The Beatitudes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount have inspired countless people through the ages. But they are more than just inspiring words – they are a roadmap to a fulfilling life in faith.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ~ Matthew 5:3
I am back to classes at Yale Divinity School this week, excited to start a new semester of learning, overjoyed to see my classmates and trusted faculty and staff, relishing the feel of a place that offers so much to its students on so many levels.
That’s the good part of coming back, but sadly there are downsides, also. I come to school exhausted from several weeks of intensive activity in and around my mission church, challenged by recovering from a lingering cold, and a bit daunted by the scope and demands of my new classes. Add on top of that the ordination education requirements for The United Methodist Church which require some courses not offered by YDS at this time, and I am scrambling to figure out how to cover all the bases. And yes, it’s January, and gray.
Saved by the Beatitudes
Fortunately, worship and communion today in Marquand Chapel at YDS was an uplifting experience. In the opening hymn I had to catch myself by the third verse, as I felt my head connect with my heart deeply, acknowledging the hunger of my soul for wholeness. The scripture reading was from the Beatitudes, those verses from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” in Matthew 5 that give Christians the essential roadmap to a Christian life.
A verse known from childhood
The first verse of the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3, is one I have known from childhood: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When I was seven years old, my Sunday school teacher had each of the children in her class memorize a Bible verse. We each got a slip of paper with a Bible verse written out on it in pencil. I remember looking at the slip of paper with quite a bit of awe and reverence – this is something that I had to know, and I had to learn it in a week!
Reverently I tucked the slip of paper away, and brought it to our family bookshelf at home. I pulled down the red leather-bound Bible from the shelf, and found the verse. I practiced reading it from memory again and again, and, before you know it, next Sunday came. When my turn came to recite, I burst out with the Bible verse practically before the teacher had finished calling on me! I was excited to learn the word of God, and it stirred a curiosity in the Bible which I have to this day. If you’re wondering how to get that “Bible fever” going in your kids, try having them memorize a verse for starters.
Blessed are the poor in spirit
In Marquand Chapel today, God brought me back to the roots of my faith. That lump in my throat and the warmth in my heart was God’s invitation for me to seek wholeness in “the basics,” and this simple verse reminded me that God’s invitation to faith always starts with remembering that God has riches of love, healing and hope prepared for us at the very start of every faith journey. When my energy is low, or I am daunted by failures and setbacks, Matthew 5:3 reminds me that when I feel my most empty is when there is room in me for these riches to find a place of honor and glory. It is the fundamental dynamic of faith – was long as we think that we or someone or something else is the solution, there is no room for God’s loving and empowering presence.
The next verse reminds me that until I let go of the things that I am grieving, there is no room for God’s healing grace: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I am vulnerable when I grieve, and God walks with me in that vulnerability, reminding me that it’s the part of me that hurts that is able to love. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Serving the king of heaven and earth in the image of God’s meekness in Christ is empowering, uniting me with all of God’s creation as an heir to God’s eternal promises.
Hungering for righteousness
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is a turning point in my faith journey. When I am finding my true identity again in God’s empowering humbleness, I am drawn by God’s love into seeking the right way defined by that love. Like switching from junk food to healthy food, I begin to have a deep craving for what is good and right and holy. I begin to love God’s ways, and I want all of them that I can find. It becomes not a matter of willful obedience, but joyful obedience – Psalm 119‘s 176 verses are a passionate devotion to such a joy. We begin to only want what is good, and right, and holy, and that desire consumes our lives, and fills it better than the most sumptuous feast. It is this desire that makes Holy Communion a high and fulfilling joy.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” When I hunger for righteousness, I begin to discover God’s power becoming abundant in my life – so much so that God empowers me to offer that abundance to others, through acts of mercy large and small. Someone cutting me off in traffic? May they find peace in their own time. If I struggle with this, I seek that hunger for “the good stuff,” and soon enough, the abundance returns. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” In God’s abundant love, we find who we truly are – children of God – and we begin to see God and the world as they truly are: beloved, full of God’s light.
Righteousness for a purpose
This sort of “Christian perfection,” as John Wesley might put it, is not a Nirvana that we week for ourselves, but a tool of God’s love for fulfilling the purpose of our life in faith. We become willing instruments of God’s wholeness seeking wholeness throughout the world – no matter what the price. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Having been transformed by God’s love, we seek to spread it everywhere – knowing that the price of peace is often quite high. But God’s extravagant love that reigns in us can demand no less.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When we pay the price of our devotion to Christian love, we ache, we suffer, and often we experience great losses – but we gain the most refined treasures available in heaven through our loyal devotion to God’s love. Like all of the Beatitudes, this is a plurality of faith-filled people who choose this path of righteousness – we are never alone when we suffer in the cause of God’s loving righteousness.
Righteousness that unites us with salvation’s story
And finally, “Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” When we remain devoted to God’s path of discipleship, up to, through, and beyond the cross that Christ bore for us, we become more than just people in one part of a story: we become united with all of God’s saints throughout the history of God’s salvation story. We walk beside Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and all the prophets of old, as well as Jesus Christ, the apostles, and all those who gave their very lives out of love for God. We become sacrifical, because we understand what we are already in heaven’s arms.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it best, perhaps, in the final words from the last public speech of his life, delivered the night before his death in Memphis, Tennessee. Tense, downhearted, and, yet, true to his faith in God’s promises, Dr. King said with tears in his eyes:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
Blessed are the poor in spirit. For, indeed, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.