November 6, 2016 “Identity” – Matthew 5:1-12
November 6, 2016 – All Saints Sunday
They laughed at my hat. It was a garishly colored stocking cap my friend’s grandmother made for me when I was in Boy Scouts. On our church backpack trip in August I took it out to wrap around my dinner package to keep it warm. Others laughed and asked if I ever wore that cap. I said, “Not in public.”
That’s the way it is with Christians and Jesus’ teaching in our text today. We appreciate the thought behind the gift. Ed’s grandmother was kind to make me a cap when she made one for Ed. But we don’t often take it out and almost never in public. The Sermon on the Mount is treated that way. It is lots prettier than my stocking cap, but it’s not very practical and Christians aren’t really going to try and live that way.
The Beatitudes in particular are not an everyday part of our lives. As deeply as we cherish them, we keep them stashed away. When we do pull them out, they leave us a bit embarrassed. My last sermon on the Beatitudes was in 1999.
Clarence Bauman wrote about all the Sermon on the Mount, “Many enlightened minds admire what it says without affirming what it means. They assume, albeit regretfully, that its message does not apply to contemporary life and that the ethic of Jesus is therefore irrelevant—a beautiful, irresistible impossibility, a conspiracy to ensure our failure.”
The Beatitudes, along with the rest of what Jesus said there on the mountainside, have become the greatest “white elephant” in history. Everyone welcomes and praises the gift when it is received. Then it’s immediately placed out of sight where it will not bother us.
We are the folks in Monty Python’s irreverent, The Life of Brian. The Python bunch are in the crowd as Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount. But they miss half of what He says. Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and one asks, “What was that?” Another tells him, “I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’” A woman complains, “Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” Someone else explains, “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Do the Beatitudes make any more sense to us? Are we any closer to being peacemakers than we are to being cheesemakers? What connection do these lovely phrases have with a vicious election or with homeless people, with diapers or clogged drains? How do they speak to us in 2016?
Why do we ask such questions? How are we so out of touch with our Lord Jesus that we fail to appreciate His finest words? Why are we confused at all about this glorious passage at the beginning of everything Jesus had to say? Why aren’t the Beatitudes printed on Christian T-shirts instead of our own clever, trite thoughts espousing dubious theology?
Neglect of the Beatitudes arises out of a long-standing misreading. Robert Guelich says Christians regard them as “entrance requirements” to the kingdom of heaven. We see them as Jesus’ expectations for His followers. In order to be blessed, you must embody these qualities. You and I must be meek or merciful or peaceful or pure in heart in order to have God’s blessing. The blessings are rewards for achieving a certain set of virtues. But that’s frightening, not comforting.
It feels like we can no more do what the Beatitudes say, than I could wear that silly cap in public. It’s best to put them away quickly and get on to other texts. So interpretations are offered that are as fanciful as a metaphorical interpretation of “cheesemakers.”
One old interpretation is to regard the Beatitudes (and the rest of the Sermon) as counsels rather than commands. They are not aimed at all Christians, but to those who wish to pursue the highest form of Christian life. Ordinary believers need only attend to commands. Those seeking the deepest spiritual life must also obey the counsels. The Beatitudes are for the spiritual elite, the special forces of Christian living.
Protestants rightly rejected the division of Christians into ordinary and extraordinary. Just as we are celebrating today, every follower of Jesus is a saint. Yet Protestants, notably Martin Luther, arguing that the Beatitudes are not just for elite Christians, argued that they are for no one at all. What Jesus said here applies only to Himself. No one else is meek enough or pure enough or peaceful enough for these blessings. Jesus speaks them only to convict us of the depth of our sin so we will turn to Him for forgiveness. It’s like a mother letting a toddler try to dress himself. She knows he can’t, but eventually, with his head trapped in the arm of his T-shirt, he will give up and accept the help he needs.
Later Protestants, following a scheme called “dispensationalism,” decided the Beatitudes were indeed for all Christians, but only in the future. They describe what Jesus means us to become, but not in the present age. You will receive this blessed life when Jesus comes back. The Beatitudes are for later.
All three interpretations reduce the guilt we have when we view the Beatitudes as rewards for living the way we really ought to live. And all three interpretations miss the blessing in the blessings. They turn them into impossible standards which in effect curse us rather than bless us, unless we have a good reason to ignore them.
Jesus never intended any of the above. By blessing the poor in spirit, He never meant to condemn those who are rich in spiritual life. By blessing those who are grieving, He did not mean for you to feel guilty when you are cheerful. He did not intend to swamp you with a list of qualifications for the kingdom, leaving you to find some devious interpretive road around them or else bog down in an overwhelming sense of failure.
The Beatitudes are not a description of the impossible life you should have, but don’t. These blessings are the grand, gorgeous, gracious announcement that the life you have always wanted is really possible. They are not entrance requirements for the kingdom. They are God’s proclamation that all the prerequisites which the world might imagine have been abolished. Anyone may enter the kingdom.
Dallas Willard interprets the Beatitudes like this, “They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship with Jesus.” Jesus sat there with a crowd of humanity before Him, and picked out a poor man, destitute financially and destitute spiritually. He steals food just to stay alive. He has no time and no interest for prayer or for worship or any other part of spiritual life. He is lonely, selfish, and mean-spirited. Jesus looked at a man like that and pronounced him blessed, because the kingdom of heaven is a gift.
The Teacher looked around again and saw a couple weeping, grieving the loss of a child. And He blessed them and all who mourn, declaring that in God’s kingdom they would find comfort. His eye then fell upon a shy, quiet, and scared woman standing outside the crowd. He announced to her and to all the frightened ones like her that they would not remain on the edge of things, that their inheritance was beyond imagining, encompassing the whole earth. And so it went, Jesus pointing toward particular individuals—the men and women you would have thought the least blessed—and blessing them in incredible ways.
In one of the many verses of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” Charles Wesley praised Jesus’ teaching:
He speaks, and listening to his voice
New life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.
The blessings are for real. They are directed at real people in really difficult circumstances. They are not an impossible dream or a promise for the future. They are an immediate offer of entrance to the kingdom for anyone who will. They are a way of saying that no situation in life bars you from God’s blessing.
It’s what we read in Daniel 7:15 this morning. In the midst of all the chaos of rising and falling empires, incoming and outgoing world leaders, “the saints of the most high will receive a kingdom…” God will bless the people who turn to Him in Jesus no matter what their circumstances are. The Beatitudes are not standards of perfection. They are an identity card for people who are saints by the grace of God.
Willard’s interpretation of the Beatitudes has difficulties. It fits very well with the first four. Poverty, grief, meekness, and the absence of righteousness are not virtues. But starting in verse 7, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and maybe even the suffering of persecution sound like something to achieve. Mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking are admirable qualities. We praise the martyr who patiently endures. From blessing the spiritually deficient, it appears Jesus moved on to bless the spiritually capable.
Dallas Willard says Jesus would not change horses in the middle of the stream. As our perfect teacher, Jesus would not switch the meaning of these blessings, making it a gracious gift for some, and a merited reward for others. So the last Beatitudes also bless those who are deficient in some way. The “merciful” are chumps, the sort of people who are so forgiving that others walk all over them. The “pure in heart” are perfectionists, the kind who are not happy with anyone, including themselves. The peacemakers are those who always get themselves caught in the middle of things. And the persecuted, of course, do not choose to suffer. They just get in trouble. Jesus picks all these out of the crowd and proclaims that despite it all, God is blessing them too.
I am not sure I want to let myself off the hook quite that easily. Mercy and purity of heart can be understood in Willard’s way, but they also name qualities God wants me to have. Mercy, purity, peacefulness, and courage to suffer for the Lord are good virtues.
So Jesus may in fact switch gears in the middle of the Beatitudes. He may move from blessing spiritual dwarves to blessing spiritual giants. But He did not change an offering of grace into an offering of reward. His message was always this: everyone and anyone may receive His blessing.
My first year in high school I went out for basketball, my one serious effort at sports. For four weeks, I ran laps, ran the bleachers, ran lay-up drills and generally ran myself silly trying to make the sophomore team. Halfway, at two weeks, the coach announced the first cut. He sat us down in the bleachers and read off the names of those who being kept on the team. I was surprised and thrilled to hear my name called.
One of my friends was cut, though, and he was bitter. He stood five foot six, and the next day he said to me, “Bilynskyj, you’re no good. The only reason they kept you is you’re tall.” He was right, because two weeks later, in the second round of cuts, my name was not read. Height was really all I had going for me. I wasn’t fast, couldn’t shoot, couldn’t dribble and had no sense of the court at all. Our coach didn’t have time for a short guy with fair skills and he didn’t have time for a tall guy with lousy skills. He wanted a winning team.
Both my friend and I might have learned to play some good ball if we had had the chance. We would never have been stars, but we could have become better if a coach had taken the time to train us. But as it generally is in the world, we never got the opportunity.
The Beatitudes are God’s word that anyone who wants to makes the team. Both losers and winners enter the kingdom. Anyone may train for it. God has time and grace and blessing for us all. These verses are neither the rule that you have to be a spiritual winner in order to receive reward, nor the paradox that you must be a spiritual loser in order to find grace. The blessing is that abundant life in God’s kingdom is a gift of grace, as Kay said last week, for anyone who will receive it.
It’s All Saints Sunday for us. People hear the word “saint” and imagine we are talking about special people, exceptionally spiritual and holy people. And maybe we are. But we’re also talking about anyone who loves and trusts Jesus, even if not so special or holy. Jesus’ blessing is for everyone. That’s all it takes to be saint. You can be one too.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 The Sermon on the Mount: The Modern Quest for Its Meaning (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985) p. xi.
 The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), p. 106.
 See The Divine Conspiracy, pp. 118, 119.