Privileges and responsibilities: Epiphany 4

Privileges and responsibilities: Epiphany 4

Year A, The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 29, 2023

Year A:  Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 5:1-12

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On the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary, through the Gospel of Matthew, takes us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. According to Matthew, this isn’t Jesus’ first sermon, but it is certainly the first one that Matthew records.

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus called the first disciples. The lesson ended with: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”[1] Jesus was drawing crowds from all over – mainly, we hear those sick and needing healing.

In this morning’s Gospel, we hear a description of the great crowds who traveled all over and started following Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them.

Over the next few Sundays, we will go through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus, known as the Sermon on the Mount. A colleague described the Sermon on the Mount and this section of Matthew as the “scaffold for the rest of Matthew’s Gospel,” a story that highlights the Jewish origin and identity of Jesus.

We might wonder who was listening to this sermon. Is it the crowds or just the disciples? Matthew references both the crowds and the disciples in the opening verse of our Gospel reading. He says that Jesus went up the mountain when he saw the crowds, and his disciples came to him, but Matthew isn’t clear whether or not the crowds hiked up the mountain to hear Jesus.[2]

We can assume that the Sermon on the Mount was directed to both groups. The message conveyed was a powerful and influential teaching for all people, regardless of whether they were initially part of the crowd or the disciples.

In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount, we hear the Beatitudes, a list of blessings pronounced by Jesus.

  1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  2. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
  3. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
  4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
  5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
  6. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
  7. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  8. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You’ve heard these eight blessings before. So let me focus on just a few, even though they’re all important.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Wouldn’t it be much better to be rich in spirit?

What Jesus is getting to when he says we must be poor in spirit is that we must be open and empty before God.[3] Jesus is telling us that humility is essential for entering God’s kingdom. The best way to approach God’s kingdom is humbly, with our hands, hearts, and minds open.

When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about the word “meek.” Meek has taken on a meaning in today’s world that is misleading. We generally think of meek as passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that – it means gentle, courteous, and humble. Jesus isn’t saying that one inherits the earth by being passive and submissive, but by the strength of being humble, by listening, and by giving dignity to others. There’s that humility again.

Each of the Beatitudes offers us a powerful message of hope and comfort for those who seek to live a life of justice. In addition, Jesus has outlined the qualities and character traits of those who will inherit the kingdom of God for the crowds, the disciples, and us.

And we have a link between today’s Gospel and our first reading from Micah. There’s an emphasis on the importance of righteousness and justice. Matthew focuses on what it means to be a true disciple of God, including the qualities of humility, meekness, peacemaking, and mercifulness.

The message of the Beatitudes is closely aligned with the theme of justice found in verse 8 of our Micah reading, where the prophet Micah calls on God’s people to do what is right, to love mercy (or kindness), and to walk humbly with their God.

John Stott was an Anglican theologian who, in 2005, was ranked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Stott called the Beatitudes the “privileges” and “responsibilities” of citizenship in the kingdom of God. He viewed the Beatitudes as a blueprint for Christian living, not just a list of blessings. Stott also emphasized that the blessings promised in the Beatitudes are not just for individuals but the whole community of believers. He believed that the Beatitudes challenge the dominant values of society and present a radically alternative way of life that values humility, peacemaking, and righteousness.

The Beatitudes are also about the transformation of the world. Today, we see many examples of injustice and oppression, racism, inequality, mass shootings, the ongoing fight for LGBTQ rights, generational poverty, drug addiction, and a lack of education for many.

What are we to do? The call to action, to live a life seeking justice for all, is as relevant today as it was in ancient times. As followers of Jesus, we must stand up for what is right and work towards a more just and equitable world for all people.

We need peacemakers here and now, in our communities, world, and churches. When we live into the teachings of the Beatitudes, we become agents of God’s love and grace in the world. In the verses of Matthew that follow today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us what we will become when we live into the Beatitudes. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” We become light to those in darkness and salt to those who need flavor and preservation.

You know that I like to remind us all of our Baptismal Covenant, which calls us to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to resist evil and repent of our sins, to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

That’s the Beatitudes in a nutshell. These Baptismal Covenant and the Beatitudes go hand in hand, as we are called to live out the blessings of Jesus in the world by sharing God’s love with those around us. Following Jesus’ teaching can bring peace to a world torn apart by conflict and division. The world would surely be better if we all lived this way.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus adds a promise of the hope he preached everywhere he went. The kingdom of God belongs to the humble, not the powerful and strong. So it’s fair to say that the blessings promised in the Beatitudes are not necessarily worldly rewards but spiritual gifts that bring joy and fulfillment.

As we continue in our worship today, sharing the Body and Blood of Christ, let us ask ourselves: How are we living out the Beatitudes in our own lives? Are we hungering to live them out in faithfulness? Are we poor in spirit, mourning with those who mourn and showing mercy to those in need? Are we peacemakers in a world that often prioritizes power and success?

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Matthew 4:23, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Cf. Matthew 5:1, NRSV

[3] Susan Butterworth, ”Becoming Peacemakers”, January 29, 2017, Sermons that Work Accessed January 27, 2023.