Last week I talked about the first four Beatitudes - poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for God. This week, the second four - blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
Blessed are the merciful
Someone said to me the other day that churches can be toxic places because Christians seem to feel as though they have to be right about everything. There's a need to take and defend positions on all sorts of topics, and an anxious caution about embracing newness or otherness in case you invite disapproval from the group.
This tendency, it seems to me, is the opposite of what mercy looks like. Mercy is a kind of openness, a generosity of spirit that allows things to be what they are without seeking to change them or put them straight. Mercy moves towards otherness with a welcoming embrace - overcoming fear and previous hurts. Mercy gives new things and new people the benefit of the doubt. Mercy is not looking for things to be wrong, it's looking for things to applaud. Mercy is not anxious about being slighted or contradicted - it overlooks annoying quirks of behaviour in order to reach through to the person underneath.
In our world we are very good at contracts. Putting everything in writing. Making sure we can't be diddled out of what we have agreed. In our personal relationships we also often have contracts - usually they're hidden and unspoken. They govern our expectations of each other. If I do this for you, you will do this for me. A lot of conflict arises because we have different internal contracts.
This beatitude asks for a different approach. It asks us to keep on seeing relationships themselves as more important than the agreements we make with each other. Jesus used the example of debt-forgiveness when he wanted to describe mercy. A debt implies a contract, an agreement. The person who is owed has every right to insist on their right to be paid back according to the agreement. But for them to be able to say instead - "I can see that this debt is hurting you...I release you from it" is such a life-giving, freeing, beautiful thing to be able to do. This is the quality of relationship that Jesus wants us to exercise with one another. It's about not standing on our rights, but looking to promote the well-being of the other in any way we can.
Mercy goes beyond tit-for-tat thinking (an eye for an eye), and it goes beyond reciprocity (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours). It moves beyond karma, and retribution, and revenge. And yet, as Jesus tells us, in God's economy, mercy is something that flows in as well as out. The way we relate to the world is, usually, the way the world will relate to us. Usually, as we sow, so shall we reap. Therefore, the merciful will receive mercy. When we are able to extend mercy to others, we find it being extended to us.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
This is another one of those phrases that has often been misunderstood because of a preoccupation with sexual morality. Being pure in heart isn't about being chaste, or ridding oneself of lust. Purity in this beatitude is to do with singularity of purpose and vision. It's to do with not being distracted. Which might have something to do with sex, but for many of us is likely to have just as much to do with self-absorption, drivenness, anxiety, and an excessive concern over what other people think of us. That is, any thoughts that divert our energy and our focus off God and onto ourselves, are thoughts that rob us of purity of heart, and therefore of our capacity to see God in the world.
God is all around us, and in us. God is working in the midst of all things. God is in the heart of all things, even those things we experience as difficult and dark. Mostly, we can't see that. Partly that's because we don't know what we're looking for, or we've been taught to look for God only in a narrow set of events, experiences or circumstances. Partly we find it hard to see God in all things because hiddenness and mystery is part of how God is. And partly, we don't see God because we are fragmented ourselves...we don't have the inner clarity that would allow us to glimpse the movements of God that are beyond sight. Because 'seeing' God isn't about looking with our eyes, it's about looking with our hearts. And when our hearts are pulling in every which way...ruled by our desires and our whims, when they are acted on by a whole lot of fears or repetitive distracting thoughts, then our vision is incredibly clouded.
We are all more like Pavlov's dog than we like to admit...while we might not salivate when a bell rings, we are all creatures of habit when it comes to our reactions. We have our little inner stories that we repeat over and over. When someone says 'x' we predictably think 'y' and say 'z'. Most of our thought life consists of unexamined reactions to things. These reactions fill our brains and we identify with them - they are who we think we are. The pure in heart know this, and are able to let these thoughts and reactions go, choosing instead a kind of calm presence that is able to respond in the moment to what is really going on. They are blessed, because in that quality of presence, they see God, and can move with God rather than going against the grain.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Being a peace-maker is not being compliant, or not rocking the boat. It's more robust than simply having a gentle temperament. Peace-making is not necessarily the line of least resistance. In fact sometimes, to make peace is to encounter the greatest resistance, because some conflicts are so ingrained, and run so deep, that they have become the only thing that people know. Peacemakers are those who can hold hope alive for situations where hostility has become the norm, to the point where all the participants have lost any hope or imagination for change.
The presence of peace is a more positive idea than simply the absence of war or conflict. It involves actively working towards understanding and empathy between people and people-groups, it involves harmony and the welcoming of difference...not simply a truce or a cease-fire. Peace means learning to step out of roles of aggressor and victim, learning to listen.
It involves an internal disarmament...a willingness to let go of some of the things we cling to...as well as an external disarmament from the weapons of war. James K Baxter wrote: 'A dead peace breeds wars as a dead body breeds maggots. How can we avoid war while we continue to idolise material or mental possessions? A man without detachment sees enemies behind every bush. They are his enemies because they might want to take away his possessions.' Working for peace, is about becoming people who have no reason to pursue war.
For most of us, while we might be involved in supporting groups that work for peace on a national or international scale, the arenas where we are called to be peacemakers will be our families and our daily environments such as our workplaces. In these contexts, some of the enemies to peace will be very nice people. But very nice people can be locked into protecting a system or a person that is actually causing conflict and damage. Family systems where everyone plays expected roles, at the expense of some members of the family, and workplaces where everyone is nervously accommodating a bullying manager...these are situations where skilled peace-making would bring life. But when you start addressing unhealthy systems, and asking people to examine their hidden prejudices and conventions...it can look like anything but peace. In these moments, we need to know that peacemakers are called children of God, because in these moments we can sometimes find ourselves sidelined and rejected.
Peace-making requires a huge amount of discernment...some people who act in the name of peace are, in their manner and their choice of action, as monstrous as the monster they are resisting. But others are doing the will of God...even though the initial outcome of their actions seems like an escalation of the problem. Remember Jesus' words that he did not come to bring peace but a sword, and that he would divide families against each other. I see this as meaning that the vision that Jesus modelled will provoke people into intense reactions...and that even working for peace will seem threatening and disruptive to a cherished status quo.
Which brings us to the final beatitude:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Mostly, Christians in the modern West who consider themselves to be persecuted for the gospel are, in fact, behaving obnoxiously. I don't think it counts as persecution when someone objects to being harangued, moralised at, or otherwise acted on by someone with an agenda to convert or improve them.
Jesus' first followers experienced intense persecution and needed to know that God was with them. However, while there are many Christian people in our day around the world who are genuinely persecuted for their faith, on the whole these people do not live in New Zealand. So what does it mean for us, as Christians here and now, to practice this beatitude?
I think that it means a willingness to forego the good opinion of others, and material comfort, in the pursuit of the Way of Jesus. While we should not court disapproval or discomfort for their own sakes, I think we need to be prepared to experience them if following in the footsteps of Jesus lands us there. Our society is not set up to reward peace-makers who have a radically counter-cultural vision of how the world could be. Nor will hungering and thirsting after Jesus necessarily lead to full stomachs or houses full of nice things. Those who are meek and poor in spirit may never 'make it' as successes in our world. Those who are merciful may get ripped off. Those who are pure in heart, and act in accordance with where they see God in the world, might start to seem rather odd to those who knew them when they acted only in their own interests.
Maybe following in the way of Jesus will lead us into real hardship. For some it might mean rejection by family or friends. This is easier said than done - especially if you're young and are being put down or excluded because of pursuing the values of the Christian faith. But for most of us, the hardship will be letting go of a desire to be normal or successful, in the way that our culture teaches us to understand normal and successful. And this beatitude tells us that, when we are willing to relinquish our personal agenda - for safety, security and approval - we enter the kingdom of heaven.
I want to take a moment to reflect on the implications of these beatitudes for us as a church community, here at Cityside. As a church, we experience a constant gravitational pull towards assumptions about church life that we have grown up with, and even rejected in the past. I find these beatitudes provide us with a vital compass to keep reminding us of our core values. In Matthew's gospel, these statements of Jesus, and rest of the sermon on the mount that follows, are crucial to understanding what Jesus wanted his followers to know and become. And yet it seems as though so much of the church has either never read them, or has failed to figure out what a life modelled on them might look like. The church has often seemed to protect and reward a whole lot of behaviours that reflect anything but this list of blessedness.
The first four beatitudes - poor in spirit, meek, hunger and thirst, mourn - are a reminder that through us, Christ wants to welcome, provide sanctuary for, to value, and offer healing to people who do not have it all together. People who think that God is absent at best, cruel at worst, and that the church hates them and judges them. People who are passing through faith crisis, or any other kind of crisis. People who doubt. People who seemingly have nothing to offer...except the gift of their story and their struggle and their desire to be whole.
We need to allow ourselves and each other to not have things sorted, to listen to the stories of grief and difficulty, and to cultivate as a group a humility that creates more room for God. We don't need to be motivational, or victorious. We don't need to be growing numerically. We don't need to have excellent programmes. We don't need to be successful on any front. We don't need to have a name for ourselves.
So what are we meant to be? The second four beatitudes are some indication. We are to be merciful people, people of heart, who put relationship above all else. We are to cultivate purity of heart through our commitment to prayer and going deeper in our practice of knowing God. We are to be involved in peace-making in our world. And we need to accept that the practice of these things will put us at odds with the dominant values of the world we live in.
As a church, we need to rely on one another to support and prompt each other into living life in the footsteps of Jesus. The life described in the beatitudes is not one that can be pursued for long without company. While we fully embrace our day to day lives in the world as the place where our faith is worked out, we need to remember that we have an alternative script...we're not just parroting lines and gestures given us by our culture to say and do. These words of Jesus are our calling to speak and live, and we can only do that in the company of others seeking to do the same.
The beatitudes are not the stuff of a great marketing campaign. But they are the word of God for us. Let us seek together to make them the character of our communal life, and the measure of our personal transformation.
As our prayer of confession today, choose one of the beatitudes and ask God to reveal how your life could more closely attune to it. Seek forgiveness for where you have failed to express this beatitude, or for where you have seen it in another and instead of blessing it, you have judged it.