One of the saddest hypocrisies I’ve encountered in Christian life in the academy and in the Church, is the extremely basic and clear overarching demand God has for his people to act with humility and so with love, patience, kindness, self-control, compassion and gentleness, and the all too often boisterous, ego driven striving for power, control, influence, winning, achieving, and lauded work-a-holism lived out by far too many theologians, ordained and laypersons within the Church. To be blunt, this hypocrisy is a turn off to the faith. It makes it appear as if Christians don’t believe what they say about God’s power, God’s timing, God’s ordering and God’s faithfulness, so that their own works appear to be mere human desires with Jesus mentioned to up the ante of legitimacy.
What do I mean here? Well, just a few examples: I’ve seen really famous and well-respected Christians scholars repeatedly (not just one time) speak of other scholars in their own or other fields, with condescension and vitriol. And so while said scholar might make a valid critique of another’s work, that valid critique is lost because of the lack of humility, kindness, and self-control exercised by the critical scholar. Likewise I have encountered bishops who, pressured by high profile priests with power in a diocese, have unfairly condemned a priests with lesser power when that priest calls out some behavior or action of the higher powered priest. I have seen rampant examples, within numerous Christian Churches, of tattling on someone to a third party rather than, as God in Scripture commands, ‘going directly to that person.’
The result, in almost all of these cases, is a loss of trust in relationships and so a loss of capacity to exercise any authority, order or discipline. In other words, what I have seen – over the last fifteen years of being a Christian – are far too many examples of impoverished witness. And I think it is this impoverished witness that, over time, has broken down relationships where people willingly submit and commit themselves to one another. After all, when civil law, or one’s capacity to obtain a position in government, or in business, or in society in general, is no longer dependent upon one’s belonging to a church, why would one willingly submit themselves to a group of people who claim to have this particular God, but whose lives do not take the shape of the one true relationship they purport to proclaim: Christ’s own. Why would someone willingly submit themselves to any relationship, let alone a mere moral rather than civilly enforceable authority, when the life of those to whom you would be joining do not have the humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, and self-control displayed by Christ?
Jesus says today: “5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He does not say, blessed are those who are self-righteous and don’t mind telling everyone what they always think is ‘the right way to do things.’ In fact, Paul says to the Corinthian Church about that today: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” What Paul is echoing in Jesus’s own thought here is not that knowledge and wisdom and debate are bad things at all. What both are driving at is the basic need for humility, patience, listening, hearing, being gentle, and seeking to teach and be taught, when speaking to one another, rather than seeing relationships in the church and in life, as something to win, or as those we’re in relationship with as those to be conquered. To ‘win over’ someone to Jesus Christ isn’t to convince them of your truth; it is rather to give them the time and space, to provide relational structure and even sometimes discipline, to help them to drop their defenses so they can hear and go up to Jesus Christ so that HE can change them.
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I have sometimes seen Christians treat a death, a funeral, or someone’s suffering, as a personal pulpit opportunity for their own individual niche issue. In fact, I was talking to someone this week – someone seeking pastoral advice – who told me that she trusts few priests because she’s been to several funerals where priests have lambasted those in the congregation for not coming to Church. This is the foolishness of the world because it turns people away from God. It closes off the space the Church, in obedience to God, has created for those who have lost someone, to lament, to cry out, to express their sadness at loss, their recognition of our frailty, and to hear of grace and of our hope for reconciliation and restoration and resurrection in God. Jesus says here: pay attention to the particular context you are in. It is not wrong to express sadness or to lament or cry out in anger or frustration or loss; make space for this so that God might come into that person’s life more deeply to comfort them. And Paul would add, do not use this time of sadness, of emotional breakdown and vulnerability for someone else, to fulfill your agenda.
"Blessed are the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are pure in heart, for they will inherit the earth, and see God.” Too often people have characterized meekness as a kind of passive or weak character trait. This is not what Scripture means by meek. When Jesus is speaking here, what he means is that those who exercise humility will inherit the earth. Those who exercise humility will first listen to, watch for, and wait on God’s presence, his will, his timing. They will, therefore, be slow to anger, quick to listen. The reason they will inherit the earth is quite simple: to exercise humility in relationships is to live into Jesus Christ himself. To exercise self-righteousness, generally born out of fear and ensuing anger, frustration, and learned helplessness, is to live into the flesh, which is dead; which, that is, has no purpose and so must endlessly be refilled by seeking self-affirmation, or consumption.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. The thing is, when one lives with humility, living into the righteousness that Christ displayed for us, our expectations begin to change. Look for example at Paul. Recall how he tells us in the Epistles about his ‘successful career’ as a Jewish leader. He had everything, he was a man of the world and of God, he was strong, powerful, influential and given power and authority by others. Today, he says, and then when Jesus spoke to me through his Spirit, I realized that all the worldly things that I thought should order my life, they are nothing, meaningless, in the Kingdom of God. All the things of this world are just tools of this time to get us through life, but we do not bring these with us when we die, and they do not dictate our life after with God. So they are transient. Cling to them as if they are eternal and you shall live a foolish life. Cling to your power and your authority, cling to ways that harm others and distract them or dissuade them from Christ and you will live a meaningless life, a thwarted life ordered to the death of the flesh. To live the life of Jesus Christ – of humility, of kindness, self control, patience, generosity, etc – this stuff really does look foolish to this world that is perishing. It makes no sense. It can make us look as if we’re suckers, even lazy for not working our fingers to the bone like those rich execs or entrepreneurs of the world, of being patient and filled with self-control where a stronger person might fight, conquer, win, and prove strength and power, and gain a false authority (God has already said is overcome in Christ). The merciful receive mercy because their expectations of what they are owed and what they feel freed to give, what they feel the desire to give, changes. Life is no longer a matter of entitlement and control, but of learning to love and recognizing in that, the mercy of having first received life in the love of God by which that happens.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. "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. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” When we live with humility, when we seek to live out Christ who is within us and also drawing us to him as we see in Scripture, we come to recognize God’s mercy in our having life at all. From this, we can seek to live righteously because we know by whom we’ve been made, and to whom our lives are to be conformed. This might make us look foolish if we compare how our lives might look to the ways of the world. The ideas of poverty, chastity, self-control, giving for the sake of others, being slow to anger, working to overcome our disagreements and anger or fear or frustration, yeah, that does look foolish – or at least unusual given how we see so much of our world look. But then, I go back to my opening statements: when the Church does not follow this way of Christ’s foolishness, history demonstrates that it repels rather than attracts others. The odd thing about the foolishness of living as Christ himself did for our sakes, is that it is precisely when this self-giving humility takes place, that new life, that followers, that seekers, come knocking. Why? I would suggest it is because this life – Jesus’s own – is the core self, our home, our very being, that every human made in his image seeks. So let us then seek to follow this foolish one into true life. AMEN.