Monday, January 31, 2011

Blessed Disciples

In Nomine Iesu
St. Matthew 5:1-12
January 30, 2011
Epiphany 4A

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

Last Sunday we heard about how Jesus began His public ministry. We heard Jesus call His first disciples. “Come, follow me,” He said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” Those disciples, for their part, walked away from everything they knew best—left behind comfortable careers and steady work as fishermen—gave up paychecks and pensions and a predictable plan for life. And if you don’t find that astounding, then consider what it would take to get you to leave behind your salary, your security, your predictable plan for life. The first disciples left it all behind for the sake of Jesus.

Did they know what they were getting into? Did they understand entirely who Jesus really was? No, they really didn’t. These men were disciples of Jesus; but they had no idea what it meant to be disciples of Jesus. Thankfully, they didn’t have to wait long to begin learning about discipleship.

For that’s what today’s Holy Gospel begins to unpack for us—what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. In Matthew chapter four Jesus called disciples to follow Him in faith. In Matthew chapter five (today) Jesus begins to preach and proclaim just what it looks like when men and women follow Him in faith. Jesus speaks nine beatitudes—nine statements of blessing. Crowds had gathered around, but please note that Jesus was speaking these words of blessing to those whom He had called—His disciples. These beatitudes served two purposes: They are, first of all, an introduction to the entire Sermon on the Mount (which we will be hearing in weeks to come). But secondly, these beatitudes give us a glimpse into the life of discipleship. Want to know what a disciple is and how a disciple lives? Then listen to the beatitudes.

The beatitudes show how disciples face the challenges of the present while living in the confident expectation of what the future will bring. They teach us how to live in difficulty of “now” while never losing the joy of the “not yet.” Here’s the best way I can explain it: To really get the beatitudes you need to recall what it was like on the last day of school, back in second or third grade. On that last day of school, you were still in school. There were still rules and expectations and report cards. But I always had a smile on my face on that last day of school because I already had one foot firmly planted in summer vacation. Baseball and swimming and sleeping late hadn’t yet begun; but in my mind, I was already there. I was living the present in the confident expectation of the future. My “now” was being heavily influenced by my “not yet.” In a manner of speaking, you could say that for the disciples of Jesus, every day is the last day of school.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This first beatitude functions like an introduction—a summary, really—of all the rest. Jesus’ disciples mourn. They are meek, they hunger and thirst for righteousness, they are persecuted peace-makers. But at the top of the list, Jesus says, they are poor—poor in spirit.

To be poor in spirit is more than just being humble. And it has nothing to do with how big or how small our paychecks may be. To be poor in spirit is to be a beggar before God. In our affluent culture we don’t know much about begging and beggars. After all, we have county hospitals, social security, food pantries and homeless shelters to keep people from having to beg. Beggars are those who have absolutely nothing—those who are completely dependent upon the goodness and generosity of others for their very existence.

To be poor in spirit, then—to be a beggar before God—is to stand before God empty-handed—completely dependent upon Him for life and salvation and everything! No merit of our own. No goodness in us. No snazzy resume full of spiritual feats and accomplishments. No credit for attending long church meetings. No receipts for offerings given. No gold stars for church attendance. No tally sheets for how many times you shared the faith with someone else. None of that. The poor in spirit—the disciples of Jesus—are beggars. They don’t say, “I thank You, God, that I’m not like other men.” But in their emptiness they pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

St. Augustine once expressed it this way. He wrote this sentence: “God gives into empty hands.” Disciples with full hands are not disciples at all. Hands that are full—full of self, full of pride, hands tightly wrapped around money and entertainment and pleasure and sin and shame and vice—those are not the hands of the poor in spirit. Those hands are not “blessed” by Jesus. Those hands will never be the hands into which God can give Himself and His mercy and forgiveness and salvation. And be forewarned that Jesus (in His drastic mercy) sometimes takes it upon Himself to empty our hands for us.

Beloved in the Lord, disciples of Jesus, open your hands. Unclench your fists. Admit your spiritual poverty. Jesus has a word for people like that. He calls such poor, spiritual beggars “blessed.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” It is precisely when you have nothing that Jesus gives you everything. Into your empty hand Jesus has placed His nail-scarred hand. And that is everything—faith, forgiveness, mercy, purity, peace and joy. Those are the goods Jesus gives away to His poor, empty-handed disciples. Yours is the kingdom of heaven, not because you’ve achieved it—not because you’ve earned it—but only because Jesus has given it into your hands as a gift. Jesus achieved it. Jesus earned it. Jesus emptied Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross. His poverty makes you rich. His poverty makes you blessed.

To be blessed is to be saved—to be safely secured—to be anchored to the grace of God through faith in Jesus. Blessed are you, Jesus says. But you should also know that to be a blessed disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean a happy, care-free life in this world. To borrow from my earlier analogy, you’re still “in school.” Playground bullies threaten to pummel you. Homework and expectations and evaluations threaten to overwhelm you. Temptations of every kind swirl around you minute by minute. While the rest of the world rejoices over recess, the disciples of Jesus are mourning over sin and its effects in this dying world. While the rest of the world adopts an aggressive, me-first attitude, the disciples of Jesus live under the cross in meekness. While the rest of the world gorges itself in gluttony, the disciples of Jesus hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are merciful. They are pure in heart. They don’t stir up conflict, but work to make peace. And they are persecuted, because this world cannot long tolerate these who are blessed by Jesus.

It isn’t easy being a disciple of Jesus. But Jesus calls you blessed. He invites you to live in the troubles of today with the promises of tomorrow in mind. And what are those promises? You will be comforted. You will inherit the earth. You will be filled with righteousness. You will be shown mercy. You will see God and be called sons and daughters of God. The kingdom of heaven is yours. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The last day of school was a day of joy and gladness because you knew what was ahead. In the same way, Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” Already in Holy Baptism you were joined to Jesus. You will go where He has gone. Already today in Holy Communion you will receive a foretaste of the heavenly feast to come. Today in the Divine Service, heaven breaks in, heaven spills into time and space, the “not yet” works its way into the “here and now.”

Now is where you are. And where is that? Well, now you are blessed. Now you can rejoice and be glad. Now you are an empty-handed disciple of Jesus—poor in spirit but rich in grace. Now you can live in the absolute confidence that school is almost over—that an eternal summer of joy and feasting and happy reunions is about to begin—for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior, who gave Himself for you. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment