Blessing Comes First
This is Jesus’ first sermon, and his great manifesto. It is a vision of transformation. It is a call to action. It is an invitation to a new way of life. But before anything else, Jesus begins with blessing.
Blessing comes first.
Just think about that. Let it sink in. In our relationship with God, the God whom Jesus reveals to us, blessing comes first.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are you.
It is a complete overturning of the religious agenda. Human religion, across cultures, across history, has been mostly concerned with how to get, and how to keep, divine blessing. What do we have to do to please God, to go to heaven, to have God on our side? What prayers must offered, what rituals must be practiced, what do we need to believe, how do we need to behave, so that we can be blessed by God.
But the first thing that Jesus says is “you are blessed”. No strings attached. No pre-conditions of belief, behaviour or religious practice. When God looks upon you, she looks upon you with favour and desires relationship. God sees you and cares for you. God is with you and will act for you. Not because you’ve earned it, but simply because you are a child of God, and God loves you. As John says in the letter we read together this morning,
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
Our God is a God of grace, a God who calls us to be her children. This morning we will baptize Huan as a visible sign and sacrament of that divine blessing.
Blessing comes first.
Jesus’ words of blessing are also a vision of transformation. A declaration that things are going to change. It’s a promise of revolution.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
If you were to take a look at the world around us, you could be forgiven for thinking that the ones who are blessed in this life are not the poor in spirit, nor those who mourn, nor those who are persecuted, but rather the rich, the happy, the satisfied, the powerful, the ambitious, the aggressive, the secure and the popular. When Jesus declares that it is the poor, the hungry and the persecuted who are blessed, this is a vision of transformation. It is nothing less than the proclamation of a new world order, a new way of living together that Jesus calls the kingdom of God. It is a radical alternative to our present way of being.
Those who mourn will be comforted. Now, we know that there are those who mourn who are not yet comforted. But even today they are blessed. God looks upon them with favour and promises comfort. The kingdom of God is a vision of the future, but one that is breaking into our lives today. Where do we see it taking hold? How do we get from here to there? How can we be part of this movement?
It is a vision of transformation.
It is also a call to action.
In the days before Jesus went up the mountain to speak, he called disciples to follow him, initially without giving them too many instructions about what they were to do. Now, surrounded by crowds of people in need, he teaches them.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger, for they will be filled.
If those who mourn are to be comforted, if those who hunger are to be filled, who is it that will be doing the comforting and the filling? Is it God? For sure. But God has also chosen to comfort and fill his people by means of those who have been called to follow Jesus. The disciples have been commissioned to make the vision of the beatitudes a reality. They are being called to be merciful, to be peacemakers. And that same call to action is being made to all of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, all of us who have been baptized.
In a few minutes, when Huan is baptized, as we renew our own baptisms together, we will be asked the following questions.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
To which we will reply, “I will, with God’s help”
This is the work of the saints. Jesus’ words of blessing and vision of transformation is a call to action for all of us who follow Jesus.
Finally, Jesus with these blessings, is inviting us into a new way of life.
It’s a way of life based on grace, not on exchange.
It’s a way of life lived in response to God’s blessing, not in search of God’s blessing.
Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve become accustomed to thinking in terms of exchange. We say things like:
“you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”
“people should get what they deserve”
“work hard and you’ll be rewarded”
“God helps those who help themselves”
“If you keep God’s commandments, you will be blessed”
That’s the language of exchange. Sometimes we talk about Karma. Some time ago, Bono of U2 did an interview where he talks about the difference between Karma and Grace. In it he says,
“You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics, every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that.”
Grace is a gift of God. Grace is the free and unmerited favour of God towards you. You can’t do anything to earn grace. You can only receive it, and respond.
Blessing comes first. We receive God’s grace. And then we in turn are invited into a way of life based on grace. An invitation to love others the way that God has loved us.
You know, I think that for those of us who are doing well in the world of exchange, sometimes we have a hard time with this invitation to a way of life based on grace.
But those who are poor in spirit, the downtrodden, the excluded, those in neeed, they get this grace stuff. They’re ready to receive grace with open arms. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Because the kingdom of heaven is all about grace.
Jesus blesses people who have no claim on God’s blessing. It’s not something we’ve earned. It’s pure gift. Grace.
Blessing comes first.
Homily: Yr A All Saints Day, Nov 1 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Rev. 7.9-17; Ps 34.1-10; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12
Image by Rafael Edwards, Creative Commons