David A. Davis
May 17, 2020
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The Church of the Beatitudes in the Holy Land sits on a high hill that rises up from the Sea of Galilee. It is more hill than mountain though there are some towering mountains in the region. The setting of the Beatitudes, there in Galilee, marked by tradition, is stunningly beautiful. The church and surrounding gardens shine up there on a sunny day which, of course, is most days. The view from a boat out on the lake that is the Sea of Galilee is stunning. The church grounds are lush. The gardens full of color. The worship spaces in the church are striking: artwork, ceramics, iconography. Striking maybe not in a Presbyterian way but beautiful in a memorable way. The view from up there at the Church of the Beatitudes is just as beautiful in return. Looking out over the Sea of Galilee, with Tiberius to the right, the Golan Heights far off and up to the left. You can see all the towns around the lake, many of them named in the gospels. As the landscape rises from the water, you can actually see and then imagine the amphitheater-like quality of the location where tradition holds that Jesus spoke the beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount to follow. On the Nassau Church trip to Israel/Palestine several years ago we worship on the grounds of the Church of the Beatitudes on Sunday morning. In worship, we read the entire Sermon of the Mount as the congregation looked out over the view I just described. It is as if you can envision the Sermon on the Mount; with Jesus speaking at the top of the hill for all to hear; the disciples, the crowds. It is a wondrous panorama to behold and to imagine.
But that’s not what Jesus saw. What Jesus saw was the crowds. As in “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up to the mountain and after he sat down, his disciples came to him and he began to speak.” When Jesus saw the crowds. Several times in the last few weeks I have made mention of those crowds Jesus saw just before the beginning of Matthew, chapter five. As Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming and curing, the word about him spread. The crowds; a crowd full of all those who were brought to Jesus and a crowd of those friends and loved ones bringing people to Jesus. A crowd named in Matthew as “all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.” When Jesus saw the crowds. What Jesus saw as we started to traipse up the Mount of Beatitudes as a panorama of human suffering and humanity’s need. What he saw were “the great crowds who followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan.” That’s the bible’s way of saying that Jesus was looking at a great crowd of humanity from everywhere. It was a crowd that defined, displayed, and sounded like a trumpet blast…the human condition. When Jesus saw the crowds…..he said blessed.
It is way easy to encounter the Beatitudes of Jesus and come away with the after taste left by a kind of soothing devotional for the day. No, they ought to move and shake the heart of faith more than that. It is way too easy to turn the Beatitudes into some kind of motivational speech. You can almost hear that kind of rhetorical twist, like a political rally or locker room pep talk. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And few shouts and amens comes from the crowd. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. And the approval from the crowd gets louder. Blessed are the meek. Yes! By the time you get near the end to peacemakers, the crowd is in a frenzy and Jesus is shouting. With a rhetorical context like that, the takeaway is clear; if you want the kingdom of heaven, be poor in spirit, if want to be comforted, than you’re going to have to mourn, if you want this inheritance, you better be meek, you want to be filled, for goodness sakes be hungry and thirsty for righteousness, you want mercy, be merciful, if you want to be considered children of God, then be a peacemaker. Jesus with a finger wag and shout. Jesus as a motivational speaker!
Of course, the problem with that rhetorical hot take comes with the last two beatitudes. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed are you when people revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” And the crowd responds with “What? What did he just say? Ooh, I wish he hadn’t said that.” Persecution. Reviled. Evil Falsehoods. All on account of Jesus. “uhm, no thank you.” There is a reason that a devotional reading of the beginning of Matthew 5 can so easily can drop the last two. There is a reason if a couple selects the Beatitudes to be read at their wedding or family selects the Beatitudes to be read at a memorial service, they most often ask the reading to stop before the last two. And it’s not just because the last one breaks the poetic flow either.
“Blessed are those who persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus brings them back to where he started. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Kingdom of heaven. The Beatitudes are less intended to be an exhortation to a way of life and more intended to be a description of the kingdom of heaven. A kingdom that turns the world upside down in a first shall be last kind of way. The Beatitudes both move and shake the heart of the followers of Jesus when you ponder them as descriptive of the kingdom of heaven. Persecution. Reviled. Evil falsehoods. From saints and martyrs to ordinary folks like us jus trying to be faithful. The world’s forces will always push back, confront, fight against the ways of Jesus. One only has to keep reading to the gospel’s end to come upon the prototypical example. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely”…Jesus.
Professor Dale Allison over at Princeton Seminary sums it up in such a straightforward way. “What is envisioned is all hostility brought on because of ‘righteousness’, that is because of faithful obedience to God’s will. God’s ways are not our ways” he writes, “which means they are not always pleasant ways, so those who demand obedience to them will always meet opposition.” Notice with this last beatitude, Jesus breaks the pattern. It is not
“Blessed are those that people ridicule because of me…” No, Jesus says “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Not blessed are those. Blessed are You. It is as if Jesus is saying to all who will follow, Jesus is saying to you and me, Not if, when.
Enduring the ridicule of a sibling who can’t believe you continue to live the faith entrusted to you when you both were children. Being on the receiving end of a bully’s wrath at school when you speak up for the person being picked on. Losing your job for calling someone on something illegal or unethical. Getting yelled at by a stranger for trying to take steps to keep everyone safe and healthy. Getting trolled online because you express a concern for justice or creation or the poor or the imprisoned. From saints and martyrs to ordinary folks like us just trying to be faithful. Taking the name of Christian, being a follower of Jesus, striving to be a faithful disciple will bring you into conflict with the way of the world, the dominant forces of culture, and all who work to squash the kingdom God intends. It is not an if. It is a when. Pondering that, pondering the Beatitudes ought to both move and shake your heart
I read an op ed piece in the New York Times last week that was entitled “Christianity Gets Weird” The subtitle was “Modern Life is ugly, brutal, and barren. Maybe you should try a Latin Mass.” I am not sure I can adequately sum up the essay in a few words. And I certainly have a lot more thoughts about it than I can express here. The writer and those interviewed tell of a growing group of young adults who identify as “Weird Christians” who find themselves turning more and more to the ancient practices and rites of the church to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Young people turning to ancient practices has actually been around for more than a few years having started awhile back in the Anglican Church in the UK. What does sound more recent is how these folks connect through various social media platforms. “Weird Christianity is equal parts traditionalism and well, punk” the writer says. It is actually an intriguing liturgical, theological, and cultural read.
I will admit frustration to yet another vast painting with one big brush and then brushing off what the writer refers to as “mainline Protestant denominations” who are overly “accommodationist” and “water down” Christian faith. When I read that kind of complete pigeon holing, I find myself wondering what and how many mainline protestant congregations a young adult Christian has been in. At another point, folks like you and I are referred to as “Flexible Christmas and Easter Christians; those for whom religion is a primarily social or communal affair.” What struck me most was a few of the other young people quoted near the end of the long essay. One person reflected on how the current pandemic for Weird Christians serves as a call to action against the “absolute dearth of mutual aid in America.” Christian faith, he said, “compels us not just to take care of people around us but to seek to further integrate our lives and fortunes into those of the people around us, a sort of solidarity that necessarily entails creating organizations to help each other.” Other person said the pandemic has made all to clear that liberal and conservative visions of American life based “on self-fulfillment via liberation to pursue one’s desires is not enough. It turns out” he concludes” we need each other and need each other dearly…Weird Christianity offers a version of our common life more robust than individual pursuit of desire-fulfillment or profit.”
That’s not Weird. That’s the gospel. That’s the kingdom of God. I’m not sure what or how many protestant mainline denominations these Weird Christians have been in, but to repeat what I said above and what I have said in some way, shape, or from the pulpit inside the sanctuary at Nassau Church: Taking the name of Christian, being a follower of Jesus, striving to be a faithful disciple will bring you into conflict with the way of the world, the dominant forces of culture, and all who work to squash the kingdom God intends. It is not an if. It is a when. Indeed, life in the world can be ugly, brutal, and barren. Try the gospel of Jesus Christ and long for, work toward, and serve the kingdom he describes in the Beatitudes.
Jesus saw the crowds and looked out over a panorama of human suffering and humanity’s plight, and Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”