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

Károly Ferenczy, Sermon on the Mountain, 1896

Károly Ferenczy, Sermon on the Mountain, 1896

Today, as we continue our Epiphany journey through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear one of my favourite descriptions of what it is that we’re on about in the church: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24) That’s a perfect description of today’s gospel reading, because today the lectionary takes us to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and the foolishness and the wisdom of the beatitudes.

The beatitudes are an ideal example of the foolishness of the gospel, but they’ve become so familiar that we may need to remind ourselves of just how strange they are. The beatitudes describe the people who are ‘blessed’, a better translation than simply ‘happy’, people who are secure in their relationship with God and included in the kingdom of heaven. These blessed people are not the people that the values of our world would lead us to expect. According to the beatitudes, the blessed are not the rich, the healthy, the happy, the successful, the famous. This should be an enormous shock to us, but most of us have heard the beatitudes so often that it just isn’t. One commentator on Matthew writes: “The most dangerous passages of the Bible are the familiar ones, because we do not really listen to them. The sharp stone of God’s word, smoothed down by the river of time, no longer cuts. Instead of being challenged by hard thought or hard choices, we lean back and savour pretty words”.[1] Maybe it would help to put them in contemporary terms: Blessed are the boat people, for they will find a safe and welcoming home; Blessed are those on unemployment and disability pensions, for they will be treated with dignity and respect; Blessed are the do-gooders and trouble-makers, for they will be called the children of God.

The beatitudes are Jesus’ first teachings in the Gospel according to Matthew, and they present the theme of Jesus’ ministry. At the very end of the Gospel the disciples are given the great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Disciples are made by baptism and by the teaching of Jesus’ commands – commands first given here in the Sermon on the Mount.

One question often asked about the beatitudes is whether they make ethical demands, or whether they describe eschatological rewards. In other words, when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” is he telling us to mourn, with the promise that we will be rewarded by being comforted; or is he saying that those who do mourn will be comforted in the great reversal at the end of time when the kingdom of heaven comes? Should we try to be poor in spirit and mournful and merciful and peacemakers, or should we just accept that those who are, are blessed?

I think the answer is that the beatitudes are both promises and commands. There are nine beatitudes and they fall into two parts. The first four describe the reversal that the coming of the kingdom of heaven will bring. When the kingdom comes the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteous will find their situation reversed. When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, the oppressed will receive justice. These first four blessings promise end-time “reversals for the unfortunate”.[2]

The second four beatitudes, in contrast, describe end-time “rewards for the virtuous” and they do make ethical demands. We are called to try to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and to be willing to be persecuted for righteousness here and now, in this life. True justice can only be established by God, and will only be established at the end of time itself, but we can do our bit to participate in it now. If we do, if we are, all these things, then at the coming of the kingdom we will be rewarded.

After these two sets of four beatitudes is the ninth Beatitude: “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” and with that Matthew is comforting the members of his own community who were experiencing that very thing at the time he wrote the gospel.

Is it possible to actually live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount? For the entire month of February we are going to make our way through the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew and if at the end you’re not terrified by what Jesus is asking of us I’ll be very surprised. Basically, as Jesus says at the end of the chapter, we’re being commanded to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Obviously none of us is going to be able to live up to perfection! Luke’s version seems much nicer: “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful”. (Luke 6:36)

Some Protestant readings of the Sermon on the Mount take the very impossibility of us fulfilling its commands to argue that the point of the Sermon is to teach us the need for grace. None of us is righteous, and so all we miserable sinners need God. But I don’t think the point of the beatitudes is their impossibility. We know that Jesus was preaching in the hearing of the crowds, and that when he finished “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes”. (Matthew 7:28-29)  But Jesus is talking particularly to his disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to those who are already following Jesus; who are already in relationship with the God who is perfect; the God who is faithful, loving and merciful. To the people who haven’t received the vision of Jesus’ God, who aren’t looking forward with longing to breaking in to the kingdom of heaven, the idea of living in the sort of compassionate, vulnerable, non-competitive way that the beatitudes describes may be foolishness. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.

As we listen to the Sermon on the Mount over these next few weeks, we can’t sit back and relax, comforting ourselves that its demands don’t apply to us. We are called to seek to live the sort of lives that the Sermon on the Mount describes. We are to live as though the reversals of the end-time have already come; in contrast to a world that rewards the rich, happy, healthy and successful. As Jesus ate with sinners and tax-collectors, we are to love and support the illegal, the destitute, the lonely, the angry, the stranger and the enemy.

Of course, there’s no doubt that none of us is able to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We’ll always fall short, and that’s okay. We are only human. Jesus, however, didn’t fall short. In Jesus we see the truly blessed one of the beatitudes; the one who for our sake became poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, hungry and thirsty; the one who was merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker and persecuted for righteousness. Because of this, he was reviled and persecuted, and had all kinds of evil uttered against him*. Ultimately, he was crucified. His life seemed to be the most complete failure. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, and in the resurrection God showed that Jesus’ apparent failure was in fact the greatest success. As we read our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we know that when we attempt to live up to its demands, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus and fulfilling our call as his disciples. And we know that Jesus will be with us always, to the end of the age. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] J. P. Meier, Matthew, quoted in David L. Turner, “Whom Does God Approve? The Content, Structure, Purpose, and Exegesis of Matthew’s Beatitudes” Criswell Theological Review 61 (1992): p. 32.

[2] Mark Allan Powell, “Matthew’s beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996): p. 460.

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