Sunday, 29 January 2017

If I was accused of being a Christian, would
there be enough evidence to convict me?

‘If I was accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me?

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 January 2017,

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany,

The Parish Eucharist,

Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Steeple Road, Tarbert, Co Kerry.

Readings:
Micah 6: 1-8; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our Gospel reading (Matthew 5: 1-12) this morning is the most familiar account of the Beatitudes, more familiar than the accounts in either Saint Mark’s or Saint Luke’s Gospels.

The Beatitudes are familiar to us all, culturally embedded in our society, in our literature, in our arts. But how do we apply the Beatitudes to our own lives? How do we read them with fresh insights?

The Beatitudes are the New Covenant between God and God’s people, comparable to Moses coming down Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

But instead of a list of things that seems to begin every command with ‘Thou shalt not,’ ‘Thou shalt not,’ this is a declaration of the happy or fortunate state of the children of God who possess particular qualities, and who, because of them, will inherit divine blessings.

We could compare the delivery of the Beatitudes to the delivery of the Ten Commandments. Here we have the renewal of the covenant, and a restatement, a re-presentation, of who the Children of God are.

Just as we sometimes find the Ten Commandments grouped into two sets, so we might see the Beatitudes set out in two groups of four. The first four Beatitudes address attitudes, the second four deal with actions.

Are they requirements for the present?

Or they blessings for the future?

Or are they are statements of present fact?

How do we apply the Beatitudes in our day-to-day lives?

Which is your favourite Beatitude? And which one makes me most uncomfortable?

The Sermon on the Mount, by Cosimo Rosselli, from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican

The scene opens with Christ leaving the crowds and climbing up the mountain, like Moses leaving the crowd behind him and climbing Mount Sinai.

He goes up the mountain and sits sat down. In those days, a teacher sat down to teach. But we could also imagine Christ as the king, sitting on his throne, so that his teachings are about kingdom values, with not just the disciples, but the crowd gathered around him.

What does he mean when says ‘blessed are …’? Who are the blessed?

The word he uses is μακάριος (makários). Does anyone remember His Beatitude, Archbishop Makarios (1913-1977), the former President of Cyprus? ‘His Beatitude’ is a term of respect for archbishops in the Orthodox Church.

But we might also translate ‘blessed’ as ‘fortunate,’ ‘well off,’ or ‘happy.’

Christ is telling people they are fortunate to be this or that why way. They are fortunate to possess these qualities of life. Why?

Blessed are ‘the poor’: those in total poverty, possessing nothing and with no means to earn a living other than begging. Not because this is a good state to be in, but those who are dependent on God possess the riches of his kingdom.

Blessed are ‘those who mourn,’ those who know their needs before God, those who are broken before God. They will be comforted, like the Holy Spirit is promised as a comforter, they will be consoled.

Blessed are ‘the meek,’ the humble, the gentle, the self-effacing, those of mild disposition or gentle spirit, those who do not make great demands on God, but submit to the will of God, for they will possess the earth.

‘Blessed are the Meek’ is misheard in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian as: ‘Blessed is the Greek.’ When the crowd finally gets what Jesus says, a woman says: ‘Oh it’s the Meek … blessed are the Meek! That’s nice, I’m glad they’re getting something …’

Blessed are ‘those who hunger,’ those who are hungering, ‘for righteousness,’ for justice, for God’s justice. They will be satisfied, to the full.’

Blessed are ‘the merciful.’ The quality of mercy is not strained, as Shakespeare reminds us, and Jesus illustrates the quality of mercy later, in the Lord’s Prayer, when we are reminded to pray that we are forgiven as we forgive others. Happy are those who experience God’s mercy, and then find they know God’s mercy.

Blessed are ‘the pure in heart,’ those who desire to touch the divine, to ‘be like God,’ to ‘see God,’ and who find themselves in God’s presence.

Blessed are the peace-makers, not the peace-seekers, nor the peace-lovers, but the peace-makers. This is the one and only use of this phrase in the New Testament. How unique and unusual a beatitude. Yet, while it leaps off the pages, we try so often to scale it down, to refuse to take it literally.

This beatitude is also parodied in The Life of Brian, where people in the crowd hear Christ saying: ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.’ And the response is: ‘Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.’

We parody this beatitude when we think Christ is talking about those who seek or wish for peace, and not those who make peace, who take risks for peace … and we oh so need them at this time in Ireland, in Northern Ireland, in Britain, in the United States, in Syria, in the Middle East.

The peacemakers shall be called the children of God. If we are children of God, then we act like God. And if we act like God, others may see what God is like, and may answer the invitation to become members of God’s family.

Blessed are ‘those who are persecuted,’ the ones being persecuted. The perfect tense indicates persecution that began in time past and that continues into time present. In the Greek original, Christ is talking about those who are put to flight, who are driven away. They are being persecuted ‘because of,’ for the sake of, the kingdom values set out in the Beatitudes.

‘Blessed are you …’ – there is a change in this next beatitude from the third person in the previous verses to the second person in this final beatitude – blessed are you whenever, people insult, reproach or upbraid you, ‘falsely,’ under false pretensions, for the sake of Christ.

I wonder what it would be like to be insulted falsely for being a Christian, to be accused of being a Christian. At one time, we had a poster in our kitchen that asked: ‘If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’

‘Rejoice and be glad’ – in fact, ‘rejoice and be exceedingly glad’ – not merely because you are blessed, but because we have two good reasons for such a joyous response.

The first because is that the reward, the payment, the wage for us is great in the heavens. Present suffering is going to give way to something in the future that is exceptionally rewarding.

The second because is that ‘in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ So, we can look forward to being in good company.

Father Brian D’Arcy once recalled how people going to confession regularly confess to ‘breaking’ one of the Ten Commandments. But he wondered how often they confess to ‘breaking’ one of the Eight Beatitudes.

In Boris Pasternak’s great Russian novel Doctor Zhivago, Larissa Feodorovna Guishar, who is ‘not religious’ and does ‘not believe in ritual,’ is startled by the Beatitudes, for she thinks they were about herself.

Do I think the Beatitudes are about myself? Do they make me comfortable or uncomfortable?

And, applying the Beatitudes to my own life, lifestyle and priorities, if I was accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me? That would be a blessed surprise, I imagine.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, in Tarbert, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 1-12

1 Ἰδὼν δὲ τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος: καὶ καθίσαντος αὐτοῦ προσῆλθαν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ: 2 καὶ ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς λέγων,

3 Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

4 Μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται.

5 Μακάριοι οἱ πραεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν.

6 Μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες καὶ διψῶντες τὴν δικαιοσύνην, ὅτι αὐτοὶ χορτασθήσονται.

7 Μακάριοι οἱ ἐλεήμονες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ ἐλεηθήσονται.

8 Μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ, ὅτι αὐτοὶ τὸν θεὸν ὄψονται.

9 Μακάριοι οἱ εἰρηνοποιοί, ὅτι αὐτοὶ υἱοὶ θεοῦ κληθήσονται.

10 Μακάριοι οἱ δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

11 Μακάριοί ἐστε ὅταν ὀνειδίσωσιν ὑμᾶς καὶ διώξωσιν καὶ εἴπωσιν πᾶν πονηρὸν καθ' ὑμῶν [ψευδόμενοι] ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ: 12 χαίρετε καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε, ὅτι ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς: οὕτως γὰρ ἐδίωξαν τοὺς προφήτας τοὺς πρὸ ὑμῶν.

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘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.’

Collect:

Creator God,
who in the beginning
commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
We pray that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ
may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all your people,
and reveal the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Generous Lord,
in word and Eucharist we have proclaimed
the mystery of your love.
Help us so to live out our days
that we may be signs of your wonders in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

(Revd Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, and Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry, on 29 January 2017.

No comments: