Blessed are you...
rejoice and be glad.
In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Law or Gospel? Your work or God's? Condemnation or Forgiveness? Repentance or Absolution? If Scripture is understood properly (as we believe) only when rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel, and what's more, if preaching must have this distinction (if it is to be true preaching), then what do we have here in Jesus' sermon? Law or Gospel? Hopefully both, but where is the line?
Sometimes it's not so easy to discern. Well, it should be, we should get it, Scripture should be easy to understand and at all it's major points, it is easy to understand, even children get it: “Jesus loves me. Even though I'm a sinner, Jesus died on the cross to forgive my sins, taking my punishment for me.” That's simple enough, plain and clear, that's the Good News. But perhaps one of the most difficult passages to distinguish Law and Gospel is the one we hear today, The Beatitudes, the beginning of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the first public proclamation Jesus makes according to the Gospel of Matthew, and it isn't what we would expect.
It seems to be full of contradictory statements. Blessed are the poor? What's so blessed about being poor? Blessings are supposed to be good gifts, things that are for our benefit. And that's exactly what they are, including the blessings that Jesus here describes.
And how blessed you are. Law or Gospel? To be blessed is good and wonderful, it's a gift, right? So it is Gospel. But look what being blessed involves. In Jesus' own words: Verse 3: Spiritually poor. Verse 4: sorrowful. Verse 5: meek/lowly. Verse 6: hungering/thirsting for righteousness. Kind of like, Jesus. No, exactly like Jesus. “I am meek and lowly in heart,” Jesus said.i
Do not let yourself be fooled, Jesus is the Blessed One of the Father and you cannot be blessed apart from Him. If you are blessed in your poverty of spirit, as Jesus claims you are, then Jesus Himself must first be in poverty, and of a greater degree. Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich.”ii This is from the second Epistle to the Corinthians, but also in the Epistle of James, in the Gospel of St John, here in St Matthew and in various other places throughout the New Testament Scripture, Jesus is proclaimed as the poor man, and those who suffered for Christ shared in that poverty and so were called “the poor”.iii
Being poor in spirit means that you have no spiritual wealth. Just like the materially poor among us today are still alive, though just barely so, you who are imitators of Christ, you who are the poor in spirit, you too are spiritually alive, but just barely so. You have enough spiritual possessions, enough to keep you alive, and that's all that God has give to you. Be content with what you have: His Word, His Body and Blood, prayer, these meager things, not too impressive. Be content, for you are blessed, just as Jesus is the Blessed One. You have your life in Him, and if He only gives you a small portion, what's that to you, He's got it all under control, it's His promises and His eternal life, after all. Enjoy what He does give you.
And you who are sorrowful: your connection to Christ is no less than the poor. “Jesus wept,” John wrote, not out of fear but out of compassion and grief. He loved Lazarus; Lazarus was a dear friend, and now he was dead, he had suffered, and Jesus was moved by this. Jesus knew sorrow so that He might be the One who can comfort you in your sorrows.
And likewise for you who are meek, mild, lowly in stature. Jesus has become meek for you, with you, He is where you are. Do not think yourself any less valuable to Him. It is perhaps easier for you to confess the truth about your unworthiness in the presence of God. This, too, is a gift. For, though you are unworthy, Christ is worthy, and you are Christ's own.
And for you who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, or rather, the righteous things. God hears your pleas, your petitions, your fervent prayers for His grace to fill you more abundantly. You are those who are never satisfied with the bare minimum of God's gifts, and rightly so. After all, He has said that your cup overflows, yet you do not seem to experience the fulfillment of this quite yet. To you God makes this promise: you will be satisfied. Your desire for more will be fulfilled, if not now, then soon, and if not soon enough, then you can still have hope in the everlasting banquet where you will be filled, satisfied without ever hungering or thirsting again.
Blessed are you! Is it Law or Gospel to be blessed? Your work or God's? It's kind of hard to tell what Jesus is getting at. Our lives are messy and so it's hard to see where exactly we fit in to all of this. Are we to seek out poverty? Or on the other hand, is it wrong of us to try and avoid it if we see it coming? Should we make ourselves meek and lowly so that we gain the blessings described for those who experience such things? God's work or yours? Jesus doesn't really say. But He's not done. Jesus goes on. Blessed are you who are: Verse 7: merciful, also like Jesus. Verse 8: pure in heart, again, like Jesus. Verse 9: peacemakers, like Jesus. Verses 10-12: those who suffer, especially like Jesus.
So some of us are not defined by sorrow and poverty and meekness. Some of you are not burdened so much by these things. Why? So that you may be the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. Not that you would be merciful or peaceful or pure in and to yourselves, but that you might be Christ to those who need mercy and peace and purity of heart. You are no greater than any other, you are just given to serve in these ways, even as those who suffer poverty and hunger and sorrow serve to teach you what humility really is.
You see, what is stunning about this portion of Jesus' sermon, and what helps us to understand what He is really getting at, what is stunning is how He addresses the wide variety of His people. He has allowed some to be poor in spirit, some to be sorrowful, some to hunger and thirst. Likewise He has made some to be merciful, some pure in heart, some to be peacemakers, and some to be persecuted for His name's sake; that's all Law, that's, in and of itself, destruction and temporal condemnation, the fruit of sin, your work. But God does not let sin rule and therefore you do not rule; that's quite a burden off your back, and as for sin, well sin never has the last word with Jesus. He came into our sin-infested, insufficient mess, in order to make us His Church, His Body, and to bring us out of our poverty and meekness so we exhibit, even in our lowly bodies, His own characteristics. Not that we are perfect in our poverty (as Jesus was) or always peaceful like Jesus; that's not the point. He was made to be one of us, that we might be made to be like Him.
Be content therefore with who God has made you to be in Christ, not the sinner, but the saint, and the specific saint, with specific characteristics, placed in a specific time and place to live in Him and for Him among those who are also called by His Gospel to the riches and purity and safety of His House; His House here within these walls every Sunday, and also within the walls of His eternal kingdom in heaven.
So you who are made to be poor, come, here is the kingdom of heaven in Flesh and Blood. You who are given to mourning and sorrow, come be united with your departed loved ones, be comforted. You who are the meek and the lowly, come and receive your inheritance even now. You who still hunger and thirst, come be satisfied. You who are called to give mercy, come receive God's mercy. You who are the pure in heart, come and see God. You who are to make peace among the sons of men, come receive your call as sons of God. And you who are persecuted, come, rejoice and be glad, for He who was persecuted for you comes to guard and protect your soul. Come, eat and drink. Your Jesus comes to you: poor, lowly, merciful, pure, bringing you peace and offering you what He suffered, the sacrifice of His holy Body and His precious Blood on the cross, given and shed for you.
God knows us here at St John's. Jesus applies this Sermon on the Mount also to us. Collectively, we are all these things, a burden to some extent, but blessed to all eternity. We are these things because Jesus is these things and we are made into His likeness; like Him in His temporary poverty that we might live with Him in His eternal riches.
And yet, this is not the end, it's actually just the beginning, Jesus continues His sermon, and we have the privilege of hearing it read and preached here at St John's for the next five Sundays. Come and be blessed.
In +Jesus' name. Amen.
[Artwork by Ed Riojas]
ii2 Cor 8.9
iiiScaer, David, The Sermon on the Mount, page 79