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Sunday Worship 26 March | Beatitudes 4

Updated: Jan 19

This morning we come to the end of our series on the beatitudes, the expressions of blessing that begin the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. The word beatitude comes from the Latin for blessed because that is the word that begins each phrase, and so each week we’ve begun by asking what it means to be blessed. The commonly accepted understanding is that it means to be happy or favoured, but it seems more complex than that when Jesus begins by saying blessed are those who are poor in spirit and those who mourn, and ends by saying blessed are those who are persecuted. And so I have suggested that there is something about being held in the goodness and grace of God even when we do not feel happy and favoured. I have also spoken of blessings as an act of love and a desire for goodness.


I encourage you to keep holding on to those ideas, but this morning I want to have a bit of a play with the word beatitudes, because growing up I was told they are beautiful attitudes. In language terms that makes no sense, but there is still something rather lovely about the idea. I have also heard them described as be-attitudes, attitudes we should take up as ways of being in the world. Speaking of attitudes rather than blessings moves us to see them as something we are called to actively choose rather than just passively receive. We’ve touched on this a little in previous weeks, and it’s easy to see how that works when we’re thinking about meekness and righteousness and mercy and purity and peacemaking, but it is trickier when we are thinking about poverty and mourning and persecution.


And yet we can choose to make ourselves vulnerable to poverty and persecution by refusing to step back from the harsher aspects of reality, living with humility and integrity in a society that doesn’t always reward us for it. And as Queen Elizabeth famously quoted after the September 11 terror attacks, “grief is the price we pay for love”, so that while we may not choose to mourn we do open ourselves to it when we choose to care. The truth is that we can’t live well without opening ourselves to pain, and I think that being willing to fully engage in a world which may break our hearts is a beautiful attitude, and one we are called to take up as we follow in the way of Christ.


Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (NIV)
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. (The Message)
Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Remember Joseph, whose arrogance tore his family apart, but who finally brought about reconciliation. He learnt to forgive and seek forgiveness, and in doing so he restored not only his family, but the people of Israel. Our heavenly Father desires peace, and as children of our Father, we should share in that vision and work for its fulfilment.


It has always seemed significant to me that Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers, not blessed are the peacekeepers. And that is certainly the sense of the original text, as the Greek word used here comes from the words for 'peace' and 'to do or to make'. This isn't about maintaining peace where it already exists, but about doing the work necessary to bring peace where there is none. I was interested to note that this is the only use of the word in the New Testament. There are plenty of references to peace - both the peace promised by Jesus to his disciples, and the peace between people which is central to Paul's writing - but this particular word 'peacemaker' is unique. I'm not entirely sure what to do with that observation, but I do wonder if it means we've failed to fully understand the importance of actively participating in peacemaking.


I like the realism of the Message version, which understands peace as cooperation. It doesn't pretend that we can suddenly create a world in which there is no difficulty or disagreement, but recognises that there will be need for conversation and compromise. And I'm intrigued by the choice of Joseph in the Godly Play retelling, as he is hardly a paragon of virtue. But perhaps that is what makes him such a good role model, because it shows that we are capable of learning and doing better.


In case you're not familiar with Joseph's story, he was the favoured son of his father, and it made him arrogant and sowed discord between him and his brothers. Eventually they had enough and sold him into slavery, telling their father that he had been attacked and killed by wild animals. He was taken to Egypt, where he was falsely accused of assault by his master's wife and thrown into prison. While there he developed a reputation for interpreting dreams, and this caught the attention of Pharaoh, who was himself plagued by strange dreams. Joseph interpreted these to mean that Egypt would have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and so Joseph was put in charge of storing up food for the lean years. When the famine came, it hit Joseph's family too, and so his brothers were sent to Egypt in search of food. After some subterfuge, Joseph revealed himself to them, and he reconciled with them and brought them to live in safety and plenty with him. At the point at which he was most powerful and might have been most arrogant, he remembered that he was above all a son and a brother, and those relationships needed to be mended. And perhaps that's the key to peacemaking, putting relationships before power and status and the need to be right.


Talking about living at peace with family and friends is one thing, but what about peace between communities and countries? It is natural to feel helpless in the face of conflict and oppression, but as a wise man's even wiser mother taught him, we change the world three feet at a time. We believe that peace is possible, and we do what we can to live at peace with those around us, and that peace will spread. I am certain that the prayer meetings and the peace marches that began with a handful of people brave enough to hope were part of what brought down the Berlin Wall. People stood up to the Nazis in a thousand quiet ways and saved an untold number of lives in the process. And peace in Northern Ireland was won by a referendum because ordinary people walked into a polling booth and did an extraordinary thing. To misquote Amanda Gorman's poem at Joe Biden's inauguration, "there is peace if we are brave enough to see it, there is peace if we are brave enough to be it".


Last Remembrance Sunday, we placed origami cranes on a world map as we prayed for peace, and that evening in a flash of madness or genius I decided I was going to fold a thousand paper cranes for an installation this International Peace Day. I wanted to draw on the tradition that associates paper cranes with peace, and also on our own history as a church founded by pacifists, and I wanted to use those to encourage people to reflect on peace and how we can be peacemakers. Since I first spoke about this I've had cranes from past and present members of the congregation and Messy Church, with offers of help from two care homes and the university chaplaincy. What started in my head has become a community endeavour, and so the ripples are already spreading. My hope is that everyone who sees our swoop of a thousand paper cranes will be encouraged to believe in peace and to work for peace, so that the ripples will keep on going. Who knows how far they will reach?


Blessed are those who are persecuted
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (NIV)
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (The Message)
Jesus said blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Remember Stephen, who was stoned for his beliefs, the first martyr for Christ. He was honoured for his faith, and his death was part of the story of Saul who became Paul, whose mission spread the word of Christ across the known world. God does not wish for us to suffer, but our pain can be redeemed, as a seed dying to bring new life.


So we come to the final beatitude, and Jesus does not go out on a high. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is right at the start of Jesus' ministry, when crowds are gathering to see him and the pushback from the authorities hasn't started yet. The disciples are living under the oppression of the empire, as is everyone around them, but they're not being targeted for persecution. I wonder if they dismissed this one as irrelevant to them, or if they heard a note of warning in it. Because of course they did come to be persecuted, with tradition holding that ten of the twelve disciples were martyred for preaching the gospel.


Ever since then, the history of the church has been a strange mix of persecution and domination. The first Christians were killed by the Roman Empire, then the emperor converted and suddenly it was Christians doing the killing. Christianity was taken around the world on the point of a sword, and in many of those places it has continued to do violence while in others it has become a minority voice speaking for liberation. In some countries it is inconceivable that someone could run for high office without espousing a Christian faith, and in others you can be imprisoned or executed simply for confessing that Christ is Lord. The picture is perhaps nowhere so complicated as in our own country, as it is not uncommon for British Christians to claim persecution, while the state church continues to hold seats in government and the king will be crowned in an explicitly Christian ceremony.


The reality is that Christianity doesn’t have the same cultural power in our society that it once did, so that our faith may be questioned or even mocked, and we must make space for other beliefs and practices, but our lives are not in danger because of the gospel, and I think that sense of perspective is important. But that doesn’t mean this beatitude has nothing to say to us, because we may still face situations where we are faced with a choice between declaring what we believe to be the truth in the face of incredulity and criticism, or keeping our heads down for a quiet life. Jesus’ words seem to say that we should always take the first option, because when we stand up for righteousness then we step into the kingdom. That doesn’t mean we should be thoughtless or deliberately offensive, seeking opposition as if it is evidence that we are getting it right. If we want people to hear the gospel and to respond positively to it then we need to do everything with grace and love, and persecution in and of itself is not a good thing. What it does mean is that we are to speak and act with integrity, being willing to face what consequences may come.


We have seen that each beatitude comes with a promise, and this last promise is the same as the first: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Ever since my GSCE English teacher tried to convince me that the detective in An Inspector Calls is named Inspector Goole because Goole is a fishing town and he is fishing for clues, I have been suspicious of reading too much into other people's words, so I offer this next thought lightly. I wonder if Jesus intentionally bookended the beatitudes with the promise of the kingdom because he wanted everything else to be wrapped up in it. I wonder if being comforted and inheriting the earth and being filled with righteousness and receiving mercy and seeing God and being called children of God are all part of the kingdom. It certainly feels right.


I feel more confident in suggesting that there is something significant in the present tense here: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Throughout the gospels there is a sense that the kingdom is both now and not yet. There is a whole host of parables which begin “the kingdom of God is like...”, and Jesus answers a group of Pharisees who ask when the kingdom will come by telling them that it is within or among them. But then Jesus also taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come”, and spoke about people entering the kingdom of God as if that would be a future event. The best way I can hold it all in tension is to say that the kingdom is life as God always intended it to be, and that starts now and finds full expression in eternity. The kingdom is growing all around us, nurtured by every act of lovingkindness and every attempt to work for peace. It is building a new world on the foundations of the old one, through our striving for righteousness and our fair use of power. It is breaking through into our reality, let in by the cracks made every time someone reaches out in comfort or to make amends. It is revealed when the riches of the world are stripped away and it is made known by those brave enough to act and not count the cost.


The beatitudes are a glimpse of the world as it will be, but perhaps more importantly they are a glimpse of the world as it can be now. And to that world I encourage you to join me in saying yes and amen. We may have come to the end, but as I said in week one, these blessings are part of the greatest lesson never learned, so let’s keep seeking to learn from them. Let’s continue to meditate on their vision and their promise, because learning their lesson will change everything.


Last week I shared some thoughts on blessing from Jan Richardson, who has a wonderful gift for writing blessings. As we draw this series on the beatitudes to a close, I want to offer some more of her wisdom, and finally one of her blessings. In the introduction to A Cure for Sorrow she writes this: "a blessing meets us in the place of our deepest loss. In that place, it gives us a glimpse of wholeness and claims that wholeness here and now." And here is her Blessing of Hope:

So may we know / the hope / that is not just / for someday / but for this day—

here, now, / in this moment / that opens to us:

hope not made / of wishes / but of substance,

hope made of sinew / and muscle / and bone,

hope that has breath / and a beating heart,

hope that will not / keep quiet / and be polite,

hope that knows / how to holler / when it is called for,

hope that knows / how to sing

when there seems / little cause,

hope that raises us / from the dead—

not someday / but this day, / every day,

again and / again and / again.


And a final blessing of my own. May we glimpse the wholeness of that day when everything sad will come untrue and the righteousness of God will be fulfilled and the world is rebuilt on lovingkindness and the ripples of peace spread over all the world. And may we know something of that wholeness now so that we might rise again and again and again.

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