By Paul Koch –
Our lives, whether it is within the church or without, are defined by boundaries. Sometimes our boundaries are logistical and physical like the walls of my home or the doors to the church. They keep us safe and secure and define the space in which we move and interact. Then again our boundaries can be social ones, like the mean kids in Junior High who wouldn’t let me sit at their table at lunch or the inevitable clicks that form at the office or even in churches. These boundaries are defined in some way by similar interests, abilities, or accomplishments. There are also boundaries prescribed by morality and ethics. There are acts and desires that are classified as sins or good works, things are declared to be clean and unclean. These help us to live a particular way to walk a particular path.
Now these boundaries aren’t bad things. They help us to function from day to day. They provide security and safety. They even define our jobs and help us to know how to get through a work week by setting parameters on how we use and partition the very hours of the day. We grow to become pretty comfortable with our boundaries. In fact they can become a big part of our identity. Over time we begin to see the world through one specific lens. And deep down we all think that the boundaries surrounding our identity somehow are going to be reflected in much bigger boundaries: the boundaries of life and death, heaven and hell, eternal blessing and eternal torment. We hope that being on the right side here will lead to being on the right side in the age to come. So you may well be a liturgy-loving, traditional, LC-MS Lutheran living in Southern California who is registered as an Independent and votes Republican, but you hope that it will mean you will hear those great words of our Creator on the Last Day, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”
But then, there comes one who has a habit of messing up our well defined boundaries. He seems to just walk right across the clearly marked lines almost as if he doesn’t see them, or he just doesn’t care about them. According to the ways of our world he recklessly disrupts everything we’ve been working so hard to establish over the years. It would be easy to dismiss him of course, except for the fact that he is the Son of God. Jesus is the one who recklessly messes things up.
So we hear him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” And on it goes, for a total of nine times Jesus just hands over blessings. He’s not requiring anything of those who hear them. He isn’t selectively handing them out. He’s simply blessing the poor in spirit, the mournful and the lowly. It’s like that parable He tells of the sower who sows the seed. Remember how he does it? He doesn’t seem to know the proper boundaries. He’s just chucking the seed every which way; some lands on the path, some in rocky soil, some among the weeds and some on good soil. His giving isn’t deterred by our boundaries.
However there is one boundary that these beatitudes, as we call them, stands between. In fact they help establish it. These blessings stand between the hearer who receives them and the Sermon on the Mount which follows. These blessings of Christ are a door through which one enters into the Sermon on the Mount. Now the Sermon on the Mount deals with a lot of important topics: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, revenge, charity, prayer, the golden rule, and more. St. Augustine said, “The sermon before us is perfect in all the precepts by which the Christian life is molded.” Notice again how our Lord recklessly sets this up. He doesn’t place the demands of the Sermon on the Mount, the guidance for the living of this life of faith, as a prerequisite for the blessings. He doesn’t have you conform to His teaching on anger, lust, and divorce and then bless you. No He blesses you so that you might live as the sermon speaks.
We might say it this way, His blessings, though they don’t seem to pay any attention to our firmly established boundaries, establish a new boundary proven by His grace. Now again, this is a bit reckless. It threatens what we value, what we expect and what think we deserve. The focus is removed from our ethics and morals from what we do and don’t do, from whom we hang with and whom we shun, and refocuses it all on the Word of Christ alone.
My wife and I were at the Sea of Galilee and stood on the hill where tradition held our Lord first spoke these blessings. There is a church there called the Church of the Beatitudes. Walking around the inside the small church my wife noticed something quite interesting. As you might well imagine in the church there were images of the beatitudes. They circled around high up on the inside of the beautiful dome, each blessing in Latin depicted in stained glass. But what was really interesting was under our feet. Down in the dust and dirt of the silent church was a beautiful mosaic depicting Christian virtues: justice, charity, prudence, faith, fortitude, hope and temperance.
This is a church that we should love, this physical object crafted out of stone and glass is a wonderful picture of the boundaries we all know and love. There on our level where we walk was the guidance for our lives. There we strive to follow a well-defined path of virtue so that we might lift up our eyes and gaze heavenward longing for the blessings that are rightly given to those who practice justice, charity, prudence, faith and so on. The beatitudes hung above in light and splendor. If we are humble enough, meek enough, poor in spirit enough why we just might have such blessings as our own.
Jesus, I think, would have built the church in a far more reckless manner. He would have cast the beatitudes into the dirt and filth of our lives. He would not have held them above for us to strive for. Perhaps He might have turned the whole structure upside down. Holding aloft the virtues of a Christian life as something we strive for while recklessly blessing us while we are still caught up in our sin and shame. Yes, in fact, isn’t this exactly what he has done? He has come to you, He has sought you, He has called you by name, He hasn’t been fooled by all the boundaries you’ve set up to show how good you are. He knows you are still a sinner, He knowns you continue to fail, He knows of your pride and anger and lust. And yet totally unexpected and undeserved He says, “Blessed are you!”
And so we enter into His grace though his Word of blessing. And we start out good, we hear what He says about hating in our hearts and we say “Amen.” We hear how he speaks about lust and our wandering eyes and we say “Well I’m doing alright.” We hear him speak loving our enemies and we think, “No, I can’t do it. I may want to but I can’t. In fact, I often don’t think I even want to.” And all of our sins, all of our excuses, all of our lies come crashing back down upon us. It’s like we get spewed back out of the sermon, all our failures exposed by His Word. We find ourselves poor in spirit, mournful over our sin, lowly in the kingdom of God hungering and thirsting for a righteousness that we cannot achieve by the works of our hands. And there we find again a Lord who isn’t afraid to get His gifts dirty. He picks you up again and says, “Blessed are you.”
Now there is one other boundary that we see disappear in the blessing of our Lord. Not only does he pass over the value structure of our world to recklessly give out His blessings, so He doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the boundaries of time, the separation between what is to come and what is already here. The beatitudes are all in the future except for the beginning and the end. As He blesses the poor in spirit he says that the kingdom of God is theirs. It is theirs right now. All the others speak of the future: those who mourn will be comforted. And at the end He comes back to the persecuted and says theirs is the kingdom of God. The future and the present merge in the blessing of Christ.
This means the boundary between what we are given now and what we hope for at the return of Christ isn’t as clear as we once thought. The boundaries between the saints of God still living and striving to walk in that sermon for our life and those saints who have gone before us, those who rest from their labors, that boundary isn’t exhaustive. For those who gather around His throne and join in the praise of angels and archangels join also with our songs of praise and hope. Our God is a God of the living and the day is fast approaching when all the poor in spirit will stand side by side, and all will sing loud the praises of the one who found us in the darkness and mess of our lives, the one who has proclaimed again and again, you are blessed, you are the saints of God.