Blessed

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5:1–12, ESV)

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What is it to be “blessed”?  I think this question is at the core of understanding the importance of the Beatitudes to Jesus’ earthly ministry.

This post serves as the introduction to a ten-part series on the Beatitudes.  For the following nine posts, I will be examining each of the Beatitudes and writing about why the qualities Jesus talks about are blessed, and how we should approach each of these statements.

Some of these are qualities that Christ-followers are called to emulate and seek after at all times (to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, and to be peacemakers), while others are qualities that are temporal (to mourn, to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and to be reviled and slandered).  Six are eternal qualities of citizens of the Kingdom, and three will pass away after the Kingdom comes in its fullness and restores Creation to what was intended from the first breath of God to call light out of darkness.

So, what is it to be “blessed”?  As someone who has lived in the South nearly all my life, I have heard some variation on the phrase “bless your heart” more times than I can count.  It is a cultural joke that generally stems from the time-honored wisdom of mothers everywhere to “say only nice things” about people.  I usually hear it when the blessee has done something worthy of pity, or that a “less nice” person would scoff and laugh about.

Is this what Jesus means?  No, and we should be quick to banish the possibility from our minds.

The modern English dictionary has several definitions for the word “bless.”  In modern usage, “bless” can mean to invoke divine favor upon someone, to express reverence for God, to express gratitude for an act or a gift.  The modern definition is definitely tinged with a deep historic embedding of Christian thought in the formation of the modern language.  In Jesus’ day, a “blessing” was a word of acceptance, a proclamation that the person doing the blessing stood behind the person being blessed.  In the days of the Patriarchs, the rights to rule over the household were conferred through blessing (reference Isaac unknowingly blessing Jacob instead of his firstborn, Esau, to find out how important this was in their culture).

The Greek word being rendered as “blessed are” in each of the statements in the English translation of the Beatitudes is the word makarios, which means “happy, blessed, to be envied.”  In addition to reading the Beatitudes as “Blessed are…” you could also read them to say “Happy are…” but it is also appropriate to say “You should envy those who are…”  Or, maybe, to avoid confusion with the sin of Envy you could render it “You should yearn or desire to be like those who are…”

As I said above, there are six qualities that are blessed which are permanent attributes of Kingdom citizens – to be poor in spirit (humility), to be meek (gentleness), to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, and to be peacemakers.  These are the attributes that we are to strive for, to yearn after.  I would say that it is especially appropriate to render these six statements as “You should yearn or desire to be like those who are…”

There are also three qualities or experiences which are temporal, and which will be removed when the Kingdom comes in its fullness to restore the creation to what the Creator intended:  mourners will be comforted and mourning will cease (Revelation 7:17); the persecuted will possess the Kingdom of Heaven and persecutions will come to an end (Revelation 21:4); finally, those reviled for the sake of the Gospel will rejoice to be counted like the prophets, and the revilers will be made to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ (Philippians 2:10-11).  To me, rendering these statements by Jesus as “Blessed are” or “Happy are” is especially appropriate, because it highlights that the merciful hand of God is with those who mourn, and divine favor is upon those who suffer for the cause of righteousness.  These are qualities and experiences which all Kingdom citizens will possess or face at some point.

What further contrasts these three from the other six is that while the permanent attributes are characterizations of the Kingdom citizen, the three temporal attributes are either consequences of the Fall or reactions by the fallen world to the encroachment of the Kingdom.  Mourning results from death and loss, which results from the sin of Adam.  Persecution, revulsion, and hatred are reactions by the parasitic hold of sin on the world against the truth and health of the Kingdom.

You will note that I keep referring to the Beatitudes as qualities or experiences of Kingdom citizens.  The Beatitudes form the first part of the discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew (a similar sermon is found in Luke, and contains a shorter but similar list of blessings).  The focus of Matthew’s gospel account is on what Jesus’ message means for the Jewish people, and it is steeped in references to Judaism, to the teachings that grew up with the rabbinical traditions.  Part of the backdrop of the culture during Jesus’ ministry was a kind of Jewish nationalism that looked for a strongman Messiah who would kick out all of the Gentile oppressors (such as the Roman Empire) and restore a righteous kingdom on earth at Jerusalem.  There were multiple rebellions during the time by people looking for the fulfillment of the words of the prophets in mighty men.  Some of these people flocked to Jesus because they thought he was setting the stage for his own populist uprising that would restore the line of David to kingship in Israel.

In many ways, the Sermon on the Mount reads to me like a manifesto of what it actually means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The beatitudes are like Jesus’ response to people saying, “we want to see God’s kingdom here and now!” with Jesus responding “Okay, but just so you know, this is what that looks like!”  This reading has one significant potential for error: it can seem like Jesus, through the Beatitudes, is laying out a checklist for what someone outside the Kingdom needs to do to get inside the Kingdom, like what someone outside the United States might be expected to do to be legally allowed to live within the United States.  This is not the case.  Therefore, I insist on calling the statements in the Beatitudes “qualities” and not “acts” or “works.”  The Beatitudes look for the blessed to be meek, not to act meek.  One is the truth of a person, the other is hypocrisy.  The Beatitudes are not what someone must do to become a Citizen; rather, a Citizen is already in possession of the Beatitudes.

Another way to think of the qualities enumerated in the Beatitudes, especially the six that I call “eternal” qualities, is to view them in the same way as the fruits of the Spirit.  Just as the fruits of the Spirit are qualities that evidence a transformed life – rather than being acts or deeds that in themselves transform that life – so too are the qualities enumerated in the Beatitudes evidences of those who are already members of the Kingdom of God.  I’ve tried to come up with secular parallels to this, using my hypothetical immigrant to the United States, but everything I come up with is rooted in the deeds of the one seeking citizenship – there are no uniquely “American” qualities that I can enumerate, if I’m being objective and putting aside patriotism for the sake of this essay.

Over the next several months, I invite you to explore each of these qualities with me.  If, during your examination, you find that there are particular areas you struggle with or are especially difficult for you – do not be discouraged or overly dismayed!  Our God has blessed us with a Comforter that speaks to us in our weaknesses to build us up, to urge us to growth.  I find that I especially struggle with purity and against apathy towards injustice, as well as against pride in myself.  But I know by faith that my prayers for mercy and acceptance are heard, and I now rarely see a day that goes by where some kind of growth is not evident to me.  The Way of the Cross is not an easy or quick road, and our walk along it will not be finished in this life.

It is my hope that this series will bless you as you join me in examining that which Our Lord has called “blessed.”

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

A New Direction

After allowing this blog to lie fallow since just before Easter due to several convergent circumstances, I have decided that time enough has passed since the last time I wrote a reflection on the Word of God.  This blog post is not a reflection, but more of a “what’s coming” post.

First, some behind the scenes information on the author:  I work full time as a Network Engineer for one of the largest employers of professional services in the United States.  Because of this, I do a fair amount of travel.  The past couple of months have been especially travel-full, and one stint was to an area where internet connectivity is very much a commodity.  So, shortly after Easter my attention was turned toward preparing for various work trips.  This has taken its toll on my “free” writing time, and after a couple of weeks of not getting a chance to write a reflection, I made the decision not to stress myself out about it and just take a break.  I have written a piece in the interim for Rookie Anglican on icons in Christian worship, which I encourage everyone of every stripe and opinion on imagery to read.

Over the coming weeks and months, it is my intention and desire to write a series of posts on the Beatitudes, the nine statements by Jesus in the opening of the Sermon on the Mount which illustrate what it is to live a blessed life in anticipation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This blog will therefore become untethered from the Lectionary for Sundays in the ACNA – at least during this season.  This is ultimately for self-serving reasons – it allows me to not feel pressure to get a homily-length piece up every week.  Instead, my intent is to have slightly longer reflections on each of the Beatitudes up every two to three weeks.

It is my hope that this change both allows me to post more regularly, and that by focusing on this core teaching of Jesus Christ, my readers are helped and encouraged in their striving to live the Blessed Life.

As always,

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

(Year B, Good Friday, March 30, 2018; Psalm 22)

15       My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; *
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.

16     Packs of dogs close me in,
and gangs of evildoers circle around me; *
they pierce my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.

17     They stare and gloat over me; *
they divide my garments among them;
they cast lots for my clothing.

(Psalm 22, BCP 1979)

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I don’t normally write about the psalms, tending to focus more on the Gospels and Epistles.  However, I feel strongly that it would be a disservice to overlook Psalm 22, as it has the most explicit description of Our Lord’s crucifixion found in a prophetic work.

I am writing this a few hours after having followed the two great traditions of Christian observances on Good Friday – giving a truthful confession seeking earnest reconciliation and repentance, and participating in the Stations of the Cross mini-pilgrimage around my church’s sanctuary.  I am writing a few hours before participating in one of the most solemn and somber liturgies of the Christian year, when we commemorate Our Lord’s death and burial, having been betrayed and falsely charged on Maundy Thursday, shortly after instituting the Lord’s Supper.  The graphic for this piece is Station 12 of my parish’s Stations of the Cross which are set up in our sanctuary.

Before becoming an Anglican Christian, I had a very… strained relationship with the psalms.  I didn’t understand their purpose, why they were in the Bible.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were trying to tell me, or what I was supposed to “do” with them.  Of course, at the time, I saw little profit in the Old Testament other than as history of the people Jesus came from.  With that general view of the Old Testament, it’s little wonder that my view of a book of abstract poetry was limited and (shamefully) dismissive.

Anglican (along with Orthodox and Catholic) worship forces the participant to consider the whole of Scripture, including the psalter (the collection of psalms).  More than that, it forces one to interact with the Scripture, and with the Author of Scripture – our prayers are two-way: The Scripture speaks to us, and we respond in our collects, petitions, intercessions, and thanksgivings.  The psalms fit into this process both as God speaking to us from Scripture, and us taking up the petitions of the prayers as the voice of the Church, though some of the psalms are primarily one or the other, and other alternate, like a dialog.  This is part of why, I believe, the popular mode of reading the psalms in prayer is responsively – the back and forth nature reminds us of a dialog.

It didn’t take long for me to realize my great error in dismissing the psalms, and never was the sin more apparent than when I first read Psalm 22 – as I said, this is the most explicit description of the crucifixion found in the Old Testament, and it describes a mode of torturous execution that would not be present in Palestine until several centuries after the psalm was written.  Not only that, it describes precisely the events that are recorded in the total of the crucifixion account, when referencing all four of the canonical Gospels.  Details like lots being cast to divide Jesus’ garments among the soldiers, the nails piercing hands and feet, the crowd jeering him for his inability to save himself – all of these reveal the prophetic voice and intent of the psalm.  David was never so surrounded, even in his flight from Saul; he was never pierced by nails in his hands and feet; his clothing was never divided amongst captors.

Most telling though, is when Jesus makes reference to the psalm from the cross in his dying breath: “Eloi eloi lama sabacthani!” which is the Aramaic translation of the opening verse of Psalm 22.  I didn’t catch this even after I first read the psalm, but this exclamation, which I had taken to be merely an outcry to God, also served the purpose of putting the psalm in the minds of the crowd, if their hearts and ears were opened.  In the synagogue, the psalm would probably not have been referenced by its number, but by a phrase early in the text.  A vestige of this is retained in the psalters of the historic Church, where a “title” in Latin or Greek is present, which is usually the first few words, or maybe the opening phrase of the psalm.  So, in effect, Jesus is not only crying out to God, he also calls upon the faithful to recall this psalm of David so that they would have the truth revealed to them.

When I realized this, I was struck by the importance of this psalm and the depth of prophecies potentially contained in all the psalms.  I was also reminded of Jesus illuminating all the Scriptures concerning himself to the pair of disciples on the Emmaus road – which included the psalms and the prophets.  Last year, in partnership with my Vicar, I led a study which examined the presence of Christ in the psalms.  This internal integrity between the psalms, the prophets, and the narrative accounts in the Gospels of the suffering and death of Our Lord drove away certain doubts that I had battled with when I viewed the Old Testament as just a history book.

On this Good Friday, I ask and encourage you to engage with the psalms, and especially Psalm 22, 40, 69, and 110.  If you have the time, I also encourage reading Psalm 119 in its entirety; this psalm talks about the speaker’s deep love and obedience to the Law of Moses, a depth of love and a thoroughness in obedience that is seen in only one man in the whole of Scripture – Jesus the Messiah.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

Hosanna in the Highest!

(Year B, Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018; Liturgy of the Palms Gospel Reading from Mark 11:1-11)

“And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” – Mark 11:9-10, ESV

Цвети (улазак Христа у Јерусалим)
Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem,
Petar Milošević

Today is Palm Sunday, the day when the Church remembers the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when people lined the street to acclaim him as the coming King who would usher in the new Kingdom of David.  It is also when the account of Jesus’ trial, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and death are told in the Gospel reading for the Eucharistic service.  As my priest put it this morning, if this juxtaposition seems jarring, good – it’s supposed to.

One of the thematic features of the liturgy for Palm Sunday is the reinforcement of the fact that the same crowd that was moved to proclaim, “Hosanna in the highest!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem was equally stirred up to denounce him and call for his execution, shouting “Crucify him!” mere days later.  I have been to congregations where the people play the part of the crowd in both Gospel readings and say “Hosanna” during the Liturgy of the Palms before the Processional, and also “Crucify him” in the Gospel during the Eucharistic Liturgy.  This is done to drive home to everyone in the congregation that Jesus was the only person present at his condemnation who was innocent.

In my last posting, I mentioned my struggle against pride in reading the Gospels and supposing myself better than the disciples who totally missed the point in Jesus’ teaching.  I used to struggle in a similar fashion when I read the accounts of Our Lord’s Passion, especially the crowd being stirred up against Jesus.  All modern Christians want to say that they wouldn’t be part of the guilty ones who cried out “Crucify him!” but the Gospel account makes plain that everyone who wasn’t Begotten from the Father had an intimate hand to play in the condemnation and death of Jesus.

What are the alternatives to being in the crowd?  There’s Pilate, aloof and disinterested in Jewish power struggles except for how it might impact his assignment to keep the peace in Judea, amazed in the enduring silence of Our Lord, but unwilling to make any move toward faith and truly speak out against the injustice.  There’s the Jewish religious leaders, who bought off people to rouse the crowd and spread rumors and false testimony.  There’s the soldiers, to whom Jesus was just another dirt-poor man from Galilee, another rebel who was shown to be nothing special.

Where are the disciples?

Peter is the last we see of any of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel by the time Jesus is condemned to death, and he denied any connection with Jesus, as had been foretold earlier in the day.  The Gospels say that they all went into hiding, with only one being bold enough to come to the foot of the cross (St. John the Apostle).  The people who are the least culpable are the guiltiest – Jesus had told them that these things would happen, and that he would be raised up and glorified, yet they didn’t believe him, and so they scattered as foretold in Zechariah 13:7.

As modern-day Christians, seeking to put ourselves in that first-century scene in Jerusalem, our choices are limited in terms of roles to play, and in truth not all Christians would be found in only one crowd.  For myself, I believe that I would probably be with the disciples, cowering in a room waiting for the soldiers to drag us out to be flogged, humiliated, and, if we were lucky, stoned to death.  Palm Sunday calls us to examine our hearts and see where we would be in the list of the guilty – because there is no option to stand on the sideline, and the one who was condemned and crucified was the only one innocent before the crowd.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the observation of Holy Week in the Christian Church.  If you can join a local congregation in the observation of the liturgies and rites this week, I strongly encourage you to do so.  These are some of the heaviest and most powerful prayers and services of the Christian calendar.  The Maundy Thursday liturgy is one of the oldest collection of prayers in the Christian tradition, and the Maundy Vigil calls you to join in the disciples’ difficulty of staying in prayer for “even one hour.”  Good Friday is the soberest and most solemn service of the whole Church year, and confronts us with the cross of Christ, its scandal and our guilt.  Finally, the Easter Vigil and Resurrection Sunday usher in the Great Feast of Easter, which brings us out of Lent and into the joyful celebration of the Risen Son.

This week, I pray that all Christians would be mindful of their sins and seek repentance for anything they are truly sorry for, and continually thank God for the mercy shown to us in the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Hour Has Come

(Year B, Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018; Gospel Reading form John 12:20-33 [34-36])

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.  So these came to Philip…and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’  …Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” – John 12:20-24 (ESV)

wheat_in_field
Wheat in field

There are many occasions where I fool myself into feeling superior to the likes of Peter, James, and John when they are jockeying for position, supposing myself to be among those who really get “it” about what Jesus is bringing and somehow think that I would do better.  As misguided and outright wrong as that attitude is – just as misguided and wrong as their jockeying for position – it is nevertheless an honest view of the characters portrayed in the Scripture.  I must continually remind myself that the only reason I’m somehow better able to appreciate the teachings of Jesus is because I have the benefit of the past twenty centuries worth of theological discourse and Christian teachings.  Put me in the identical shoes of any of the Apostles in the Gospel writings, and I’m probably going to be in the same boat of (mis)understanding as they are.

And it is readings like this that most point that out to me.  Because I remember first reading this account before I had the benefit of a study bible, or read any commentaries, or was exposed to the teachings of the Fathers, and thinking that Jesus’ response was seemingly disjointed, and – dare I say it – melodramatic.  Why should Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus cause him to go into a lengthy discourse about grains of wheat and glorification, and receiving eternal life by hating your earthly life?  As a young Christian I wasn’t exactly troubled, but I was puzzled.  The text does say that he said these things to show what kind of death he would experience, but I still failed to see why Greeks had anything to do with it.

One of the constant mysteries that underlies all the Gospel accounts is in regard to the identity of Jesus.  Is he a Prophet, a madman, or God Incarnate?  John’s gospel was written after the three synoptics, and is written, as I’ve stated in another reflection, to highlight the “whys” more than the “hows” and “whats” – which the synoptics cover more than adequately.  The mystery in John’s gospel account is deepened considerably in that John explicitly states that Jesus, being the Word, was with God and was God (John 1:1), and yet portrays him as possessing what appear to be certain limitations to his power.  This passage appears to me to be one example – it seems as if Jesus takes the interest of the Greeks to be a sign not only that his crucifixion is near, but also that it is time to let the disciples in on what is about to happen.

Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians that “…[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV)  Part of the “emptying” of himself, and taking on the form of a servant, must have meant losing the divine omniscience that He would have in His glorified state.  But even though he had to rely on the sign of the appearance of the Greeks, he was able to discern what they meant, just as he was able to read the hearts of those whom he encountered during his ministry.

When this is brought to mind, the seemingly out of the blue remarks by Our Lord come into focus – the appearance of the Greeks marked for Jesus a turning point in his ministry.  He had done many things in the fulfillment of prophecy to the Jews, but the interest of the world outside the Hebrew people marked that the call to the Gentiles to come and believe in the Lord Jesus was imminent.  Before it could happen though, the Christ must be captured, mistreated and tortured, killed shamefully, and then rise in the fullness of the Glory of God.  He was telling Phillip and Andrew that before he could be proclaimed to the world (by preaching to the Greeks) he must first put off his mortal body and put on His Resurrection Body.

All Christians have some ministry that they do – it is a consequence of the Faith, no one can truly call themselves a Christian and be content to sit on the sidelines, or doze in the pews.  As James says, “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17, ESV) Not all ministries are publicly acclaimed; many lay Christians engage in the ministry of intercessory prayer, which is done in closets and by beds and only occasionally on street corners.  Since we all have ministries, we either will encounter or have encountered turning points where something happens that signifies some coming change and makes us ready for the next faithful action.  These changes can be anxiety inducing, and we either rise to the challenge or shy away, vainly hoping to maintain the status quo.

This week, I ask you to reflect on your personal ministries, whether they are large or small, and ask God for insight into their shifting needs, how they need to grow to work in harmony with His will.  Also ask for clarity and understanding when reading the Word of God, so that you aren’t like me, and unwittingly committing the sin of Pride by thinking the Lord disjointed and ineloquent.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.