Editors note: This is the first in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We meet at 10 a.m. on Sunday (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service) through mid-December. Join us in the Great Room for the class and check out the text on our website if you miss any sessions.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3).
For Christians, it begins with baptism, even though there are conflicts among us as to when baptism is to take place and how much water is to be applied. My hunch is that a far more important question is how much water is experienced in the Christian swim (or “walk”) throughout life. Clearly there are those, perhaps many, who long into the Christian experience are still splashing away in the wading pool. Are we willing in faith to grow up and swim out into the deeper waters of grace?
Already, I must switch metaphors. We may just be moving from hydrophobia (fear of water) to acrophobia (fear of heights). I invite you to come on a wonderful climb with me for eight or so Sundays.
The “Sermon on the Mount,” more accurately, “The Sermon on the Mound or Knoll,” represents a Christian faith climb. The reference is Matthew 5-7. The “Beatitudes” fall first in Matthew 5:1-12. Please read those few chapters each week to gain a sense of the larger picture. You may also wish to read Luke 6:17-45, where Luke presents similar material.
This is going to be a happy trip. The Greek word “malaria’s” translates as “blessed/happy.” Happiness, however, is not as in the Bill of Rights’ “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Nor is it what most human beings think happiness is. It is happiness by the definition and description of Jesus. Along the way, happiness will seem at first odd if not the very opposite of what we otherwise pursue.
This is going to be an exciting trip. We will be climbing to the very top and there see God—the high point, but not the main point of the journey. It will not be an easy trip. If it were easy, it would not be exciting.
This is going to be an incremental trip. As with a physical mountain hike, we will be stopping along the way. We cannot move up and on without appreciating each stop. There is no skipping any of the five stops up and two back down the other side.
This is going to be a social or communal trip. Despite notions to the contrary and that each individual must believe for herself or himself, Christianity is a communal faith. We need each other. The language is plural: “Blessed are … for theirs or they ….”
If we do not start out appropriately, none of the remainder of the climb will matter at all. Take an imaginary look up the steep grade and realize right off how ill-equipped you are for the hike. It starts with begging “poor in spirit.” You may be wondering whether or not you want to go on this trip. That’s OK! You may not wish to accept the risks. Good! You may think you do not have the stamina to go the whole way. Fine! You may be inadequately motivated to deepen or heighten your spirit. Let’s just leave this one for the more spiritual folk. Nah!
The ones who think or feel that they have it adequately or abundantly together spiritually; who know it all; who have their faith in great shape; who are on a spiritual high of some kind already; who believe they are so close to Jesus that there is no room for greater intimacy; these are the ones who had better just not come along.
For a minute, please go back to baptism. Whether three or 30 months, nine or 90 years, each and every Christian is poor in spirit anyway. It is on this that infant and believer baptizes can get together. However far along people may get spiritually, they are still poor by God’s judgment. Jesus alone is spiritually mature and fulfilled. All of us are far from his spiritual health, making each and all of us degrees of poor. Recognizing, accepting and acknowledging this truth is exactly where this holy hike begins.
This journey is for those who feel badly as Christians; for those who find themselves indifferent but open to surprises; for both those who have all or nothing of the world’s goods and in either case, feel there is something missing; for those who read their Bibles regularly, pray daily, attend worship weekly and serve faithfully—but know how much knowing and growing they have yet to do; for those who know what right, just and good are but have a terrible time avoiding what is wrong, unfair and bad. It is finally for those who are open to God-driven change. For this reason, the trip is for members of the Lutheran church. In this transition time especially, you need God-driven change, individual and communal change, not Mueller change, but God change.
It that is a bit scary, it is as it ought to be. We cannot take the Christian walk, hike, swim or whatever we call it too lightly. We cannot take the ministry we share here for granted.
Luke puts this differently. “Blessed are the poor.” “Poor” has no spiritual knighthood which comes with it; it is neither noble nor nice. Wealthy, however, is not condemned in Scripture, unless ill-gotten. There are many warnings especially in the Gospels and other Scriptures about wealth, however gotten. Jesus did comment that it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). Immediately prior to this statement, Jesus told the rich young ruler to give to the poor all his wealth and follow him (Matthew 19:16-22). In Luke, Jesus brings up the matter of money in parables and other illustrations quite frequently: the rich man and Lazarus, the rich fool, and others. The problem with wealth of whatever degree is the way in which wealth distracts a person from the greater and deeper things of the Spirit. Wealth is, all too often, in the way.
The camel illustration begs for a brief explanation. The eye of the needle is believed to have been a low opening in the wall of a city, too low for a horse to enter and relatively easy to guard against human entry. A camel can get down and with much coaxing inch its way through the “needle.” It is difficult, but possible. But it is still much easier than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, the door and path of which is narrow. (Matthew 7:13-14). A rich man can get in, but not dragging all his distractions and possessions with him.
The point is that wealth affords far too many distractions of a legal and moral kind as well as illegal and immoral kinds. There are obviously more acceptable but still distracting behaviors that the poor cannot afford.
The poor person does not say no to a hamburger in favor of holding out for a steak. The need for food is immediate, essential and defining.
Now then, we must realize: “Poor in spirit” is immediate and defining in just as essential a sense. Whatever else is going on in your life, “poor in spirit” is who you are and how it is with you. Today, as we begin this holy hike together, it is time to shed ourselves of whatever distractions, positions or dispositions are in the way. They are, even if righteous, in the way.
We are hiking to the heights, not only of this mountain but of life itself. Indeed, “Blessed/happy are the poor in spirit,” the empty ones who are open to being full, the sinful ones who are open to being forgiven, the informed ones who are open to being informed and empowered. “Blessed/happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We are being taken here to the very height of eternal life in and by Christ.
This, by the way, is the form in which the Beatitudes are all presented. The blessing is immediate, while the ultimate fulfillment is yet to come. We have only just begun. Please hang in there as we hike together and discover the surprises of grace.
This is Christ’s own sermon. We will listen to Him and follow Him together.
Welcome to an eternal way of looking at things and learning to live, love and be happy.