A Sermon by Eleanor Childs – Reader – 30 October 2016
(The Beatitudes Luke 6 v 20-31 and Ephesians 1 v 11-end )
The Beatitudes: meaning ‘blessings’. Probably, along with the 10 Commandments, the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, they are the best-known passage in the Bible – at least for the older generation. Now I don’t know about you, but for a very long time I didn’t understand the beatitudes, and to be honest, I didn’t really like them very much. Who wants to be poor and hungry and grieving and suffering? For to me those sounded like the conditions for being blessed by God and I didn’t really want to meet those conditions. Reading the beatitudes just left me feeling rather guilty because I didn’t want to be poor and miserable. And how could I worship a God who required me to be poor and miserable? But I was greatly helped to understand them by this book which is by a Christian philosopher and theologian called Dallas Willard ‘The Divine Conspiracy’, which I’ve drawn on for this sermon.
There are 2 sets of beatitudes in Scripture, one set in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, which contains 9 beatitudes and one in Luke which contains 4 beatitudes delivered in a sermon on the plain. Aren’t you glad our lectionary reading for today is from Luke? – 4 is quite enough for one morning!
One of the main points that Willard makes is that these are not conditions for being blessed by God. He points to the context of this sermon. Jesus had just spent the night in prayer on the mountain before calling 12 out of a large crowd of his disciples to be apostles. I’ll read the preceding verses to our passage which weren’t included in our lectionary reading. ‘He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.’ This was a really mixed bag of people – his disciples, the sick, poor, desperate, inquirers, searchers, who had come from all over the place. They all wanted to touch Jesus and it says his power was available to all.
Then Jesus, looking at his disciples, says: Blessed are you who are poor…Blessed are you who hunger now…who weep..who are excluded…’. The point Jesus is making in these blessings, is that the kingdom of God is available to all through contact with Jesus. We don’t have to qualify for the kingdom of God. This huge crowd with a multitude of needs and enquiries has experienced Jesus’ welcome, his love and power. He has just demonstrated that before their eyes. He knows the assumptions of his disciples which were current in the society of his day. People believed that riches and honour were a sign of God’s blessing and that poverty and misfortune were a sign of God’s disapproval. Not so, says Jesus. He has just given them a demonstration of the availability of the kingdom of God to those who come to him. His blessing is available to all who come, whatever their condition. The needy and the ill, the suffering and the despised of human society are welcomed.
Now He is not saying that their need or suffering are conditions of receiving God’s blessing, or in any way merit it. But no way are they an obstacle to the grace of God, if they come to Jesus. Jesus overturned all human notions of who merited salvation or blessedness. Merit didn’t come into it. What humans perceived as obstacles to being blessed – poverty or hunger or grief or social exclusion led to blessing for those who came to Jesus. All those who come to Jesus in faith whether searchers after truth or healing or deliverance from the power of evil will be blessed. Jesus is overturning the whole idea of salvation being the result of merit. It was ultimately the reason why he was crucified. He deeply offended human and religious notions of merit. Matthew records when the chief priests and elders questioned Jesus’ authority, Jesus answered them with ‘I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you For John came to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did’. Scandalous, isn’t it. The most despised elements of society entering the kingdom before good upright citizens. God’s upside down kingdom. It doesn’t make sense humanly speaking.
But then, grace does not make sense humanly speaking. And grace is the core Christian concept of the New Testament. Grace – God’s unmerited favour, his love, forgiveness and acceptance – is offered to us all, regardless of what we have done. But we need empty hands and willingness to follow Christ in order to receive it. And the pride of those who trust in their own goodness and merit is offended by such an offer. Paul says in Ephesians 2 ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works so that no one can boast.’
Jesus declares to his disciples and the large crowd that despite being poor, ill, grieving and persecuted – or about to be persecuted – for his sake, that they are blessed now through their contact with him and all will be well ultimately for them. It’s a complete reversal of what the world would consider blessed. And we notice he is not saying their conditions are meritorious in themselves or have earned God’s favour. Neither are they instructions on how to obtain God’s blessing. Many people have known God’s blessing without being poor or hungry or persecuted. He is speaking to this crowd around him, whose need or spiritual hunger have brought them to him and whom he has touched and healed. The religious system of Jesus’ day excluded such people. God’s grace knows no barriers or distinctions or impediments. The gospel of the kingdom is that no-one is beyond beatitude because the kingdom of God is available to all. Isn’t that good news? Great news! There are no circumstances in our lives that need exclude us. Jesus has just demonstrated that by his actions towards this motley crowd. And he wants to underline it to his disciples.
The four blessings are followed by four woes. Woes expressed warning and sorrow. And the woes here are the reverse of the blessings. The woes apply to the rich, the well-fed, the fun-loving and the celebrities. Now does that mean that if you’re a wealthy, well-thought of party goer, you are automatically excluded from the kingdom of heaven? No, of course not. Jesus’ activities demonstrated that he went among the rich and well-fed and to parties. In the previous chapter, we read of his approaching Levi, the rich tax-collector and calling him to follow him. He became the apostle Matthew. And the first thing Matthew did was throw a party and invite all his rich friends to meet Jesus. I imagine there was plenty of laughter there. And it met with condemnation from the religious establishment. Jesus had rich and influential friends as well as poor and needy. So why these woes? I think it is because there are special dangers attached to wealthy and comfort and love of pleasure. They minister to our pride. They insulate us from the realities of life – our need for God and our relationship with our neighbour. All too easily they can function as rival gods in our lives and we imagine that we are self-sufficient. Materialism and pleasure and status seduce us.
Now I’m going to skip over the final section of our gospel passage which actually needs a whole sermon on its own and look at our epistle reading, for it too is about blessing. Unfortunately, our lectionary reading begins in the middle of a sentence at verse 11. In the Greek v 3-14 are one long sentence which begins with ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.’ Every spiritual blessing. What are these spiritual blessings? Forgiveness, welcome into God’s family, the assurance of his loving presence and power, peace and purpose. And a glorious future. When you go home I’d urge you all to read the whole first chapter of this epistle and note how many times it says ‘in Christ’. We who have truly come to Christ in faith and committed our lives to him ‘in Him’. We are given his Spirit and are -v.12- ‘destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.’ That is our purpose in life. That is the purpose of the church. And Paul prays for these Ephesian Christians – who are already known for their faith and love – that they may know God more and more, that they may know the hope he has called them to, and the riches of his resources and the greatness of his power demonstrated above all in the Resurrection.
Our PCC away day was about refocussing our vision as a church. Most of us wrote down spiritual growth as our priority. This is what Paul is praying for the Ephesian Christians. Our vision as a church is not about buildings, it’s not about finances, it’s about living to the praise and glory of God. It’s about knowing him better, drawing on his resources, experiencing his power at work among us.
And how do we do this? Through paying serious attention to Scripture. How often do we read the Bible expecting God to speak to us? Through listening prayer. Prayer is a two-way communication. Far too much of our prayer is our asking God to do what we want, rather than listening to what he wants. Through worship which is the expression of our love and blesses both Him and us. Through encouraging one another. And last but absolutely vital, through obedience to God’s commands. Without that, the rest is null and void. Scripture, prayer, worship, encouraging each other and obedient action. The traditional means to spiritual growth. If we do these things we will indeed ‘live to the praise of his glory.’
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. To him be praise and glory.’ Amen.