Sermon for High Mass – Third before Lent Sunday 17 February 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
The beatitudes can sound a bit patronising or even Panglossian to an outsider: ‘well done, keep it up, be happy, it will all be fixed up in heaven’. But if you were listening carefully to the more lapidary version reported by Luke this morning you can see that the opposite is true.
First, blessing: the Hebrew concept of blessing isn’t about divine pats on bowed heads. It is about where the presence of God is to be found. In the Hebrew scriptures a blessing is the discovery that God is present and active in one’s experience, here and now.
The beatitudes, in this very direct and umediated version, teach us that we do not need to go beyond our own daily struggles to find the presence of God. Jesus tells us that when we see the poor, the compassionate, the mournful, those who campaign for justice and suffer for it, the gentle, the innocent, the peacemakers and the martyrs, we are encountering the presence of God. As ever, the Gospel is personal, local and particular. Real people, in reach.
Jesus teaches us, by his words and by his life, death and resurrection, that God is not a distant uninterested deity making us dance like puppets or ignoring us completely, but personally involved. A loving parent. So God is not impervious to our pain and happiness, nor is he a great manipulator willing terrible things to punish us or teach us a lesson. The evolving scriptural understanding of God comes to fruition and maturity in the person of Jesus Christ, who shows us a new face of God – our face. The God of the beatitudes is a companion to us in every experience we go through, whether personally or as a community.
Luke goes on in this passage to report woes and warnings spoken by Jesus which are as important as the beatitudes. Luke highlights that for Jesus every blessing carries with it a call, every gift contains a duty to share it, every right conveys a balancing responsibility. When Jesus speaks to us in these concrete terms we must not forget that in our nation the vast majority of people are housed, educated, have clean drinking water, a long and increasing life-span, a stable form of government (more or less!) and the rule of law. This places us in the privileged top 15% of the world’s population. We should, of course, discover God’s presence in the midst of these blessings, but we, of all people, should also look to what responsibilities they imply.
Today’s gospel puts before us a challenge to do something about it, or possibly better to be someone who authentically expresses God’s priorities. These priorities are sometimes controversial, and we won’t all agree on the best practical application of the values of the Kingdom. Indeed, as soon as they become political we will disagree about them. But being right in arguments about the use of resources, or how we spend our money or how we vote, is less important than consciously and prayerfully making the effort to find out: we’ll do that best, by conscientiously interrogating our own values at least as thoroughly as those of other people.
The beatitudes, and the warnings which follow them, call us to be attentive to what goes on in the world, and to be transparently attentive, meaning that those who see us as followers of Christ see struggle and engagement, not complacency and judgmentalism. The call is to be attentive to what makes for justice, peace and the fulfilment of potential for all, so that the Word is made flesh in us anew.
Our other two readings illustrate this from different angles: Jeremiah 17 proposes a simple test of authenticity
‘I the Lord test the mind and search the heart to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.’
But I’d like also to add what I call the resurrection imperative from the second reading:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
This passage of 1 Corinthians is mostly associated with funerals, because it insists on our shared destiny with the risen Christ. But think of it another way. If we take the promise of the resurrection seriously, that Word becoming flesh, that incarnation which we celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany, demonstrates precisely that what happens to us, to our bodies, to our human society, to our world, matters to God. He wants to enliven and transform all of it, and we are his agents in that work of transformation. The beatitudes and the resurrection are both about quality of life, life understood as eternal, charged with the glory of God. That is what it means to say that the Gospel is personal, local and particular. Jesus teaches us that what is personal to us is common to all, as John Donne famously wrote:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
The beatitudes teach us that by our baptism we are already involved, already family. What we do with that relationship is the working out of our calling, and will determine the progress of the Kingdom.