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The Beatitudes & the Saints

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version

11/11/06 Trinity 20 – All Saints (Transferred)
Dan. 7:23-27;    Ps. 1;    Rev. 7:2-4, 9-17;    Mt. 5:1-12

All Saints Day was last Tuesday, November 1, so we have transferred that celebration to today, the 19th Sunday after Trinity. It is a time for thinking about sainthood, and the nature of the Church, the Body of Christ. Our sainthood is corporate, not only individual.

The Gospel lesson gives us our text and theme for this morning – the Beatitudes. The word ‘beatitude’ is related to ‘beatific’, which means bestowing blessedness and happiness. A beatitude is a supreme blessedness, an exalted happiness.

Jesus has gone up onto a mountain. His disciples followed, and He began to teach them. What we call the beatitudes are nine statements by Jesus of a blessedness which will flow into the lives of those who behave a certain way, a supreme blessedness and happiness.

The claim by Jesus is counter-intuitive for us fallen humans, because every one of the statements at least implies, if not asserts, some kind of hardship, heavy load, or deep self-discipline.  So where is the blessedness?  But these are the kinds of things in which one engages when one enters that narrow gate and the straight and narrow road which leads to life rather than the broad highway which leads to destruction.

As Christian, in Pilgrim’s Progress, dropping his burden of sin at the cross and entering through that narrow gate and down that narrow road, we too will experience the kinds of hardships which in the flesh we spend much of our time trying to ensure we do not experience.

That is why love was never thought of as a viable principle for ruling a society in either the pagan or secular worlds. It was considered to be impractical and unrealistic. And when tried on a few occasions, the skepticism was proven right. In a world without a loving creator God, love is not a rational principle. It leads only to being used by others, and no redemption. In the pagan and secular worlds, there is no objective moral principle which can command love to make it a universal obligation, so the citizens of such a society are on their own trying to love against all the forces of power struggle, with no sovereign God to assist. That is a fruitless, unwinnable battle.

Politics was brutal power struggle between competing parties, not a caring, even if rough and tumble, cooperation. There was no such thing as the English “loyal opposition”, which is necessary to make a peaceful and free society possible. Both sides of a debate agree to follow the decision when it is made into law. Those opposed to a proposed law commit themselves to obey that law if it should be passed.  They are not assassinated, shot at dawn, beheaded, they are able to come back the next day and offer their program again. 

When Julius Caesar, on becoming the Roman emperor, had the courage (or stupidity, depending on your viewpoint) to not assassinate his rivals, as was the accepted tradition in Roman politics, he was congratulated by some citizens. But it was those spared rivals who then assassinated him. There was no loyal opposition, not even when you loved them.  Sparing them was an act of love.

It is only with a firm moral consensus under a loving God that love of neighbor can become a reasonable and helpful way of living. It was only by the grace of God that the early Christians could preach and live that way of life. As with Julius Caesar, it cost some of them their lives, but their witness caught the attention of many pagans who understood that it was having Jesus in their hearts that supported and guided the Christians to be so able to live and die so well.

Caesar died, and nothing much good happened. Everything went on as usual. The Christians died, and people noticed. It was not only individuals, but a community of people who were acting that way. And it was attributed to their God – who acted that way.

That made the difference. There was no Pagan deity who gave his or her life for the redemption of a morally and spiritually bankrupt world. Morality was not typically a part of pagan religion. The pagan goal, the good life, was not a moral life, it was a pleasant life. It was not about relationships, it was about power and pleasure -- the power in order to gain the pleasure.  A search for pleasure thus always leads to power struggle, and the devil takes the hindmost. That pleasure-power syndrome is what destroys secular and pagan civilizations -- all through history.  They have no way out of that trap.  

The Hebrews and their Messiah changed all that. There was now a creator God who had a purpose for His creation, unheard of in pagan history. The purpose of that Creator was undreamed of in the pagan mind – a community of persons who loved (not bribed) their God, and who loved one another, and who loved even their enemies. All the ground rules of life had fundamentally changed -- such that for the first time in human history, a community of successful truth-seeking and of truth-speaking became possible, a community within which there was mutual respect and honoring of one another’s freedom to express his opinion in the search for truth, and to go about his business in the service of God. That is the quality of sainthood.

That unparalleled freedom, created by the mutual respect and love of the citizens for each other, was the beginning of a new kind of civilization. The Greeks prided themselves on being “civilized”, and thought of others as barbarians – the “barbaroi”, as they called them.

But St. Augustine saw the reality. He redefined ‘civilization’ in his work, The City of God. Using 'city' for 'civilization' (they come from the same Latin word, 'civis' meaning 'city'), he showed how there is one and only one real civilization – that new city/civilization (yet from ancient of days) being raised up by God Himself, into which all were invited if they would accept the ground rules – love of God and love of neighbor. They were not only invited, they were commanded into that new civilization – the Best of All Possible Worlds.

It could be that Best of All Possible Worlds because the evil-minded would be culled out of the ranks of the citizens at the Day of the Last Judgement. Only those who really wanted what God was offering would be allowed to continue on in that society. “Depart from Me, I never knew you...” You do not want to hear those words, they are final, no reprieve, no appeal.

But for those who trust and obey... beatitudes – supreme blessing and joy.

   

St. Matthew’s interest is in the moral life of the Christian community. The Beatitudes are, as it were, the new law. They describe the new emphasis on personal relationship rather than on laws as such. This is the new law which exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees – law made for man, not man for the law.

So, some of Matthew’s emphasis is directed against the law as understood by the Pharisees, dealing with right action in the widest and deepest sense of the word. The Sermon on the Mount is a whole new Torah, or teaching tradition, not merely a new halakah or law book. [see Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew, p. 278]

Up to this point in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has called only four special disciples, and the sermon seems directed at them, but clearly Matthew has in mind the crowds, and the sermon is intended for all Christians. Jesus went up on a mountain, you might say a new Sinai, and gave a new Decalogue (depending on how you count the number of Beatitudes), just as He went up a mountain when He was transfigured, and at the end when He gave His parting commandment, the Great Commission.

The Beatitudes are all promises of the Kingdom of God, for to be in the Kingdom is to be comforted, to see God, to inherit the earth, to be satisfied, to obtain mercy, and to be called His sons.

The Beatitudes are also descriptions of those who receive the promises. Jesus clearly expects His teaching to be to be put into practice. It is not a formless ethic; and although St. Paul and St. John can sum it all up in the word “love”, as they do, the Sermon on the Mount is concrete and specific. That is the nature of a sacramental religion which focuses on concrete personal relationships.

   

1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Luke’s version has only “Blessed are you poor...”, omitting “in spirit”. Either way, the point is a comparison with the rich who are worshipers of Mammon, the God of this world, or the rich in spirit, with a small ‘s’, whose richness of spirit is not of the Holy Spirit, who are prideful, thinking much of themselves. They appear “big” in the world’s way of seeing things, but their greatness is an illusion to themselves and to those who admire them.

The poor in spirit here would not be those who demean themselves, who are burdened with guilt, who put themselves down. We are no more to put down ourselves than our neighbor. We are to be real children of God. The poor in spirit would therefore be those who go freely about their business, with the daily round and common task, serving God and neighbor, not making much of themselves, but nevertheless being far more real as persons than those who think themselves rich, either in their own spirit or in physical goods.
    

2. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

That is certainly true of those who follow Jesus to heaven, for they will see those among their family and friends who also are there in heaven. They will be comforted. And they will be able to “let go” of those who are not there in heaven, knowing that they chose their own destiny. Hell was not inflicted by a vengeful God, but, in effect, chosen by those who did not want what God was offering (read The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis). They did not want to love either God or their neighbors as themselves. And so, tragically, they end up not loving themselves either.

They that mourn will be comforted not only when they get to heaven, they will be comforted here on earth as they learn that those who have died before us are justly and lovingly taken care of by God. They are not descending into a dark, dreary, and  eternal Sheol, they are moving toward that City where the light is the presence of God Himself.

The mourners who know or discover that God is in control of all things, and that God loves every creature, can gracefully, and even cheerfully, let go of their loved ones, not into dark Sheol, but into the Hand of the living God. And God will fill the gap on earth left by the loss. They shall be comforted.
  

3. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

This is one of the most profound and yet misunderstood passages in the Bible. We tend to link ‘meek’ with being little and ineffective, lacking courage or strength. The French use the word debonnaire (to my surprise) to translate what we have as ‘meek’, suggesting a man who counts his life as nothing to grasp before God and so, as my commentary says, “gaily gives it for love’s sake.”  “The Greek word [being translated] means good will toward man and reverent obedience toward God. It has sinew: it is not sad resignation.” [IB Matthew, p. 282]

If “poor in spirit” is the opposite of “proud in spirit”, “meek” is the opposite of “hostile aggression”. The meek are not self-assertive, trampling over others. The Jews asserted their pride of race, the Romans their pride of power, the Greeks their pride of knowledge. But the meek are content to walk in the shadow of God. In a world threatened by our mutual self-destruction, Godly meekness is our only hope.

But we can say more. The unGodly cannot inherit the earth – as they think they do by rejecting God. It is impossible because of their fallen nature. Only as God reverses our fallenness can we in fact inherit the earth. The unGodly are by nature on the defensive. Some of them are able to mount an offense because they know that the best defense is a good offense. But their aggressiveness does not bring the earth to them. It will always, and historically has always, backfired. Sooner or later someone else comes along with a better offense, sooner or later your offense collapses – for a host of possible reasons.

But the inherent defensiveness of a fallen person is the key. Our defenses are like walls, and it is those very walls which keep us from the real world, the world of personal relationships. Only the meek, those who trust and obey God, those who have the two great stabilities, personal and moral security, given by and received from God can be truly open to the world of personal relationship. The untrusting and disobedient cannot afford to be open, to take off their suits of armor. The world is too threatening.

Josef Stalin had taunted the Pope at one point: “How many divisions does the Pope have???” But Stalin never inherited the earth, not even Russia. His daughter said that he died a beaten, broken, and bitter man. His defenses and his offenses and all his divisions could not save him. He died totally alienated from the real world, the one designed by God.

But the Godly meek can shed their artificial suits of armor, be open to the world, and, like Jesus, with a holy aggressiveness retake the world for Christ. The Godly meek are the most formidable people in the world.  It is their meekness which makes them so. 

A part of that meekness is being a truth-seeker, one who makes no claim to his own infallibility, one who admits that there is some possibility of his being wrong, and wants to know if he is wrong. He is therefore willing to put his beliefs to an open, honest “reasoning together”, as God invites us to do, not only with our fellow humans, but with Himself.  Jesus comes to earth to do precisely that.  There He was.  You could reason with Him, as did the disciples.  Leading us into that humility is a fundamental part of our salvation. The meek will inherit the earth.

God has designed His heaven to be founded upon a level playing field, where He will meet us as one of ourselves, to draw us out of our shells and suits of armor into the open reality of life. We call it the Incarnation, or as Paul says, the kenosis, a self-emptying on the part of God. A humble God will raise up a humble people. Jesus, who was meek, and yet victorious against all the powers of darkness, inherits the earth.  No one else can, but He is inviting us to join Him in that venture. By the nature of the case, only the meek can participate in the level playing field, the real world. All others isolate themselves by their defenses, and/or are removed by the Referee for violating the rules of the game.

   

We shall look at the other Beatitudes another time. But, here we are, celebrating All Saints Day, celebrating those saints who have gone before us, helping to prepare for us that community of holy dedication to God and to one another. We celebrate as well those principles given by Jesus which point us on to that Kingdom of sainthood, that Kingdom populated by those who choose to be saints, holy ones, persons dedicated to God.

This new law does not invalidate the Decalogue, this new law rather gives the Decalogue a new focus, a new and sharper perspective on the nature of the Kingdom toward which we journey. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it, as He says a few verses later. But the fact of His saying it suggests that He knew He was offering something with a difference from what the people had been receiving from the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees.

The difference is a law made for the benefit and welfare of man, not man for the law, a law which sets free rather than binds. That glorious freedom of the children of God slowly set the Roman empire on fire for the Lord, and raised up Western Christendom, the foundations of Western society.  If Jesus had not done that in us, we would still all be pagans in a still very degraded (fallen) society

That is our heritage, that is our message to our own people. Our personal salvation freedom is the foundation for our corporate freedoms. We know the truth, and the truth is setting us free.

So let us reconsider and reaffirm again our own sainthood, our own baptism and confirmation, our own ministry in the Body of Christ so that we are impelled by the glory of God evident among us to share that with those who know not the Lord Jesus Christ.

   

Father in heaven, make us into saints befitting the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 11/06/2011    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012