Sunday, January 29, 2017

suffering and the sermon on the mount

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

Our Gospel reading today concerns our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, also referred to as the Beatitudes. His words on that occasion are considered by many to be the most sublime teaching of a body of teaching that is itself incomparably sublime. It is also amongst the most challenging of our Saviour's teaching. It is not for nothing that Winston Churchill, a man known for his penetrating and analytical mind, said that the British Empire could not have lasted a week if it were run on the principles of the Beatitudes. He spoke truly indeed; for the words our Lord spoke on that day were not directed toward the ordering of the kingdoms of this world, but rather of the kingdom of Heaven. They were the principles that a Godly people and the individuals who make up that Godly people are called to live by; and such values do not fit easily with the values of a secular society, a society that thinks only of things that relate to this life and has no regard at all of what the implications of how a person lives in this life has for what their fate will be in the next.

Indeed, it is important to note that the blessedness of which Jesus speaks does not infer reward in this life but the next. Those who are meek – which does not mean, by the way, being some kind of a shrinking violet, a person who will not challenge anything that anyone else has to say or will endure any kind of maltreatment without a murmur, but rather refers to being slow to anger and treating others with gentleness – are not going to become some form of temporal ruler … Christ clearly is not speaking here of the physical world; rather this is to be understood as referring to a far greater reward, one that will last longer than any earthly kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. What is to be received for those who live in accordance with the Beatitudes is to be seen in that spiritual sense, as being, like the pearl of great price Jesus spoke of in the parable, the great reward of eternal life.

All, that is, until we come to the end. And then these precepts, which are already a great challenge, become even more challenging, because they warn us of what we can expect in this life for trying to live in conformity with the beatitudes that have gone before: 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.'
There are some scholars who suggest that these last verses are not part of the original teachings of our Lord. I, however, am not persuaded. This is because it seems to me that without them the beatitudes would be incomplete. They would be a call to holiness of life – but a call that lacks any notion of what the cost of that holiness, the cost of discipleship entails. Christ told us told that those who would follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross; and he gave the ultimate example of what suffering in the name of fidelity to God means by his own passion and death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. No one, I think, would consider it appropriate to try and strip away the costs that come with being a follower of Jesus are from the rest of the Gospel; and therefore neither do I think it appropriate to try and strip them from the Beatitudes either. For as St Paul tells us, while the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, that is those who see life only in worldly terms, but to us who are being saved, those who will accept Christ's word as truth and live it out in their lives, it is the power of God – the power that leads to eternal life.

We might wonder why it is necessary that discipleship have a cost. Why, we may ask ourselves must there be a personal cross? Why is it not enough to live a holy life without their also being suffering in this life to accompany it? Here are two answers to that question. The first is that there is real evil in the world; and evil hates holiness. And it places suffering in the path of all who would walk in the way of Christ as a way of tempting us from that way. Our mortal bodies shrink from pain and discomfort; our need to be liked makes us tremble to face the disapproval of others – a disapproval that the world is all too ready to bring to bear upon those who choose holiness over the ways of the world. A second reason is that perseverance in the face of suffering and persecution helps bring others to faith. It was not by chance that Tertullian in the early days of Christianity said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. Watching Christians being willing to suffer and die for their faith convinces others of its truth in a way that no other witness can. Indeed, the records we have of the deaths of the martyrs are replete with accounts of those watching them die being converted by the manner in which they went willingly to their deaths. Sometimes even their very executioners, having struck fatal blow after fatal blow, cast down their swords and declared themselves Christians as a result of what they had seen … even though they knew there were others standing nearby who would take up their weapons from the ground and strike them down with them in their turn.

But, as I draw to a close, let us not think so much as the cost as the reward. The word that our Lord uses again and again in the Sermon on the Mount is 'blessed' – emphasising again and again that this holiness of life to which all Christians are called ends in heaven for all who live it. This makes the cost of discipleship as of nothing in comparison; and therefore I pray that all here will find the grace and the strength to pay it … winning eternal life not only for themselves as a result; but by the example of their holy living leading others to it as well. Amen.  

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