Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon: "We Are the Church"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up to the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 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."
We Are the Church
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 3, 2002
When I was a youth minister I walked into Sunday school one morning to teach. I was the teacher of the Senior High class. When I walked into the class I kind of knew I was in trouble. Most of the teenagers obviously had a big Saturday night. Several of them were trying to fall asleep, a few were staring vacantly through the walls, and several others were busy gossiping about Saturday night's activities. I could tell they were not interested in Sunday school that day. Undaunted I started to get things ready to teach.
One young lady looked at me and said, "I have a question. Why are there so many Gospel stories? They don't agree with each other all the time. How do we know which one is real?" In response, I took my wallet out of my back pocket. Quickly I threw the wallet toward the big window behind the couch. There were three teenagers sitting on the couch. I didn't quite throw the wallet high enough to clear them. The wallet was headed right at the nose of one of the young men. He quickly threw his hand up in front of his face. The wallet hit his hand, went by his head, hit the window, and fell on the floor behind the couch. When the wallet hit Patrick's hand everyone was suddenly wide-awake. I quickly pointed to four different youth at various points in the room and asked them the same question. "What did you see? What did you see? What did you see?" Wouldn't you know I received four completely different answers? The following discussion about the event was one of the best Sunday school lessons we ever had.
The young lady's question was the catalyst for the whole morning. However, I believe she was actually asking a deeper question. "How can something written so long ago be relevant for me today?" As a youth minister and priest I have been asked this question numerous times in a variety of ways. I believe today's Gospel lesson is one of the most relevant pieces for everyone sitting in here right now. Matthew's version of the Beatitudes is directed right at the church. To help us see how relevant this lesson is for us we are going to look at three questions:
To whom was Matthew writing the Gospel?
What was Matthew trying to teach this community in the Gospel?
How does the Gospel relate to us?
To our best knowledge the Gospel of Matthew was written in the city of Antioch in Syria. Antioch was one of the great cities of the time. By the time this Gospel was written, which was after the year 70, Antioch had over 500,000 inhabitants. The city was a cultural center. The influence of Greek, Middle Eastern and Eastern art and cultures was evident. Greek was the predominant language, spoken and written in the city. While the city was known for being beautiful and great, the city was also known for its debauchery. Every form of immoral behavior could be found prevalently both inside and outside the walls of the city. Yet, after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, Antioch became the center for Christianity. The Christian community grew strong and it is here that the word Christian was coined for the followers of Christ. The early Christians arrived at Antioch and began to tell the story of Christ among the Gentiles in the city. Many of the Greek community heard the Gospel and believed. These people are the ones for whom the Gospel of Matthew is written.
They are mainly Gentiles and Jewish Christians. Their main language is Greek. They are urban people. Many of them are financially independent. They are not the poor people of Galilee or Nazareth. In fact, Mathew's Gospel is the only Gospel to call their community the church. That's right. The first time the word church is used to describe the Christian community is in the Gospel of Matthew in the city of Antioch.
This urban community of financially independent Jews and Gentiles is the audience for Matthew's beatitudes. Matthew adds a few words to some of the beatitudes. For example, Matthew's version says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" and not just "Blessed are the poor." The words, "Blessed are the hungry" in Matthew are "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." Matthew's community is not poor. Mathew's community is not hungry and starving in a physical sense. Matthew slightly changes the wording for another purpose. Matthew's purpose is not to lay down practical advice for daily living. Matthew is describing the elements of the Body of Christ, the church. The nine beatitudes in Matthew are the "notae ecclesia", the "marks of the church."
These beatitudes are not directed to the people as individuals. No one person can be all of the nine beatitudes. However, the Body of Christ, the Church has members that fill all nine beatitudes as the community of Christ. In the church there are members who are meek. There are ministers of mercy. There are workers for peace. The blessings are meant for the entire community of God. Matthew is telling all the members of the community they are blessed by God. They are blessed now and they will be blessed when the kingdom is fulfilled at the end of time.
How does this Gospel lesson relate to us? Granted we are not in Antioch. We don't use Greek as our common language. However, we are well educated. We are cultured. We are suburban. We are financially independent as opposed to poor. We are well fed. In short, we have a great deal in common with the Christians in Antioch. First and foremost, like Antioch of old, we are the church. The blessings of the beatitudes are ours today. We are the community whose members exhibit meekness. We have members who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We have people who are poor in spirit. We also have members who are ministers of mercy and workers for peace. One day we will see the fulfillment of these blessings when the kingdom of God is fulfilled. This Gospel is as pertinent today for the church as it was when it was written almost two thousand years ago.
There is one final point for us to consider. These blessings are indeed ours today. We will see them fulfilled. With these blessings there is an ethical dimension. The community that is blessed by its Lord is not passive. The community that receives these blessings is active. We respond in accord with the coming of the kingdom. We don't just sit on our laurels and say, "Look at us, we are blessed." We go out into the community and let people know God blesses them, too. We go to the poor. We go to the hungry. We go to those who mourn. We help bring peace where there is trouble. We practice in all aspects of our lives mercy. We forgive those who hurt us. We ask for forgiveness from those we hurt. The Christian community, the church, is known more by its actions than by its words. Someone once took the words of the Great Commission and changed them just a little. He said, "Go and make disciples of all nations, and if necessary use words."
The young lady at the youth group wanted to know how the Gospels were relevant today. We are the church. We are blessed by God. We have the opportunity to share those blessings. Today, we are invited to go out of this church and invite others in. We go not to increase our membership. We go not because we want to increase our finances. We go because God has blessed us. We go because God asks us to share what we know. We go because God calls us to love. Being blessed requires action. I pray we might all go and act for God.