A sermon preached by David Barton online on 1 November 2020.
All Saints Day. And our reading is The Beatitudes (Matthew 5 1-12). The opening words of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s Gospel there has been a long buildup to this moment. This actually the fifth chapter! Up to now Matthew has been painting Jesus as a new Moses: both were threatened by wicked kings at birth. Both escaped, Moses out of Egypt, Jesus into Egypt. Like Moses and the people of Israel Jesus is tested in the Desert. Moses receives the law on a mountain top, and now, on a mountain, Jesus delivers his first sermon. So is this to be a new kind of law? Well… look what happens. Gone are the “Thou shalt not’s…”. Instead this repeated mantra: “Blessed are….blessed are….”
This word “Blessed” is a significant word in relation to everything about the teaching of Jesus, and we need to be clear about its exact meaning. For our one word “Blessing” there are two possible words, in both Aramaic and Greek. One points to future expectations, like asking for a blessing on your marriage or your house. But the word Jesus uses here points to an already existing state of happiness or blessing. Someone once said to me of her daughter that she was “such a blessing”. And she meant the qualities of love and care that were there in her daughter, which she could see and experience.
And that’s the use here in the beatitudes. Jesus is not saying, if you struggle to be peaceable, then you will be rewarded with a place in the kingdom of heaven. He is saying peace-ability is a God given gift and you already have it. Each of these beatitudes is about that: something we already have, God given. That idea, that we are already gifted with what we need, runs right the way through the gospels. The message of Jesus is not about acquiring something: it is about waking up to what is already there.
And the other problem here is that the title “beatitudes” can sound so pious. These gifts can easily become a sort of spiritualised candy floss in our minds. But they’re not. They’re down to earth virtues, bound up with the way we live and interact with each other. What Jesus calls purity of heart is about our integrity: we have it in us to be someone who people can instinctively trust, because we are open and honest. And we have it in us to work as part of a group without pushing ourselves forward – which is what is meant by meekness.
It’s when you connect with that human reference, that you realise how important it is that Jesus puts mourning into the list. Blessed are those who mourn…. We’ve all done much that we regret – individually and collectively. To mourn all that is to let it go, and letting it go makes space for the possibility of something new growing in its place.
Jesus is calling us into a new humanity, beyond the self-centredness of the old. But, realistic always, he knows that it won’t be without opposition. The final beatitude here, and in Luke, changes format. This time it’s “Blessed are you..’ Blessed are you when you hold firm as opposition sets in. And if Jesus says that, then we know we have the strength to hold on. Another God given gift.
There is no gap, in Jesus’ teaching, between ordinary life and what we might call ‘spiritual.’ It’s in our humanity, in our ordinary everyday human interactions with each other, that the spiritual lies. “The Glory of God is the human person fully alive” said Iranaeus, a second century bishop. And its significant he should emphasise that, in a age of persecution.
All Saints Tide is not about great warriors of the faith. It’s about ordinary people, who in their ordinary lives discover a way of living out of the rich, human gifts that God has given us all.