Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 September 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Matthew 5:8. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I can’t explain the Beatitudes to you. Why put an explanation between you and a reason for living? These nine Beatitudes, or blessings given during the Sermon on the Mount, are to become a way of life for us. Each blessing is in a traditional format, identifying a class of people and the blessing they are going to get. There are many collections of these in early religious literature. Matthew’s Beatitudes are different, because they are spoken by the Christ, the anointed one of Isaiah. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted, comfort those who mourn, and so on. So these Beatitudes are about more than just being good people and acquitting ourselves well in different situations in life. All nine blessings are given to me and to you to connect us to God, or to what St. Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven. The Beatitudes are about our holiness, how we can become holy and happy and blessed people.
How does it work? Each Beatitude is in two sections, like a mantra. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. And so on. The first half is how we are now. The second half is our future. These are not orders: be merciful, be poor in spirit, be meek. Try being meek; it doesn’t work for long. In the first part of each Beatitude, Jesus holds in front of us a mirror, and we see ourselves as we really are, human beings loved by God, with the spirit of Christ within us, pure in heart, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peacemakers, we are all these things, but we have suppressed, overlooked our Christ-like nature as we make our lonely way through a violent and unfair world. These are words of consolation, God saying, I understand you and your fear, but it will be all right. Consolation and promise. So, in the second section of each Beatitude, our future is predicted. It is a glorious one we never dared to expect. Blessed are the pure in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We can enter the kingdom now, soon, at the end of our life, at the end of all things. Or maybe the second half of each Beatitude is the hidden meaning of the first half. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Anyway the radical and rather shocking juxtaposition of the two halves of each Beatitude, us now and us in the future, all so unexpected – why should the meek inherit the earth? – has one practical effect for us: the trials of living in this world are muted by contemplation of the world to come, of how things look when God looks at them. So this is how Christians cope. This is how we live. We live by hope. Hope is not about making fantasies come true. Hope is a practical way of getting through today. Matters are not what they seem. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. What is all this? Above the distress and hatred is heard another voice: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
Christianity is an entirely practical and realistic religion to hold. The Beatitudes don’t try to explain evil, or prove the existence of God, or any of these things we argue about today. They show us who we are and how we live now and what it means. To understand the Beatitudes we use our imagination. Imagination is given to us to understand God and his world. If we take the Bible literally, we are not using our imagination. It is our imagination, working on God’s word and revelation, which brings hope and gives us a reason to live.
I can’t explain the Beatitudes to you. They will have their own meaning for you. They are like a poem at which we look afresh each year. But Jesus’s words are way beyond poetry. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. That’s subversive. His words clearly run counter to the way things are usually done in our world. The world pushes us towards one way of living. Here, in the Beatitudes, is another way of living, a holy life. The Beatitudes demand real change from us, and it might take a lifetime to implement those changes, and nobody finds them easy. But these immortal sayings have one unexpected result for us when we take them to heart. We are no longer strangers to the Christ who walks with us on the mountain and gives us His blessing.