Monday 10 December 2018

Like Jesus

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Just because you are accepted by God doesn’t mean you will be acceptable to the world.

Just because you do things in line with God’s will doesn’t mean the powers of the world will treat you well.

Just because you are becoming like Jesus that doesn’t mean religious and secular authorities will deal with you any differently to the way they treated Jesus … and Stephen, and Paul, and many, many more followers since.

So why is it that here in Caversham (maybe where you live too?) the authorities just leave us to get on our churchgoing? What is it about our expression of faith that the authorities see as safe and unthreatening to their status and power?

This final beatitude both circles back to the first and looks forward to the next section of Jesus’ teaching in his 'sermon on the mount'.

It circles back by showing that as Jesus’ followers are persecuted, excluded and marginalised by religious authorities, so they are among the ‘poor in spirit’ whose place in God’s kingdom is already given. The world attempts to destroy our hope but Jesus guarantees it.

Those who are persecuted for seeking God’s justice align themselves with the poor and so share in their oppression, but they also share in their reward.

At the time Matthew wrote this Jesus’ followers had suffered a generation or more of persecution from religious leaders of the day and their inappropriately zealous followers. The idea that those who they considered unworthy – “Gentiles and sinners” - might be acceptable to God was just too much for them to accept.

Today, if we want to live like Jesus then we need to be open-eyed and pure-hearted about whose side he was on: the victim and never the bully, the outsider and never the excluder, the poor and never the oppressor.

This beatitude also looks forward in defiance: the world may persecute you for being like Jesus but you remain salt and light, so live as such and don’t pretend or disguise your Christ-likeness. Live in Grace but excel in Godliness, so that all may see Jesus in your faith and in your persecution.

Finally, we are called to love those who persecute us – who but a madman or a Christian would do such a thing?

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Peace Positive Peace

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

It's a hundred years since an armistice marked the end of fighting in the First World War, and the beginning of the peace negotiations in Paris which led up to the Treaty of Versailles. The British staff officer Archibald Wavell said despondently of that Paris Peace Conference, "After the 'war to end war', they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making the 'Peace to end Peace'." Sadly, he was right. There is more to peace than a pause in fighting.

Peacemaking is where the Beatitudes all come together. ‘Peace’ in the Bible is a very positive concept: not so much about absence of conflict, much more about positive peace, security and, especially, restoration of relationships. Relationships with God, relationships with one another, even restoration of our relationship with the natural world: restoration of our given role as responsible stewards of creation. Peace is about balancing justice and mercy so that they become two sides of the same coin. And peace is about seeing God’s will in the situations around us and being transparent enough to allow Jesus to work through us to carry out that will.

But how can someone ‘make’ peace if they have not first received peace? This beatitude follows on from the previous one because it is through seeing God and spending time with him that one receives his peace. As Paul puts it:
The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extends his ideas of peacemaking in ways which highlight just how and why that Paris Peace Conference failed so badly:
You know that you have been taught, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. ... You have heard people say, “Love your neighbours and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong. If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends. If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that? But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Given God’s peace and security within us, Jesus’ words about loving enemies and praying for those who persecute us become less abnormal and more like a natural response to what we have received and want to share. It is as we treat all alike, with love, that we develop our relationship with them, as well as with God. It is also how we gain people’s trust, which is an essential prerequisite to building peace with and between them.

Jesus’ call, at the end of the quote above, to be perfect, just like God, sounds like an impossible demand. Looked at another way though - remembering the previous beatitude's emphasis on seeing things with purity of heart - it is an amazing promise! In part it is a promise for after the resurrection, when we are to be renewed in a renewed heaven and earth; but it is also a promise for here and now. Not that we ourselves are now perfect, but that Jesus, who is perfect, can work in and through us, here and now.

This parish, following on from the Oxford Diocese, has a vision statement about 'becoming Christ-like'. But this beatitude is where that vision – if taken simplistically – rather breaks down. It is not enough that we be like Jesus – we need to bring Jesus himself to the people and situations around us daily. In purity of heart we not only see God but also let his love shine through. We are not just called to be Christ-like; we are called to be Christ’s body - his heart and hands, feet and voice in Caversham and beyond, today and in the days and weeks to come.