Sunday, November 2, 2014

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BLESSED? (The Beatitudes/All Saints/All Souls)

--> (Matthew 5:3-10, Luke 6:20-26)

One of the little thIngs I love about the Church of England is the Lectionary – the schedule of appointed Bible readings for each week of the year. At a previous church I attended, the Vicar chose the principal readings himself; some favoured passages came up over and over again, while others were never given an airing in all the years I was there. The Lectionary ensures that over time we hear the whole Bible on its own terms. That, to my mind, is a good thing.

All the same, I’m sometimes surprised by the choice of readings at important church festivals. This weekend is a case in point. However much it may be overshadowed by the over-commercialised monster-fest that is modern Halloween, this weekend we are celebrating the important festivals of All Saints and All Souls: giving thanks for those who have gone before us – the saints and martyrs, the pastors and teachers, and most especially our own ancestors and departed loved ones.

I can think of some admirable Bible readings to mark the occasion, but this morning the Lectionary takes a different tack: our main reading was from the Beatitudes: the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus - rather surprisingly - tells some very unhappy and afflicted groups of people that they are blessed. 

There is a connection to this special season of the year, but it needs a little digging for. And over the next few minutes, I want to tackle the following questions:
1.  What does it mean to be blessed?
2.  What sort of people does Jesus call blessed?
3.  What might Jesus’ words mean for us, particularly as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls?

So, what does it mean to be blessed? It’s an important question, because while the word has distinctly religious overtones, most people (even Christians) use it in a very indistinct sense. When we say “bless you”, what are we expecting to happen? When we say that something we’ve experienced was a blessing, what do we mean?

In the Bible, the world blessing most commonly denotes a very specific and elusive kind of happiness: a 360-degree sense of wellbeing and fulfilment that can only be experienced when certain very specific conditions are met:
 - when you and those around you are prospering both materially and spiritually,  
 - when you’re living at peace with one another,
 - and when you and your community are in tune with God’s purposes.

It’s similar to what philosophers have called the eudaimonia or the Highest Good. It’s the state of mind and being that God repeatedly promises to those who obey his commands. It’s the universal goodwill conveyed in the Middle Eastern greeting of shalom or salaam: peace be with you: peace with God, peace with yourself, peace with others. And while that’s not the only way the word blessing is used in English Bibles, it is clearly this traditional idea of blessedness that Jesus expected his listeners to have in mind as they digested his words.

So, if that is blessing, who can consider themselves blessed? Jesus took a view that was radically different from that of his contemporaries. The Temple authorities taught that if you were under God’s blessing, then it would show in material ways. So if you were successful, healthy and prosperous, that was proof that you were blessed. If in contrast you were poor, hungry, diseased, disabled or a victim of misfortune, that was a sign that God was looking away from you – and that could only mean that you had been disobedient to his laws. You were excluded from the spiritual life of the nation.

All the power structures in Jesus’ society were built on this precept. Power and holiness were validated by health and wealth. Jesus’ words and actions were thus political dynamite. No wonder he was seen as a threat to the established order; he was declaring God’s blessing on those whom the authorities declared unclean – and by a clear implication pronouncing a curse on the ruling classes.

Some commentators have made too much of the differences between Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words and Luke’s. The picture Luke paints of Jesus is more radical: “Blessed are you who are poor; Blessed are you who are hungry…” And he utters the curse on ruling classes that Matthew’s version only hints at: “Woe to you who are rich; woe to your who are well-fed.” By comparison, Matthew’s version can seem generally less political, more about people’s spiritual state: “Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are the humble... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.”

But it’s in taking the two versions together that we see the true horror of life in Jesus’ time: The people Jesus was reaching out to were poor in spirit because they were poor; their poverty precluded any hope of education or spiritual development. They were hungry for justice because they were unjustly hungry. They were denied comfort because they were disabled, disfigured or in mourning. In each case, their practical hardships excluded them from the community of faith. And Jesus’ message was, “Come to me. I will give you the spiritual connection you so urgently need. I will build you into a community in which together we can tackle your material hardships.”

Thus, for Jesus, to bless others is not just to wish them well but to draw them in: to help them experience the warmth of God’s love, to include them, to help them meet the practical needs that are prevent them from seeing God’s purpose fulfilled in their lives.

And it is in the process of blessing others we are ourselves blessed. How can we be more blessed? Certainly in praying and reading the Bible and coming to church; all of these we know already. But surely the greatest blessing we can experience is in following Jesus’ own example: in feeding the hungry (e.g. volunteering in a foodbank, sponsoring a child), in liberating the oppressed (e.g. joining justice & peace or advocacy group), in reaching out to the lonely (e.g. hospital or prison visiting), and in providing companionship to those who are in mourning.

The giving and receiving of blessings takes on a special meaning as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls. At our All Souls service this afternoon we will celebrate and give thanks for the blessings that our departed loved ones have been to us, and recommit ourselves to passing the same blessings on to new generations. It will be an emotional time for some of those present, but it was Jesus himself who uttered the words “Blessed are those who mourn”. And as we join together in thanksgiving and remembrance, many people will find it a blessing as they have done in the past.

Let us pray…

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