Every so often we talk about what are called `formative` experiences. What I mean is that looking back we can all perhaps think of moments, events or periods in our lives which have to a greater or lesser extent shaped the people we have become. And we call these things `formative` because they have gone a long way towards influencing our attitudes and the way we live in the here and now. So, for example, from a negative point of view we might see our current lack of confidence or shyness as resulting from having been harshly criticised when we were young; unkind words can leave us crushed inside and we might imagine the opposite can be true as well.
And what`s true of us as individuals can also be the case for some communities; places where generations of people grew up without any sense that they could aspire to anything other than the hard and menial work their forebears had done somehow manage to create an atmosphere where anyone who dares to seek a way out is soon slapped down …. They have their place and they should keep to it.
I suppose what I`m getting at is that it`s just sad to realise how many people have been formed believing that the world is a fundamentally unfriendly place to be. When you listen to their experience of course, perhaps you can hardly blame them but it`s sad to hear the range of expressions we use to prepare people and to help them cope with its inevitability. We say “watch your back”; we call our daily work a `rat race`, we say that it`s `a dog-eat-dog world`. Again, some peoples` experience all of this may seem quite justified; things have been so hard for them we just say “they probably don`t know any better”; but others pride themselves on having survived what they call, the `University of hard knocks`. They like to think they can grab this world by the throat and compete. They just assume that this is what life is really all about and if so, they`re going to come out on top. It`s all described by some as `the way of the world` and when we`re unable to conceive of anything different we end up cynical, defensive and even despairing.
And anyone who suggests otherwise; that things could be different or even worse that they ARE actually different? Well, they`re `naive` aren`t they? They`re hopeless idealists who are simply out of touch with reality aren`t they? “Which planet are you from?”, “Take off your rose-tinted specs” they`ll say; before going on to tell us some anecdote about someone who wasn`t warned about “the way of the world” and found themselves used, abused or taken advantage of.
The Russians have a phrase for it. They talk of people who are, “Stupid to the point of sanctity”. Which tells you straight away that time and again it`s the likes of you and I who are accused of this kind of naivety. It`s the likes of you and I who are apparently ignorant of `the ways of the world`; prone to be taken advantage of and all too commonly heard making idealistic, naïve, other-worldly and therefore irrelevant pronouncements.
Now maybe the world has seen far too many examples of genuine gullibility- masquerading as faith. Maybe much of this criticism is justified and maybe we bear some responsibility for allowing holiness to be associated with being a bit of an idiot. But before we beat ourselves up there`s nothing new in this perception. St. Paul referred to us as `fools for the sake of Christ` (1 Corinthians 4.10) He was well aware that compared to what the world calls `realism` what we proclaim is going to look stupid… and I think we need to take that to heart.
Now, I`ve been somewhat haunted in recent months by something I heard someone use. They said that “it all boils down to what Jesus knew”. “What Jesus knew”. Now we`re not talking here about informational knowledge so much as `awareness` and it`s not just that Jesus grew up in a good home; without abuse and criticism to stifle his confidence and all the rest so that he was able to look kindly on things.. No, what this person was getting at was that Jesus knew and grew up with a deep awareness that what most of us regard as the `rules for living`; the everyday survival guide for the university of hard knocks was not reality at all so much as `virtual reality`. In other words, he grew up with a deep sense that this is a God-breathed and God-permeated world; and importantly, despite appearances to the contrary, despite what the cynics might say, the universe is a perfectly safe place for us to be.
Now, to try and grasp what Jesus is on about we have to change what we might call our `cosmology`. What I mean is that most of us have grown up with a picture of things which assumes that if it`s anywhere at all, then what we call `heaven` is somewhere out there in the distance. But when Jesus announces the `Kingdom of Heaven` he`s not talking about distant place but the sphere of God, as it were overlapping with us; and from time to time we get glimpses of it. That`s what`s going on in that story of Jacob and his ladder; and again where Jesus told Nathaniel: ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ (John 1.51) and remember at Jesus Baptism we`re told `the heavens opened`.
In other words Jesus lived and taught in full view of this sense that `the heavens are opened`. He looked at the world and human kind in a totally different way from our all too frequently cynical, defensive and stunted view of things. And unless we grasp this we will never really understand what he`s getting at in the Sermon on the Mount- the first part of which we heard as our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 5.1-20).
You see the first mistake that people make when they read this sermon is they assume that when Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit; Blessed are the meek” and so on that he is giving us a list of character traits we need to have if we`re going to get to this (distant) heaven. So I might cultivate a bit of meekness; a bit of purity of heart; show a bit of mercy and well I`ll be fine. All of which WOULD be fine if we could actually do it. But what this would amount to is just another long list of religious shoulds and ought`s isn`t it? and that`s not what he`s getting at all.
As Tom Wright reminds us, that word `Blessed` is best translated: `Wonderful News`. You see Jesus is not here giving us a prescription for living or telling us what to do he`s making an announcement: He`s saying: “Wonderful news you who are poor in Spirit….”. “Wonderful news you who grieve…..”. “Wonderful news you who hunger and thirst for righteousness…..”…..because the heavens are open to you.
What Jesus is doing is looking around at the people of his day… most of whom knew only too well what a cruel and hard place the world could be (they were under Roman occupation for goodness sake!) and he is announcing that in the face of their `every right to be cynical`…. the Kingdom is open to them. Even THEY have access to God`s space… The Prostitutes, the Tax collectors that whole long list of excluded, inadequate, `unable to compete in the religious rat-race` people; even they had the doors of Heaven open to them in the presence of Jesus.
“THIS is the real world…” he`s saying. Not the virtual reality peddled by Caesar and indeed the religious authorities of the day. Not their way of grading, assessing or categorising people`s suitability but God`s way. Jesus is announcing a different way of being a world; a different way of being a human being and an end to living as if you were in some kind of rat race because that`s not what`s going on at all.
Again, what we call the Beatitudes are not teachings about HOW to be blessed by God. It`s Jesus telling us that there is NO human condition which is excluded from God`s embrace and blessedness. The illustrations he uses are designed to tell us exactly how wide the doors have been opened ….. and this is why he caused such a stir. I mean, he offended against that deep instinct within us (especially in those of a religious bent) that our religion only has currency if there is someone to exclude or look down on. That`s why the Pharisees, among others were having one of it. But this is the springing point of the Sermon on the Mount… It`s this announcement of what we call grace; this fundamental statement of what`s REALLY going on in the world and therefore what the REAL `rules for living` are. When we get hold of this we can begin to understand everything he then goes on to say.
The first point of application he gives us is: “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world”. This is where the shape of Christian living is seen to run counter to all that cynicism and despair which is the common currency of so many lives today. It`s a way of living which he outlines in the remainder of the sermon that will inevitably look foolhardy or naïve to others but that`s beside the point. The Jesus-shaped life is one lived well aware of the pain and indeed the degradation that so many face but underneath it all (and this is what Jesus knew) there is a deep sense that this isn`t the full story.
As someone has said: and this applies to us as a church and to us individually “You are walking Good News of the Kingdom (of the Heavens opened) and you are called to go with compassion but with confidence to the hopeless or cynical people around you to convey the assurance that there is a bigger story to tell; that there is no one who is God forsaken…. for the heavens are open”.