November 3, 2019, The Fellowship of the Crucified, Luke 6:20-31 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The gospel reading from Luke today comes from a long sermon we call the “Sermon on the Plain”, like the “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew. On that day, Jesus was preaching to a huge crowd. Luke says Jesus “stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon – literally, from one end of Israel to the other – who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” People had come to hear Jesus from miles and miles around, thousands and thousands of people. They were desperate people, people with sicknesses that had no cure, people who had been oppressed by evil spirits for years – which may have been real spiritual oppression, or it may have been mental illnesses that no one understood. These were the multitudes of those who had fallen through the cracks in Jewish society: the unwashed, the unwanted, the unwelcome. When Jesus looked out over the multitudes who came to him, the gospels tell us, his heart went out to them. He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, confused and helpless. And on this day, the whole crowd was surging forward, trying to touch him, because power was coming out from him and healing them all.
And then he began to speak: “Blessed are you who are poor.” “Blessed are you who are hungry.” “Blessed are you who weep.” “Blessed are you when people hate you.” And it seems perfectly logical to assume that these are words of compassion and comfort for all those thousands of people who were certainly poor and hungry and sad and despised. But if we look again, we notice that these words are not addressed to the desperate multitudes. Luke says Jesus turned his eyes toward his disciples and then he began to speak those words. These particular words, what we call the Beatitudes, are not words of comfort for those whose lives on this earth are so terrible that they can only put their hope in the world to come. The Beatitudes aren’t words of sympathy at all. These are words that describe what it means to be a disciple. And that means, these words don’t only describe the people in that crowd two thousand years ago who were followers of Jesus of Nazareth. These words are here to describe us.
On this day as we celebrate the feast of All Saints, the Beatitudes stand as a standard for sainthood, the measure of what it is to be a true follower of Jesus, because a saint is any person who belongs to God the Father, by faith in Jesus the Son, through the power of his Spirit. We’re all saints here.
The word for the Beatitudes is translated blessed in the version we just read: we read “Blessed are you who are poor.” “Blessed are you who are hungry.” The problem with that translation is that we so often over-use the word blessed or blessing until it just seems like a kind of spiritual word with a vaguely nice meaning. So it might be helpful to know that it also means happy. We could just as well translate it like this: Jesus fixed his loving gaze on the faithful followers who stood nearby to hear him and he said this to them: “Happy are you who are poor.” “Happy are you who are hungry.” And “Happy are you who weep.” And “Happy are you when people hate you.” In fact, not only “Happy are you when people hate you and say terrible things about you and shun you because of me,” but more: “Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!,” he said. “Because that’s how it was for the prophets of old.”
The first thing to clarify here is that Jesus never, ever came to lead people into a religion of self-harm and self-loathing, where pain and suffering are glorified and where the worse things get the happier we’re supposed to be. That is not a sane kind of religion, and that is certainly not Christianity. It’s not hard to notice that when Jesus met people who were suffering he healed them, and he comforted them, and he wept with them. Not once do the gospels tell us that Jesus looked on someone’s suffering and told them to suck it up. There have been times in the history of the Church when people tried to prove how righteous they were by inflicting pain on themselves, but that was never part of the teaching of Jesus.
So that leaves us with the question: what did Jesus mean when he said his disciples should be happy when they were poor, and hungry, and all those things that sound so not-happy to us? The best way always to understand what Jesus is teaching us is to see how he lived it out, because as the very best teacher of all times Jesus always practiced what he preached. If we look at what it meant that Jesus was poor, we can see first of all that he chose to live a life of real simplicity and poverty. When one man asked to become his disciple, Jesus warned him, “Birds have nests and foxes have holes to sleep in, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” True discipleship never got anybody onto the Fortune 500 list.
The secret, though, is what Jesus says next: “Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” And notice, not “yours will be the kingdom of heaven” but “yours IS the kingdom”. Jesus didn’t care about being poor because he knew who he was. Why would anyone spend any time worrying about having a roof over their head or an extra set of robes if they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were the beloved child of the King over all Kings? Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Have the attitude among yourselves, that Jesus had. Even though he was in the form of God, he didn’t count equality with God something to cling to, but he emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant instead, being born in the likeness of men.” Knowing that he was sovereign Lord over all of creation, Jesus joyfully chose to become the least and lowest of all.
Poverty that is imposed on people through oppression and neglect, or through cruelty or indifference, that is an evil thing, and something to be opposed. But poverty that is taken on willingly, out of love, and with the knowledge that we are loved in return, that kind of poverty sets us free the way it set Jesus free – free to serve, free to forgive, free to have compassion, even free to turn the other cheek when someone does us harm. The happy poverty of a disciple of Jesus Christ begins with the freedom of knowing we are God’s beloved children.
Happy is the disciple who hungers for justice and kindness and health in a world of injustice and cruelty and sickness, Jesus says, because that hunger will surely be satisfied. And happy are you when you weep now, as Jesus himself wept at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, because you know that the way the world is now, full of war and pain and hatred and fear as it is – is not the way it was created to be. Happy are you even as you weep, because you know that the healing of all things will surely come, and then you will laugh for joy.
Maybe the hardest Beatitude to really understand is the last one, “Happy are you when people hate you and say terrible things about you and shun you, because of the Son of Man.” That is a very hard thing to hear, because above all things we human beings like to be liked. It is a natural human need to be accepted and appreciated and valued. Abused children and battered wives defend their parents or husbands because they are so desperate for love, at almost any cost. People say and do things they know are wrong just to fit in with the people around them because they are so terrified of rejection. Religious and political leaders compromise their ideals and their morals out of a desperate need to be admired. Knowing that we are the beloved children of God, followers of his Son, satisfies that deepest human longing and sets us free from those kinds of fears and needs.
And it is that very freedom that makes us unpopular in the eyes of the world, because if we follow Jesus, we can no longer be controlled by its loyalties and expectations. The world has a very hard time understanding, much less accepting, people who love those we are “supposed” to count as our enemies. The world is sometimes very uncomfortable with people who forgive someone who has harmed them. The world tends very much to despise people who have little desire or respect for worldly wealth and status.
Eventually, if we are citizens of the kingdom of God, our loyalties to his kingdom will bring us into conflict with this world whose priorities are entirely unlike the priorities of Jesus and his Father. Sometimes Christians bring shame and ridicule on themselves by acting like jerks – then we deserve the disgrace we get from the world. What Jesus is talking about is not being people who are too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good. He’s talking about what happens when Christians are – or try to be – gracious and merciful and loving in a world that doesn’t understand grace or mercy or love. Jesus travelled that road before us: he valued people over human tradition and mercy over human justice and love over human religion. And the end of his road was the rejection and betrayal of the Cross. “If the world hates you,” he warned his disciples at the Last Supper, “remember that it hated me first.” But the freedom and joy of Jesus’ ministry came from knowing his identity in the love of the Father, who proclaimed from heaven, “This is my Son, my beloved.”
Happy are you when you share the loneliness and disgrace of the Cross, for you also share the unending love and delight of the Father. Henri Nouwen wrote: “We are called to live our lives with a deep inner joy and peace. It is the life of the Beloved, lived in a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden is on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.”
Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. We offer the Eucharist today in thanksgiving for the saints that God has graciously put into our lives to share the way of discipleship with us: our parents and our family and our friends, those who have passed on and those who are still with us. Many of the special people in our lives have been poor in the eyes of the world, but they were rich in the love of the Father. Many of them have known hunger and want in the course of their lives, but they trusted in his goodness. They wept for the pain and suffering in this world even as they hoped for the joy of the world to come. And many of the people we have loved best have endured the rejection or neglect of the world, secure in the love of God.
We aren’t celebrating people who were perfectly holy and blameless. Not a single one of all the saints whose names we recall today has followed Jesus perfectly. And yet, having loved and been loved by these special saints, we can say without a doubt that we have recognized the face of God in each and every one. Happy are we who have been given these blessed companions to share the road with us in our life as followers of Christ.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the Beatitudes as the attributes of the people who follow Jesus Christ. Near the end, he summed it up in this way: “Having reached the end of the beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found – on the cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. From the cross there comes the call ‘blessed, blessed.’”
We are the fellowship of the Crucified.
We have lost all, and in losing all, we have gained everything.
We are the blessed, the happy, the beloved disciples of Jesus Christ.