In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as if the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.
But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flown before.
Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world; the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us - things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.
The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’; in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life, and pronounces a blessing on them. Likely there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fit into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.
The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people with good long term marriages and people whose marriages are full of pain, or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?
There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.
In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.
Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes - the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers - she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Isaiah, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of a friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission he did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.
The kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful grief, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.
The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.
The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realize that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world and in their own lives. People like this are often laughed at and excluded. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.
The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look - there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.
The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.
The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the Son of God who came to bring peace between God and people, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.
The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group - the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.
So this is the kingdom of God - a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.
So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.
The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.
It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are - but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness - or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness - or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ - and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.
The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, get baptized into union with him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.
(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).