Remember Who You Are: The Beatitudes, Identity, and Vision

The movie, Wonder, is an inspirational story about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers with Treacher Collins syndrome. After being taught at home most of his life, he started public school for the first time upon entering fifth grade. This required him to leave behind the astronaut helmet that he wore to hide his facial deformities. Sadly, he was ostracized by nearly the entire student body, but quickly became best friends with a boy named Jack Will. On Halloween, while everyone was dressed-up at school, he overheard Jack make fun of his deformities and tell the other boys that he was only pretending to be Auggie’s friend. Feeling betrayed, Auggie had a breakdown after arriving home.

His mother, Isabel, offered comfort by saying, “You are not ugly, Auggie,” who replied, “You just have to say that because you’re my mom.” She responded, “Because I am your mom, it counts the most, because I know you the most.” Since Isabel knew her son better than anyone else, she could see the truth about Auggie, even when he couldn’t see it himself. When the other kids were cruel, it was important for her to remind him that he was a good, kind-hearted, smart boy with a great sense of humor. When Auggie felt ugly and rejected, he needed her to speak truth into his life. Despite continued bullying at school, the words of truth spoken by his mother gave Auggie the strength to be his authentic self. As a result, other kids were also enabled to see below the surface of his deformities and accept him as a friend.

The truth that Auggie’s mother spoke reminded him of his true identity and encouraged him to live into that reality. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does something similar for us in giving the beatitudes (5:1-12).

Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was truly a paradigm shift in their thinking that resulted in big changes to their religious beliefs and way of life. It launched them on a new journey that took them into the heart of an emerging reality that Jesus called the kingdom of God. The decision to live in this new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, meant to live under the reign God in accordance with God’s values. However, these early Christians soon discovered that these values were diametrically opposed to the upside-down values of the world. In their very efforts to align their lives with God’s ways of life, they came face-to-face with fierce resistance, and instead of feeling blessed many felt cursed.

As the author of Matthew drew on the words of the historical Jesus to compose his gospel, the beatitudes became an occasion to remind these early Christians of their true identity in Christ and to encourage to them to keep the faith during times of difficulty. It’s like we can hear Jesus saying: While you might feel cursed when evaluating your circumstances according to the value system of the world, when seen according to the values of the kingdom you are truly blessed by God because you are living in the truth. Therefore, remember who you are and remain faithful. God looks upon you with favor and will vindicate and reward you in the end.

In this way, Jesus’ words gave encouragement and hope to a group of Christians who were struggling to find meaning in difficult circumstances, which were caused by their commitment to God’s way of life. In addition, the beatitudes revealed the marks of authentic discipleship, which not only confirmed that they were on the right path but also provided ongoing direction for their spiritual journey. With each pronouncement of blessing, Jesus says, “I declare by the power of my word that this is who you really are in the eyes of God, so remember who you are, be encouraged, and live into this reality.”

As we meditate on these pronouncements of blessing, Jesus can do the same for us. So, let’s turn to the beatitudes themselves to remember who we are and see more clearly who God is calling us to be.

 

The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew[1]

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The poor in spirit are those with no spiritual qualifications, charisma, or influence. No one would think to ask their opinion on religious matters or call on them to pray or teach a Bible study. According to the religious elites, these people were spiritually bankrupt and excluded from salvation without their rituals, teachings, and intercessions. Then Jesus comes along and says: God’s kingdom is open to you. Far from being excluded, God eagerly awaits your entry. While the “holier-than-thou” may look down on you, God sees your value and uses your spiritual poverty to reveal an important mark of authentic discipleship: humility. Those who are poor in spirit know that they cannot be saved by religion. Rather, they are entirely dependent upon God and find their identity, security, and hope in God’s saving action. Consequently, they are truly blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Like Jesus, the meek are “gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). The world says, “Assert your will and leverage your power to take what you want,” but the meek renounce the coercive, domineering, and violent ways of the world. In so doing, they expose the dark side of power and the damage it does to human beings. While the meek look foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, Jesus says, “these are the ones who demonstrate real strength and who are truly blessed.” When God finishes the new creation, the meek—not the domineering, forceful, manipulative, or violent—will inherit the earth. You can mock them all you want as impotent and impractical, but God will vindicate and reward them in the end.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). Like meekness, mercy is often seen as a sign of weakness. The world says, “If you are merciful, people will take advantage of you. If you don’t want to become a doormat, show strength not mercy.” But according to the value system of the kingdom, the merciful reflect the compassionate heart of God. By making the truth of God’s love and forgiveness real in this broken world, they show themselves to be true disciples. While the world may crush them for their kindness, Jesus says they are truly blessed because they reap what they sow—divine mercy.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). In this pronouncement, Jesus blesses people who sincerely pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (6:10). They long for God to right-wise this fallen world with love, justice, and peace. They ache for the time when God will vindicate His people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. Based on this hope, they actively seek to extend the reign of God’s righteousness in the world around them, even at great cost to themselves. Since God is faithful, their hope is not in vain—their hunger for justice will be satisfied when God’s redemptive work in creation is complete.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). In this pronouncement, Jesus is not saying that mourning, in and of itself, is a virtue. Rather, like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is blessing people who lament the present condition of God’s people in a world subject to sin, evil, and death. According to Jesus, the truly blessed refuse to resign themselves the present condition of the world but mourn the fact that God’s will has not yet been done “on earth as it is in heaven.” They are blessed because they will be comforted by God’s ultimate victory.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9). Note that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers,” those who fear conflict and sweep it under the rug. Nor does he endorse the kind of peacemaking done by the Romans at the tip of a sword. Rather, he pronounces blessing on those who are courageous enough to engage the incredibly difficult work of reconciliation. Peacemakers work to eliminate hostilities between enemies in hopes that they may be restored to friendship. While the bullies and conflict avoiders of the of the world try to sideline the peacemakers, Jesus says, “In the last judgement, they will be claimed as God’s children.”

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Purity of heart is not about avoiding what some consider impure thoughts, but about single-minded devotion to God. Rather than dividing ourselves among several different loyalties, which will inevitably require us to compromise our values, our ultimate loyalty to God subordinates all others. This means that when the value system of the kingdom comes into conflict with the value system of the world, the kingdom always wins. Instead of serving two masters (6:24), we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (22:37). We how to live with “undivided heart” (Ps. 86:11). While the world may see the pure in heart as naïve, Jesus says that they are blessed because they will see God in the feast of the new creation.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-12).

As we have already seen, the value system of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the value system of this present world. As disciples of Jesus try to imitate his life by being humble, meek, and merciful; as they hunger and thirst for justice and lay their lives on the line for reconciliation; as they act out of a single-minded devotion to God, they meet fierce resistance. In their imitation of Christ, their very life shines light in dark places, exposing the violence and injustice of the wicked, who, in turn, try to extinguish their light. One strategy for this is persecution: using power to silence, smear, discredit, dominate, oppress, imprison, punish, torture, and even kill. People who experience these sufferings may appear to be cursed by God when seen through the eyes of the world, but according to the values of the kingdom they are blessed because they suffer for the truth. While the powerful may make their lives a living hell on earth, Jesus says, “their reward will be great . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Summary and Challenge

These words of Jesus, reminding us of who we are and encouraging us along the way, are important as we navigate change on the journey to transformation. When all the evidence suggests that we are cursed for embracing a cruciform way of life, we need to evaluate our circumstances in light of the value system of the kingdom. This is no easy task, because challenge, discomfort, and pain cause us to lose perspective, especially since the value system of the world seems to be our native language. But if we see ourselves through its distorted lenses, we are easily discouraged and tempted to give-up and turn back.

In order to cultivate the courage, strength, and hope to keep moving forward with Jesus, we must find ways to stay focused on the value system of the kingdom. We do this by developing a daily discipline of prayer and meditation on scripture (especially the teachings of Jesus). We do this by sharing life with the friends of Jesus who are marginalized and oppressed. We do this by declaring the reign of God’s righteous in worship and allowing every aspect of our lives to be an expression of God’s glory. We do this by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love.

Focusing on the value system of the kingdom of God sharpens our ability to see the world and ourselves as God does, which is encouraging when all hell breaks loose. By meditating on the beatitudes we are reminded who we are, given direction for our journey, and empowered by renewed vision and hope.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I’m blinded by the value system of the world and begin to think that I’m cursed, remind me of who I am in Christ and help me see the world in the light of your coming kingdom.

(This post is the fifth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

[1] My understand of the beatitudes is informed by E. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes [NIBC], 178-180.

 

 

 

 

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Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

(This article by Pastor Mark was originally published on “Philosophy Goes to Church” and is reprinted here with permission.)

Introduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

Success: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

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Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.