All Saints’ Day 4th Sunday before Advent
Gospel Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘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.
Called to be saints.
As we think about celebrating ‘All Saints’ Day’ we may think about Saints we see depicted in statues, in the stained glass windows of our churches or our particular Patron Saint. They seem removed from people in the 21st century. They may appear cold, stationary, flat, one dimensional, where our lives tend to be multidimensional and busy. We probably would not attach the label of ‘saintly’ to a picture of ourselves!
We might feel our lives do not lend themselves to being ‘saintly’.
It begs the question is it possible to be saintly when you feel your life is in a bit of a mess? I don’t think for one moment the ‘saints’ we have just been thinking about were worrying about their marriage, broken relationships, their children growing up, employment and living in the midst of a Pandemic. Perhaps the most important thing to realise is to be a ‘Saint’ like those depicted in glass and stone you have to be dead.
In his letter to the church in Corinth Paul writes:
‘To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:’ If Paul declares we are called to be ‘saints’ we have to look at how we are to achieve this. The answer is found in the Gospel reading this morning, most commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes.
Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver a great body of teaching. He begins with some surprising statements about who is blessed. People often talk about being blessed. They may feel blessed because they have a beautiful new baby, a great job, a lovely home, or a wonderful family. They may talk about how blessed they feel after taking the holiday of a lifetime, or simply because they have a warm bed and a roof over their head.
Jesus’ views on who is blessed differ radically from these and we might feel that they are quite shocking. Beatitudes might be difficult to understand, yet they are worth struggling with, for they are the attributes of saint and at their heart we will find hope, grace and joy.
There are a number of words in the original Greek version of the Beatitudes that are difficult to adequately translate into English. Makarioi, which the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as “blessed”, is one of these. It describes an incredible joy.
In the light of this, some of the Beatitudes seem very strange indeed. How can people who are persecuted and reviled have a deep joy? How can Jesus tell them to “rejoice and be glad”? How can those who mourn or those who are meek be blessed, especially when many commentators believe that the word translated as “meek” refers to the oppressed – those humbled by others. And what about those who are poor in spirit? The Greek word for poor here refers to utter destitution, so the poor in spirit are those who are fully aware of all their weaknesses and who, therefore, feel completely helpless – these are not the kind of people we might expect to overflow with joy.
The answer to these paradoxes lies in the type of kingdom Jesus was bringing in. At the start of his public ministry, he declared that he had come to bring “good news to the poor”, and to those with little power and significance in the world. His message was one of incredible grace. His kingdom was open to those the world shunned, those who were poor, weak and rejected. The message of the Beatitudes is not one that equates blessing with human effort, as is sometimes assumed. Jesus is not teaching that blessing only comes by trying harder to be meeker or more pure in heart. In fact, the Beatitudes declare how things are, rather than how they could be if only we tried harder. They simply announce how joyful people can be because Christ’s kingdom has broken in to their/our lives bringing hope to those desperate for God’s help. These statements are celebratory rather than depressing. William Barclay translates this passage:
“O the blessedness of the meek”.
What can we learn from the Beatitudes? Firstly, they are attitudes that we need to be and they remind us of God’s grace. The world favours success, confidence, money, power and influence. God’s kingdom is different. Its blessings are not won or deserved, but freely given. They are for the needy, poor and struggling. If we feel inadequate and unworthy, then we have much to rejoice about, for God is with us to bless us.
The blessings or joy of the Beatitudes involves more than just feeling happy, for that often depends upon how well things are going for us. We might feel happy, for instance, if we are offered a better job or inherit some money. However, if someone has just stolen our car, or we have been made redundant we will probably not feel very blessed. Fortunately, the blessedness the Beatitudes describe is a joy that exists regardless of personal circumstances. We have joy, not because our lives are easy, but despite our pain and troubles – for joy is the product of knowing God’s unconditional love, presence and assurance of salvation.
We can experience this joy in every circumstance we find ourselves in as our heavenly Father’s love is unfailing. So Paul was right we are saints, our lives blessed by God regardless of the struggle, weakness, fear, anger and any of the gamut of emotions we are experiencing living through this Pandemic and in the future. We don’t have lives like the plaster and stained glass Saints, we are just ordinary folk learning to rely on God day by day.
And so we pray:
We give thanks to God for the Saints who have gone before, those who gave their lives for the sake of the gospel, those who spent their lives in service for others and those whose names we will never know this side of glory.
Help us Lord to live each day with the right attitudes, to ‘be’ in your presence and to know that we are blessed. Amen