Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.1 John 3:2
Every Sunday, in one way, is All Saints’ Sunday. Because every Sunday we give thanks that we have been made saints through the waters of Holy Baptism. We, who are sinners, are also saints, because we have been made so by our loving Savior.
But today, we take a little more time to think about what it means to be a saint. We are God’s children now, as John reminds us in our second reading. But “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” (1 John 3:2) What will we be as we continue on this journey of faith? What should we be?
“If you don’t know where you are going,” Yogi Berra famously said, “you might wind up someplace else.” So, where are we going? One way to answer that is found in our gospel reading, in the Beatitudes as taught to us by Jesus (Matthew 5:1-12), which begin his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.
There are nine beatitudes, and together they give us a picture of where we should be going on this journey of faith. So, what I thought I would do is take a brief look at each of these beatitudes, to see what we can learn about what God has in mind for us.
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Jesus starts out by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Not rich in faith, but poor in spirit. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? When we are poor in spirit, we know that we need God. When we are poor in spirit, we know that we can’t do any of what Jesus wants us to do on our own.
We need help, and we know it. And being helpless opens us up to being helped by our loving God. To put it another way, God can’t fill a cup that is already full. As Henri Nouwen put it, “We must empty the cups of our lives completely, to be able to receive the fullness of life from God.” This is what it means to be poor in spirit. And the poor in spirit are blessed by Jesus, and promised the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn
Jesus goes on to bless those who mourn, promising that they will be comforted. Every person alive is either mourning now or will mourn. We all grieve, because we all experience loss. But there is more to this beatitude.
When Martin Luther translated this beatitude into German, he used a German word for mourning that really means to bear suffering. And that is also what Jesus means when he blesses those who mourn. He calls us to bear the hurt of our suffering world. To face the darkness, the pain, the loneliness, the despair. Not to ignore it, but to face it and embrace it. It is part of what it means to worship a God willing to be crucified, part of what we call the theology of the cross. That we are called to go to the suffering, to be with the suffering, and to see God there.
It is hard, no question about it. It is hard to open our hearts to the suffering in our world, when most of us have enough suffering in our own lives. But Jesus asks us to do this, and blesses us as we do.
Blessed are the meek
Blessed, too, are the meek. What does Jesus mean by this? I love the image that the writer Mary Karr offers about what it means to be meek.
She writes that:
To understand the meek … picture a great stallion at full gallop in a meadow, who—at his master’s voice— seizes up to a stunned but instant halt. So with the strain of holding that great power in check, the muscles along the arched neck keep eddying, and only the velvet ears prick forward, awaiting the next order.Mary Karr, Who the Meek Are Not
That is what Jesus means by being meek. It does not mean to be weak. To be meek means to be willing to be led by God. The meek are the great stallions who await the next order, strong but obedient. Or, to put it another way, we are to be meek like Jesus, like the great stallion who is our Savior, and who wanted nothing more than to fulfill his heavenly Father’s will.
Hunger and thirst for righteousness
And blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Notice that Jesus does not bless those who are righteous. He blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. As Lutherans, we often remind ourselves that we cannot become righteous on our own. We are made righteous, or justified, by grace through faith.
We can’t become righteous. We can’t become holy. We can’t become saints. But we can hunger and thirst for it. We can forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, as Paul reminds us elsewhere in scripture, pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” The prize goes not to those who achieve it, but those who desire it.
And blessed are the merciful. What does it mean to be merciful? I like what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says of this beatitude – that the merciful are those “who have an irresistible love for the lowly, the sick, for those who are in misery, for those who are demeaned and abused, for those who suffer injustice and are rejected, for everyone in pain and anxiety.”
Like those who mourn, the merciful cannot help but go to our hurting neighbors, the lowly, the sick, those who are in misery. Like Jesus, we have an irresistible love for them.
Be pure in heart
To turn to Bonhoeffer once more, when Jesus blesses the pure in heart, he is blessing “those who have completely given their hearts to Jesus, so that he alone rules in them.” In other words, the pure in heart love the Lord our God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Or, to put it another way, to be a saint is simply to love God. Nothing more, and nothing less.
We cannot be pure in heart without loving God; and when our heart is filled with the love of God, how can it help but be pure? We are all sinners, as we Lutherans often remind ourselves. Saints and sinners at the same time. And that means that our hearts are not pure. But rather than trying to make them pure on our own, we simply focus on loving God, and God’s love casts out all the impurities.
When we think of the next beatitude, blessed are the peacemakers, it seems to me that all of the preceding qualities of a follower of Jesus are prerequisites for this one. We can’t really be peacemakers unless we are poor in spirit, and mourn. We need to be meek, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and be merciful, and be pure in heart.
If we do all of that, then we can make peace in our world. How? By sharing what has been given to us, the peace of God. But if we do not have this peace, how can we bring peace to our world? And if we do know the peace of God, how can we help but try and make peace in our world?
Persecuted for righteousness’ sake
And when do that, what will be your reward? The last of the beatitudes has Jesus blessing those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. When we live out the preceding beatitudes, we should not expect to be rewarded in this life. As the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
We seek the kingdom, not to be rewarded here, but to be faithful here. And to try and bless the God who has so blessed us. But we shouldn’t expect applause as we do this.
I like these “Paradoxical Commandments” that Mother Teresa had posted on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta, based on something first written by Dr. Kent M. Keith. Here they are:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Following Jesus won’t always earn us applause, but that’s okay. Because in the final analysis, that’s not what it is about anyway.
These nine beatitudes that Jesus offers us today paint a wonderful picture of what it means to follow Jesus. They also, when you think about it, paint a picture of who Jesus is. He lives out these beatitudes perfectly in his life, showing us what it looks like. He is poor in spirit, relying on his Heavenly Father every step of the way. He mourns for the brokenness of our world. He is meek; he hungers and thirsts for righteousness. He is merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker. And he was persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
His is the kingdom of heaven. He is the blessed one. And he offers that blessing to all who would follow him. So let us do just that. Let us put everything else behind us and press on “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Not worrying about anything else, not caring about anything else, than simply blessing the God who has so blessed us. To the glory of God. Amen