This is a sermon for the feast of All Saints. The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:1-12.
I must admit, I have a terrible mental image to go with our gospel reading today. In my head, I can see Jesus – a sort of 1970s, anachronistically hippie version drawn from movies that were on TV when I was very little – addressing the crowd in a way that suggests he’s slightly spaced out and that what they see is a guru of transcendental spirituality. Only become poor in spirit, meek, and merciful – this mental image seems to suggest – and you too can know karmic bliss.
I’m sure you know the kind of version of Jesus that I’m talking about.
The trouble is that that image has very little to do with what Jesus was on about when he said these words. So despite their familiarity, we might have to work hard to get past our own assumptions, to let them speak to us on their own terms.
And today I want to try to do that by starting here: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says this twice in this passage; blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Those statements almost bookend his teaching, and so say something important about all of the people he is describing here as “blessed.”
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But what does that mean?
Here are some things that it doesn’t mean:
- It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven when they die. (I mean, they might, but that’s not the point being made here).
- It doesn’t mean they experience heaven as a kind of internal spiritual state. (This is not about personal subjective and emotional experience).
- And it doesn’t mean that they’re morally superior, or holier, than those around them. (Again, they might be, but that’s not the point).
What it means is that they have a radical understanding of the reign of God, and their own relationship to God as ruler over everything that exists. They are conscious citizens of heaven, who acknowledge no authority, no power, no claim on them, more important or more enduring than that of God.
This vision of the reign of God rests on three key truths.
First, the truth that God is creator. When you know that God has the imagination, the creativity and the wisdom to envision all that exists, and the power, the awesome force and intensity of desire to cause matter and energy to exist and interact by sheer will; and when you know that everything that exists, only continues to exist moment-by-moment, only continues to operate according to laws of nature, because God wills it; when you know that your life is sustained from one breath to another only because God allows it; when you really get that, then anything which might try to make a competing claim on you is seen for the pale imitation that it is.
Second, the truth that God is active in the world today. Even though Jesus said this before the resurrection, when most people didn’t know who he was, his disciples were beginning to grasp this. In a world of evil, of darkness, oppression, suffering, and so on, God is not absent, uninvolved or uncaring, but at work. This is the point of the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus’ ministry; this is the point of the incarnation, with God coming to live as one of us. When you know that God hasn’t abandoned us but is at work in your life and in the world around you, then you know that you can participate in what God is up to, and experience God’s rule directly in your own life.
Third, the truth that this current reality will end. There will be a last day; there will be a judgement, there will be an end to evil and a renewal of all that is good. There will be a time when the reign of God will not be obscured or marred by anything which would seek to contradict it. When you really know that, you can walk forward into the future with confidence and hope and joy, knowing that what is coming is going to be so much better than what has been before.
These three truths – that God is creator, that God is active in creation now, and that there will be a time of new and perfect beginning – are the keys which let us understand God’s total and absolute reign, and give ourselves to it.
That’s why the poor in spirit are blessed; they know that despite their own limitations, they belong utterly to, and are able to participate in the work of, a God who holds together everything that is and will be.
That’s why those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed; in their righteousness they know and experience more of God than those who are persecuting them ever will.
And this is the kingdom of heaven which has gripped all the saints through the ages. The martyrs died for it, the missionaries and pastors laboured for it, the apostles and bishops and theologians helped us put words to it, the prophets proclaimed it and the monastics prayed for it; but all of them knew, deep in their very being, that these key truths of the reign of God define our existence more deeply than anything else.
It’s no coincidence that it’s just a bit further along in this sermon that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come.” Not because God isn’t ruling now, but because as we understand the reign of God, we place ourselves within it, and our whole being becomes aligned with the will of God. We become people who labour to see the world be what God would have it be; who find the words to tell those who don’t yet know, who don’t yet understand, how all of creation is held in the hands of a loving God.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who do God’s will. Or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say that those who do God’s will, belong to the kingdom of heaven. It’s really that simple.
We are called to do God’s will because we are part of creation; called into being for relationship with God. We are called to do God’s will because in this world’s suffering, darkness and despair, God is at work, bringing healing, light and hope. We are called to do God’s will because we know that God holds in trust a perfect future, and invites us to be part of that future by our own choice and commitment.
That’s what it means to belong to the kingdom of heaven. That’s what it means to be a saint, in the truest sense of the word. As we celebrate today all the rich variety of saints who have gone before us, let’s not miss the choice that always stands in front of us: to do God’s will. To claim the kingdom of heaven for our own. To place ourselves amongst that great cloud of witnesses to it.
To be truly blessed.