Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Cursed are the presumptuous in spirit, for theirs is the delusion of self-righteousness.
Cursed are the cold-hearted, for they have no empathy.
Cursed are the aggressive, for they take what is not theirs by intimidation.
Cursed are those who hunger and thirst for worldly gain, for they will never truly be satisfied, and will lose it all in the end.
Cursed are the unmerciful, for no one is going to feel sorry for them or help them.
Cursed are the corrupt in heart, for they can’t see what God has done for them, much less thank Him.
Cursed are the troublemakers, for they stir up hatred and conflict, and are children of the devil.
Cursed are those who persecute the righteous, for they reject the kingdom of heaven.
Cursed are you when you are not reviled or persecuted or have no one uttering all kinds of evil against you on Jesus’ account. Shudder and be fearful, for your reward is only on earth, for you are not following in the footsteps of the prophets and proclaiming the message of the Lord.
No, those are not the Beatitudes. If anything, we probably ought to term those the “Don’t Be” attitudes. That is, those things aren’t the thoughts, words, and actions of a disciple of Jesus. They are the behaviors of those who work at odds with what Jesus is, does, teaches, and expects of us. They are the behaviors of you and me, sometimes even on our best days.
For we are rarely any of those “blesseds” that Jesus proclaimed on the mountain that day, and even when we are, it’s often out of selfish motivations, not purity of heart. By turns, we can be arrogant about our own holiness compared to the behavior of others; we can give a cold shoulder to the suffering; we can push and push and push some more for the things we want, ignoring or downplaying the needs and wants of others.
Instead of hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that reconciles us with our Creator and assures eternal blessings, we crave the things that elevate us in the eyes of the world and draw us closer to the temptations of Satan: knowledge, wealth, glamour, power, self-assuredness. We work far harder and spend more time and money trying to look younger than we do seeking to grow wiser. And that’s because we seek to do everything ourselves, or expect the world to give it to us because we’re somehow deserving of it.
We can’t, and we’re not, and the more we try to convince ourselves otherwise, the deeper we fall. Persisting in this, we eventually are no longer up on the mountain listening to Jesus, but find ourselves wandering through the valley of the shadow of death, without the Good Shepherd’s guidance and comfort. In doing so, we repeatedly and continually separate ourselves from the fellowship of saints, living and departed, in which He has placed us. Lord, have mercy on us for this. Give us repentance; give us faith. Restore us by Your grace to let our sainthood overshadow our sinfulness.
The Beatitudes, those “blessed are” statements which make up our Gospel lesson today, are perhaps the most well known part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In this, the first of His five major discourses in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus begins to teach large groups of people publicly.
Up to this point, very little of Jesus’ words have been recorded. Jesus has spoken to John the Baptist, saying that it is proper that He be baptized at this time. He has spoken to Satan, resisting his temptations by rightly and effectively using the word of God to defeat the devil’s lies at every turn. And, He has spoken to Peter and Andrew, James and John, calling them from their vocations fishing on the water to a new task of fishing with water—and with Word. Apart from that, Matthew has only told us that Jesus had been teaching in the synagogues, healing the sick, and becoming famous. His only other quote attributed to our Lord is the generalized statement, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
But now, being followed by large crowds more eager to see His miracles than hear His teaching, Jesus begins to reveal His true mission. His words begin here in chapter 5, and will continue on with no narrative comment from Matthew until the end of chapter 7.
Within this discourse will be Jesus’ teaching on salt and light, calling us to be witnesses and positive influences in the world. There are His warnings that the Law is not abolished, but rather fulfilled by Him and yet not relaxed for anyone, in any way. We also find His amplifications and expansions of the Law, His several statements of, “You have heard it said… but I say to you.” He warns against boasting of your piety or calling attention to your religiosity, and He teaches the Lord’s Prayer. There is much, much more, and entire books have been written just about Jesus’ many teachings here. But it all starts with these Beatitudes.
Right up front, we should notice something important about how Jesus works. He doesn’t being this teaching of the faith by giving a big, slick, showy presentation. He doesn’t do a miracle as a visual aid. He doesn’t zap the knowledge into their heads by way of telepathy or an internal warming of the heart.
Rather, He opened His mouth, and spoke to them, in human language that they could understand. He proclaims His message with His voice. By such common means comes the power of God. So it remains, for as Scripture teaches elsewhere, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Have you ever looked closely at the Beatitudes? Have you sensed a pattern to them; a progression as they continue through their nine “blessed”? In them, you see a movement from a shallow weakness of faith to such great strength of faith that one can withstand the reviling, persecution, and false accusations of the enemies of Christ. Yet—even in such suffering—the one who remains faithful rejoices in gladness, trusting that his or her Lord has promised great rewards in heaven to the one who stands firm against these assaults.
Look at them again, and see if you don’t discover the path of your own journey in faith. We begin poor in spirit, and yet on account of Christ and what He has done for us by His own life and through the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of heaven is ours.
We mourn, because we wallow in the sadness of this life and the fear and sense loss we feel at the departure of loved ones, rather than grasping the joy of suffering ended, the victory gained and granted.
We remain meek and lukewarm in our faith, fearful of losing or failing or poverty, rather than trusting that God will grant all that we need, and more, if we step forth boldly in His name.
We hunger and thirst for righteousness, because after realizing that this is granted only in and by and through Christ, we do not seek every opportunity to have it granted again and again in absolution, sermon, and Supper. And even when we do, we often fail to fully trust that in these gifts, the Lord has truly worked righteousness in us, has filled us with Himself, and driven out the devil and the doubts he tries to bring upon us. And yet, Jesus has fully satisfied both His Father’s justice and His Father’s love in His suffering, death, and resurrection. What’s more: He’s fully satisfied us with all that we need, even when we don’t realize, accept, or trust that as we ought.
It’s here in the Beatitudes that we see a shift in the pattern, don’t we? Those first four speak of weakness, failure, neediness. But now, enriched in spirit, comforted in sorrow, emboldened by His promises, and satisfied in righteousness, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and enlisted and enabled to do great things for the sake of His kingdom:
We can become merciful, for there is no reason for us to hold back on sharing the gifts of His kingdom with others. They are inexhaustible. They are for all. We need not hide them, hoard them, or hold them back. Made pure in heart, we not only see God—we see God in others. We see God in ourselves. We see how we are all knit together in the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church, and days like All Saints are not longer reminiscences of loss and sorrow over who and what we do not have any longer, but celebrations of all that has been given to us and to all who believe, both living and departed. All that, we continue to have and be given. All that, is our promised inheritance in the life to come.
No longer captive to the pressures of playing individuals, organizations, ideas, or nations off against one another to further our own aims, we are enabled to become peacemakers. We seek out common interests, elimination of rivalries and resentments and selfishness, we seek reconciliation of all those God has created in His image. But we do so always remembering that the most important—the only true Peacemaker who truly matters—is Jesus Christ; the only reconciliation that has lasting effect is the one which He has accomplished for us with the Father.
What, then, of the last two Beatitudes? Those that speak of being persecuted for righteousness sake? Those which say being reviled, spoken badly of, ridiculed, and unjustly punished for the sake of confessing the name of Jesus is a good thing?
It never looks that way, does it? The world and our sinful nature look upon any suffering, embarrassment, pain, or setback as something wrong and undesirable. Satan whispers in our ears just as he did in Jesus’ ears: “Don’t do it. Avoid the suffering. Take the easy path. Enjoy yourself. Take the fruits of this life, and be comfortable.”
It takes a mature faith to accept persecution, and our faith is never fully mature. We constantly circulate, again and again, through this progression from poor in spirit to rejoicing in persecution. It’s a spiritual battle of Chutes and Ladders on a cosmic scale. We backslide, we fall, and we must constantly surrender to God in repentance. But He also continually lifts us up once again with His grace and mercy, so that we can see His work in our lives, be called His children, and face our persecutions not just with stoic acceptance, but to actually embrace them with joy, knowing that it means we are bound inseparably with Jesus.
There’s a key element to this suffering on account of the faith that we often forget. Those who were true martyrs and enduring saints in the course of human history recognized it, but we often do not. And it’s this: You cannot be persecuted for righteousness’ sake unless you have been made righteous. You cannot suffer and be reviled and ridiculed as a Christian unless people know you are a Christian. If your faith is not visible—if you cannot be identified as any different from the rest of our culture by the expression of your trust in God—then even if you’re being hounded, reviled, cursed, and discriminated against, it’s not on Jesus’ account. Only believers—believers whom other can see and know are Christians—can be persecuted for the faith.
It takes more than just wearing a cross as jewelry. Movie stars, athletes, and trashy pop singers can do that. It takes more than showing up in a service more Sundays than not. False prophets who line their pockets and live in mansions can do that.
It takes the sort of trust and devotion that draws you to, and immerses you in, the Scriptures when sleep, breakfast, or the morning news seems more appealing. It takes the sort of dedication that leads you to teach Sunday School, serve on a board, or do the hundreds of thankless tasks that enable a congregation to function. It takes the sort of sacrifice that means a smaller house, less prestigious car, or less glamorous vacation so that you actually feel the pinch in your lifestyle. It takes a willingness—as we confess in our confirmation rite—to suffer all, even death, rather than falling away from the Church.
Those are commitments most of would prefer to avoid. Yet among the many saints who have gone before us, those whom we celebrate this All Saints’ Sunday, have been those whose steadfastness was both apparent and unwavering. They suffered great worldly harm for the sake of bearing, confessing, and living in Christ’s name, but they also experienced all the “blesseds” that Jesus taught in His Beatitudes.
You, too, have been bound to those promises of your Lord in your baptism and your death into Christ’s kingdom. You have been blessed in all these ways, and more. So rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
In the name of Him who alone makes us All Saints, X Jesus Christ. Amen.