Beatitudes: core Christian characteristics

Some of my seminary professors reminded me of Jesus. Other students may have seen Jesus in a professor’s scholarly insights or deep Biblical expertise, I did not.  Quoting Scripture does not make a person Christlike, the Temptation story reminds us that the Devil is pretty good at quoting the Bible. (Matthew 4) No, I caught glimpses of Jesus more in the deep humanity of some of my professors. 

Our campus was roiling in the wake of our president’s decision to disinvite a controversial chapel speaker.  Fresh from a hastily arranged convocation, we stepped into our next classes.  Pressed by students, Dr Zannizher asked the class if we wanted to set aside the syllabus and explore the president’s speech. Some of us eager to show off our academic and spiritual chops demurely hooted our approval. That decided, Dr. Zannisher began the class as always with the same noon-tide prayer, closing his eyes, bowing his salt and pepper beard to his chest, stretching out his open arms as if to feel Jesus’ cross, Dr.  Zannizher prayed, “Oh Lord, at this hour you hung on the cross.” I do not remember where the prayer went from there, getting lost in “Lord, at this hour you hung on the cross.”   At the amen, Dr. Zannizher clapped his hands and invited us to share insights around the day’s red-hot controversy. Crickets: no one offered their opinion, a seminary miracle. After an awkward silent minute, an older student from India sheepishly suggested, “perhaps we should just press on with today’s lecture.”  We all nodded in a kind of communal repentance for taking pleasure in disunity. Sometimes, when my soul swirls amid angry Christians,  I pause, bow my chin to my chest, stretch out my arms- and pray, “Lord at this hour you hung on the cross.” 

Where have you seen Jesus reflected in the actions or words of others?  Call those Christlike people to mind. What healing and hope might our Christlike* living release into the world?  It is one thing to come to God hoping for salvation or a warm emotional glow, it is something else to come to Christ in order to become more Christlike. What image of God do we shine into the world?           

Matthew reports that as the crowds grew, Christ went up a mountain, gathered the disciples, and began teaching a philosophy of living that we call Christianity. Many early Christians committed the next three chapters to memory. I wonder what might happen if we did the same? It’s worth noticing that Jesus does not begin with a confession of faith- but by addressing core attitudes. 

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.“ Some translations say, “poor in spirit”, but maybe “hopeless” better captures the sense of Jesus’ perfected humanity and divinity.  Perhaps, if we have never felt moments of hopelessness in the face of gun violence, police brutality and legislators more worried about drag shows, we do not love this world enough?  

You can feel a sense of holy hopelessness as Jesus weeps over his nation’s capital “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  …If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 13 & 19) Perhaps, a deep discontent with the way that things are awakens us to act into what Dr King called “the fierce urgency of the now.”   Could our hopelessness be the budding urgent push of a holy and prophetic dream for a better world?

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.”

John 11 tells us how Jesus’ soul was troubled and he began to weep with Mary & Martha.  Knowing that God knows our grief, holds our grief, feels our loss is a deep comfort.   Sometimes, we think we can nobly grieve for others but not for ourselves. Jesus felt personal grief. Facing a looming false arrest, unjust trial, police brutality, lying prosecutors, and a sense of abandonment, Jesus weeps in the garden, telling his unaware friends, ”My soul is overwhelmed with grief, to the point of death, keep alert with me.” (Matthew 26) Expressing aloud our grief is important and healing self-care. If you are grieving know God is holding holy space for your grief. 

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earthThis teaching will not liekly become the core of a NYT business bestseller.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into town with his feet dangling inches off the ground like a pauper king astride a donkey- a comedic contrast to King Herod or Emperor Augustus’s shift war horses. (Matthew 21)  At the Last Supper, Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves and washes our feet. Once, a sex-worker crashed into a respectable churchman’s dinner party  and Jesus will allow them to pour out a gallon of expensive perfume, washing Jesus feet with a stream of tears, kissing his feet and drying his feet with their hair.  We Christians who have never been pushed to the margins always struggle to understand that kind of disruptive unruly love. (Luke 7)  Luke and Mark tell us that when the police surrounded Jesus, someone drew a sword and swung at the cop’s head, cutting off the officer’s ear. Luke tells us how Jesus tenderly touched and healed his arresting officer ear.  Imagine that. (Luke 22) After Easter, Jesus will cook breakfast for the disciples who have returned to business as usual. (Matthew 21) Jesus’ is humble, with an easy yoke. (Matthew 11) Who could imagine such a humble leader could so radically impact the world?

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.“Righteousness” is a churchy word that often gets misused.  The weigher matters of the righteous living and church law are “justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23) Jesus warns us “Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the preachers and seminary professors it will do nothing for us! ( a loose translation of Matthew 5, 6, & 23) Isaiah has reminded us the past two weeks that righteousness is not about “bowing our heads like a reed” or wearing uncomfortable clothes to church, righteousness is about doing the right things: pleading the case of poor people, feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and not turning away our own annoying family. (Isaiah 58) It is hard to know how such holy living feeds our souls, until we begin to practice it.

 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy. 

When Jesus was asked , “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus told a story about church folks, a victim of crime, a rival racial group and mercy.  The Good Samaritan story tells us that mercy is about seeing people, overcoming racism, risking helping strangers, getting your hands dirty or even bloodied, giving generously without thought of repayment, and checking in on people. Jesus tells us to “be the one who shows mercy.” ( Luke 10)  Jesus reminds us that God “desires mercy more than sacrifice”’ (Matthew 12) When mercy becomes our guiding light, our default setting, our way, then surely the kindom of heaven is in our midst.  

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.” 

“Purity culture” has polluted the word pure. In Mark 7, Jesus tells us it is not what goes into the body that makes us impure, but what flows out of our hearts porn, robbery, murder, cheating, fuming, malice, greed, deceit, unrestraint, envy, insults, arrogance, and disregard for others. (Mark 7)  Purity is about a compassionate heart. I keep returning to the story in Mark 3 where Jesus faces his critics and finds them lacking in compassion. “Jesus looked around at them with anger; grieving at their hardness of heart.”  When we begin to see the world with Jesus’ compassion you will likely begin to see God.   

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

Jesus calls us to a deeper way of peace, not just the obvious law, “don’t murder, but don’t’ stay angry or call people names. If you are praying at the altar and remember a broken relationship, leave worship and go and seek to be reconciled. One day, I hope someone jumps up and runs out of church making a beeline to make peace somewhere! (Matthew 5) If you have ever helped people find peace, or helped make peace somewhere, then you know the life-giving peaceful feeling of being within God’s family! 

 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you

Here Jesus shifts pronouns, perhaps to show us the logical outcome of prophetic living: prophets address systemic injustices and suffer for speaking up. Jesus tells us that when everyone is enjoying our NYT bestseller we may be a false prophet (Luke 6) That truth-telling creates angry church people, ready to crucify you or label you as aligned with the devil- should not surprise us, but it always does. It hurts to be judged. Jesus reminds us that those who spoke prophetic truth suffered, that is a comfort for anyone actively resisting evil, injustice and oppression now, you stand in a line of the prophets!   

Is such awake, grieving, humble, peace-making, ethical, prophetic, open hearted, Christ-likeness the goal of our living? Will we follow Jesus into Christlikeness? What image of God will we reflect back into the world?  

Oh let us come to Christ, bringing our hopelessness, outrage  and grief. God is with us. Remember the prophets always suffer the labor pains of helping birth a new world. Let us wash feet, give freely, thirst for justice, and live for mercy. Let us keep our hearts open, reflecting Jesus back into a hurting world. And try to remember amid the struggle: Blessed are you, happy are you, Yours is the kingdom of heaven, Jesus brings gladness, God will feed us, and God never tires of giving mercy. In such Christ-like living we will see God in other people and others may name us as God’s children. Oh, Beloved, strive for Christlikeness for ours is the kingdom of heaven.

What could make for a richer and deeper life than shining the image of Christ (justice, faith, mercy and love) into the world? (Matthew 23, 1 John 4 ) Oh let us bask in Christlikeness so that we might reflect God’s image back into the world.  Amen. 

*Christ-likeness is an elusive, challenging, deeply counter-cultural goal for our lives. Jesus is an iconoclast, not easy to emulate or encapsulate. Jesus teaches peace, heals sick people, loves enemies, weeps over Jerusalem, forgives 70×7 times, preaches Good News, but also hangs out with those most heavily judged by the church, eviscerates church hypocrisy, flips over unjust tables, silently endures the cross, rises victorious, goes ahead of us, appears to Saul of Tarsus and Martin Luther King . What does it mean to pattern our lives after Jesus? Father Richard Rohr muses that Christianity in focusing on the divinity of Jesus has neglected to notice that Jesus perfects our humanity. What does it mean that Jesus weeps, grows weary, feels tired, gets angry, and even acknowledges being overwhelmed? What does it mean to be Christlike when we are angry, weary or abused? Despite the complexity and nuance, what can make for a richer and deeper life than seeking to bear the image of Christ- to shine justice, faith, mercy and love into the world? (Matthew 23, 1 John 4 ) So, What image of God are you reflecting into the world?   

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