Sermons That Work

They Are Fondly Heard…, Epiphany 4 (A) – 2005

January 30, 2005

This passage from the Gospel of Matthew is known commonly as The Beatitudes. They are fondly heard by people of good will, and treasured as words of comfort to the afflicted and distressed. But like many popular passages in Scripture, they need to be placed in the context of their original hearers, and then brought into the world we live in for their full impact.

Matthew is not precise about whether Jesus is speaking to the Disciples or the crowd gathered to hear him. But we know Matthew wrote his Gospel for early Christians, so we can assume the Disciples were the primary audience.

We also know Matthew wrote his Gospel from the point of view that “God is with us!” The people were hearing the son of the living God speak to them these gracious words, but they were words of the future—of the end time when the Kingdom would be fully present. These words of Jesus do not describe the way things are, but the way they will be.

The Beatitudes are not statements about morality; rather, they are ethical principles that describe how things will be reversed in the Kingdom. Those who mourn will be comforted, those who thirst for righteousness will be filled, the merciful will also receive mercy, and so on. But in this world things don’t always work that way. Ask someone mourning the death of a loved one what it was like after the funeral when everyone else has gone back to their daily lives. Ask those who work in refugee camps and resettlement programs what it feels like to confront draconian immigration authorities.

Now let us turn to another set of ethical principles, the Baptismal Covenant, which is set forth in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. Having stated what we believe, the Baptismal Creed, we now say how we will behave: And it is interesting to see how our vows parallel the phrases from the Beatitudes:

Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

We learn from this coupling that it is through the fellowship of the church, hearing the Gospel, receiving the Holy Communion, and saying our prayers that we begin to establish a right relationship with God and each other. That is what righteousness is.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Our personal repentance is bankrupt unless we are willing to forgive others who have sinned, against us or others. The mark of a Christian is found in mercy and repentance together. God anoints the merciful. The devil delights in the one who refuses to show mercy to others. Resisting evil and overcoming sin requires both a penitent and merciful heart.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Proclaiming the Good News means more than asking people, “Are you saved?” It means inviting them to join the community that is being saved, the church. And God wants all kinds of people in that community. But people know too well how selective we are about who enters our churches. God knows it too. True righteousness comes from our being willing to open our hearts to people who are not like us, but who would love God in their discovery of being loved by God. Our task is to find them and invite them, and to be ready to be ridiculed for doing it!

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbors as yourself?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The people who will stand in front of Christ on the last day and be known by him are the people who have always sought the Christ in persons among whom they are placed. All of us can draw closer to Jesus by seeking him in the people around us. All of us will find what we need to know of him by seeking him and meeting him in others, even, and perhaps especially, those who are not like us.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Dignity is not something human beings have to earn. It is their birthright. Human beings can destroy the dignity of each other, and often do, through racism, torture, war, and other acts of inhumanity. And those who dare to speak out against this behavior are often reviled and persecuted as being “soft” or “not realistic” or even “unpatriotic,” which brings us to the remaining 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…

There is a direct link between the baptismal font and the Beatitudes. Our new life that began at our baptism and is nourished by the Word and Sacrament form and shape who we are. We become people of power to live a new and different life because a child, a savior, has been born for us. Jesus made this new power available to us through his life, death, and resurrection. It will raise us up, and one day defeat the world.

Meanwhile, as we approach the beginning of Lent, every Christian should rejoice in the power to be different, to engage in new behavior that does not condemn but redeems.

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Christopher Sikkema