Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: Jesus’ Guide for Living

Sermon for Romsey and Lancefield

The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany, 13th of February 2011

Matthew 5:7-11

This is the third and last of the series of sermons on the beatitudes in Matthew. A fortnight ago, you’ll remember, I suggested that the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ the first of the five blocks of Jesus’ teaching that Matthew gives us in his gospel, paralleling the Five Books of Moses, is to be taken seriously as a guide to the way in which Christians are to live. We may not succeed in ‘[being] perfect … as [our] heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48), but these are the commands that the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel tells us that disciples are to be taught. (Matt 28:20)

Last week, the sermon focussed on the first four of the eight beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount. There are two versions of the beatitudes, this one in the gospel according to Matthew, and another in the gospel according to Luke, and they’re quite different. Matthew, for instance, refers to the ‘poor in spirit’ where Luke just refers to the poor; Matthew refers to ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ where Luke refers to the literally hungry. And as well as beatitudes, Luke has woes: ‘But woe to you who are rich … woe to you who are full now … woe to you who are laughing now’. (Luke 6:20-26)

The popular view is that Matthew’s version softens and spiritualise Luke’s harsher version. But others argue that the people described as blessed in the beatitudes according to Matthew are the very same as those described as blessed in Luke’s version, although the language used to describe them is different. If so, these first four beatitudes reassure us that when God’s will is done no one will be poor in spirit or meek or mournful or hungry and thirsty for righteousness. They don’t make ethical demands on us; they give us a vision of the kingdom to come.

You can read the full sermon on those first four beatitudes on my website. Today I want to focus on the second four beatitudes that Matthew gives us: ‘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.’ While the first four beatitudes may describe the way the world will be reversed at the eschaton, the end time, when God’s kingdom comes, these second four beatitudes definitely describe the way in which we are to live in the meantime, as we await the coming of that kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount provides us with a design for Christian life, and it begins here.

The first of these ‘ethical’ beatitudes is about mercy, which isn’t surprising. Twice in Matthew Jesus quotes a statement from the prophet Hosea: ‘For I desire [mercy] and not sacrifice’[1] (Hosea 6:6) – both time to the Pharisees. The first occasion is when the Pharisees ask his disciples why Jesus eats with tax-collectors and sinners; the second when they complain about the disciples plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath. Jesus’ God is a merciful God who welcomes sinners and Jesus’ religion is a merciful religion in which responding to human need is more important than ritual. Jesus’ disciples are called to show this sort of mercy – to be compassionate to those on the margins and those in need. In this disciples are imitating the God who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34:6), the God who will show them mercy.

The next beatitude calls on disciples to be pure of heart. Pure could mean two things here. It could mean clean, a heart free from sin, or it could mean unadulterated, as though the heart was pure gold. In the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that we heard read today Jesus said that it’s not just our behaviour that needed to be virtuous, but our inner attitudes. It isn’t enough not to murder, we also need to avoid getting angry and being insulting, and apparently ‘everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. (Matt 5:21-30). This might be what being ‘pure of heart’ means, an alternative to the Pharisees’ demand on outward purity. It’s a demand for integrity. But it could also mean devoting ourselves wholly to God, wishing only one thing. As Jesus says later in the Sermon: ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.’ (Matt 6:24) Being pure of heart means serving only one master – God – and those who are pure of heart will see the God they seek.

There are very few people who do not love peace and wish to live in peace. The vast majority of people do not want to live in a state of war or violence. But the next beatitude does not bless the peace-lovers, or those who live in peace through no work of their own, but the peacemakers – and that’s a much harder thing to be. The peacemakers are those who take on the hard work of reconciling hostile individuals, families and nations. We see one example of peace-making in today’s reading, when Jesus tells his disciples to be reconciled with any brother or sister who has anything against them before offering a gift at the altar. Offering a gift to God is important, but even more important is making peace – and those who do so will be called children of God.

The peace that Jesus is talking about here is not the pax romana under which he and all those to whom he was speaking lived. Peace is not a mere absence of conflict. The peace Jesus talked about was shalom, harmony that leads to the well-being of all, peace which enables the sharing of the fullness of God’s gifts. Most Australians live with an absence of conflict; but as long as there are people in this country who are homeless and hungry, marginalised or excluded, Australia does not experience shalom, and it’s the role of all Jesus’ followers to work for it. Then we will be peacemakers, called children of God because our behaviour resembles God’s.

The last of these four beatitudes talks of those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. This might mean simply those who are mocked for their good behaviour. In the first letter of Peter the author asks: ‘Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?’ Sadly, the answer is that many people will, and so the author goes on to say that even if that happens: ‘it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.’ (1 Peter 3:13, 17) Alternatively, being persecuted for righteousness’ sake might refer specifically to the ostracism and rejection that Matthew’s community experienced from the broader Jewish community because they followed Christ. In the West this persecution was soon reversed, and the problem was no longer Jews persecuting Christians but Christians persecuting Jews. But there are still places in the world where Christians are persecuted for their faith, and the fact that our history as a church began with us being persecuted for righteousness’ sake should mean that we’re willing to protect anyone who today is persecuted for their faith, whatever that faith may be.

All the way through the beatitudes Jesus has spoken in the third person: ‘Blessed are they …’ Now he directly addresses his disciples: ‘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.’ Those who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and righteous are blessed, but they are also likely to be ridiculed and maligned, if not persecuted and abused. Taking the Christian faith seriously enough to try to live out the beatitudes is liable to make people unpopular. It can sometimes seem that we live in a society that prefers punishment to mercy; a world that puts more money, time and effort into making war than into making peace. Being peaceful and merciful and pure isn’t going to get you far in this culture of competition and fear. People who seek to live counter-culturally are always eyed askance, and that includes Christians who try to live out the beatitudes.

How can we even try to live up to the demands the beatitudes seem to make on us? The rest of the Sermon on the Mount spells out what the beatitudes might mean in particular situations: turn the other cheek when struck; give to everyone who begs from you; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; give alms in secret; don’t judge others. The Sermon on the Mount is full of advice on how to live righteously. I suspect that with the exception of Jesus himself no one has been able to live it out in full, but as I said in the first sermon in this series, this shouldn’t stop us trying, or stop us from teaching Jesus’ commands to disciples of all nations.

To live this way, to live out the beatitudes, demands a particular attitude described by the late Henri Nouwen. He wrote that it was ‘the inner recognition that your neighbour shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subjected to the same laws, destined for the same end.’[2] This recognition of shared humanity, the knowledge that every single human being is the beloved child of God, will help us to treat every human being, including ourselves, with the mercy, compassion and love revealed in the beatitudes.

[1] The NRSV translates this passage as: ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.’

[2] Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands (1972), quoted in Charles James Cook, ‘Matthew 5:1-12: Pastoral Perspectives’ in David L. Barlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), Feasting on the Word, 2010, p. 312.


February 15, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | , , ,

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