Nov. 1, 2020
1 John 3:1-3
In my attempt to read Christ’s Beatitudes again with fresh eyes I noticed two things I hadn’t noticed before. The first was that Jesus climbed the mountain alone and sat down, almost like this started out as a solitary moment. Only after did the disciples then join him. I had always envisioned that Jesus gave this great sermon, which extends for three long chapters, to a large crowd of religious seekers, but here it struck me that maybe it was a more intimate moment between him and his 12 closest friends, sitting together on a hill above and apart from the people.
My colleagues at lectionary group thought differently though. They noted that “disciples” here might refer instead to “followers” in general (not necessarily just the 12) and that sitting down to teach gatherings of people was a common practice from antiquity even up to more recent years. (Interestingly, that’s why certain endowed professorial positions at universities carry the title “chair.”) My colleagues also noted that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount not only begins with a reference to the crowds but also ends with the crowds of people astonished by his authority and teachings.
So, perhaps the moment looked more like my original vision of it with a large gathering surrounding Jesus as he taught, but still I’m not quite ready to let go of the intimacy that Matthew paints either. Again, Jesus saw the crowd and he went up the mountain and he sat down. His disciples joined him and he then laid before them words that would convey the very heart and mind and will and way of the Almighty. What I’m left with is a sense that both images are true and important. This sermon on the mount is personal and intimate; it is individually applicable; it’s meant for insiders, the community of faithful, who will bear its truth and live out its countercultural message of grace in the way they see the world and in the way they serve the world. AND the sermon is a message to the world, politically and socially applicable. It’s a message about the Kingdom of God clashing with the Kingdoms of a world that values the few and often subjugates the many. It is the message that God’s truth IS, that it’s on the move, that it is there despite appearances and that the human family regardless of its illegitimate and unfair distinctions is invited to be God’s family living God’s way, which one day will be on earth as fully as it is in heaven.
If you remember, I said there were two things that stood out to me this time around with the Beatitudes. The other observation is that the “pure in heart” get the best reward. Those who mourn will be comforted (which is hopeful); the meek will inherit the earth (which is beautiful); the merciful will in turn receive mercy (which right and just); but the pure in heart will receive nothing less than God, God’s very self. The pure in heart receive the very point and purpose of creation. The pure in heart receive the one whose love creates, sustains, and sanctifies our lives.
There’s some debate about whether or not these beatitudes are intended to be aspirational. The danger in pointing to how the lowly are lifted in the end is that it may encourage the comfortable to greater apathy. We don’t want to say to the mournful that their loss and the grief they feel is somehow a blessing and that God wills it in order to offer comfort. Nobody aspires to mourn, and given the tremendous loss we’ve known in this season of Covid, to say God wills it feels not so true of a loving God who takes on the brokenness of humanity and creation in order also to also redeem it.
Another debated question about the rewards of Christ’s beatitudes is the question of when. When will they be comforted? When will the meek inherit the earth? When will the just be filled? There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that the answer is not now, that the rewards Christ speaks of must be a future reality. But, Christian theology does a funny thing with time. We believe that God’s reality is both already and not yet and that what the future promises is taste-able in part even now.
I think this is particularly true of what’s promised to the pure in heart. Of course, purity may not be our favorite attribute. Maybe it sounds sanctimonious, joyless, rigid, or just devoid of fun. Purity may be that trait we’re tempted only to reluctantly pursue because it means giving up of ourselves more than we’d like to give. But, that’s likely our hang-ups getting in the way. My old friend from last week’s sermon, Hafiz, says that what it actually does is: “it cuts the plow reins.” He imagines you tethered to a big ox behind its back end, plowing through the mud. Purity comes and sets you free. It liberates us from the reins of illusion and the lesser claims on us that keep us from the truth of our lives. “What can purity do?” Hafiz asks. “It can lift your heart on a rising, bucking Sun that makes the soul hunger to reach the roof of Creation. It offers what the whole world wants – Real Knowledge and Power.” In other words (according to Hafiz), it offers God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus, “for they will see God.” Here’s a beatitude that is most certainly already and not yet. The reward of God is both a present reality and a future, fuller state of bliss. Purity isn’t the goal; it’s the liberating tool we have at our disposal that avails us to the goal, to the reward that encompasses all of the others. After all, the greatest comfort given to the mourning, and the meek, and the just, and the merciful alike is God. In this gift is their greatest reward – our greatest reward, – knowable in part now and in full later.
Sojourner’s founder, Jim Wallis, in a book about God’s politics from a number of years ago shares a powerful story that illustrates just what a profound role this now and later, already and not yet, aspect of our faith can really play in our lives. It happened while worshiping at the Cathedral of St. George with the Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu.
In the throws of Apartheid, Rev. Tutu is preaching to a congregation of oppressed South Africans when the government’s security police begin lining the sanctuary aisles with not only guns but recording devices and notepads, sending the unavoidable message that bold utterances would be punished. Tutu stops his sermon and meets the eyes of his enemies with a steely gaze and says, “You are powerful, very powerful.” “But,” he continues, “I serve a God who cannot be mocked…” “Then,” writes Wallis, “in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, ‘Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!’”
“He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began…dancing. We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”
It strikes me that in a way Tutu invited the authorities to a kind of purity by sacrificing the lies of the state for an ultimate truth that is claimable even now.
“Beloved,” writes 1 John, “we are God’s children NOW; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; when he is revealed, we will be like him.” What we are now is determined by what we know will one day be. Our hope in the present is rooted in the promise of our future. In tasting that future now, whether its dancing in the streets of South Africa or simply logging into church and letting the Good News of God’s love shape our souls, we show the world a most remarkable vision of truth and hope.
The saints seem to know this. And so we give thanks for the witness of their lives and for the knowledge that sainthood needn’t be all that far away.
 Hafiz, “I Heard God Laughing,” page 70.
 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, page 358.