The beatitudes are a sort of Christian resume. They are a familiar passage for us. Also known as the Sermon on the Mount, this is a powerful and controversial teaching of Jesus. He lists the individuals who are blessed because of their particular condition or status in life. I suspect it was as confusing a list when Jesus preached it as it is for us now. If you were looking to hire someone, would you want someone who says that they are meek or poor in spirit? What does that even mean in a modern culture? Why would Jesus say that “meekness” is a blessed state of life when we would classify it as a detriment? We might laud the efforts of peacemakers but run from that position if someone offered it to us. Who wants to be sent to Israel, Ukraine, or the Minneapolis police department for peacemaking negotiations? Working for peace seems noble but it is risky as well. And what about those who are in mourning? My guess is that they don’t feel blessed to be in that emotional state?
There is no doubt that Jesus inverted the world’s values in lifting up these human circumstances above all others. He did not celebrate those who are wealthy, proud, accomplished, or well-respected by their peers. He didn’t glorify those who organize well or those who foster a sense of teamwork on their projects. Jesus ignored the very characteristics we put on a résumé to make sure that ours rises to the top of the pile.
I visited an elderly woman recently in a care facility. She had asked to meet with a chaplain. Communication was difficult with her. At times, she scrunched up her face and was tearful about her life circumstances. But she also had this beautiful smile that she flashed as we talked. I wondered what would have landed her in this group home, away from family. There were silences when neither of us spoke. Her emotions shifted erratically between broad smiles and tearful moments, with no clear reason for the changes.
About fifteen minutes into our visit, she looked me in the eyes and, with one of her sweet smiles, said, “I love Jesus.“ Her speech was garbled so I repeated it in the form of a question: “You love Jesus?“ She continued to smile and nodded. I smiled back and slowly said “Jesus loves me, this I know.“ She bobbed her head so I continued: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong: they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.” She moved her head to the familiar rhythm of the song. As our time approached for me to leave, I asked if she would like me to close with a prayer. She nodded her approval. I offered a prayer and an “amen.” I felt moved to ask her if she knew the Lord’s prayer. In slow and slurred speech, she started reciting it: “Our Father…” I saw that as an invitation to continue together, so we took our time, saying those ancient words of conversation with God. I left her room, certain that I was the one to receive the blessing from her.
Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those dwelling in care facilities where visits are few and memories grow dim. Blessed are those who mourn the loss of spouse or child. Blessed are those with declining abilities and aching loneliness. Blessed are the peacemakers who labor for peace no matter where they find themselves. These are attributes that may not be on resumes. But these are the very people toward whom we gravitate. Jesus beckons to us with strange words of promise: “Blessed are you who feel the pain of your poverty, your failure, and your weakness, for you will surely find God’s strength and comfort as you acknowledge your need before Him.” (The poverty paradox by Krister Sairsingh)
The paradox of the Gospel is that Jesus promises glory for those who dare to confess their unworthiness!
Paul wrote a letter to the Romans. Our passage today begins with Paul stating that we have been adopted as God’s children. As in our culture, this was a process which meant full inclusion in and rights to family membership. What beautiful words those were for the believers in the Roman church. We find it unimaginable that God claims us as adopted children when we have not petitioned for such exclusive family membership! But the glow of the promise suddenly dims when Paul goes on to say that belonging to Christ means that we will suffer with Him! It sounds a lot like Jesus’ warning to disciple wannabes: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The air hisses out of the party balloon. The ink isn’t yet dry on the adoption papers and we question our commitment. “This is not the family for which I prayed!” We want the privileges without the cost.
A clergy friend of mine wrote about this passage and said that he didn’t mind the notion of cheap grace for his own life. I can picture him smiling as he confessed his struggle with the requirements of discipleship. He offered these words: “I like the idea that there’s much I need not suffer because Jesus already did; I like the idea that God simply chooses to love each one of us and there’s nothing any of us can do to cause God to love us any more or any less; I like taking ‘not by works, but by grace’ as literally as I possibly can and extrapolating it as far as I can.”
As parents, employers, or neighbors to those who are not neighborly, we are warned against offering grace as a cheap commodity. Let’s not reward bad behavior by letting it continue. Punishment is just and sometimes people have to learn a lesson. So why would we suffer? Why would we have to suffer with Jesus if He has already endured the cross? Didn’t He redeem us from our sin through His crucifixion? I thought the cross was a one-and-done penance that sets me free?
When we get to the end of this passage we begin to understand the requirements. We suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with Him.
It’s difficult for me to name any great suffering I’ve experienced because of my faith. In fact, my Christian beliefs have turned into a career that paid my mortgage and my grocery bill, my kids’ college expenses, and a few theological books along the way (I’m discovering my book fanaticism as I pack out my office!). I have had the luxury of processing my beliefs and preaching my theology for more than thirty years to anyone who shows up on a Sunday. What do I know about suffering for the Gospel?
Current statistics from opendoorsusa offer us this glimpse into Christianity around the globe. One in eight Christians worldwide experiences high levels of persecution. 309 million Christians are subjected to high levels of persecution and discrimination. In the past year, 4761 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in 50 different countries. 4488 were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in those 50 countries. 4277 churches or Christian buildings were attacked in a year’s time in those 50 countries. The number of Christians killed in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa has risen by 2.7%, year after year. (opendoorsusa.org, 2022)
The paradox of the Gospel is that there is glory for those who speak on behalf of Christ. However, for many, their sacrifice is greater than we can fathom!
What is the practical significance of glory? We read in Romans 8: 6: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” By sending Jesus to deal with sin, God has done what we and the Law could not. We are offered a life completely free of the burdens, sorrows, and ailments of this life. So what does this “glory” look like? It’s not a word we commonly use!
Perhaps it is something like this: As you lay in a hospital bed, day in and day out, with a foggy mind and emotional instability, you smile at your visitor and say, “I love Jesus.” Glory shimmers in that moment!
Is that assurance in the end stage of life worth the suffering? What are you willing to sacrifice to know Jesus in the depth of your soul when nothing else seems solid? Proclaiming the Gospel is costly! The disciples learned that lesson repeatedly and painfully. Jesus suffered in the wilderness and all the way to Gethsemane. The price of His glory increased with each obedient step of His journey.
Perhaps that glory shines out to us in the least likely places.
In 1979, Mayor Jane Byrne of Chicago chose to move into the urban housing development called Cabrini Green. She did this to bring attention to the needs of that impoverished population. While there were some good things that happened in the 25 days that she (allegedly) lived there, it turned into an occupied territory for the residents. Many were frisked, questioned and evicted. She intended to have an apartment there the whole time of her term as mayor but she left after 25 days, favoring her Gold Coast home just eight blocks away.
Marion Stamps was an activist who raised her children in Cabrini Green. She mopped up the negative impact of Mayor Byrne’s time there. Marion was the on-site prophet and activist, a trusted insider effecting long-term change. Mayor Byrne’s initial surge in popularity disappeared when people saw that the changes were short-lived and she wasn’t willing to live among her impoverished constituents for even one month. The housing area fell into disrepair rather quickly after she moved out. The greatest hope for this neighborhood didn’t come from the top politician in the area. It came from a woman who fought against the violence and despair of the projects to raise her own family of five daughters, all of whom became public servants. What does it look like to effectively and authentically renovate an area where murder happens on a regular basis? Marion wasn’t willing to sit idly by. She had a passion for those around her and sacrificed her time and energy, working against an indifferent ruling class to improve the future of her neighbors.
Can you see the glory shining out from a housing development called Cabrini Green?
We continually learn that Jesus and our culture each expect something very different from us. My clergy friend was brutally honest about his discomfort with this text. Robert wrote, “’Take up your cross’ has always sounded bitter and severe to me. And maybe one day being a follower of Jesus will demand something extremely painful of me. But for now, it seems to be as simple as a trade-off, as simple as letting go of the inconveniences I whine about—parsonage living, congregants who don’t seem to ‘get it,’ conference paperwork—because those, I have to confess, are the things that presently obscure God’s glory for me.”
I wonder what obscures God’s glory for you?
This colleague complained about persistent malaise the last few times he came to our lectionary study group. I missed his insights and candor as we met without him. I was surprised to learn he was hospitalized and, as quickly as I heard that, word spread that he had died—of a cancer they only discovered the final week of his life. Just like that, his life was over and his reflection on challenging Biblical texts was cut short. He was given rest from his wrestling match with the requirements of discipleship. I still grieve his absence.
His final words of reflection on this inversion of the world’s values minister to me still today: “Is the gift of the Holy Spirit something worth suffering for in order to receive it? I think so. Especially if ‘suffering’ is understood simply as what must be relinquished in order to receive…the price of glory, as it were. This doesn’t solve the ‘must’ problem. But it does offer me a more matter of factness about the whole thing. Make your choice, Robert, and know that it means challenges and aggravations, but so what? That’s a small price to pay for glory.”