Who gets it?
Johnny’s mother looked out the window and noticed him ‘playing church’ with their cat. The cat was sitting quietly and he was preaching to it. She smiled and went about her work.
A while later she heard loud meowing and hissing and ran back to the open window to see Johnny baptising the cat in a tub of water.
She called out, ‘Johnny, stop that! The cat’s afraid of water!’
Johnny looked up at her and said, ‘He should have thought about that before he joined my church.’
Welcome S, and as you’ve already found out: the water’s fine!
In an age when fewer people seem to be part of a worshipping community Sunday by Sunday, the churches are tempted to emphasise how fine the water is. The message may be only about positive things: the peace and joy that is found in Christ, the healing of our souls that is possible—and we rightly emphasise those things. But sometimes we do it in a way that distorts the message of Jesus.
Douglas John Hall has said that the message the churches present
is a positiveness that is phony and ridiculous: a bright and happy message that has all the depth of a singing commercial.
We do have a positive message, of course. The peace and hope that our faith gives sustains us through the ups and downs of life.
And we shouldn’t lose confidence. I heard of a synod meeting in which people were bemoaning the state of the church. Someone was saying, ‘What have we got to offer anyway?’
An older minister stood and spoke. ‘What have we got to offer? What have we got to offer? Eternal bloody life, that’s what we’ve got to offer!’
We have a lot to offer, but if we follow Jesus there is one message we can’t offer: Come to Jesus—you’ll always be happy and all your problems will vanish. Jesus never says this; rather, he says some strange things, like
Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are the meek…
And we may feel like the cat that was dunked in the water. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit?’ Where did that come from? we think.
And what’s happening here?
It depends on what ‘blessed’ means. Jesus says ‘Blessed are…’ eight different ways; we call these eight sayings the ‘Beatitudes’. So, what does ‘blessed’ mean?
Our pew bible (NRSV) simply says ‘blessed’, and that’s not a bad translation of the Greek word makarios. If people try to simplify the translation on the grounds that ‘blessed’ is not everyday speech, they often opt for ‘happy’. Happy are the poor in spirit (huh?); happy are those who mourn (huh?); happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (huh?).
Most people would think happy are the financially secure; happy are the healthy; happy are those with an attractive life partner. And why not? What would you do if you were offered a bag with a million dollars in it? Turn it down on account that Jesus said Happy are the poor in spirit, Happy are the meek?
I think I’d take the money. And run.
I’m trying to say this: ‘blessed’ doesn’t mean ‘happy’. Some versions of the Bible do say ‘happy’; it’s a disputed point. But I think it makes far more sense for us to understand that Greek word makarios to mean something more like ‘fortunate’. Or even ‘congratulations’, ‘good for you’ or simply, ‘good on ya!’
Good on ya, those who are poor in spirit! Good on ya, those who mourn! Good on ya, those who hunger and thirst for justice! Congratulation! You’re the fortunate ones! That’s just how it is. You are fortunate because you get it. You get what the kingdom of God is about.
Last week, we heard that Jesus says, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.’ The poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers are those who welcome this kingdom because for them it is good news. That’s why they’re blest.
For some people, it doesn’t feel like good news. Those who trust in wealth or status or power don’t welcome this kingdom that turns everything upside down, and says the last will be first—and the first, last. We who are among the ‘first’ tend to get very cautious at this point. We feel like Johnny’s cat. We get nervous and wish we’d never got into the water in the first place.
So what is Jesus saying? To see that, let’s look very briefly at the second of these Beatitudes:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
There are those in this community and those around who have mourned the loss of treasured possessions and even their homes in the recent flood. Each one of us mourns at times, whether it’s in grief for someone or something we’ve lost, or indeed whether we mourn for the state of the natural environment or just the world.
So, should we mourn all the time? Should we go around with long ‘mournful’ faces so that we can be ‘blessed’? No, it’s neither possible nor desirable.
But when you do mourn, when your eyes are wet with tears: listen for what the Spirit is saying to your spirit at those times. That’s when you might find you ‘get’ what Jesus is on about, that you gain real insights into the message of Jesus.
Some versions of the Christian good news would have you believe you shouldn’t mourn, that it’s wrong for Christians to mourn. So why would Jesus say, ‘Blessed are those who mourn…’? I think Jesus would say don’t shy away from mourning. Don’t fall for the slick message, the ‘bright and happy message that has all the depth of a singing commercial’.
Count yourself ‘blessed’, because when you are mourning the Spirit of Jesus may get through to you. And you may start to ‘get’ what Jesus is on about.
Imagine what the world would be like if we lived by the Beatitudes? It would be a very different place. We certainly may mourn for the state of the world, and for the state of our hearts.
S, it’s too late! You’ve already been baptised, and this is what you have been baptised into! Mum and dad, you have the responsibility of making this known to S. This responsibility belongs to you godparents too.
True blessedness is to ‘get it’—to know that Jesus Christ is with us when the road is so tough we can’t see the way ahead; to know that Jesus is there in every effort for peace, every venture for justice.
‘Blessedness’ is not to be found in success, fame or wealth, good though these things may be. True blessedness is to know that if we mourn, Jesus will comfort us; if we are merciful, we will receive mercy; if we hunger and thirst for justice, we will be filled.
Mum, dad, godparents, and each and every member of this congregation: we can only give to S what we have ourselves. Do we know the true blessedness Jesus is speaking of? If so, we can show him the way.
Perhaps you ignored the way of true blessedness. If you have, let me invite you: come on in with S—the water’s fine!