ADDRESS I want to start with a confession. I guess I have become so accustomed to the very familiar passages in the New Testament that I keep forgetting how far we as a Church may have drifted in intention from what Jesus claimed was important. I recently came across an American Christian minister called Robin Meyers who has written a number of books dealing with the need to live rather than talk about the faith.
When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount – and in particular, the beatitudes, I should acknowledge using one of his ideas. Robin Meyers suggests to us what might have gone wrong. Meyers challenges us by saying of the Sermon on the Mount: “In the whole thing“,he says” there is not a single word about what to believe, only instructions on what to do or how to be” But here is the puzzle. “Fast forward 300 years to the Nicene Creed and the essence of what is supposed to define a Christian, and there’s not a word about what to do or how to be—only about what to believe. Clearly, something’s gone wrong,”.
Then Meyers goes on to goes on to push further, “Not plain enough? The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed themselves add insult to injury. Both creeds are products of a church trying to ‘circle the wagons’ and establish an institutional identity. Both creeds more or less say Jesus was ‘Born of the Virgin Mary (comma) suffered under Pontius Pilate.’ And there you have it: the entire life of Jesus, all of his teachings, the parables, his interaction with the poor, his healings—whether metaphorical or literal—all reduced to a comma.”
Assuming Jesus’ teaching was important to his disciples, then what the creeds miss out and what the sermon on the Mount teaches may turn out to be the heart of Christianity for modern disciples as well. If we think of ourselves as disciples perhaps formal beliefs about Jesus status might need to take second place to what the Christian life should mean in the here and now.
Well let’s join the disciples, as Jesus takes them up the hillside and shares with them the key teachings. Remember not a word about stuff he wants them to believe .. but some key markers he expects…but who from?
And while we are about it, did you notice that although the crowd were present, and no doubt were intended to hear what Jesus was saying, first and foremost Matthew says this particular teaching was delivered to the disciples. It was almost as if Jesus was saying my way is based on these ideas, and you as my disciples are expected to follow these ideas. The crowd would be listening, and many no doubt approvingly – but if they had noticed as Matthew pointed out that Jesus was speaking to the disciples, perhaps those in the crowd who knew the disciples might have suspected how this was going to pan out was now going to depend on whether or not the disciples were now going to start living out what they were being taught.
If we wanted to distinguish Christians from non Christians while it might be easy enough to ask them to list their beliefs – there may be a more important question namely -what would their behaviour look like compared with non Christians? Would we be doing what Jesus put as important. Blessed are those – those who what?
Over the last week we can hardly have missed that world has been focused on the new US President. Political leaders are supposed to be important because if they do what we hope they help us achieve a sense of well being. They are expected to be fair, care about those who get a raw deal … and of course achieve peace and prosperity.
But did you notice Jesus doesn’t say look to our leaders to mourn for those who suffer loss, for leaders to be meek, for leaders to be peacemakers on our behalf, for leaders to put righteousness ahead of personal achievement, and so on. That would be passing the buck. It is quite simply instructions not just for leaders, whether they be political or church leaders – it was addressed to those who would be disciples.
It is all very well asking Prime Ministers and Presidents to bring about peace on our behalf – and certainly to be honest I am worried that President Assad, Putin and now President Trump will turn out to be rotten peacemakers on our behalf but quite frankly Jesus did not exclusively address his instructions in his Sermon on the Mount to Presidents or even to Emperors – in fact if Matthew is to be believed he wasn’t even talking specifically to the general crowd of spectators.
For the church regulars among us, this is just part of the Sermon on the Mount. Profound wisdom in summary form, and for those familiar with the other gospels, it sounds very much like the same material scattered in Mark and collected in Luke (Ch 6 – verses 20 -49) which certainly strongly suggests that the record of all three gospel writers used some common source. However rather than looking at the similarities and differences, setting the scene in broad brush strokes might be more helpful.
Although Jesus covers a lot of ground in the Sermon which follows, today we only reflect on his introduction to the sermon with the brief list of who should be seen as blessed. This list is probably more commonly known as the beatitudes. A funny word that. The word Beatitude comes, of course, from Latin. The Latin word “beatus” means happy. For those amongst us who like obscure learning, the Greek, from which the translation comes, is the one Matthew used as the beginning of each phrase in his list as the word “Makarioi” .
This word can, and has been translated into English in different ways. Most commonly it is “blessed.” Other biblical translations use words like “happy” or “fortunate” or sometimes “honoured”. The French version of the New Jerusalem Bible even translated the word as “debonair”…which I am still thinking about!
I guess each of the nine beatitudes, used in this particular context, is apparently intended to identify a blessing or some sort of favour, but in some way to our contemporary minds, it is a surprising list. In a 21st century world we would probably first think of someone being blessed if they lived long and prospered in material ways.
Indeed virtually every one of the extremely numerous advertisements we see on our flat screen TVs implies we will be most blessed if we invest in the right material goods. If we buy the right car, look like that shapely model using that butt tightening exercise equipment, own the latest vacuum cleaner, drink the happiest of mood enhancing drinks, win Lotto, install the best lights, get the cheapest takeaways from the shiniest fast food outlet – you get the picture.
Donald Trump will no doubt be envied by some for his personal fortune but I suspect on the Jesus scale, Jesus turns that on its head. He finds the blessings in an entirely different set of values….and what’s more he seems to expect those who set out to be his disciples to recognise these as values in their own lives.
It also grounds what we now call Christianity in the real world. Regardless of what good fortune may come our way, for virtually every person on the planet there are also inevitable hard times, whether they be in coping with loss, dealing with setbacks in health, coping with criticism and envy, or dealing with our own sense of injustice – or injustice for those we may be in a position to help. Disease is no respecter of position and it would take an extraordinarily obtuse person to assume they would never encounter adversity.
Perhaps I should say it outright. A neat comb-over on the top of the head cant preserve the nerve connections, neuro-transmitters and the myelin insulation sheaths of those neurons in the brain. Botox might smooth the wrinkles on the outside but it wont keep you young on the inside anymore than the embalmer’s art would keep you living for ever. What however may be novel in the beatitudes is to suddenly realise that here Jesus in this reported list, helps us find the blessings in the midst of difficult and inescapable realities.
Certainly we can live our lives as if wealth and position will shield us from any serious darkness in our lives. On the other hand if we listen to Jesus’ words about finding blessings, we find ourselves called out of our intended isolation and ushered back to the world as it really can be. Jesus is advocating an emotional openness which enables us to encounter the depths as well as the highpoints of existence – and find something worthwhile in both.
The beatitudes have the potential to help us find worth in the whole of life – both good and bad, but for them to have any meaning at all in the personal sense , they need to be part of our very being – and bluntly – this will not happen unless we first accept them.
For some strange reason, outside formal Christianity, this notion that those who follow Jesus are expected to remodel their lives according to his principles is not widely acknowledged. In my admittedly limited experience it is not even the sort of topic that makes it onto the agenda of important Church business meetings, synods and conferences.
Even when we can remember the list, it is the rare individual who lives as if it is true for them. And to be honest – I am not just talking about other people – me too.
Perhaps it is simply that while most of us have probably heard the beatitude phrases about who will be blessed many times through the years, I wonder if rather we expect to associate them with the sort of thing we hear from the pulpit, without ever entertaining the thought that others might expect to see the same humility, the same insistence on mercy, thirst for justice, peace-making characteristics, and so on from the list as identifying us among the blessed. Perhaps if we recalled how those in other branches of the Church are sometimes criticised by people like us for their failure to match behaviour with their claimed teaching, we might be a little more concerned about our own shortcomings in this department.
Four of these same beatitudes are listed in Luke but notice he only lists the needy, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are persecuted. In Matthew’s extended list, there is a subtle change. The focus is less on the needy themselves and more on changing the attitudes of the hearers.
The challenge as Matthew remembered it was now no longer Luke’s version of simply “blessed are the poor”, or “blessed are the hungry”. No rather it was the challenge to reflect an attitude of being poor in spirit, and the hunger was no longer hunger for food. It was now having a hunger and a thirst for righteousness.
Notice too, the last beatitude of Matthew’s list is personalised – instead of saying blessed are the – it becomes blessed are you – when you are reviled, persecuted, have evil falsely said about you – for that makes you like the prophets who were persecuted before you. Because Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the persecution was already beginning, we might even suspect that either Matthew is putting words of encouragement into Jesus mouth, or perhaps it is simply that he is selectively collecting the words of encouragement from other memories of Jesus.
So….”blessed“….. Does that sound like you – or me?