The Beatitudes and the Ethos of Christ (Sermon)

“The Beatitudes and the Ethos of Christ”

Micah 6:1-3, 6-8 and Matthew 5:1-12

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Hear what the Lord is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
        let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
        Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
        with Israel he will argue.
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!

With what should I approach the Lord                          
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love,

and walk humbly with your God.

(Micah 6:1-3, 6-8 – CEB)

         This morning, our New Testament text is Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes—the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s version seems more spiritually nuanced than Luke’s version which, in very stark, exclusive terms, blesses poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution, then pronounces “woe” on wealth, satisfaction, and contentment. While Matthew’s Beatitudes sound a little more palatable, these nine statements present a radically new way of understanding God and engaging the world. And in Matthew, the Beatitudes are inclusive blessings. One may opt out, but no one is left out of Christ’s invitation to his new way of imagining God, and, therefore, his new way of living.

It’s also worth noting that Jesus sequesters his disciples for the Sermon on the Mount. So, the Beatitudes, and all of chapters 5, 6, and 7, are presented as instruction to people who are just beginning to follow Jesus in his new, Creation-embracing movement.

With that background, we’ll read the Beatitudes. And to get a broader perspective, we’ll layer the NRSV and The Message versions.

Matthew 5:1-12 — NRSV and The Message

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

7 You are blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

         In their book, The Way of Blessedness, Marjorie Thompson and Stephen Bryant suggest that the Beatitudes are not a list of disconnected blessings, or as someone in our Sunday school class said, the Beatitude platitudes. The Beatitudes, say Thompson and Bryant, can be read as stages of the spiritual life. Beginning with poverty of spirit, each statement includes and builds on the one before it.1

         When you see people who are poor in spirit, says Jesus, you see ones who are foundationally reliant on God. They experience blessedness because they so deeply root themselves in the mystery of God’s realm that they live each moment in its presence. Freed from the illusion of self-sufficiency, their spiritual poverty is not a lack of well-being. Reliance on God is a blessed release from all that is shallow, confining, and lacking substance.

         Imagine, then, that we see a brother or sister offering mercy to someone else, and that someone else is known for doing violence to others. Think, perhaps, of a prison chaplain offering communion to thieves and murderers, and saying to them as I say to you, “This is the bread of life broken for you. This is the cup of salvation poured out for you.”

         While those offering mercy may look like they’ve compromised justice, or betrayed the prisoners’ victims and their families, to see someone offering Christ’s mercy in that context is to witness the steadfast power of meekness finding passage into a suffering world. These meek and merciful disciples know their true homeland. They inhabit a place that defies all worldly boundaries of prejudice, retribution, and fear.

         Their meekness and mercy lead them deep into the blessedness of spiritual mourning. They mourn not just for lives lost, but for the pervasive lack of human kindness. They mourn the overabundance of injustice in the Creation.

Together, meekness, mercy, and mourning compel followers of Jesus toward the blessedness of purity of heart. That is to say, they trust that in God’s kingdom there is steadfast love, without end, for all people, and they’re single-minded in their commitment to recognize and to love God—whose image is everywhere.

         True followers of Jesus may discover that their faithfulness evokes a hostile response. Many and angry are those who prefer a vengeful god, and who prefer retribution over reconciliation. Embodying and extending God’s mercy may lead those disciples into their own suffering. And yet their faithfulness, says Jesus, is a mark of true discipleship, and a holy blessing.

         That’s a lot to expect, isn’t it? Who, then, besides Jesus, can be truly faithful? Well, with the Spirit’s help, we can—occasionally, anyway. Occasionally, we do deal with others, ourselves, and God not out of fear or selfishness, but out of gratitude and generosity. And as we do, we may sense that what we’re doing doesn’t sit well with reason or reality. Still, we trust that it’s God’s will for us to incarnate love and compassion for all people because, when all is said and done, lives defined by spiritual poverty, mournful meekness, hungry righteousness, merciful purity of heart, and fearless peacemaking most faithfully demonstrate God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

         The Beatitudes in Matthew include, with each condition of blessedness, a kind of recompense: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It’s telling that the recompense pronounced on those who know poverty of spirit, those at the beginning of their journey, is the same recompense pronounced on those who find the strength and the will to follow Jesus even into their own persecution. At both of these “stages,” and, really, for all stages, the blessing is ultimately the same: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

         Entering and engaging a Beatitude life empowers us to imagine both God and God’s realm in a whole new way.

In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren says that one unnecessary struggle the Church has imposed upon itself is to have tried, for 2000 years, to reconcile Jesus’ profoundly new vision of God “with the old visions of God that it challenged.”2 Those old visions include gods of violence, domination, and exclusion. So, says McLaren, “to follow Jesus is to change one’s understanding of God.”3

The God Jesus introduces through his life and teaching is incompatible with gods who bless empire, violence, and material excess. Jesus’ new vision of God as nonviolent, abundantly generous, mercifully just, and long-suffering is the God revealed in the Beatitudes. And that God is always creating, for all Creation, an ethos of love.

Most of us probably have a default image of God, a holdover from our childhood, perhaps. And that god may be something distant yet anthropomorphic like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of a white-bearded white guy in the clouds. Maybe it’s something fearsome and vengeful like Zeus, armed with storm clouds and lightning bolts, or maybe something naïve and self-serving like Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. And as people of faith, we worship, pray, and live according to the images of God we hold.

So, here’s the crux: A transformed understanding of God transforms the way we worship, pray, and live. The Beatitudes remind us that God is the relentless Energy of love, compassion, and shared suffering we encounter in the midst of our experiences of life on earth.

And we experience God not simply when we need reminding that the realm of God embraces our suffering, but also when we are needed to remind others that God is real by embracing their suffering.

And doesn’t that pretty much sum up the life and ministry of Jesus?

1Marjorie J. Thompson and Stephen D. Bryant, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. This book is part of the spiritual formation series, Companions in Christ.

2Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York, 2016. P 93.


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