Sermon for the Feast of All Saints, November 1, 2020 (Matthew 5:1-12)

“Jesus Teaching the Beatitudes” (ca. 1886-1896) by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.


Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I would like to begin my sermon this morning with a little Latin lesson.  Why do we call the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount the “Beatitudes?”  That’s “bee-attitudes” if you’ve never been sure how to pronounce it. When I was a child, I thought it was pronounced “beet-itudes,” which caused me all kinds of confusion.  But why call them “Beatitudes,” especially when there’s no word in our English Bibles that corresponds to that name?

Well, as I said, it has to do with Latin.  In the Greek Bible, Jesus calls the people he speaks about as blessed “makarioi,” in the Sermon on the Mount, meaning “blessed or happy ones.”  This was translated by Saint Jerome into Latin as “beati,” which, of course, means blessed or happy.  And because Latin was the language of the Church in the West for so long, we just remember them as the “Beatitudes,” from the Latin beatitudo (“blessedness”) because that’s how they were passed down to us.  So, when you see the word, “Beatitude,” remember that it refers to what Jesus says in the sermon: “Blessed are they” or as some translations translate it, “happy are they.”  Jesus is describing people who are happy and blessed.

The Be (Happy) Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your  Life: Schuller, Robert: 9780553264586: Amazon.com: Books
Oh Robert, no….the Beatitudes aren’t about positive thinking at all!

I think there’s a temptation on our part to look at what Jesus says in the Beatitudes and think, “Ah, that’s talking about me!”  We want to know that we are blessed, that we are happy and included in the list of blessed people Jesus mentions.  But listen to what Jesus is saying, and just how hard it is to be the people he describes.  He says:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Mt. 5:3-12, ESV)

We can relate to verses 3 and 4.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  We all go through seasons of weakness.  There are times when we are lacking in faith and when we struggle with what God desires for us; where our sins seem to get the better of us even though we want to do that which is right, where we know how sinful and undeserving we are, and we know that we need God’s grace.  We all go through seasons of mourning, for myriad reasons: we lose loved ones, relationships, possessions, health, abilities, jobs.  So, these two Beatitudes apply to us, at least some of the time.  But what of the third, in verse 5: “Blessed are the meek” or “blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.”  Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m the humblest person I know!  But I suppose by saying that, I’m not!  But how humble must I be to inherit the earth?  Can anyone be humble enough?  One can always have more humility.

And verse 6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  Do I really hunger and thirst for righteousness?  Or do I let my mind and my desires slip into wanting less wholesome, less healthful things?  Do we always want to be righteous?  Well, knowing that we all have sinful proclivities, I’d say, no, we don’t.  We can always hunger and thirst more for it, so how much is enough to be satisfied?  And how about verse 7, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”?  Can we all be truly classified as merciful?  Maybe sometimes, but how merciful are we when someone cuts us off on the L.I.E.?  Or how merciful are we when we see someone begging on the sidewalk–do we always show them the compassion we would like to receive, were we in the same situation?   And how often do we prefer to get revenge on someone who wrongs us rather than to be the bigger person and walk away?  It’s not likely that we always do.  And “Blessed are the pure in heart,” verse 8, “for they shall see God.”  Is your heart in and of itself pure?  I’m sure we’d all like to think that our hearts are, but Jesus has something to say about that: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person” (Mt. 15:18-20).  So, look at the purity of our own hearts— have we had any of those thoughts or feelings?  Not so pure now, are we.  And finally, in verse 9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God.”  Do we always make peace?  How many times have we ramped up a conflict with someone else, or done or said something on purpose to harm another person or incite them to anger?  Or stood idly by while two other people fought?  Or when we could have bridged cultures and helped ease misunderstandings but didn’t?  If we haven’t done things like this, are we really peacemakers?  How much peace do we have to make to be considered “Sons of God” (or Daughters)?

And then Jesus tells the disciples, “Blessed are you when people persecute you for righteousness’ sake” and “blessed are you when people revile you on account of me.”  Have we been persecuted?  If not, are we really blessed?  While it seems anti-Christian sentiment is on the rise here in the US, we still seem to have it pretty good here, so good in fact that I think we are tempted to seek out persecution so that we can say, “Yes, we are blessed because people don’t like us because of Christ Jesus!”  I’d argue that we don’t even know what real persecution looks like.  Other parts of the world do, but here?  Not really.  So how do we know if we’re blessed in this way, too?

“The Beatitudes” (pre-18th Century). Russian. Public Domain.

What Jesus says to the disciples and the crowd on the mount here, then, seems difficult to apply to us.  How much do we have to do to be blessed?  Well, if you remember from last week’s sermon, we know that we cannot do anything to be blessed like this.  We cannot make ourselves meeker, or purer, or more apt to making peace, not of our own accordOur fallen wills are bent toward sin, or as Luther wrote in The Bondage of the Will, they are “bound” to sin.  Our wills, on their own, always want to do the sinful thing, or do the wrong thing.  I know I’ve mentioned it before, but remember what Paul says in Romans 7: “I don’t do the good which I want to do, and instead do the sinful thing that I don’t want to do.” That’s how our human wills work.  We can’t will ourselves to be the kinds of people Jesus speaks of here.  There is nothing intrinsic to us that makes us blessed or happy in the way Jesus describes.

So, who is Jesus talking about in the Beatitudes?  Well what if I told you that, in spite of everything I just said, he is indeed talking about us?  You’re shocked, I can tell.  But no, this isn’t some sort of rhetorical trick on my part.  You see, there’s a very important factor that is required for us to be the people Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes, and that is Jesus himself.  The person who has faith in Christ is able to be the person Jesus speaks of.  Think about it: who is truly meek?  Who truly hungers and thirsts for righteousness?  Who is truly pure of heart?  Who is a true peacemaker? And who is truly merciful?  Who is persecuted for righteousness sake?  Well, Jesus is, of course.  He is all these things.  And it is he who makes a person one of the “blessed” ones he describes.  How does Christ do this?  Well, when one trusts in Jesus for their salvation, he covers them over with his righteousness.  Thus, even though their flesh is weak and they fail at being humble or merciful or pure of heart, they receive Christ’s humility, his mercy, his purity.  Jesus gives all of this to those who trust in him.  And not only does he give those who have faith these qualities, he gives them precisely what he says that they will receive.  Are you poor in spirit, yet covered over in Christ’s righteousness?  Jesus will give you the kingdom of heaven.  Are you merciful on account of Christ’s mercy?  Jesus will show mercy to you.  Are you humble because you are clothed in Christ’s humility?  Christ will give you the earth as an inheritance.  Are you pure because Christ has made you pure in his purity?  Then you shall see God.  And indeed, you will be blessed because, as one in Christ, there will be those who will persecute you because you bear his name.  And finally, on this All Saints’ Day, if you mourn because Jesus has clothed you in his love and righteousness on account of your faith—you will be comforted.  The promise of the Resurrection is for you and for all who mourn, because Jesus’ death and resurrection has destroyed death.  What Isaiah prophesied shall come to pass: “Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended” (Is. 60:20).

2020 has been an agonizing year for all of us.  There has been much mourning, and much suffering.  But when we hear Jesus say “Blessed are those who…” we can know that those blessings are for us and for all saints, for we, too, are saints.  The word “saint” itself means “holy,” from the Latin adjective “sanctus” (or “sancta” in the feminine).  And all who cling to Christ and his promises are holy because he covers all of us who trust in him in his holiness.  So we are all saints, and we are blessed.  We are all heirs of the promises Jesus makes to his hearers here on the Mount.  For when Jesus comes to put an end to all sorrow and care, we shall, like those saints who have already gone before us, receive the kingdom heaven.  We shall be comforted.  We shall be satisfied.  We shall inherit the earth.  We shall receive mercy.  We shall see God.  We shall be called his Sons (or perhaps his children better reflects this).  We shall have a great reward in heaven.  And death, sin, and hell shall die, but we shall live!  And we shall be blessed for all eternity!

I would like to leave you today with a sonnet from the great English poet and priest, John Donne, which I think encapsulates well the hope of what it means to be one of Christ’s “beati,” one of his blessed and happy ones:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. 
(John Donne, Holy Sonnets)

Amen.

Crucifix from St. Georgskirche Immeldorf. Photo by Alexander Rahm. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Note that the crucified Christ is shown over the skull of death–through the crucifixion. Christ conquers and buries death forever.

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