Bible reading: Matthew chapter 5, verses 1 to 12.
‘Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them
He said: “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 be shown 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 because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’
A few years ago, Marilyn and I spent a day in Mumbai, and while we there we visited Mahatma Gandhi’s house. That house is now a fascinating museum devoted to the life of that remarkable man.
One of the things you can buy there is Gandhi’s autobiography, in which he talks about his encounters with Christianity.
Gandhi, of course, was a Hindu, but one of his closest supporters was an Anglican priest, who persuaded him to study the New Testament.
Well, Gandhi did study it, and was deeply impressed. But the part of the New Testament that captivated him most was Jesus’ sermon on the Mount.
He once said that if Christians in India were to really live by those teachings, Hinduism would cease to exist in that country. Hindus would be so overwhelmed that they would embrace Christianity.
But Gandhi never did become a Christian. The reason, he said, was that he never saw a Christian who actually lived by those words; and he thought the established churches reflected the very opposite.
That may be a bit unfair. But when you look at the Sermon on the Mount and compare it to much of organised Christianity, you can understand why Gandhi was so disillusioned by what he saw.
The Sermon on the Mount is the nearest thing we have to a manifesto of what Jesus taught and wanted his followers to be and do. You could call it Jesus’ call for a Christiancounterculture.
We are all familiar with the term counterculture. It was the catchcry of my generation in the 1960s, as the world moved ever closer to Armageddon.
That was the generation that began the great exodus away from the churches. And one of the reasons they did it was that in the churches they didn’t see that counterculture that would change the world.
But Jesus’ call is still with us and is still the greatest challenge he gives to his followers. And the Sermon on the Mount, rightly understood, encapsulates it.
The Sermon on the Mount is the essence of Jesus’ teaching. And the the Beatitudes, are the essence of the Sermon on the Mount.
So, if you want a concise and comprehensive description of true Christian character, look no further than these twelve verses.
Even though the world, by and large, expresses admiration for the Sermon on the Mount – especially the Beatitudes -, the fact is that most people believe that it’s hopelessly unrealistic.
We’ve all been raised in a society that conditions us to be ambitious, assertive and self-confident. So, we learn to look out for ourselves, which is the very opposite of what Jesus says in these words.
Those of us who aspire to leadership and prominence in some aspect of society soon learn that it’s a jungle and, generally speaking, it’s not the nice guys who get to the top.
That’s because there are three great motivating drives in this world: the desire for gain, the desire for prestige and the desire for power. Success usually means being motivated by one or more of these three.
But Jesus turns these values on their head and says it’s not about what you gain, but what you give; not about prestige but the way you serve; not about power over people, but the way you empower them.
Our problem though is that the first 3 Beatitudes seem to describe the sort of people we’d probably call life’s losers: people who are poor in spirit, people who are heartbroken, people who get pushed around.
Unfortunately, the original Greek text, when translated literally, doesn’t come across in modern English in the way it would have to the people who first heard it.
Eugene Peterson’s translation in contemporary English, The Message, gives a better sense of what Jesus was saying:
‘You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there’s more of God...
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what’s most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are... That’s the moment you find yourself proud owners of everything that can’t be bought’.
The Beatitudes are a Christian counterculture that puts the emphasis on what we give rather than what we gain, on what we are rather than the position we hold, on how we serve rather than how we dominate.
But it’s worth noting that Jesus started each one with the word ‘blessed.’ Once again there is no word in modern English that quite gives the exact meaning of the original Greek word – makarios.
Happy is pretty close to it. William Barclay prefers the word ‘bliss’ because originally the Beatitudes were a set of exclamations rather than statements, like: ‘oh the bliss of the pure in heart.’
The interesting thing about this word we translate as blessed, is that to the Greeks it signified a degree of contentment that was complete in itself, needing nothing to be added to it.
Barclay talks about how the ancient Greeks used to use the word makarios to describe the Island of Cyprus. They called it he makaria, the Blessed Isle.
The reason was that they considered everything about Cyprus to be ideal, the climate, the fertility of the soil, its beauty, the taste of its wine and so on.
To their way of thinking, Cyprus had everything in it to make life complete; you didn’t need to go anywhere else.
Now here’s the real treasure in this. The great longing of humankind is, and always has been for happiness. But for all we do and all we achieve; we never find it; it’s always over the next hill.
But what Jesus is saying is that we keep on looking in all the wrong places. It’s not out there; it’s within our very selves.
Happiness, in its truest sense, is a by-product of healthy spirituality. It is in being like Jesus. It is in being at peace with God, with ourselves and with each other.
When we have that we have a blessedness that’s always there, regardless of our circumstances. It’s what Paul meant when he said: ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
That, says Jesus, is what you will be when your life reflects these qualities.
It's often hard to think of someone who really lives the Beatitudes, but despite what Gandhi said, occasionally I’ve come across them – and have always been blessed by them.
One of them was a man I met in my first ministry. At first, I’d been a bit apprehensive about him. He’d once been a minister and left it to become a clinical psychologist.
I was afraid he might be rather critical of me and my inexperience. But he wasn’t. He was the very opposite.
And over the next 40 years, until his death, he was the person I’d seek out whenever I was struggling within myself.
He was the most non-judgemental person I’ve ever known, and even though I didn’t always agree with his counsel, I’d always came away with a sense of peace.
I never heard him say an unkind or unjust word about anyone – even though I sometimes heard others speak dismissively of him.
He was not a gifted preacher and his first ministry appointments fell short of what the congregations wanted, which was why he’d re-trained as a clinical psychologist.
Then, after years working as a student counsellor, he was struck down with a degenerative disease that increasingly incapacitated him.
So, in his last few years he devoted himself to writing two books, in which he poured out all his deep, heart-felt beliefs. Like so many writers he had to self-publish, and struggle to find a market.
But every time I visited him and saw his desk strewn with notes and reference books, I’d look into his eyes and see the passion still there, and that he was fully alive even though his body was dying.
His second book – the one he was most passionate about - came out just before he died. He never lived to see how few copies it sold, but he died a happy man, believing he’d accomplished his life’s work.
Now most people would probably not rate his as a successful life. But when I conducted his funeral, and listened to what his grandchildren said about him, I put my sermon aside, because they’d said it all.
To the outside world, Allan was not a particularly successful man; but to me, as to his grandchildren, he always brought the peace and presence of the Son of God; and he died as he lived still doing it.
And so, Jesus calls us, also, to be people who put aside our own ego-driven desires for gain, for prestige and for power. And in their place he calls us to recognise our own deep spiritual need,
and through his forgiveness and the filling of our lives with His Spirit, to live lives that are characterised by these qualities.
Contrary to what many popular preachers may tell you, He doesn’t guarantee that you will become successful, or materially prosperous as a result.
But what He does promise is that you will be become blessed; blessed with an inner joy that is complete in itself, irrespective of outward circumstances; ‘For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.’