For the past number of years I have been fascinated by the beatitudes. The Beatitudes, which in Latin means ‘Blessings’, are the eight blessings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we just heard from Matthew. I am in part fascinated by this speech because it surely represents on the part of the author of the Gospel of Matthew the framework of the message Jesus is bringing in his ministry. It is a kind of inaugural speech at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that will lay the foundation of what He is trying to say to us and what He believes the kingdom of God, of which we are all a part, to be about. I believe the Beatitudes are all that and much more. I believe the Beatitudes also contain God’s primary message to us and encapsulate what the Bible is really all about.
As I just mentioned my thinking on the Beatitudes has been a work in progress for a few years now and I can trace it back to one course I took at The Vancouver School of Theology. Let me briefly outline how my thinking developed from there to here. I was taking a summer course as a part of my studies towards my degree of Master of Divinity. The course was titled The Theology and Practice of Prayer, and as the name clearly suggests, it was about praying. Before I started the course I joked with a few people that as I am training to become a Priest, I thought it would be a good idea if I learned how to pray. I was being a little facetious and as it turns out more than just a little arrogant in that I was pretty sure I knew how to pray, and that what I would learn from the course would be just a little more in depth knowledge around praying, just a little more information around the margins.
I am old enough to know that you should never make assumptions, but I guess still too young to always follow my own advice in this regard. I did learn a few techniques of prayer that I had not tried before, but the course, as it turns out, was about much more than prayer. In fact it was simply one of the best courses I have ever taken. The instructor was Jim Crukshank, who is I am sure very familiar to long time Anglicans in this part of the world and who of course preached here at St John’s last year. Jim taught for many years at VST, but he was also the Dean of the Cathedral downtown and for ten years the Bishop of the Cariboo before it had to close down as a result of the residential school settlement in that diocese. More than anything else though, Jim is a very wise man whose faith seems to come from very deep within his being. At the beginning of the class Jim would sit down - with a bible in front of him - and he would start to describe what a particular passage meant to him. Jim’s love for scripture is wonderfully infectious, and when he would explain the passage in some detail, I found myself listening like a spellbound school child to a sensational teacher who is particularly good at telling a story and imparting some important knowledge along the way.
Jim mused over many things, but two observations he made stood out for me and I believe they relate closely to the meaning of the Gospel passage for today, the Beatitudes, and why I think they are so very important. Let me begin with a question Jim asked of us students in his class - and it is this: What do you think the Bible is about? If you ask this of the average person on the street some might say, “Well, it’s a book of rules, it shows us what we should and should not do”. Others might say, “ The Bible is about people trying to connect with God”. But these opinions, while widely held, are really not accurate; they are not really biblical. If you read the Bible from cover to cover like a book what you get is story after story after story about how God is trying to connect with us because God loves us and believes in us and wants the best for us. And the only condition to God’s love for us is opening the gates of our soul and letting God come into our lives and for Christians the person whom we meet at that particular gate is Jesus. The love of Jesus is the answer to our spiritual hunger and thirst, the guide to our journey and the rock upon which we build our foundation. What is the Bible about? It is about Gods unending, unceasing, unconditional love for us all.
The second misconception that Jim talked about, and that I would like to share with you, is that Christianity is not about salvation. I think this would come as a surprise, indeed perhaps even a shock to many Christians. But as Jim pointed out, if you read the Gospels and the Epistles you really cannot come to any other conclusion than that you and I and everyone else are already saved. That’s what happened at the cross. Jesus died for our salvation and therefore our salvation was and is secured. Our salvation was and is preserved for all time and for ever and ever, amen. There is nothing more you can do to secure your salvation than was already done for you at Calvary. Your salvation, our salvation was already bought and paid for in full at the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, the next time you see one of these televangelists earnestly asking you if you are saved, “My sisters and brothers are you saved”, you can equally as earnestly answer them, “Yes, actually I am”. And then if I were you I would pick up your remote and change to the Food Channel.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that “You are the salt of the earth”, and that “You are the light of the world”. The words ‘you are’ from Jesus are an absolute; they are unequivocal, and when God uses them, they are irrevocable. They are a sure thing, a true and unchangeable and permanent assurance. The love that God is promising you is stronger than you or I can imagine it, and it will never fail. So why does God make such a promise? Well according to Jim Cruickshank a part of the answer can be found in The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians. In the introduction the author of the letter explains the spiritual blessings found ‘in Christ’. It says, in part, that we are in Christ and that Christ is in us and that this was the plan from the beginning of time. Another way of putting this is that when God looks at you, God sees Jesus. When God looks at you He sees His beloved one - when God looks at you She sees one with whom She is well pleased. When God looks at you He sees his child because that is exactly what you are. It is that simple, and it is that amazing.
So what then isChristianity about? Christianity, I believe, is about God’s love for us and the love God wants us to share with others. Moreover, that love from God and our love shared with others is transformative and this gives us the freedom to be the person God wants us to be. As I have mentioned before Jesus said, “And you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”. The truth you need to know is that you are free to just be you and free to fully grow into the person God made. God is with you and for you, come what may. Life is not about power, it is not about sin or salvation, it is certainly not about earthly riches or material success, it is about the power of the love God has for you, and what you can do, what you can accomplish with that love. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Life is about reaching your full potential with the love of God. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”. The question then is not how much does God love us, but rather how generous will you allow God to be with His love for you?
And so we arrive at the Beatitudes - this most unlikely of inaugural speeches. Of all the great speeches that have launched political or social movements I have never heard one like this and I don’t think I ever will. Jesus starts his ministry and says, “Blessed, blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, blessed are those who are hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers and the persecuted”. For a very long time when I looked at the Beatitudes I think I lead myself astray from their true meaning because I said to myself I wonder which one am I? Am I the meek one, or am I the poor one, or am I the peacemaker? You get the idea. What I did not realize was that Jesus here is describing all of us throughout our whole lives. We can be and will be are, at one time or another, mournful or merciful or peaceful or poor or meek. We are all the Beatitudes. If this is the case, and I believe it is, let us take away the first part of the phrases, the “blessed are those” and just say the last part of the phrases.
These are the things God, through Jesus, says that you are and what, through love, you will receive. In short, these are the absolute, unequivocal, irrevocable promises God makes to you because of the love God has for you: You will be in the kingdom of heaven, You will be comforted, You will inherit the earth, you will be filled with the spirit, You will receive mercy, You will see God, You are the children of God, your reward shall be great in heaven, You are the salt of the earth, and You are the light of the world.
Now that is a love letter from God to you. All that God asks is that you receive it. Receive this love from God and know that you are free to be who God intended you to be. Do you ever wonder if you measure up to God? When you think that remember this; when God looks at you She sees Jesus. When God looks at you He sees His child and a saviour to others. To me this is God’s primary message to us; this is what the Bible is really about.
Blessed are you when you are down because God will sit with you and help you up when you are ready. Blessed are you who are in distress because God will sooth your mind when you lean into God’s direction. Blessed are you who are confused and in doubt because God is waiting for you to Give Him a chance and be embraced by His love. When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth”, and “You are the light of the world”, He is saying you can count on Him for all the love, support, strength, courage and inner peace you will ever need. You are the light of the world and this realization should give you the freedom to be fully alive, to be fully who you are and in turn you can help others with the love given to you. You can be a light to others with the love from God by which you have been blessed. Indeed, blessed are all of us, for we are all the beloved children of God. And that is God’s pure and profound and primary message to us. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.