What Does It Take to Build…, Epiphany 4 (A) – 1999
January 31, 1999
Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What does it take to build an authentic Christian character? The answer is easy, though the process is not: submission to Christ and a resultant discipleship based upon the teachings of Christ and Holy Scripture.
The Sermon on the Mount is the description by Jesus himself of what the character of a believer is to be. He ends his sermon with a warning in the form of the familiar parable of the two houses: one built on sand and the other on a rock. (Matt 7:24-27.) Jesus is trying to alert us to the fact that we cannot ignore his teachings and the building of our character without great loss to our lives.
- The Beatitudes, as verses 3-12 are commonly called, contain the buildingblocks for an authentic Christian character. These verses are in ascending order, each building upon the prior, so that without the preceding quality in place the latter ones will not develop properly. Each verse begins with “blessed,” which is sometimes translated as “happy.” The connotation here is not one of deliriousness or superficial excitement, but of a deep and resident joy and fulfillment – a peace of mind, if you will. Each of these qualities leads to the full “joy in Christ” that becomes Paul’s theme for the Christian life as he describes it in his letter to the Philippians.
- Jesus begins with a phrase commonly understood in his day, but not so readily in ours, “poor in spirit.” This particular word means more that just poor, but carries the connotation of “beggar.” Just as a beggar cannot depend upon his self-sufficiency to meet the needs that he has for living, so must each person, if he or she is to have an authentic expression of God in his life, acknowledge his or her poverty of spirit apart from the presence of God. Entrance into the kingdom of heaven is not for the proud, but for those who confess their unworthiness before God.
Until we are willing to admit spiritual bankruptcy, that the debt of our sin is far greater than we can ever repay, we shall never come to Christ or become part of his kingdom. The entrance requirements are simple. We must: acknowledge our total unworthiness, accept his forgiveness, trust him as our Savior, receive him as our Lord, and follow him in discipleship.
- Why must we confess spiritual bankruptcy in order to be a disciple and an heir of the kingdom of God? First, because of the nature of human beings. Within each of us there is hollow core that we are desperately trying to fill, but which can be filled only by God. That the way God created us, and that’s the way we are. The Book of Ecclesiates is the story of one who, with all at this disposal, tried everything to fill the void. This void was revealed when he said of God, “He has also set (eternity) in the heart of men.” (Eccles. 3:11.) Most of what is referred to as sin today is the manifestation of a people desperately trying to fill the hollow core with something other than God.
- A second reason for this confession of spiritual bankruptcy is that without the presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ in our lives, a presence that comes only after our acceptance, one will never have the power to become the person he or she desires to be. Building Christian character is not something that one does alone, but rather, it takes the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit to be an authentic replica of Christ. Without total dependence upon Christ, we cannot live the Christian life nor can we bear the fruit of the Spirit.
That is why there are so many sandcastle Christians. They look so good and pretty, but wash away when the first wave hits because there is no foundation in their lives. The acknowledgement of this is most difficult of all. No one likes to acknowledge bankruptcy — financial, spiritual, or otherwise. Why?
Because we have too much pride. Pride is the “complete anti-God state of mind” according to C. S. Lewis, and right he is. Our Lord stated quite firmly and clearly , “except you come as a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Little children do not worry about prestige or popular opinion, but respond with their whole being to love. Pride is what keeps us from following Christ more closely, what keeps us from being active for God.
What are the manifestations of pride? When we live in the kingdom of self, rather than the kingdom of Christ, we are exhibiting pride. When we never look for self-interest in what we do, say or think, but blithely assume that we know what’s best for a situation rather than listening to others with an open mind, we are exhibiting pride. When we think that we are giving more than we are getting, we are living in the realm of pride.
And it all leads to our destruction. Why? Because “worldly men cannot survive success, only godly men can survive victories and success.”
The world says, “Blessed are the proud, the self-sufficient, the stoic, for they shall rule the earth.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Who do you believe is right?
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