In my younger years, when I read Matthew 5:1-12, today’s Gospel lesson, I completely misunderstood it. With each “Blessed...” that Jesus speaks, I thought He was saying things like, “You’ll be blessed if you’re a peacemaker” and “You’ll be blessed if you hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It seemed to me that in every line, Jesus was laying down the Law, giving me marching orders as a Christian. “If you want to be blessed,” I thought Jesus was telling me, “you’ll do these things, act in these ways, think like this.” I was wrong!
There are movements in the Church that continue to read these words of Jesus in this way. Some churches tell people that they will be saved and that they will be blessed if they ask Jesus into their hearts, if they decide to follow Jesus, if they decide to get baptized as a sign of their decision for Christ. Proponents of the “prosperity gospel” say people will be blessed, by which they mean people will have money, if they obey not only God’s laws, but others they throw in from their own misreading of the Bible. Some churches tell people they’ll be blessed with good health if they only believe enough.
But legalistic, performative religion that keeps telling us to be good or be better is not Christian faith! Romans 10:4 reminds us that, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” That means that Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, the new Adam, the first-born of the new human race, has perfectly fulfilled the demands of God’s Law, the Law you and I are incapable of keeping. Jesus offered His perfectly sinless, righteous life on the cross in payment for our sin so that when He rose from the dead, affirmed and approved by God the Father, He could give His righteousness to all who, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word and in the Sacraments, confess that, “Jesus is Lord!” (1 Corinthians 12:3)
Jesus’ words in today’s lesson are not the words of a self-help guru telling us how to be blessed. They’re not new laws meant to make you get busy at becoming a better person or a better Christian.
Although we often call the words Jesus speaks here, “The Beatitudes,” there are many beatitudes strewn throughout the Old and New Testaments. A beatitude, quite simply, describes elements of living in God’s blessedness. A more useful synonym for the word blessed Jesus uses today, might be, one Lutheran pastor has suggested, saved. For example, “Saved are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This helps drive home the fact that in the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t giving us prescriptions for salvation or “the good life,” but descriptions of what life is like for people who trust in Him. “When you are saved by grace through faith in Me,” Jesus is telling us, “this is what life in the Kingdom of Heaven is like, even in this fallen world!”
Let’s consider today just two of the Beatitudes Jesus gives today and see how He describes the lives of those saved by His grace and not through their efforts to be good or better people. “Blessed,” Jesus says, as we’ve already mentioned, “are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? It means that when I look at myself, particularly in light of the perfect righteousness of God revealed in Jesus, I take no confidence in my righteousness. I see that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. To be “poor in spirit” is to be honest with God and myself. I’m open to the righteousness of God that we receive only as we daily repent and trust in Jesus and His righteousness. “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved,” we’re told in 2 Corinthians 10:18, “but the one whom the Lord commends.” It’s only the spiritually weak and impoverished who are filled with the strength and righteousness of Jesus. There is great freedom in this, friends! When we rely on Jesus’ righteousness and not our own, we don’t have to pretend to be anything but who we are: grateful children of God!
Think now of the final of Jesus’ beatitudes for us today: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) We’re fortunate to live in a country in which there is no official infringement on our freedom of religion. We can gather freely for worship and Bible studies. We can pray over our meals in restaurants. We can tell others about Jesus. We can serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.
But there are subtle forms of persecution. Believers are often shunned or pigeonholed by others because we believe in Jesus. We’re the objects of uninformed stereotyping. A few weeks ago, our daughter was talking with a woman who told her what a terrible person her father must be, “Don’t you know that all pastors are thieves?”
In describing life in His kingdom, Jesus says that Christians are to expect persecution of all kinds. He’s saying, “If you’re following Me, this is going to happen. If you’re persecuted for following Me, it means you’re on the right track. It means you’re drawing life from the right Lord and Savior.”
Christians should expect persecution. The apostle Peter told the churches in first-century Asia Minor, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) Persecution of different kinds is a byproduct of being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and darkness.
I was telling a member of Living Water the other night, some of what Ann and I experienced when we fought for the authority of God’s Word, the Bible, in a previous parish. A former pastor organized opposition. Area pastors, not even members of the congregation, came to meetings and impugned the integrity of members who were standing on God’s Word and told me, obliquely, that I was being arrogant. One night, a doped-up, drunk man plowed into both of our vehicles, totaling them both. While we waited for the police to show, the driver toted a pistol to my porch. In the midst of it all, I had a heart attack that should have killed me. If you follow Jesus, you will be persecuted by the devil and the world and sometimes, even the Church. But you will also be blessed, living in the presence of Jesus, assured that nothing can separate you from His love!
This must not lead us to self-righteousness or to closing ourselves off to the world though. Think of Jesus and how His life was blessed just as He describes blessedness in today’s lesson. He was poor in spirit; He completely depended on God the Father, never speaking a Word beyond what the Father gave Him to speak. (John 12:49) He was meek. “I am gentle and humble in heart,” He says in Matthew 11:29. Jesus hungered and thirsted only to do the will of the Father, even when He faced the brutality of the cross. He was merciful, praying God’s forgiveness for those who drove nails into His hands and feet and mocked Him. Jesus was pure in heart, keeping His eyes fixed on God through cross and empty tomb. Jesus is the peacemaker, who is the bridge between God and the fallen human race. He is the “one mediator between God and mankind…” (1 Timothy 2:5) Jesus was persecuted, enduring the rejection of Jews and Gentiles alike, so that He could win life with God for us all.
The point? Just this: The blessed life is the life saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And, as we turn to Him each day in repentance and faith, when we receive the Word of God that convicts us of our sin and convinces us of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ, when we trust that He makes us His child in Holy Baptism, and when we trust that He comes to us, body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and the wine, we are living in His kingdom. No matter what happens to us in this world, as we turn to Jesus, we are blessed--we are saved. Jesus’ life fills the lives of those who believe in Him and we are blessed. That’s what Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes. Amen