A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church,
February 2nd 2020
There is a story told about an American college where every student was required to take an ‘introduction to religion’ course. Whatever subject was their ‘major’ in they still had to take and pass this course. Otherwise, no graduation. Every year, though, the course was taught by the same teacher and the end-of-course exam consisted of just one question, which, for as long as anyone could remember, had been the same question: “Write an account of the missionary journeys of Saint Paul.”
Most students put read enough to provide them with the basic account of Paul’s journeys, which would enable them to complete their journey to graduation. One year, when the students in the exam hall were confronted with a one-question exam paper which asked: “Write a critical account of the Sermon on the Mount.” Soon the exam hall had emptied of students, resigned to re-sitting the exam at future date, hoping that Saint Paul would make a come-back.
One student, after staring at the paper for a few minutes, began to write furiously, filling page after page, right up until the last moment allocated for the examination. His fellow students were intrigued, so when he emerged from the examination hall, they were waiting to interrogate him. “What on earth did you find to write about for two hours?” they asked. “Simple,” he replied, “I began my essay with the declaration, ‘Who am I or anyone else to criticise the Sermon on the Mount? How much better to use this precious time to consider the missionary journeys of Saint Paul!’”
Today, I feel a little bit like that student. True, I don’t have to preach on the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’s teaching covers three entire chapters of his Gospel. I only have to deal with the first twelve verse: the beatitudes. This is the best-known part of the Sermon on the Mount. Many think it is the whole Sermon.
What am supposed to say about the beatitudes? If I question them then you might ask, “Who does he think he is to criticise the Sermon on the Mount?” If I all I do is repeat them, you might ask, “What is the point of this sermon?” (the one I’m preaching not the one from Jesus). Why not just let the Saviour speak for himself and cut out the ministerial middleman?
We may think we know how to respond to the beatitudes, but is that really the case? Could familiarity lead, if not to contempt, then to a failure to recognise the nature of the challenge they present today? A journalist once wrote, “No one today would want to argue with the content of the Sermon on the Mount”, by which, as the rest of his article demonstrated he meant the beatitudes. This made me wonder, “When was the last time they read the beatitudes if he can write something like that?”
Jesus said that kingdom of heaven is the possession of the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted in the cause of right.
Jesus declared that the sorrowful find consolation, the gentle get to possess the earth, those who hunger and thirst for justice are satisfied, the merciful receive mercy, the pure in heart see God and the peacemakers are called God’s children.
I hear that and I want to say, “Well, maybe so, Jesus, but only up to a point”. And I put it that way only because I’m well known for my good manners, even in the face of provocation. And in any case, who wants to get on the wrong side of Jesus by questioning what he tells you?
All the same, my initial responses are confusion and doubt. What is this kingdom of heaven that the poor in spirit and the persecuted get to possess? Did the sorrowing families of Jews and others who perished in the Holocaust really find comfort? If the gentle really possess the earth why, so often, as Napoleon once put it, does God seem to be on the side of the big battalions. If those who hunger and thirst for justice are satisfied why is Amnesty International kept so busy? The pure in heart may see God but God’s children, the peacemakers, seem to have little standing in a violent world. At this point I find myself contemplating giving a sermon devoted to retracing the missionary journeys of Saint Paul.
Yet, as I look at this passage once again, I see something that makes me wish to embrace the beatitudes, while at the same time so terrifies me that I want to run away from them. What I see is that way before being for the world in general, Jesus’s demands, expressed in the words of the beatitudes, are for the Church: “When he saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. There he sat down, and when his disciples had gathered round him, he began to address them. And this is the teaching he gave …” (5: 1-2)
Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, says Matthew, is addressed to his disciples. So, as Jesus’s disciples today, we have gathered to listen to these words, not as generalised sentiments, available to ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’, but as directed to those who claim to be his followers. Within the Church, the beatitudes are designed to have ‘bite’, and this I find both intriguing and unsettling; attractive yet terrifying. And the more I think about that – the place of the beatitudes within the Church – the more I see in it.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’: many of us have observed or experienced the truth that in and through the Church the sorrowing really may find consolation. Often, for example, when I conduct a funeral, it’s plain to me that that ministry, including the words of scripture and the prayers offered, provide a measure of consolation to those who mourn.
‘Blessed are the meek [or the gentle], for they will inherit the earth’: that the gentle might be blessed in the life of the Church gives me pause for thought, especially when I have observed or experienced the infighting that so often characterises groups of people who are thrown together, supposedly in a common cause. Over time, however, after the dust settles, it’s the gently Jesus-like Christians who gain the respect of the world.
Surely, too we recognise something of the reality of Church life reflected in the other beatitudes; in seeking after justice, showing mercy and being pure in heart: think of Christian Aid, supporting organisations like Compassion, and local social action. We might not have achieved complete purity of heart (sermons would be rendered redundant if we did) but as someone who has worked in the Church and in the secular workplaces, I have noticed differences. A regular diet of worship, scripture, prayer, and care sets boundaries on acceptable behaviour and shared values, even though we are not perfect.
And of course, the Church is still very much in need of peacemakers – well the URC is anyway; I wouldn’t know about the Methodists, the Baptists, the Anglicans and all the rest. Perhaps they are prefect as we are not.
When I consider the Sermon on the Mount in the context of the Church, the beatitudes become less out-of-this-world holy and more down-to-earth practical. I can relate them to situations I face together with people I know, on a day-to-day basis; people with whom I have to live and who have to live with me. The beatitudes also become more demanding, for I cannot consign them to the realms of theory, something someone else might be doing somewhere else in the world today.
So, the beatitudes give me an agenda for today’s Church, but there is ‘but’ that cannot be simply ignored …
This teaching, these demands, from Jesus may begin with us in the Church but they cannot then be allowed to remain only within the Church. We, after all, live in the world, not just in the Church. In the prophet Micah’s message we see a setting where God’s people and the world in general intersect. The people that God calls through the prophet are both his people and the whole nation. They are all told to “act justly, to love loyalty, to walk humbly with your God.” (6: 8) Psalm 15, which begins by asking who will dwell in God’s holy place, then connects all of that with money lending and taking bribes.
Also, by the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the Jesus who gathers his disciples around him on a mountain for this teaching, is the same Jesus who, from another mountain, sends them out to the nations to make disciples, baptising and preaching. (28:16-20) What begins with a group of followers, gathered around Jesus, goes on to be shared with the world.
So, for we who call ourselves Christians today, as far as the Sermon on the Mount is concerned, as far as the beatitudes are concerned, it’s really a matter of “Today the Church, and tomorrow, if not sooner, the world.”