Monday, November 05, 2007

The Beatitudes - How Do You Read Them? Matthew 5:1-12 (All Saints Sunday)

The paraments have changed from the red of fire and the Spirit to the white of heaven's purity and brilliance. Eight days ago we celebrated God's grace evident in the reformation of the western Church and the re-discovery of the Gospel – the Gospel that proclaims the freely-offered gifts of Christ won upon the Cross, offered in the Word through prophets and apostles, the Word through water, the Word through bread and wine, and received by the empty hand of faith.
This Sunday is another special festival in the Church Year. Special prayers, special hymns, special Scripture readings that give opportunity to remember God's saints, honor God's saints, and, while giving thanks to God for preserving them, we again are assured that we too bear what the world thinks an unlikely title: God's blessed saint in Christ Jesus. This morning, as the hymn says:

We sing for all the unsung saints, / That countless, nameless throng,
Who kept the faith and passed it on / With hope steadfast and strong
Through all the daily griefs and joys / No chronicles record,
Forgetful of their lack of fame, / But mindful of their Lord.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Brothers and Sisters Made Saints in Christ:
Who are the saints? For those outside the church, the saints could be a number of people: Those who do good deeds, those who have never uttered a swear word when they stubbed their toe or slammed the car door on a finger. Those who always did what their parents and teachers told them to do.
And religious people have their answers too. The saints are those who enjoy a special relationship with God and are available to us to soften him up or make a request on our behalf. The saints are the super-Christians who effortlessly skated through life and racked up surplus merits that can be applied to erase the sins of others. Saints are those whose images are purchased to be hung on a wall or rear-view mirror in order to ward off tragedy or sickness.
But contrary to popular belief, God's true saints are not those who have a positive balance in their good works bank account in heaven. God's true saints are not those who have more than three documented miracles to their credit.
You see, the world, and the world's brand of religion is pretty stingy when it comes to making someone a saint. Not everyone is given that title by the world we live in. Only a handful get a bridge or an airport named after them.
But the God of the Old and New Testament, the God of the prophets of Israel and the apostles of the Church is a very different God than what the world, the devil or our old nature would believe. When it comes to bestowing the title of "saint," heaven sees things in a way we would have never imagined.
The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, the fifth chapter:
Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:1-12)
These are the words that introduce Jesus' great sermon on the mount, the most quoted piece of Scripture in the writings of the early Christian church. These are the words that set the stage for a proper understanding of not only the fifth and sixth and seventh chapter of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, but for a proper understanding of how salvation is truly won, offered, received and preserved among us. In short, these verses in the Gospel of Matthew serve as an entrance door for all who would bear the title "saint."
For this passage — commonly referred to as "the Beatitudes" — is not merely a jazzed-up version of the Ten Commandments. In the same way, the Jesus revealed to us — and to all who would be his disciples — is not merely a jazzed-up Moses laying down a set of even higher hoops for us to jump through in order to earn sainthood.
The world will never believe it, the devil will continue working hard to obscure and twist it, our old nature will daily doubt it, but these words of Jesus are something very different than "what we must do in order to become saints, blessed by God and rewarded by Christ and extolled by the world. These words are pure promise, pure grace, pure Gospel, a description of every single Christian who has received Christ and his benefits by faith.
You see, Moses went up on the mountain on behalf of a people who dared not approach God and receive his Word directly from his mouth. And if Mount Sinai and Moses and the Ten Commandments taught the children of Israel anything, they revealed that the climb up into God's presence was one that, since the fall in the garden, could only lead to false human pride and the deadly consequences of not being able to measure up to God's holy and perfect will. A fallen humanity could not carry out the good it had been called to do. A sinful and rebellious humanity could not even begin to be what it had been called to be: wholly-trusting recipients of God's abundant grace and eternal loving-kindness.
How do you read these "Beatitudes"? How do you understand this entrance door through which the whole of the Beatitudes — the whole of the Sermon on the Mount — is to be received? What is Jesus teaching and announcing here?
First and foremost, Jesus announces these words deliberatively and authoritatively. The crowds soon recognize that Jesus proclaims the Word with authority, even though the have not put their faith in him. "This Jesus speaks as one who has authority!" they exclaim. And so it is. Saint Matthew's Gospel account ends with Jesus confirming what we and the world secretly suspected all along, as he openly proclaims, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
But Jesus has been given power and authority to accomplish something very specific: to rule his dear flock in mercy and grace, securing our forgiveness and gifting all who would confess their sins with the title "Blessed," "Saint," "Redeemed."
Only in the Triune God does the Word announced carry with it what it promises, and this is how we must receive the words of the Beatitudes. Jesus is not encouraging us with these words. He is not telling his disciples — those who would follow their Lord in faith — and the crowds who are also listening in — "If you go around stopping fights, if you make yourself financially destitute, if you keep yourself from merry-making, if you let others beat you up, if you purify your heart, then I will reward you with the status of being blessed."
Jesus, in these Beatitudes is announcing something that takes our breath away and makes our old nature wag its head in disbelief and ridicule. Our Savior announces to his own that they are blessed — here and now — not according to what they have done or have not done, but by reason of their being — here and now — in Christ, in union with him, connected with him through the Spirit and the Word and the water of the entrance door into sainthood, into blessedness, into being a dear child of God through the one who has been given all authority to declare: because of my grace, because of my mercy, because of my forgiving heart, your sins are washed away. I have taken them, and, in exchange, I declare you blessed before my Father in heaven."
It is Christ and his Word that gives us the ability to see ourselves as spiritually poor, with nothing to offer him that would merit being a blessed saint of God. It is being in Christ that we first learn that we are — before God — simply poor, miserable, helpless, needy sinners.
And it is in Christ that we are the blessed, comforted, forgiven people of God, in spite of the fact that, in this world, we continue to hunger and thirst for our Lord's word of forgiveness, his feeding us with — of all things — himself.
In Christ, today, you are blessed. In him you have been given the kingdom of heaven. In the Lamb who once was slain you have not only been given the ability to mourn over your sins and the sins of the world, but you are comforted by the promise that the Cross of the great Redeemer is for you. In Jesus we confess our lowly condition before the throne of God, and in him we are blessed with the announcement that through Baptism we are heirs of the promised land.
In Christ, today, we hunger and thirst for the righteousness we could never produce, the perfect righteousness that only Jesus can win and cover us with. And as we confess in our Lord's "Our Father," Christ's mercy and forgiveness is so great that it spills over into the lives of our neighbor as we find ourselves reflecting the mercy we first were shown in forgiving even those who sin against us.
In Christ — this morning — you are blessed, you are God's blessed saint. Through God's Spirit and Word a new heart has been created within you, a heart that is pure and desires nothing more than to give glory to God and serve him by serving those around us. And through the blessed Sacrament, we are strengthened as Christ's saints — his priests, offering the world the eternal Word of peace: the Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
The blessed Beatitudes point to our blessed Savior and his blessed gifts, gifts for needy sinners, gifts for those brought to confess that they are poor, helpless, undeserving. Again, the hymn:

Though uninscribed with date or place, / With title, rank or name,
As living stones their stories join / To form a hallowed frame
Around the mystery in their midst: / The Lamb once sacrificed,
The Love that wrestles life from death, / The wounded, risen Christ.

In Christ you have been given promises that will be revealed and brought to their fulness on the Last Day. But — being found in Christ — being found in the Lamb — even now, you have been marked with the cross and given the status of God's dear saint, God's own blessed child.
Your name is not written on a calendar or a coin, your name is not written on a street or a postage stamp, a building or a boat. Your name is written in the Book of Life. Because of Christ, his sacrifice in your stead, his gift of water and bread and wine and faith, you are a sinner, declared righteous before God.
A blessed All Saints Day to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen