February 2, 2020
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
(The Presentation of the Lord)
(1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12)
Acne for Dummies is only one of more than 350 titles in the For Dummies series. The books first hit the bookshelves in the 1990s when — with the increasing use of personal computers and the advent of the World Wide Web — people suddenly were feeling very stupid, even about things as banal as acne.
If, however, you want to push deeper into specialized subjects, you enroll in higher education. Your first year in the classroom — whether real or virtual — is likely to be awash with 101 classes such as French 101, English 101, Psychology 101, History 101 or Biology 101. You cannot take French 201 until you have completed French 101.
This numbering system was developed in the first part of the 1900s to make it easier for students to transfer from one college to another. If you took English 101 at Kent State, you were given credit when you transferred to Ohio State so that you could take English 201.
The “101” designation quickly became a part of the public consciousness and conversation. In a comedy routine, a young Woody Allen joked in the early 1960s, “I took all the abstract philosophy courses in college, like truth and beauty, advanced truth and beauty, intermediate truth, introduction to God, Death 101.”
So, what if we approached the study of religious faith in the same way? What, for example, would a course in Judaism 101 look like? It could be an in-depth study of the Ten Commandments. If we were to take Buddhism 101, however, the course might focus on the Fourfold Truths, followed by the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. Islam 101 would no doubt dig into the “Five Pillars of Islam.”
Lutherans (LCMS) have a study series published by Concordia Publishing house called Lutheranism 101, including one for kids. In seminary, perhaps you’d take Calvinism 101. You might also face Soteriology 101 (doctrine of salvation) or Church History 101.
So now we look at the Beatitudes. You could think of the Sermon on the Mount as Christianity 101, and the Beatitudes is where the course begins. They articulate the core principles of the faith.
Jesus took his seminary on the road. He unfailingly kept his lessons simple. When Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” he responds with the Shema — a foundational statement of Hebrew faith: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.”
He then adds, “The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” — simple, memorable and foundational.
The Beatitudes are simple, memorable and foundational core competencies, the knowledge of which is critical for mastering what it means to be a Christian. The structure is formulaic and familiar to most of Jesus’ hearers as advice for “the good life.” The repetition of makarios (Greek, which means “happy,” “satisfied” or “blessed”) was what his listeners expected, but as was typical of Jesus’ teaching, he was actually turning “common wisdom” on its head.
As Matthew suggests with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus is not describing life in the ordinary world in which sinful humanity seems to be in charge, but life in the emerging kingdom where God is sovereign. This is the New World in which those who mourn are comforted; where those who are meek receive their inheritance; where those who seek the kingdom of God find their quest fulfilled.
This Kingdom of God is a reality that shatters the conventional limitations of space and time. It is the realm of the already, of the here-and-now, and of the not-yet. Paul describes it, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The kingdom of God is already here; it has always been here, manifested in God’s very act of creation. It is the reality that we, like the disciples, experience in the presence of Jesus Christ as eternity is unfurled among us.
The kingdom of God lies at the core of the Christian Hope — the hope that the kingdom we now see only partially and hesitantly will ultimately be fully realized. Matthew’s gospel presents the Beatitudes as an exposition of this hope. They are the ABCs of the Christian Faith — “Christianity 101.”
In his description of life within the kingdom of God, Matthew seems to address three questions
First, who are those who find the kingdom of God? Matthew lifts up “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” as its recipients. While the poor have always had a special place within Judaism, Matthew adds, “in spirit,” driving this idea to its spiritual depth. The kingdom is reserved for those who have left behind their arrogance and ego, or who have the spirit of the poor. They understand the poor. They connect with the poor. They do not prance and preen as if they were worthy of praise, but have accepted that they are utterly dependent upon the grace and mercy of a loving God.
Further, “those who mourn” are not simply those who grieve over departed loved ones, but those who are heartbroken over a humanity that has turned its back upon the very one who gives and sustains its life. Therefore, they mourn. These mourners are the ones who have ordered their priorities correctly — those whose vision is clear. They can see both rebellious humanity and the kingdom of God emerging in its midst. That emergence is both their hope and their comfort.
Second, what is it that these seekers find? Embracing the kingdom with newly opened eyes, they find the answers to the questions with which they began their quest.
“The meek” are those who are freed from undue pride and arrogance and will “inherit the earth”. This is not a promise of free real estate, but a promise that the meek will participate in a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) in the eschatological kingdom of God. The definition of “meek,” as we typically understand it, does not encourage admiration. Meekness rhymes with “weakness,” and that’s what many think it means. The meek are those without enough backbone to stand up for themselves. That’s not the meaning of the word as used here by Matthew.
Greek philosophers such as Aristotle were fond of describing ethical living as a mean, or mid-point, between two extremes. On the one extreme was wild and uncontrolled anger; on the other was a total lack of anger, a spineless resignation. In between was righteous anger, the middle way, or the golden mean, as it was sometimes called. Aristotle used a form of this very same word translated here as “meekness” to describe a life lived in perfect balance.
Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are filled. For Matthew, this righteousness is far more than a matter of personal piety. It is the quest for a kingdom in which all humanity is deemed righteous, when the sinful and disgraceful human condition has finally been overcome. The quest for righteousness is one that can only be satisfied when the kingdom is fully present in all its glory.
The “merciful” are those who regard all others with empathy and compassion, because like themselves, all humanity is in dire need of God’s kingdom. They will receive the compassion they so freely give.
“The pure in heart” are those who in the eschatological kingdom are ultimately purged of ego and self-pride — those who embody singleness of purpose. Those are the only ones who will be able to see God.
“The peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” Again, this beatitude draws its power from the unfolding of God’s kingdom. In the world of the here-and-now, peacemakers may be reviled, but in refusing to divide the world’s people into the binary categories of “us and them,” of “friends and foes,” they are proclaiming the kingdom’s presence. The world may reject them now, but God will claim peacemakers as his own.
And third, what price does the kingdom demand? In his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis) cautioned that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him ‘come and die.’” Matthew would certainly agree. His addition of verse 9 (blessed are the peacemakers), which is not found in Luke’s gospel, may have been influenced by the Christian community’s refusal to fight alongside the Jews in their 60-70 A.D. war against Rome. Thus verses 10 and 11 describe people who “persecute,” “revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” — a gripping description of consequences his fellow Jerusalem Christians may have experienced in those perilous days.
The Romans ultimately prevailed in that war, and the Jewish Christians suffered grievously alongside their non-Christian Jewish neighbors.
This tragedy raises an obvious question: Is it worth it? Is it worth risking everything that the world values in the service of a kingdom that is not fully here? As he shares this vision of the kingdom of God and its promises, Matthew’s answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” Even as Bonhoeffer reminded us that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him ‘come and die.’” We must die to this life, and live in the life of the kingdom of God.
There is a story of an elderly Methodist bishop in which he glanced over the line of ordination candidates at an annual conference meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas. He warned them that he was about to ask the “historical” Wesleyan questions long required of such aspirants. First on the list was this: “Are you going on to perfection?”
When he faced a row of avoided eyes and hesitant responses, the irritated churchman snapped, “Well, if you are not going on to perfection, where are you going?”
The bishop’s question is a good one: Where are you going? The kingdom is alive and well in our midst. Its promise defines who we are as servants of Jesus Christ. It is at the core of Christian hope and faith. In the spirit of Bonhoeffer, it’s a call to decide.
These, then, are the Beatitudes: “Christianity 101 — an Introduction to kingdom-living.” They flow from the lips of Jesus himself and the life of the first-century church, and bring us to the core of the Christian life and hope.
Let us pray.
In today’s gospel Jesus advises us how to live a true Christian life when he gives us the beatitudes. We pray that the Holy Spirit bestow on us the wisdom, strength and perseverance to follow his advice and guidance. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who hunger and work for justice throughout the world, that their efforts may bring fruit and that all prisoners of conscience be set free. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for all peacemakers. We pray particularly for world leaders that they work together for an end to war, that God’s peoples can live their lives in peace and harmony. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who are persecuted for their faith and religious beliefs. We pray particularly that those who have a passionate belief in their own faith should respect the rights of others to follow their conscience and to live out their own response to the love of God who created us all. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who mourn, that they be comforted by the assurance that their loved ones are in the arms of a merciful and loving Father. We pray to the Lord.
We continue to pray for our legislative branch of government that they get past partisanship and look at the facts with full awareness of the precedence this will hold for our future and to ensure no one is above the law. We pray to the Lord.
That as we continue our building and repairs a benefactor or benefactors will be led to our humble parish as we look to obtain the funding needed to finish the rectory and necessary repairs. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
God of grace, we come together in prayer with thanksgiving for our health and this day of life. That we are able to hear the wind whistling through the trees ... see the rain which brings new growth ... and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, we offer you our thanks and praise. Let us use the gifts you have given us wisely that we might hear the plea of others and respond accordingly; that we might see the needs of our neighbor and act compassionately; that we might feel the pain of another's loss and empathize in silence. Help us to be ever more attuned to the life of Jesus. Free us from the temptations that confront us in the busyness of our every day. Help us to never judge others by their mistakes.
When we are tempted to respond in anger, grant us the patience to return anger with kindness. When we want to insist on our own way, grant us the grace to replace self-indulgence with unselfishness. When we are right at the expense of another's feelings, grant us the strength to be humble instead of right – to be silent instead insistent. When we are tempted to allow our families to be secondary to everything else we do, help us to rearrange our priorities.
When we are tempted to live out our lives at a hectic pace following our own agenda, grant us the wisdom to slow down and take time to hear what you would have us do. When we are tempted to take the easy way out ... to put desire over discipline ... to let someone else take a stand for peace and justice, remind us that the easy way is not the right way in the kingdom of God.
We ask all these things, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA