A Matter of Life in Death
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Many of you know I’ve been enrolled in the Doctor of Practical Theology program at Mcmaster Divinity College since fall 2018. I’ve been taking one course per semester fairly steadily (with two semesters off). Right now I’m in the process of putting together the proposal for my research and dissertation. At the beginning of each semester, I have said “How am I going to do this?” As God has been carrying me along, I have come to realize that I was asking the wrong question. What I should have been asking was, “God, how are you going to bring me through this?” He’s brought me along thus far after all. I have no reason to believe that God won’t keep carrying me along, no matter what happens.
Of course, I have my part to play as well. My part is to be faithful to Jesus’ call – “Follow me.” I’m in no way comparing myself to one who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake, as will be made clear in a little while. I tell the story, rather, to show a state of “non-readiness” that I think is essential to us all, as we seek to be faithful to follow Jesus’ call on all our lives to follow him (or as we seek to understand what it might mean for us to accept Christ’s invitation to follow him). What I was really saying when I said “How am I going to do this?” was “God I’m not ready for this.”
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Am I ready for this? Are you ready for this? Would I be ready for this? Have I ever even been persecuted for righteousness’ sake? Have I been reviled and persecuted and had all manner of evil uttered against me for Jesus’ sake? What if I were? Would I be ready? Of course, I wouldn’t.
We’ve come to the end of the Beatitudes, and we find ourselves in some way right back where we started. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This whole thing is framed by “The kingdom of heaven.” This is the life that Jesus is inviting his followers into, and if we’ve stuck around, if we’re still listening, this is the commission (the task, the assignment) that he is about to give. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Are we ready for this? This is serious. We’re not kidding around here. When I hear this final Beatitude, it reminds me that I need to continually run back to Jesus who invites me to sit in the grass at his feet. It reminds me that I need to come to him with empty hands, down on my face before him acknowledging by complete and utter need for him. It reminds me that I need to mourn my sins; ask him to give me a humble heart and steadiness of spirit, ask him to give me a hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice; ask him to make me a person of mercy, of a pure heart, of making peace. For this is the kingdom of heaven. This is life in the family of God, living as children of the light. Walking in the light of Christ. Kingdom life is what we have been created for; it is comfort, it is living in the promises of God; it is being filled; it is receiving mercy; it is seeing God; it is being called children of God and in so being called, coming to evermore bear the family resemblance.
If we are still here, we hear these words from Jesus – Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Is Jesus commanding persecution? I would say not. I would say that Jesus is describing kingdom life. Beatitudinal life as I’ve been calling it.
We need to pause here and consider what it means to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. We can get this wrong. We may be persecuted for being self-righteous. We may be persecuted for being full of self-interest. We may be persecuted for being difficult, or being hypocrites. I may be persecuted for being a jerk.
I had a teacher once who wisely told our class, “Don’t let the scandal of the cross be our own scandalous behaviour.” I’m paraphrasing. Don’t let the “stumbling-blockedness” of the cross or the foolishness of the cross be the result of our own stumbling or our own foolishness.
I came across four stories of people who were persecuted for their faith. Four women across centuries:
“In the year 203 CE, two women were in prison in the city of Carthage in North Africa (modern-day Tunisia), awaiting execution. One was from a wealthy family. Her father had come to visit her, to beg her to deny that she was a Christian so that she could return home and raise her newborn baby. She refused. Her name was Perpetua. The second woman was a slave, and she was pregnant. Her name was Felicity; she also refused to deny that she was a Christian. The night before they died, Perpetua had a vision that their deaths would defeat Satan, the ancient enemy of God. According to the account of their martyrdom, they died calmly and courageously in the gladiatorial ring, Perpetua herself guiding the gladiator’s sword to her throat. Fourteen hundred miles away and 101 years later, a young woman named Euphemia was arrested in Chalcedon (near modern-day Istanbul) for refusing to sacrifice to the god Ares, the god of war. A convert to Christianity, she insisted that the Roman emperor (Diocletian at the time) must be disobeyed if his orders were contrary to God. She was tortured and then turned over to the arena of the gladiators, where she was killed by a lion. 2 Fourteen hundred years after that, Elizaveta Skobtsova (1891–1945) was a Russian noblewoman who fled to Paris after the Bolshevik revolution (and after a brief stint as mayor of a town called Anapa in southern Russia). She eventually took vows as an Orthodox nun and took the name, Maria. Her home was a soup kitchen and a shelter for refugees and other people in need. She was arrested for smuggling Jews out of Paris during the Nazi occupation and was taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She reportedly took the place of a Jewish prisoner who was slated to be sent to the gas chamber, and died as Russian troops were approaching to liberate the camp.”
Persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Am I ready for life in the kingdom of heaven? In the sense that I’m done, that I’ve reached some level of completeness? Not at all. In the sense that I am reminded continually to run back to the feet of the one who is talking, who has promised to be with us until the end of the age? Yes, absolutely. He’s my ground. He’s our glue. I came across this cartoon from the New Yorker recently. It speaks of a deep truth about Jesus and about who we are as the church, the bride of Christ.
Jesus is our glue. Jesus was not put to death because he went with some people up a mountain and told them things, but because he showed them. Jesus put what he taught into practice. So many of Jesus' followers were put to death not simply because they listened to what Jesus said and agreed, but because the kingdom truths of which Jesus spoke became the light that guided their practices. Life in the kingdom of heaven affects all of life. Two things are going on here. The first is, if our lives are putting flesh on the Beatitudes, putting the Beatitudes into daily practice, we will be a scandal to the authorities of the world. What are the authorities of the world? Greed. Consumption. Individualism. Tribalism. As a consequence, rejection and persecution is to be expected. Second, such rejection and persecution is an assuring sign that we are being faithful to our Beatitudinal call. To the point where we are called blessed – in a good place, on the right track, flourishing, blissful. Sharing in the life of God. Blessed. Sharing in the life of God in our lives. For righteousness’ and justice’s sake. For Jesus’ sake. Someone has put it like this: “Since God's reign is… linked with justice, the disciples' ministry for justice automatically deepens within each disciple the experience of God's reign, which is justice. The inevitable sign that the disciples are being faithful to this ministry of justice is evidenced in the experience of misunderstanding and persecution from various elements within their world.”
Which could cost us our lives, physically. Which does, in one way or another, cost us our lives. In one way Jesus has saved the most fundamental truth for last here. This kingdom thing is worth my life. This kingdom of heaven thing is worth your life. Remember that the symbol which has come to mean more than any other symbol in our faith is that of an instrument of death. We’re very far from those days of course, and the cross has become such a normal-seeming thing, to the point where we put it on pulpits and wear it as jewellery etc. If Jesus were being put to death today it might be through lethal injection – the preferred method in the US is lethal injection. The symbol might be the lethal injection table, complete with straps. I know this may be shocking but let us remember the scandal of the cross. We are to give our lives to this thing? Yes. How could I purport to do that on my own? Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus said. Matt 16:24 - Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Self-denial here does not simply mean doing without something during Lent. “My cross to bear” is not simply a hindrance in my life, or the way my life is a hindrance to others. To carry a cross is to be on a death march. This always means dying to self. Who would want this? How could I be inviting anyone into such a life? Because of this, and I have known this promise in my life (followers of Christ, tell of how you have known this promise in your life). Jesus goes on in Matt 16:25 – “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Living with empty hands, open hands means not even clinging on to our lives. If more of you, means less of me, take everything, the song goes. This is serious stuff! We’ve come to the end of what I’m starting to see as a kind of constitution of kingdom life, spoken by the one who constitutes it – who makes the way, who shows, who enables. We find at the end that in losing our lives, we find life. It’s always been in the background as we’ve gone through these weeks.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. I need God more than anything. I need the mercy of God more than anything. The death of the myth of rugged individualism.
Blessed are those who mourn. The death of indifference to my own sin.
Blessed are the meek. The death of “it’s all about me and what I want.”
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The death of righteousness of the self.
Blessed are the merciful. The death of the desire for revenge and vengeance.
Blessed are the pure in heart. The death of those dark places in my heart that need the light of Christ. Blessed are the peacemakers. The death of violent conflict.
In perhaps the most wonderful paradox of all, in so dying we find life. Sometimes it means actually dying – it has for millions over 2,000 years. In so dying we find life in the kingdom of heaven, we find comfort, we find inheritance, we are filled, we find mercy, we see God, see are called children of God, we find Jesus saying “Welcome to the kingdom.”
May we accept this welcome in a whole new way this day, if we’ve accepted it before. If it’s the first time we’re accepting it today, then welcome sister or brother. We have much to rejoice in together. Rejoice and be glad!
I am thankful for the people with whom I’ve been in conversation through this experience in the Beatitudes. Some of these conversations have been through books of course. Jim Forrest laid out the choice that is ever before us in his book The Ladder of the Beatitudes, and with this, we will end/begin:
“If there is no God, or if God has no interest in the activities of creatures that happen to exist on particular planets, it hardly matters who we are, what we do, or what we believe. We are on our way to the dust bin where the dust of Stalin is indistinguishable from that of John the Baptist. But if the gospel is true, if the truest thing we can say is that God is love, if following Christ is the sanest and wisest thing we can do in our lives because each step forward brings us closer to the kingdom of God, then we have much to rejoice in.” We have much to rejoice in sisters and brothers in Christ, and we are in the best of company in Christ, with all the saints, and with one another. Amen.