Glimpsing the upside-down kingdom
Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 2 February 2020
Readings were Micah 6:6-8 and Mathew 5:1-12
Not everyone acknowledges Jesus is, who he said he is.
Many people are comfortable relegating Jesus to a fine moral teacher; prepared to leave the jarring and audacious claims about himself unresolved.
Perhaps this opinion (that Jesus was a fine moral teacher) is plausible when we consider the contribution his teaching has made significantly influencing and shaping how we now know justice, peace, health care, social welfare, human and civil rights, gender equality, and many other aspects of human life. The teaching of Jesus is not only influential, much of what he taught has become mainstream.
However, how credible is this opinion (that Jesus was a fine moral teacher) when we hear this teaching of his in today’s passage of Matthew’s Gospel? All these “Blessed are…” declarations open the section of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel famously know as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’.
If (like me) you grew up memorising them in Sunday School, let me say: don’t let the familiarity allow you to miss the shocking nature of what Jesus is teaching. Unlike other teaching of Jesus, that is integrated into human interactions, laws and policies… this teaching remains radical – really radical.
Jesus spells out kingdom values that fly in the face of the world’s values. This teaching has not been assimilated into conventional wisdom.
Is it because the teaching isn’t as good as Jesus’ other teaching…?
The truth is that this teaching hasn’t taken hold in the same way because it remains radical. It has always been radical. What Jesus declares to be true here is an interruption, …an upheaval, …an over-turning, …it contradicts what most of us assume to be ‘normal’ and ‘right’ and ‘that’s the way it is’.
Again, let me say, I think we can miss this because of a familiarity with these words.
So let me try and show how confronting this teaching is by inverting Jesus’ declarations:
Blessed are the rich, in things and self-assurance. (Doesn’t this sound more like the world you and I know and live in?)
Blessed are those untouched by loss.
Blessed are the powerful.
Blessed are those who are ‘realistic’ about what is right, willing to compromise for what will ‘work’.
Blessed are those who insist that ‘heads should roll’ and demand restitution.
Blessed are the cunning and opportunistic.
Blessed are those bold enough to make war.
Blessed are those who, doing good things, receive many accolades.
Blessed are those whose religiosity makes them widely admired.
Can you see the extent of Jesus challenge to conventional wisdom? It is an interruption, …an upheaval, …an over-turning.
Another point, is that these are declarations – not instructions to try harder to live a good life. Jesus is declaring to people that this is the way it is for you – and it is cause for joy. It is a declaration of human identity and dignity.
Even though highly counter-intuitive, this is the reality of how things matter in God’s reality; in God’s Kingdom.
Think about it. People’s experiences of mourning, sadness, poverty, hunger, …continue. Jesus isn’t offering relief or a therapeutic way through. He is not offering us a self-help programme.
What is Jesus offering…? A promise. It is gospel. It is good news.
Whatever you think about yourself and your place in the universe… here is how God sees you. It is not good advice. It is a promise.
Oh right, so we should just accept the misery and injustice and exploitation and retribution and violence – because there is a promise that we will get our reward in heaven? Is that it? We accept the struggle and complexity now, and hold out for paradise when we die?
Heaven does await us – Jesus has died to give us life. But not just that. In his teaching here, Jesus can’t be merely talking about hope for heaven when we die. For one thing, Jesus declares
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
That makes no sense if the reward is only conferred in heaven.
Furthermore, remember that in the prayer Jesus teaches (The Lord’s Prayer), we are to pray ‘Your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. Jesus teaches that God’s Kingdom is among us. Now.
So what do these declarations of Jesus offer to us now?
- If they are so counter-intuitive, defying conventional wisdom…
- If they are not instructions on how to live a good life…
- If they are not just about rewards for when we die…
…what is Jesus teaching us?
I suggest that as followers of Jesus, we can hear in these declarations, promises that we can trust what matters in God’s economy – what is truly valuable.
And if we pay attention to human experience, we will increasingly recognise how so much of it is cherished by God.
Then we will expect to make more sense of human experience within God’s purposes – now and into the future promised to us.
What seems to be upside down, is in fact the right way up. Are we willing to trust, pay attention and expect to understand this more?
I want to share a story. But before I do, let me say one more thing – partly to summarise what I’ve been trying to express and partly to introduce the story! These declarations of Jesus are like signposts for where we may glimpse God’s Kingdom in our midst. They are like signposts for where we may glimpse God’s Kingdom in our midst. And Jesus gives them so that we may rejoice with expectant hearts.
The story is titled ‘Two Old Men’ and is by Leo Tolstoy. It’s a favourite of mine, and if you haven’t read it, you should. It’s short, and here’s a link where you can read it in full. https://archive.org/details/TwoOldMen_LevTolstoy/mode/2up
Two Old Men is a story of two men, and guess what…? They’re old! Their names are Efim and Elisha, (Elisha – we are told – has a bald head like the OT prophet), and they decide that before they die they must make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (Pilgrimage was a common Christian practice, especially in the Orthodox Church. It was a sacrificial act of faith, expressing personal devotion to God).
After months of planning, they collect what they will need and begin to walk. Part-way into their pilgrimage, they come to a village that seems deserted. No one is about. Efim is keen to keep walking through this village, but Elisha wants to stop for a drink of water. So thirsty Elisha (the bald one) encourages Efim to continue walking, assuring his friend that he will catch up with him.
So Efim continues on and Elisha approaches a small hut to find water. Entering the hut Elisha encounters darkness and the smell of death. As his eyes adjust to the lack of light, he see bodies on beds. With trepidation he investigates and finds that the inhabitants are still alive, but barely. As Elisha opens doors and windows, and offers them food and drink, he begins to see that their needs are more complex than he first imagined. Recognising the desperation of their situation, Elisha feels compelled to stay and help.
So the (bald) man stays in the village, helping the villagers find their way again to happiness and health, never going on to Jerusalem, eventually returning home.
The other man makes his way to Jerusalem. Efim keeps waiting expectantly for his friend, who never comes. And after completing his time in Jerusalem, he returns home.
At one point on his way home, he comes to a village that seems strangely familiar to him. And then he realises that it is where he left his friend – but everything seems very different now. Men and women, older and younger, are busy at work and play; animals are healthy, and the crops are growing.
And so he asks, ‘What has happened?’ In simple innocence, the villagers explain that a man stopped along the way and gave them back their life.
The story concludes with both men finally at home, telling the stories of their pilgrimages.
Tolstoy has no desire to tell a black-and-white story, with a good man and a bad man. It is more nuanced than that, as life is. The last lines tell of their joy in meeting together again. But, clearly, one man paid attention to the needs around him. His pilgrimage became saving the people of a village.
One intriguing aspect to Tolstoy’s story is that while visiting the holy places in Jerusalem, Efim is convinced he glimpses the shiny bald head of his friend Elisha among the crowds of other pilgrims – but when he tried to go over to him the crowds got in the way. Therefore, Efim is surprised when he returns home to find Elisha already there! “You must have overtaken me returning home” he says. Efim is shocked and bewildered to hear that Elisha never made it to Jerusalem.
Why is it that while in the holy places Efim caught glimpses Elisha? Might the apparitions suggest that the man, who never made the journey to the Holy Land, nevertheless was in the holy presence of God as he served the needs of others?
The kingdom of God is something we can catch glimpses of. Jesus gives us signposts for what to look for. Jesus is showing us what seems to be upside down, is in fact the right way up.