Friday, January 27, 2017

January 29, Epiphany 4, Righteousness #4: The Power of God

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Righteousness. In our first lesson, it’s only implicit. It’s described, I think, by the prophet Micah, in that great summation of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God.

In our second lesson righteousness is explicit. St. Paul says that Christ became for us the power of God, the wisdom of God, the sanctification, redemption, and the righteousness of God. The terminology is opaque, despite the apostle’s passion in writing it.

But we can say this: if you want to know what the righteousness of God in the world looks like, then you have to observe Jesus, his actions and his character and personality. Whatever he did, and said–from now on that is the righteousness of God in the world. And for us to be righteous, we do like him. He did justice, he loved kindness, and he walked humbly with his God.

Notice: we are to be like Jesus, but we are not to be like God. To be like God was the first temptation, in the Garden of Eden. Not that it’s so wrong to be like God, if God is good and if God is love. But we’re not up to it, to try to be like God is distracting and misleading. We can’t handle it. Look at any person who is given great power in the world. Who are the most powerful people in the world today? Trump, and Putin, and Xi Jinping? Concentrating power, executive orders, officials obey them, officers enforce them, and peoples’ lives are changed by the stroke of one man’s pen.

Last week I saw this posted on Facebook: “As a Christian, my calling is clear. I don’t get to play God, I get to imitate Jesus.” It’s only a slogan, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it.

In our gospel lesson righteousness is mentioned twice, in promises. The first promise is this: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” Nice. The hunger and thirst is the desire that we talked about last week. If you deeply desire righteousness, you will receive it. That’s comforting.

But the second promise is ominous: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Uh oh. Persecution. Not just resistance, but hurtful opposition. There will be opposition to your righteousness, and that opposition will punish you.

Well, what did we expect? Righteousness is not just nicely doing what is right when rightness is rewarded. Righteousness is doing right when corruption is in control, when wrong is ruling and greed governs and fear keeps you in line. Or tiredness, exhaustion, or just frustration.

The second promise gets expanded: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil 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.” Not that you take perverse pleasure in being a victim, but rather that your obligation to righteousness in bad situations is an obligation that is a privilege, and has its own rewards. So I’m told.

Now the Lord Jesus saying your reward is in heaven is easily misunderstood as meaning your final escape to heaven. But in Matthew “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the kingdom of heaven is “coming on earth as it is heaven.” Heaven is the capital of this kingdom and the seat of its authority, but the territory of this kingdom is all the earth, and all that is in the earth.

To receive the reward of the kingdom is to inherit the earth, not to escape to heaven. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The goal and purpose of God’s righteousness is not bliss in heaven but peace on earth. And to see that, is your reward. To sense it, trust it, believe it, even amidst opposition, to assume it, and to live already within it is your reward.

These two promises about righteousness are part what we call the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes open up the so-called Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is three whole chapters, the collection and summation of all that Jesus had been teaching in their villages and synagogues. The Lord Jesus was announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, with him, so now the people deserve to know what are its laws and policies and benefits. What’s expected of us? Who will be favored in it? Our Lord now tells them.

The Beatitudes are a cohesive poem, in which the lines all interplay. Each line is in two parts, the first part, Blessed are the x, and the second part, for they will have y. The y-parts describe the policies and benefits of the kingdom, and the x-parts describe the beneficiaries, the poor in spirit, who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who make peace, who are persecuted for righteousness.

The phrase for righteousness gets doubled, so this kingdom values righteousness. Righteousness ends line four and it ends line eight. The first four lines get their mirror image in the second four lines. The poor in spirit get served by the merciful, and those who mourn get served by the pure in heart, and the meek require the intervention of the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will find themselves persecuted. Because this kingdom is not separate from the world, but always in the world and in tension with the world.

The poor in spirit and the mourners and the meek are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that is, who suffer, and the merciful and pure in heart and peacemakers are those who bring the righteousness, who open themselves to the suffering and engage it, who get land for the meek, which means somehow taking it from the powerful, one reason why they meet resistance, and get opposed, and do their works of mercy and purity and peace at risk to themselves and their safety. Like Dr. King. Like Harriet Tubman. Like Our Lord.

Now I can’t afford to do this if I’m competing hard, or out for number one. But the kingdom is set up to honor you if you live this way, who want to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

Please understand that it’s not our being the x-types that win for us the y-benefits. It’s not that your being poor in spirit will earn you the kingdom of heaven, or that being meek makes you more worthy of your property. Our Lord is not saying to be merciful in order to get mercy back. It isn’t cause and effect, he’s not saying what goes around comes around.

No, the benefits of the kingdom are the free gift of God, it’s what God does, God is the king who makes the kingdom come, and it’s for us to receive it. The advantage of the poor and the meek is that you have less of worldly value in the way to keep you from receiving it, and that advantage is everything. When you are these people who are poor in spirit and such, you are right square in the path of what God is doing in the world and are open and ready to see God in the world.

The world regards this whole approach as unrealistic. St. Paul describes this whole approach as the foolishness of God, but also the wisdom of God, and the power of God. It is God that is doing it, and whether God does it does not depend on us. So let me apply this here to what we look for in the power of God.

We appeal to the power of God when we want God to intervene. We pray in one of our collects, "Stir up your power, O Lord, and with your great might come to save us." Not so much that we want God to get involved in our wars to smite our enemies and bring us victory, but we do ask God to deliver us, liberate us, and most often, heal us, intervene in our illnesses. And critics of religion do raise the issue of why God does not use power against injustice and tyranny. Where was God in the holocaust, for example. Or in Rwanda. Or where is God in Syria.

Today we are told that the power of God is the message of the cross. In other words the power of God in the world is focused in Jesus Christ in his life and death, that is, in his life of witness and healing and in his faithfulness even when resisted and opposed by death. That kind of power then finds expression in the benefits in the Beatitudes, such as comfort, and land for the meek, and giving mercy, and people discovering they are children of God. That’s where God puts God’s power in the world. And it’s free for you to receive it.

Last week I said you don’t have to achieve it, you simply receive it. Then one of you commented that this suggests passivity. It seems too effortless. Doesn’t it require some effort on our part? Where do our efforts find a place and have a value?

Let me say that to not have to achieve it but receive it, does not cancel our efforts but changes them. It means that our righteousness doesn’t take the usual form of upstanding moral rectitude, but the form of those interventionist works of mission in the second half the Beatitudes, that you work on mercy, that you work on purity of heart, and that you work on making peace.

Interventionist mercy, working mercy, for example, in the prisons and shelters of New York. Or in the public schools. The purity of heart might mean, for example, doing the hard work of examining with others our prejudices and our privilege, but also devoting yourself to prayer, learning how to pray. And making peace, for example, might also mean working in the public schools, or joining up with the new hate-free zone in nearby Kensington, bringing welcome and reconciliation to Muslims and immigrants who are afraid right now. I’m just suggesting things. The effort really begins when you will be resisted and opposed.

I am challenging myself. I’m afraid of opposition. And worse, I’m supposed to love my enemies who oppose us. So let me add that when the Lord Jesus says “blessed are you,” the “you” is not in the singular but in the plural. Not you alone but you plural.

We do this together, not on your own. We do this together as a community of Jesus, not as individual saints but a communion of saints. You can’t do this unless someone is loving you, unless a group is loving you. And the community of Jesus is expressing the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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