1/29/17: Blessed Are They, Matthew 5:1-12
Blessed Are They
First Lesson: Psalm 15
Second Lesson: Matthew 5:1-12
Rev. Scott Dickison
The great Baptist theologian, Jim McClendon, tells a story about Clarence Jordan, the founder of the Koinonia Community, an interracial farm in Georgia that in many ways was on the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement and still is. Jordan, his wife Florence, and another couple, started the farm in the early 1940s as “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God,” as they put it, based on the early church’s vision of sharing in each other’s lives and resources, valuing the image of God in all people, black, white, or what have you. All of this in South Georgia in the 1940s! And, oh by the way, he also an accomplished Greek scholar who translated the New Testament in Cotton-Patch form, which we read aloud earlier.
But as McClendon tells it, sometime in the early 1950s, Clarence was talking with his brother Robert, a lawyer who would go on to serve as a state senator here in Georgia and a justice on the state supreme court, and asking him if he would represent Koinonia Farm legally. His brother replied,
Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job or my house, everything I’ve got.
We might lose everything, too, Bob, replied Clarence—and it was true. Koinonia had been under the threat of violence, drive by shootings into the houses in the cloak of night, a firebombing of their roadside vegetable stand.
It’s different for you, said his brother.
Why is it different? Clarence asked him. I remember you and I walked down the aisle of the Baptist church on the same Sunday when we were boys, and the preacher asked me the same question he asked you, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ and I said, Yes. What did you say?
I follow Jesus up to a point, Robert said.
Could that point by any chance be—the cross? said Clarence.
That’s right. I follow him to the cross, bot not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified, Robert told him.
Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple, said Clarence. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.
Well now, his brother said, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?
The question, Clarence said, is, ‘Do you have a church?’(1)
There’s a lot to say about these first twelve verses from the fifth chapter of Matthew, that we know as the Beatitudes, but for this morning let’s consider them as Jesus’ way of helping us know if we have a church. Of determining if what we have is simply a group of admirers of Jesus, or true disciples of Jesus.
These verses, of course, come at the very beginning of what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll be taking a closer look at over the Sundays in February after James Goolsby is with us next week. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus takes on the role of Moses who early in the history of Israel was God’s representative to the people, bringing down to them the Law of the Covenant from Mount Sinai. Here, we’re told, Jesus, too, climbs the mount and gives the people a new law—not to replace the law of Moses, he tells them very clearly, but to fulfill it. To expand it, to clarify it. And in this sermon he outlines how this new community of God’s people that would come to be known as the church is to conduct themselves. How they’re to live together, treat each other and those on the outside. But before he gets to the “how,” Jesus begins this sermon with the question of “who.” Who are these disciples? Who is in this new community? How will we know when we've found it—when we are it.
You’ll find it, he tells them, wherever and whenever you find these kinds of people.
Of course the formulation here is “Blessed are they,” but as Julie noted in our ministerial staff meeting this week when we talk about the service and reflect on the Scripture together, there’s a lot of baggage with the word “blessed:” who’s blessed and how and why.
The Greek word translated here as “blessed” is makarios, which literally means “Happy.” And some more modern translations put it as such: Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. But the problem again is that in English the word “happy” has about as much baggage as “blessed.” There’s an unfortunate perception in the church that Christians are to be perpetually smiley. Of course this is crazy; some of the best Christians I know always seem to have a frown on their face. Jesus of course isn’t saying that these people who are poor in spirit or meek or mournful are to be happy and smiley in the sense that we mean the word.
“Happy” here has more a sense of being “fortunate.” Fortunate are they who hunger now, for they will have their fill. You could just as easily say “You’re doing okay,” or “you’re alright if you’re merciful or pure in heart.”(2) Probably my favorite translation, which I’ve shared with you before, makes it less “spiritual” and more “geographical.”(3) “You’re in the right place” if you’re mourning, for you will be comforted. You’re in the right place if you work for peace, for you will be called children of God.” You’re right where you need to be when you do these things, when you are this way, because this is where Christ is. This is what Christ is doing.
The idea in all of this is that these are the kinds of people Jesus is looking for that will make up this new community that would be called the church. These are the qualities, the habits, the values—the virtues that will define them. So wherever these kinds of people are, there is the church.
People who are poor in spirit—and to be spiritually poor doesn’t mean not having much of a spiritual life, necessarily. It means having a sense of your own spiritual need. It includes the literally poor, as Luke says it in his gospel. But Matthew takes it more broadly to mean all those who understand their lives are not in their own control.(4) It just happens that when you’re literally poor this lack of control over your own life is quite clear to you. The more you have, the easier it is to convince yourself otherwise: that you’re self-made and self-sustained, that you can fight or negotiate or buy your way out of just about anything. Jesus says the church is made up of those who are aware of the extent to which they depend on God and others.
The church is found in people who mourn. People who mourn not simply the losses in their life, but who mourn the losses of others. Who “weep with those who weep,” as Paul would later put it. He just as easily could have said “Blessed are the compassionate,” those who mourn the suffering they see in the world; who seek these out in order to mourn with them.
The church is found in the meek—and this is an unfortunate translation. Jesus doesn’t mean those without a backbone or who lack courage to do what’s right—that’s actually the opposite of what he means. This is meek in the sense of being grounded and secure, not feeling the need to play the world’s game of climbing or advancing, or taking or grasping or clinging so tightly. This is having one’s hands open. It’s these people, Jesus says, who will inherit the earth: not those who take it, but those who receive it.
And he goes on in this way:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—which is just a fancy church word for justice; working for what’s right.
Bless are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, those who make peace—as opposed to the ones who make war.
Blessed are all those who are persecuted for doing what’s right—rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven. Fear not that you stand alone, you’re part of a great family—a cloud of witnesses—who worked for the same things. And by now it should become clear that this inventory of values and virtues that define this peculiar new creation that would come be known as the church, is very different from the values and virtues that are celebrated or settled for outside these walls. This is the first becoming last and the last first. This is prostitutes and tax collectors sitting at the heavenly banquet table. This is the greatest among you being the one who serves. Jesus says when you see these people, there’s the church. Wherever you find them, these are my disciples.
Jason Coker is a buddy of mine who now serves as the Coordinator for CBF of Mississippi and directs the nonprofit he helped found, Delta Hands for Hope. Our youth served with them on their mission trip this past summer.
But for many years before this, he served as the pastor of a tiny little Baptist church in Wilton, CT. And of the many ministries this tiny church was involved in, one was participating in an interfaith group that welcomed, supported, and helped to settle refugees. The group was made up of representatives from a local mosque, a synagogue, and multiple Christian churches. They had already settled one family—a father, mother, and two children—and were presented with the opportunity to help another family—a woman who was widowed and her five children.
And this group from the three faith communities debated, not whether or not they wanted to help, but if they could help, if they had the ability to help this larger family with even fewer resources than before. They’d pretty much decided that it wasn't feasible; that they couldn't do it, when someone stood up to speak.
"I'm really struggling with this," he began. "Because my faith tells me I should not only welcome the stranger, but that I have even more of a responsibility to care for widows and orphans.” Jason said the conversation shifted right then and there, when that muslim gentlemen from the local mosque stood up and spoke about what his faith compels him to do. They all came together to help settle that family, who are now proud residents of Wilton, Connecticut.(5)
Understand that we don’t all have to be all of these things all the time—praise God. This isn’t a checklist of spiritual chores. Jesus is describing the community as a whole.(6) He simply means that among those who would call themselves the church of Jesus Christ, these people must be found.
There must be some of those who are committed to making peace. There must be those who are merciful beyond measure, those who’s hearts are pure and who’s hands are open. Those who hunger and thirst for what’s right. You’ve got to have at least a few of these real disciples present to call, sometimes to pull, the rest of us admirers further down along the way.
And I know what you’re thinking. I know what you’re thinking because I hear it to. It’s that voice inside your head that says, “It’s me.” “It’s me.”
(1) As told by Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew in the Brazos Theological series, p. 57
(2) Eugene Boring’s commentary in the New Interpreter’s Series was helpful in sorting though these various translation options.
(3) I came across this translation in a Krista Tippett interview with Fr. Greg Boyle. On Being podcast.http://www.onbeing.org/program/father-greg-boyle-on-the-calling-of-delight/transcript/5059#main_content
(4) Boring, Matthew, 178
(5) Thanks to dear friend Greg Dover for passing along this story.
(6) Eugene Boring’s reflections here were helpful, 180-181.