Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: The Beatitudes. Part 1

Sermon for Lancefield Uniting Church

The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 30th of January 2011

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

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 Cor 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’, secure in their relationship with God, included in the kingdom of heaven, and they’re 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]

I don’t want us to lose the challenge of the beatitudes, so we’re going to have a wee series on them. Today, I’m going to give an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. Next week, at Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon, we’ll examine the first four beatitudes. The week after, at Romsey and Lancefield, we’ll look at the other five. I’ll put the sermons on the website, so anyone who’s interested can read them all. I want us to examine the beatitudes seriously and thoughtfully – because they’re worth all the attention we can give them.

To begin, then, with an introduction. In the first of the canonical gospels to be written, the Gospel according to Mark, the evangelist tells us that Jesus is a great teacher, but doesn’t give us many examples of his teachings. Matthew makes up for this. For Matthew, Jesus is, among other things, the new Moses. We saw that over Christmas, in the way Jesus’ early life paralleled that of Moses, with the massacre of baby boys and the flight into Egypt to escape, so that it could be said of Jesus, as it was of the people of Israel led by Moses: “Out of Egypt I have called my son”.  As the new Moses, Jesus authoritatively interprets the law. Matthew gives us five blocks of Jesus’ teaching, paralleling the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The Sermon on the Mount is the first of these. It’s been called the Sermon on the Mount at least since the time of Augustine, because Matthew tells us that “when Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain”.  We’re not told which mountain it was; it’s just described as “the” mountain – the place of revelation. Just as Moses received the commandments on Mount Sinai, so it’s from the mountain that Jesus teaches.

These first teachings of Jesus play the same role in Matthew that the Nazareth manifesto, Jesus’ quoting of Isaiah in the synagogue, plays in Luke. In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus reads from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19) Everything Jesus says and does in the Gospel of Luke can then be seen in the light of this declaration. The Sermon on the Mount does a similar thing. It presents the theme of Jesus’ ministry. At the very end of Matthew’s 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, and 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 teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands – the commands given here in the Sermon on the Mount.

This definition of what it means to be a disciple is scary. Imagine actually living life according to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells his disciples: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48). This perfection includes not being angry with brothers and sisters (Matt 5:22); not looking at a woman with lust (Matt 5:28); turning the other cheek when hit (Matt 5:39); and giving to everyone who begs (Matt 5:42). According to Jesus’ teaching, “if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell* of fire”. (Matt 5:22) I’m in serious trouble! Unsurprisingly, there’s been lots of discussion about just how seriously we’re meant to take Jesus’ teachings. Does Jesus really expect us to be perfect, as God is perfect?

There are two, contrasting, answers to this question that I think are wrong. The first, which we might call the extreme ‘Roman Catholic’ view, is that the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are directed to a special class of Christians, those who are able to live detached from the secular world – monks and nuns; priests and brothers. Without the need to provide for their families or succeed in worldly life, they can live out Jesus’ precepts in lives of voluntary poverty and pacifism.

The second, wrong, answer, is the extreme ‘Protestant’ view that no one can be expected to live up to Jesus’ demands; no one could accept violence without retaliation or give money to everyone who asks for it. In this view, the Sermon on the Mount is the sort of spiritual law that Paul tells the Romans is impossible for we people of the flesh to keep. (Rom 7:14) We’re not expected to obey this law; the very impossibility of us keeping it turns us to God and teaches us the necessity of grace.

I don’t think either of these answers is right. I don’t think Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount just for special Christians, or to make us despair of living righteous lives. We know that he was preaching in the hearing of the crowds, and that when he finished “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes”. (Matt 7:28-29) But although Jesus is preaching in the hearing of the crowds, he’s 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 Jesus describes is foolishness. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.

Even if we accept the beatitudes at face value, rather than as reminders that we’re all miserable sinners who can do nothing ourselves and must rely utterly on God’s grace, other questions remain. Do the beatitudes make ethical demands, or do they describe eschatological rewards? In other words, when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” is he commanding us to mourn, with the promise that we will be rewarded by being comforted; or is he saying that those who mourn now will be comforted in the great reversal 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?

Both. There are nine beatitudes. 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 describe “eschatological reversals for the unfortunate”.[2]

The second four beatitudes, in contrast, describe “eschatological rewards for the virtuous” and they do make ethical demands. We are called to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and willing to be persecuted for righteousness. True justice can only be established by God, and will only be established at the eschaton, 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.

I’ll go into more details about these different beatitudes, and the final, ninth beatitude that Jesus addresses directly to his disciples, over the next few weeks; for now I have only one more thing to say.

While Jesus’ disciples are called to live out the Sermon on the Mount, there is 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. 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’ 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 Jesus will be with us always, to the end of the age.

[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.


January 29, 2011 - Posted by | Life, etc. | , ,

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