Blessed are those Persecuted for Righteousness

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from November 19, 2017, reflecting on the eighth Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, summarizing some thoughts on the Beatitudes and suggesting what Jesus meant by this concluding one:

This is the last of Jesus’ eight Beatitudes, and we’ve learned a lot on our journey through these holy blessings of Jesus.

We’ve learned that these Beatitudes are indeed divine blessings, pronounced by Jesus as from God.

We’ve learned that the “blessing” that Jesus promises includes both the ideas of “divine favour” and “human flourishing.” In other words, the “blessed” are those who are favoured by God—God has a certain preference for them, God is “especially fond” of them. And the “blessed” experience the flourishing life that God desires for humanity—they experience a measure of that now, the fulness of it in the fulness of time.

We’ve learned, then, that the “blessings” that are pronounced in the Beatitudes take the long view: they are already here, but they’re not fully here, and it may take generations to see them fully realized. And we’ve learned, too, that often the first part of the Beatitude is the way God gives for us to realize the second: we experience God’s kingdom by being poor in spirit, we inherit the earth by being meek, we receive mercy by being merciful, and so on.

All this has helped us to walk through the Beatitudes, to hear what Jesus wants to say to us through them. And so, as we’ve heard our Lord teach us through these Beatitudes, we’ve been both encouraged and challenged, both invited to rest in God’s grace and exhorted to take up our cross. This tension, this balance, between divine mercy and divine demand, is at the heart of the Beatitudes. Really, it’s at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. It’s at the heart of the Christian life.

We’ve also learned a few other things that help us hear this final Beatitude well. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” this Beatitude promises—just like the first one. By ending these blessings the same way they began, Jesus is pointing us to this as the underlying promise that undergirds them all: the “kingdom of heaven.”

This “kingdom of heaven,” you might remember, isn’t about a “kingdom up in heaven,” or a “kingdom that is heaven.” It’s a “kingdom from heaven,” come down to earth. That is, after all what Jesus teaches his disciples in prayer in the very next chapter: we are to pray for “God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, on earth as in heaven.”

The “kingdom of heaven,” then, is God’s reign of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all, come from heaven to earth. It’s what happens when God’s will is finally and fully done. It’s what happens when God’s dream for the world—all peoples, even all creation—becomes reality.

This is the promise that undergirds all of these Beatitudes. This is, in fact, the promise that undergirds the whole Sermon on the Mount, and all Jesus’ teachings: God’s reign of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all, come from heaven to earth.

We’ve also come across the word “righteousness” before. Remember that one? “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” You might recall that “righteousness” in the Bible doesn’t mean “being right” or “believing the right things.” It means “doing the right thing,” even “doing right by others,” even “making wrongs right.” In other words, “righteousness” looks very much like “justice.”

With all this in view, we’re now able to hear Jesus’ final Beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

All those who are “persecuted”—who are aggressively opposed, even cruelly, even violently opposed—

for “righteousness”—for doing right by others, for making wrongs right in our world, for pursuing justice—

these are “blessed” by God—they have God’s favour, and they will one day experience full flourishing as God intended.

In other words, theirs is “the kingdom of heaven”—God’s radical vision become reality, of a world formed in justice, filled with peace, and spilling over with abundant life.

Or, to get at this from the other angle:

if we take seriously the “blessed way” Jesus has been describing—being lowly in spirit, mourning with all who suffer, walking in gentleness, pursuing justice for all, showing mercy to all, seeking the purity of love, striving to build peace through peace—

then we will experience opposition—aggressive, cruel, perhaps even violent opposition. Just like Jesus did.

But—just like Jesus did—we can rest in the blessing of God, knowing that God’s favour is on us and God is working for our good, even the greatest good of all people and all creation.

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Blessed are the Peacemakers

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from November 12, 2017, reflecting on the seventh Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, exploring the “peacemaking” Jesus calls us to:

As Christians we know the peace that God desires—peace with God, peace within creation, peace among us, peace within us. This is the vision of shalom laid out for us in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.

Jesus looked back to the prophet Isaiah to help define what this “peace” looks like. And for Jesus, as for Isaiah, this “peace” is connected to God’s reign as king, what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

Think back to our call to worship this morning, from Isaiah 52:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The messenger on the mountains announces peace, he announces salvation, he declares, “Your God reigns!” Peace, salvation, God’s kingdom come—these are all three the same thing. The are the gospel.

And we hear this all throughout Isaiah’s prophecies.

“In the days to come,” Isaiah 2 says, all nations will stream to the Lord to learn God’s way of peace: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

When the Messiah comes, the child born to us, the son given to us, Isaiah 9 says, “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”

When the Spirit-anointed Messiah, Jesse’s descendant, establishes God’s kingdom on earth, Isaiah 11 says, he shall bring “justice for the poor, equity for the meek of the earth,” and “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

And when Jesus the Messiah did come, he used the words of Isaiah 61 to announce his peacemaking, kingdom-building mission:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

—God’s year of Jubilee, that is: economic equity for all, justice for all, freedom for all, peace for all.

Jesus has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth, bringing salvation from the enemies of sin and death and all the evil powers at work in the world, and so bringing peace, shalom, a complete ceasing of hostilities among us and within us, a comprehensive harmony and wholeness with God, each other, and all creation.

Thus Isaiah promises. And thus Jesus delivers. Jesus has planted the seed of God’s kingdom of peace in the world, and it has been growing ever since.

As Christians we continue in this path laid out for us by Jesus. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, “for they will be called children of God.” That’s us. You, me, all who consider themselves “born again,” “children of God.”

We are called to be peacemakers like Jesus, kingdom peacebuilders in the way of Jesus.

It’s a daunting task, and it can seem nigh impossible. What can we do in the face of genocide, in the face of civil war and nuclear brinkmanship, in the face of terrorism both abroad and too close to home?

The truth is, though, that Jesus gives us many peacemaking tools. He has indeed taught us “the things that make for peace,” if only we have ears to hear. He has taught us “the way of peace,” if only we have the faith to trust him and the courage to obey him.

One tool in Jesus’ peacemaking kit, for example, is simple compassion for the needy—so we give generously to aid organizations both at home and abroad. Welcoming the stranger is another of Jesus’ peacemaking tools—so we get involved with sponsoring and supporting refugees, and we look for “strangers” right here among us to welcome. Another of Jesus’ peacemaking tools is to speak truth to people in power—so we contact those with political power and wealth, and we advocate for justice and equality for the most vulnerable among us when they are treated unjustly.

All this and more is a form of nonviolent resistance against evil, Jesus’ chief tool for making peace—with creativity and compassion, without violence, standing up to the powers that be and seeking change for the good of others, the good of all.

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Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from October 29, 2017, reflecting on the sixth Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, looking at what Jesus meant by “purity in heart”:

Into this world steeped in purity stepped Jesus—our next stop in our journey through the Bible. Jesus saw how a rigid concern for external purity around “clean” foods, “clean” actions, and “clean” people brought exclusion, even injustice.

Jesus wasn’t alone in this. Others, especially the prophet Isaiah, had seen this in their world as well. And together they spoke with a clear voice: “This is not the way of God!”

Nearly everything Jesus said and did pressed into this strong purity culture, pushing against the division and exclusion, prejudice and injustice that accompanied it. Many of the purity laws in the Law of Moses, in fact, have a corresponding story of Jesus pushing against them in some way, breaking down the walls of separation people with power had built using those purity laws.

He touched unclean lepers as he healed them. He shared water with an impure Samaritan woman. He shared God’s power with an unholy Roman centurion. He healed on the sacred Sabbath. He raised a dead girl—an unclean corpse—with a gentle whisper and a loving touch.

In all this, mercy trumped purity, every single time.

And then there was the time Jesus said that God wasn’t really all that concerned about what food we put into our bodies, but rather what words and actions come out of our hearts. It’s a story worth pausing at, as it has a teaching that gets to the bottom of what Jesus means by “purity of the heart.” It’s found in Mark 7.

In the story some of the Pharisees and Scribes have noticed that Jesus’ disciples are eating with unclean hands. Again, this isn’t about hygiene; it’s about religious purity. The Pharisees had championed a view of purity that applied to all Jews not only the regular purity laws but also the additional purity laws for priests—and this included special ceremonial washings before certain events, including sharing a meal.

But Jesus’ disciples weren’t doing this ritual washing before eating, and the Purity Police were indignant. “What?” you can hear them say. “Don’t you care about purity, Jesus? Don’t you want us to see God?”

Jesus responds by focusing first on the way they have elevated their traditions above God’s command (that’s a whole other sermon). But then he focuses on the purity commands themselves. Here’s where we pick up the story:

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile; but the things that come out are what defile them.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, or make one impure, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus [Mark adds for the reader] he declared all foods clean.)

And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles them. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person, they make them impure or unclean.”

Jesus, in other words, teaches that the purity that really matters is a purity of the heart. All those outward, bodily concerns we have, about food and drink and more? Those don’t have anything to do with the real purity God desires. God desires a pure heart.

But this isn’t about some merely inward, private morality any more than it’s about some external bodily functions. These “evil intentions,” Jesus says, come from the heart—but they work their way out into our lives. And all these “evil things” Jesus lists are about how we relate to other people—they are, in fact, “evil” because they cause harm to others or our relationship with them.

In other words, Jesus shifts the idea of “purity” from outward, bodily concerns that only cause division and exclusion, prejudice and injustice, to the inner roots of our harmful sins against each other.

This is the real “impurity.” Our deeply entrenched, damaging attitudes toward others. Our desires gone to excess. Our fears taken root and spreading. Our ego inflated to a distorted caricature of ourselves.

Purity of heart, then, is the opposite of all this. To be “pure in heart” is to have a heart that loves, a heart from which loving attitudes, words, and deeds can grow and bear fruit in our life with others.

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Blessed are the Merciful

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from October 22, 2017, reflecting on the fifth Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, looking at what it means to “be merciful”:

Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount can help us get at what Jesus means by being “merciful.” Here is Luke 6:35-38:

Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.

A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

Right at the heart of these teachings is this statement: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” It’s a fresh take on an Old Testament idea: “Be holy, just as Yahweh is holy.” It’s a parallel to Matthew’s version, which says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But Luke’s version is not about “holiness,” nor is it about some lofty ideal of “perfection.” It’s about mercy.

“Be merciful, in the same way that God is merciful.”

Actually, to be fair to both Moses and Matthew, their versions both suggest the same thing.

When Yahweh says in Leviticus 19:2, for example, “Be holy, just as I am holy,” it’s to introduce a whole series of laws about how the ancient Israelites were to treat each other. Respecting one’s parents and elders. Providing for the poor. Not defrauding one’s neighbours. Looking out for the disabled. Not committing violence against each another. Treating foreigners among them as fellow citizens.

In other words, a good part of Israel’s call to “be holy just as God is holy” was about “being merciful just as God is merciful.”

And when Matthew phrases this in Matthew 5:48 as, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he’s using a word for “perfection” that doesn’t mean “flawless”—that’s what we think when we hear the language of “perfection” in the Bible. But the word behind that language actually means “mature” or “complete,” something “having fulfilled its purpose.”

“Be perfect” doesn’t mean, “be flawless”—it means, “be complete, fulfill your purpose,” just as God does. And what is that “completion,” that “fulfilled purpose”? In Matthew 5 it’s much the same as in Luke 6: love your enemies and do good to all, whether they are evil or good.

In other words, Matthew’s language of “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” is essentially meaning, “be merciful just as God is merciful.”

How can we be “holy”? How can we be “perfect”? How can we be like God? By being merciful.

That might go against the grain of our received thinking. It certainly goes against the grain of much of our culture. But that’s where Jesus’ teaching points us to: mercy is the holiness, the perfection, that God has been pointing us to all along.

And what does this “mercy” look like? Well, Jesus’ teaching in this passage from Luke 6 tells us. All the teachings around this statement, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful,” are describing exactly what God does, how God is merciful—and so how we should likewise be merciful.

There’s loving enemies.

God does this. God has done this with us, in fact: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of God’s Son,” Romans 5:10 declares. And so we are called to do the same: loving enemies, loving any who oppose us or seek to harm us, even when that’s uncomfortable or just plain hard.

There’s doing good to all, both enemies and friends, both evil and good.

God does this. God has done this with us, in fact: “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” Matthew 5:45 declares. And so we are called to do the same: liberally scattering our good deeds in the world, without discrimination of any kind.

There’s giving freely, without expectation of return.

God does this. God has done this with us, in fact: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” James 1:17 declares. And so we are called to do the same: giving our time and money and energy and any other resources freely to any who are in need, especially to those in need, without expecting to get it back.

There’s not judging, not condemning others around us.

God does this. God has done this with us, in fact: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Romans 8:1 declares. And so we are called to do the same: being discerning for ourselves, yes, but refusing to be judgmental of others, not condemning them as unworthy or looking down on them in disdain, whoever they are, whatever their story.

There’s forgiving others when they wrong us.

God does this—of course God does this. God has done this with us, in fact: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” Ephesians 4:32 declares. And so, as this text says, we are called to do the same: forgiving others their sins against us, breaking that chain of guilt and obligation that binds them to us—and us to them—because of their offense against us.

All this is what “mercy” is. All this is the mercy God has shown us. And all this is the mercy Jesus calls us to show each other.

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Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from October 15, 2017, reflecting on the fourth Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, looking at what Jesus meant by “righteousness”:

“Righteousness” is not a regular, ordinary word for us. It’s a religious word, a theological word, one of those “churchy,” “Christianese” words. We don’t normally go around talking about people being “righteous” or talking about so-and-so’s “righteousness” in our everyday speech.

When we do talk about “righteousness,” in a religious or Christian sense, we tend to mean some kind of personal quality, like “goodness.” Or, we might talk about “righteousness” as “being in right relationship” with God. These ideas are both true, but the problem is that they have become too narrow—like so much of historic, biblical Christianity, we have individualized and privatized our faith.

For many Christians, “righteousness” has become a purely individual quality, a kind of personal morality separate from public ethics. For many Christians, “being in right relationship” with God has little if anything to do with being in right relationship with everyone else. But these are not the biblical idea of “righteousness.”

In the Bible, “righteousness” covers everything from “doing the right thing” to “making things right.” It never means “being right,” as in, “having the correct opinion.” That’s worth pondering. Rather, in the Bible, “righteousness” refers to “doing the right thing,” or “making things right.”

And in the Bible what is “right” is always defined within a relationship.

God is “righteous” in relation to us when God is faithful to the covenant relationship God has made with us: providing for our most essential needs, forgiving our darkest sins, saving us from our worst enemies.

We experience God’s “righteousness,” then, when God does right by us, or makes things right for us: meeting those needs that have been lacking, forgiving those sins that have been chaining us down, saving us from those enemies that have been hounding and harassing us.

We are “righteous” in relation to others when we are living in a way that helps those relationships to flourish: seeking harmony with them, seeking their welfare, seeking the common good.

We experience the “righteousness” of each other, then, when we do right by each other, or we make things right between us: removing any barriers to relationship, looking out for the interests of each other, striving for what is best for us together.

All this explains why “righteousness” language in the Bible is so often used as a synonym for “justice”—just like it is here, in this fourth Beatitude.

When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he’s talking about the vulnerable who have been unjustly treated and who yearn for justice deep in their bones. And he’s talking about all those who yearn for this justice with them—and do what they can to bring it about.

So the question turns back to us: Who needs justice in our world? Who among us or around us is longing for righteousness? Who is most hungering and thirsting for their world to be made right again?

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Blessed are the Meek

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from October 8, 2017, reflecting on the third Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, from the conclusion:

“Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says, “for they will inherit the earth.”

The earth is our inheritance—the ocean’s sand, the seed-growing soil, the very dirt deep down in our DNA.

The earth is our inheritance—the seas, the lakes, the rushing rivers, the H2O that suspends the elements that give us life.

The earth is our inheritance—the wind, the sky, the oxygen that fills our lungs and flows to every cell in our body.

God created us out of the earth, for the earth. We exist because of God’s good earth, and we exist to keep God’s earth good. The earth is our home, and it will be our home for eternity—at the return of Christ, at the resurrection of the body, at the renewal of all things, when God’s kingdom comes on earth in all its fullness. All this may sound odd to our ears, but it is biblical, historic Christianity.

But this inheritance doesn’t come to the violent, the greedy, the selfish and proud. The earth is not made for them. The earth cannot sustain them. The earth cannot survive them.

No, the gospel way of Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven does not come to earth through violence or coercion or hostile aggression; it grows in the earth like a seed through patient goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility.

Or, in other words: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

May we commit ourselves to follow in the way of Jesus, and so learn the mystery of his kingdom-bringing, earth-inheriting meekness.

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Blessed are Those Who Mourn

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from October 1, 2017, reflecting on the second Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt:

James Tissot, Jésus pleura

How do we hear these words of Jesus? “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” How can this possibly make sense of all our losses, all our grieving? How can those who mourn—including those whose grief is compounded by injustice—in fact be “blessed”? What kind of comfort can any of us really count on?

We’re in some very deep waters here. The kind of waters you don’t jump in and out of quickly. But let’s start getting our head above water by reminding ourselves of what these Beatitudes are all about.

In my first sermon on the Beatitudes two weeks ago I gave us three ideas that are important to keep in mind as we reflect on these upside-down blessings of Jesus.

The first of these ideas is that the blessing Jesus is pronouncing here combines both “divine favour” and “human flourishing.”

When Jesus says “These people are blessed”—the “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” the “meek,” and more—Jesus means that these people have God’s special favour. God’s eye is upon them, God’s ears are attuned to their cries, God is “especially fond” of them. As well, Jesus means that these people can experience all the thriving, flourishing life God desires for them. Not mere “happiness,” not “success” as we typically define it—but the deepest needs of body and soul being satisfied.

So “blessed” means “divine favour” plus “human flourishing”—but remember also from that first sermon, that this “blessedness” is viewed through the lens of God’s “already but not yet” kingdom perspective.

God’s reign of justice and peace has arrived in Jesus—“the kingdom of God is among you,” Jesus said. But God’s reign of justice and peace is not yet fully here—Jesus taught us to pray for “God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom is here right now, but not fully here yet.

These Beatitudes are part of that same tension: all these—the “poor in spirit,” the “meek,” “those who mourn,” and more—all these are “blessed” now with favour and flourishing, but the fullness of this “blessedness” is still to come.

So here’s a start to treading these deep waters of suffering and mourning, loss and grief. This isn’t “Happy are those who mourn.” Those who mourn aren’t “happy”—but they are “blessed”: favoured by God now, and sure to flourish one day. When you are stricken with grief at the losses in your life, this is Jesus’ benediction spoken over you: “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.”

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