Some while ago I was asked if I would conduct what amounted to a sort of `Memorial service`. That was of course, perfectly OK until I was told… well, “But we want a sort of `hybrid` service really… not especially religious”. I`m actually starting to get quite a lot of this and I`m not moaning or belittling it in any way; I mean, the level of understanding that people have about faith is often pretty low and confused.
No, the difficulty I have… (besides an aversion to being considered as the go-to person when you have a vaguely religious project….) is that when you try to explain that actually one represents a very particular tradition (ie: Christianity) some people`s automatic response is to accuse you of intolerance or inflexibility and so you have to tread very carefully. And my particular misgiving, if I could put it like that, is the way that on these sorts of occasions you often find texts from Scripture being used in a `hybrid` sort of way. That is to say, passages from `our Bible` (let`s tell it like it is) are often lifted out of their context so as to fulfil a purpose and convey a meaning for which they weren`t actually intended.
One typical example is 1 Corinthians 13 – where St. Paul offers his reflections on love. It`s frequently heard at weddings; which is fair enough… but I`ve often had requests to edit the passage so that it sounds… shall we say, a bit more romantic! In other words, rather than be challenged and questioned by its actual meaning… we want to impose our own upon it.
Another text which springs to mind and another victim of this `hybrid` approach is this morning`s Gospel Reading…. what are called the `Beatitudes`. (Matthew 5.1-12) These wonderful verses, when you lift them out of their context… Oh yes, and embellish them with the beauty of the King James Version of the Bible very quickly come to resemble little more than `poetry`… They come across as wonderfully fine sentiments and ancient wisdom… Not that we necessarily understand it mind! And they fit the bill because they sound so…. `spiritual`.
And so it goes… and this of course is not just a miss-use of the text it`s also an abuse of Christ himself. Because in this hybrid context Jesus assumes the mantle of a fine religious teacher…. Set alongside several others we might want to mention….. something a little less than the son of God. The upshot is that your Memorial Service or whatever it is can then carry the meaning you want it to have… And it has the tone and character which typifies so much of what we might call `civic` religion …by which one means, somewhat bland, sentimental, intellectually and spiritually confused and most certainly and importantly, inoffensive….
OK, that`s my `rant` over with but what I`m driving at is that there has always been a tendency to look at the Sermon on the Mount and in particular the Beatitudes in this sort of way. Come to think of it, it`s similar to the way we treat the Ten Commandments. We like to think of them as somewhat timeless ethical principles which are applicable and adaptable to any human circumstances…. We lift them out of Scripture all the while forgetting that they are words which reflect a specific community`s relationship with the Lord and they`re inseparable from a life lived in obedience to him; because they are `the people of God`. In other words, they don`t really make sense unless you bow the knee to the God of Israel.
And again, the same thing happens when we separate the beatitudes off from the wider teaching and purpose of Christ…. When you treat them as some kind of pretty religious text alongside others Jesus quickly becomes simply the pedlar of timeless ethical principles… a shadow of himself. So this means that if we`re going to understand the Beatitudes…. And more importantly `live them` then we`re going to have to see them as all of a piece with his wider teaching about the in-breaking of what he calls the Kingdom of God.
You have to remember that Jesus is talking about a whole new way of being a world…! It really doesn`t get bigger than that. And I want to suggest that there are two particular ways in which to get hold of what Christ is saying in this most beautiful and memorable passage.
Firstly, I think we`re talking about God`s blessing on the un-blessable. Again, Christ is announcing the inbreaking of God`s reign… and the point is that the `Blessings` of this Kingdom are available to ALL; whatever their circumstance or condition. So the `poor in Spirit…` and the others who get mentioned are `blessed` not because they are poor in spirit and so on… but because the Kingdom is available EVEN to the poor in spirit. So Christ is not teaching us HOW to get blessed (as if we need to work up a bit of meekness today!). We`re not being instructed to do anything and neither is he describing any particular condition that is especially pleasing to God. No, he`s using contemporary examples…. many of which we recognise; and saying “Yes, even THESE are the blessed of God”.
So even we, irrespective of what we think of ourselves (or how others assess us) are the `Blessed of God`… Because God`s heavens are opened to us. So your homework for today is to go home and write some beatitudes yourself. Where would you begin I wonder? “Blessed are the unemployed… Blessed are the overemployed… Blessed are those who get pregnant too much… Blessed are those who can`t get pregnant at all…” “Blessed are the fat, the thin…. Blessed are the smelly, the bewildered and forgetful….” It`s a list that goes on and which, yes, contradicts OUR understanding of blessedness. But if you can think of anyone you wouldn`t include on the list then you haven`t understood what Christ is saying about the in-breaking grace of God. Again, His blessing is for the un-bless-able… Heaven is open to those we would perhaps naturally exclude.
The second way of getting hold of Christ`s teaching is to see the Beatitudes as what I want to call `the shape of Christian life`- call it discipleship, if you want. It`s often seemed to me that the kind of qualities Christ speaks of are the kind of things you see happening in the life of the one who seeks to follow Christ… In other words, you spend time in his company and this is the kind of person you become …….almost in spite of yourself.
What I mean is that for example, far from being spiritually competent and superior your actual experience is the opposite- poverty of Spirit. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3.30) There`s nothing here to flatter our pride! And so you learn what it is to mourn for your lost innocence… and to weep over the way the world is going. You wrestle with and find yourself called to exercise mercy… or become a peacemaker and so on.
It`s almost as if Christ is holding up a sort of brochure description of what lies in wait for those who come with him…. We don`t like it I think because so many of them have the tinge of what we naturally consider `God-forsakenness` but on the contrary; in these things (when this is your experience) he is probably never closer… and that`s the point. As a picture to take away with you I would invite you to ponder the Old Testament Reading this morning…. We heard about the rogue Jacob. He was on the run from defrauding his brother and he fell asleep by the roadside with a stone for a pillow.
Jacob has a dream of the Heavens opening and we`re told, “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Gen 28.16-17) Just notice those words…. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’
I want to suggest that these words sum up our condition perfectly. The Lord is IN this place, this life, this experience…. It`s THIS place, this life, this experience that is the gate of heaven… but in my blindness I don`t see it. In my restless running on to the next thing I miss it. But the Beatitudes teach us that God is where you are right now. You don`t need to be somewhere else… You don`t need to BE anyone else. Where you ARE is the doorway to heaven (the presence of God).
YOU are the Blessed of God…. You may need to move on from some particularly difficult circumstance but don`t think that by doing so you will get any closer to him nor he to you. YOU are the Blessed of God…. Whatever you think of yourself and no matter how others feel about you… It`s just rather challenging that Jesus thinks those `others` that we don`t like very much are also blessed. And it`s hard to be told that what we regard as `downward` mobility is actually `just the way it is` for authentic faith. But I guess we`ll just have to get used to it.