Beatitudes IV: Reviled

Matthew 5:10-12

So, let’s say for a moment we’ve managed to engage with God in such a way that we begin to live out what we hear in the Beatitudes. Through the grace of God, we embrace poverty of spirit. Our mournfulness over sin includes the brokenness we see around us every day; we meekly humble ourselves before God, which gives us perspective.

We hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness like starving, waterless people in the desert. A purity of heart grows in us, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. Peacemaking becomes our primary occupation, regardless of how we earn a living.

Despite the joy we would experience in connecting so closely to God, we must understand that none of this is the path to what the world would call the good life. If we become the kingdom citizens described in the Beatitudes, we no longer are citizens of this temporal world. We will be in conflict with the world, and we will at times be reviled for standing with God.

Early Christians discovered quickly that Jesus accurately used “when” and not “if” while talking about being persecuted for following him. It was hard to be a Christian; you had to give up a lot in this world.

At work, you constantly encountered situations where you might be in or near buildings involving emperor worship or worship of the Roman gods. Rigid adherence to the idea that Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar or some idol, could keep you from earning a living.

Friends tended to socialize at banquets, which usually were dedicated to particular gods. Even the meat served at these banquets usually came from sacrificial offerings to pagan gods. What was a Christian to do?

And unless you were blessed to be born into a Christian family, your newfound beliefs could even divide you from your parents, siblings or spouse.

There also was the constant slander a Christian had to face. Ugly rumors were spread about this new religion. Because of the references to the body and blood of Christ during communion, people on the streets began to say Christians were cannibals. Christians also were seen as sexually immoral because their gatherings were called love feasts and they greeted each other with a kiss.

As bad as all that was for a Christian, the real problem was political. Even before Jesus came, the Roman Empire had devised a loyalty test for its subjects. Once a year, citizens were expected to burn a pinch of incense in a temple dedicated to the “Spirit of Roma” and, later, the emperor, who had taken on the role of a god. Those who refused to do so were considered rebellious, a danger to society, and of course Christians regularly refused, knowing they could not declare any human or made-up god to be Lord over Jesus Christ.

Most of us have heard how some Christians even experienced martyrdom, choosing to die in often grisly ways rather than denying Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A good example is the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and a one-time disciple of the Apostle John.

How could people suffer so and persevere in their faith, even dying for Christ? Well, the answer is pretty simple. They had spent significant time living for Christ.

Let’s also not forget the promised reward. Not only do those persecuted and reviled for Jesus get to go to heaven, their reward is great in heaven. True faith in an abundant afterlife has sustained persecuted Christians for centuries.

I cannot predict whether anyone reading this will ever face such trying circumstances. We are already blessed in that such events rarely occur in the developed world, where freedom of religion is usually respected to at least some degree. But at the same time, circumstances can change very quickly. Just ask our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq or Syria, assuming you can find some who have not had to flee.

How would any of us face such a challenge? Well, I hope. We would stand with Christ regardless of the circumstances, I pray.

I am sure of this. The true answer lies in how firmly we live with Christ today, tomorrow, and every day of our lives leading to such a moment.


Beatitudes III: Making Peace

In our continuing series on the Beatitudes, I choose to pause at one particular verse because it seems to be where Jesus’ introduction to the Sermon on the Mount comes to a point.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Up to here, we’ve been hearing descriptions of characteristics of citizens of the kingdom of God. Within those characteristics, some action is implied, but we’ve been talking largely about a state of being.

But now we’ve reached peacemakers, what sounds like an occupation along the lines of carpenter or construction worker. Something gets done; something new exists once these people are at work. And in the case of peacemakers, it is a God-like work, a creative and restorative activity.

Assuming we have at least some of the necessary precursors within us, the attributes found in Matthew 5:1-8, how do we go about making peace?

It helps to look to Jesus, of course, to examine the greatest act of peacemaking in the history of the universe. Sin had destroyed the relationship between God and humanity, but Christ’s death on the cross made restoration possible. Thanks to Jesus, God among us, there once again is peace between Creator and creation.

Clearly, deep, sacrificial love—shown even to those who don’t deserve it—is a key part of peacemaking.

It also seems important to have internal peace, to have largely overcome the battle between good and evil going on in our minds. Again, we win this battle not by striving, but by inviting the Holy Spirit to do the work, by meeting God in those places he said he would always be: prayer, Scripture, worship, and Christian fellowship.

When we find ourselves ready for peacemaking in the world, we take on a high calling, one of the most difficult tasks a human being can attempt.

There have been a lot of peacemaking strategies employed in the history of the Christian church. I have always admired pacifists, the people who forgo violence in any form, although I have never been able to fully embrace pacifism. Perhaps God will correct my understanding one day, but for now my own experiences tell me there are situations where a pacifist response can turn into a sin of omission, a failure to act to prevent evil.

The opposite approach concerns me more, however. When we decide to be “people of action,” those who would battle evil with force, it’s amazing how quickly we can become what we fight against.

In terms of large-scale conflict, the early church tried to counter this tendency toward moral entropy with something called “Just War Theory,” but even the most noble-sounding wars we’ve fought seem to break some of the Christian boundaries for a righteous war. In World War II, we fought a very real evil, but we also managed to drop atomic bombs on civilian populations, violating one of the basic principles underlying the just prosecution of a war.

It’s clear historically and today we need more of a focus on Christian peacemaking. We see the need on the large scale—if last week’s photos of nerve-gassed children from Syria don’t make the point, I don’t know what does. We see the need on a small scale. Anyone ever been involved in a church war, where two sides line up against each other over some nonessential matter, destroying ongoing ministry in the process?

To equip myself as a peacemaker, the only thing I know to do is continue beyond the Beatitudes and delve more deeply into the Sermon on the Mount, particularly three of Jesus’ very difficult teachings clearly related to peacemaking.

In all three cases, Jesus is employing some holy hyperbole, describing behaviors that seem humanly impossible. We’re told not to be angry, and that speaking out in anger is as bad as murder. We hear we should not resist an evildoer. We’re shocked to learn we’re supposed to love our enemies.

Even with God’s help, I’m not sure I can ever maintain such a perfectly holy approach where I perceive the presence of evil. But perhaps by dwelling on these teachings and keeping them consciously before us, we can all make a real difference in bringing peace to the part of the world we occupy.

This past week, some of you may have heard the story of Antoinette Tuff, a Christian woman who drew heavily on her faith as she calmly convinced a mentally ill man to lay down his rifle after he fired a shot in the Georgia school where she works. If you haven’t heard about her strategy, take time to do so. She reached out to a lost man with empathy and love and made a real difference in the world in just half an hour.

Surely she is blessed, and surely she is evidence of what can be achieved.

Beatitudes II: Kingdom Desires

Matthew 5:1-12

Let’s continue with our series on the Beatitudes.

Remember a couple of key points: First, we’re seeing characteristics of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Second, these aren’t really characteristics we can strive for; instead, we simply open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s work, what Methodists call his “sanctifying grace,” and we find ourselves more like those whom Jesus calls blessed.

The verses we’ll look at today have a lot to do with holy desires. What do citizens of the kingdom truly want?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Righteousness” isn’t too hard to understand. If something is righteous, it is aligned with God, approved by God. In understanding this verse, what the modern world has is a problem of context.

Jesus is describing a kind of hunger and thirst we seldom experience in developed nations. In his day, the typical worker was seldom getting enough calories. Clean water was scarce, too, and it was easy to end up in a situation where you could be without one or both for days.

He’s talking about desiring righteousness the way a dying man might want food or water. Nothing else takes precedence.

This understanding helps us grasp another difficult teaching, the “camel through the eye of a needle” story found in Matthew 19:23-26. It’s likely the rich young man’s possessions, which sheltered him from the typical experience of others, kept him from feeling the desire he really needed to feel to be a disciple of Jesus.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

To understand the concept of mercy, you also have to understand the underlying concepts for the Greek and associated Hebrew words. To show mercy, a person had to also have a deep sympathy for the motivations and situation of the person receiving mercy.

A science fiction example would be Counselor Troi on Star Trek, whose telepathic abilities let her actually feel another person’s emotions and motivations. The Bible isn’t science fiction, however. We don’t have telepathy, but we do have the Holy Spirit binding us together and enhancing our compassion for one another.

Again, we have to let the Holy Spirit work. We have to be patient; we have to listen, even when we’re really angry with someone. Showing mercy takes time.

And of course, we need to remember we are all recipients of mercy. Because God took on flesh and dwelled among us, even suffering like us, we are forgiven the sins that should result in eternal separation from God. We’re given eternity and asked to show a little temporal mercy to others in return.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The idea of purity here is rooted in the concept of something unmixed: William Barclay uses examples of grain sifted of all its chaff, an army purged of the discontented and the cowardly, milk or wine unmixed with water, or a metal like gold with no “tinge of alloy.”

We of course are being called to be fully holy, our sin refined out of us. And of course, we cannot do it ourselves. Self-examination through prayer, study, worship and participation in the sacraments opens new aspects of our being to God.

Again, we’re talking about sanctification, God’s continuing work after we are saved, a concept Methodists love to emphasize.

The reward is particularly enticing. We see God now. We’re reminded again the kingdom is present now, that we live in eternity now, its joy available to us in this life.