1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
In our readings today, we hear about truth that just doesn’t make sense. In First Corinthians, Paul is trying to explain the logic of the Cross, the astounding claim that God chose to go about saving humanity by coming among us as a human, the One who then completely empties himself of everything the world understands as power and wisdom. What seems to be the worst possible outcome – Jesus’ brutal death – turns out to be the way to show the world God’s power and wisdom. With God, new life comes where you’d least expect it, redeeming the most horrifying thing you can imagine.
And then, in the Gospel reading, we heard Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes – again, the world turned upside down. In the moment, Jesus’ followers could easily look around their society and see who was blessed. Blessed were the wealthy, for they have more than enough. Blessed were the religious authorities, for they had privilege and respect. Blessed were the Romans, for they had power and might. You didn’t have to be a rabbi to understand who was blessed. But Jesus was teaching them something different: No, he says, things aren’t always what they seem. Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the true kingdom. Blessed are the meek and the powerless, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled with God’s own righteousness. (Matthew 5:3,5-6) Those who seem hopeless, aren’t. Instead, Jesus says, blessing comes where you’d least expect to receive it – to those at the end of their rope.
So, what does it mean to be blessed? That word rings our ears after this reading. Some versions of the Bible translate that word from Greek into English differently. Sometimes, you see it given as “happy,” which, to me, is even harder to understand. If you’re broken in spirit – to say nothing about facing sinking poverty or experiencing physical hunger – you’re not happy. But, Jesus says, you are blessed. In fact, you are a “privileged recipient of divine favor.”1
It’s also important to note that Jesus isn’t conferring a new state of blessing when he speaks these beatitudes, nor is he giving these classes of people some power they didn’t have before. He’s in the role of the color commentator in the broadcast booth, calling it like he sees it. The poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the persecuted, the pure in heart – they simply are blessed. And congratulations to them, for God promises that their sorrow will not stand. When God’s beloved community is realized in all its fullness, when the earth once again mirrors heaven as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, then the folks now suffering will participate in God’s blessing in all its fullness.
As I say these things, I have to take note of the news from the past couple of days. I don’t pretend to be an expert in public policy related to refugees and immigration. But I hear Jesus, in today’s reading, looking out over the people listening to him – the poor, the persecuted, the people in mourning – and observing how blessed they are in God’s eyes. And I can’t help but think about those who will be caught up in our president’s order to exclude refugees from seeking refuge in our nation of immigrants. There is much that is dubious in Scripture, much that requires a razor’s-edge approach to interpretation – and then, there are the clear imperatives. In Deuteronomy, a book that shares the perspective of the Israelites just before they took Promised Land away from the people living there, Moses says to God’s people, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords … who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (10:17-19) I hear the same imperative from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” he says. (Matthew 5:7). I know we’re afraid of potential terrorists. I get that. But being afraid doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to show mercy, particularly to those who seem to meet Jesus’ criteria of blessing. As he says, “Blessed are you when people revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” (Matthew 5:11). I grant you that those we are now turning away are not being persecuted for their faith in Jesus. But I would invite us prayerfully to consider under what circumstances Jesus would exclude the stranger seeking to come among us.
So, let’s recap: The law of Moses calls us to love the stranger. Jesus tells us that blessing comes to the people we’d least expect to receive it. Paul tells us that salvation comes from the God who chose to die a horrific, criminal death in order to call us home. And this morning, in our worship at 10:15, we will live out the astonishing mystery that we get to take part in this amazing process of dying and rising again by joining the blessed in baptism and living as blessings ourselves.
Today, we’ll baptize four new followers of Jesus who couldn’t get to church for baptisms two weeks ago because of the ice. In this rite and in their baptized lives, these children will be taking the same journey the children of Israel took when they passed through the Red Sea. They’ll be taking the same journey Jesus took when he passed through the grave and gate of death and walked away from an empty tomb. They’ll be taking the same journey we took in our own baptisms, and the same journey we take again and again in our own lives. As followers of Christ, we pass through the waters of death time after time, taking on the forces of Pharaoh and the seductions of self-centeredness, and we march on through to the other side. With Jesus, we rise from death as new creations, our lives made more than they once were, our hearts blessed by relationship with God, and our hands empowered to be blessings to the people God loves.
We find ourselves among the blessed when we join God in the blessed life. And that blessed life looks a very particular way. It’s a life of downward mobility. It’s a life of stooping into love.
The Psalms say that God “stoops to behold the heavens and the earth” and “takes the weak up out of the dust and lifts the poor from the ashes” (Psalm 113:5-6, BCP). Paul tells us that God chose the way of the Cross intentionally, shedding all power and “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7) to show that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah saw the same truth – that God’s way is the path of humility, and that what the Lord requires is not fancy sacrifice but simply “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). We are called to stoop down to behold God not only because God is our sovereign but because, astonishingly, God stooped down first – creating us for the joy of it, relating with us for the love of it, then dying and rising again for the victory of it, defeating sin and death to open the doors to eternity. We walk that way of salvation on our knees because God got down on God’s knees first. As the story goes, an old rabbi once said to his student, “In olden days, there were people who saw the face of God.” The young student replied, “Why don’t we see God’s face any more?” And the old rabbi said, “Because nowadays, no one stoops so low.”2
The exclamation point on this mystery is that we are called to stoop into the relationships that mark God’s way of blessing. We do it through joining in the apostles’ fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We do it through resisting evil and continually turning our hearts in God’s direction. We do it through living and telling our own story of Good News to others. We do it through seeking and serving Christ in all people. And we do it by respecting the dignity of every human being, no matter where they come from. Those are the promises we make in baptism – the roadmap of the way of the Cross, the job description of the blessed.
These can seem like abstract promises, a lovely vision that may seem impossible to achieve. But think about how God stoops into relationship with us. In Christ, God chose to make redemption personal. God’s M.O. is not to work in generalities but in specific times and places, linking real people with other real people, and changing the heart of one real person at a time. Our call is the same. None of us is called to love the world. Instead, each of us is called to love the person in front of you.
So, give it a shot. Each day this week, take someone seriously. Listen to someone’s story. Share some of your own story. Link someone with something life-giving. Invest yourself in the call to love small.
1. Danker, Frederick William. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 611.
2. Stoffregen, Brian. “The History of the Word ‘Makarios’ (‘Blessed’).” Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks. Available at: http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/allsaintb.htm. Accessed Jan. 27, 2017.