Delivered at Ames UCC on January 27, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Known as the Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes, it is one of the most reproduced portions of scripture but it was not originally intended for us, or for any but a very few.
I mentioned last week that the gospel of Matthew is clearly intended for a Jewish audience. Christianity was not fully independent of Judaism until a few centuries after Jesus’s ministry, murder, and mystery. So this gospel is speaking to fellow Jewish people that Matthew and the Matthean community wanted to bring along to their new understanding of Way. We 21st-century Christians have to keep that in mind throughout our study of this gospel.
But the audience for the Sermon on the Mount, the original oral one, was even smaller.
After his baptism and after his wilderness vision quest, Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. Together, they travel all over Syria and Judea, with Jesus sharing the good news of God’s present kin-dom, and healing the sick. He becomes very popular and draws great crowds.
When Jesus sees the crowds, chapter 5 begins, he retreats to a mountain, alone. He is later joined by the disciples. Not all 12 of them: not even the Matthew for whom this gospel is named is a disciple yet. So what we hear and read today is a written account of a private teaching between Jesus and a handful of specific people that he had drawn to himself. Why?
Why does Jesus keep this to only a few? It is a fantastic sermon.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…
“Blessed are those who mourn…
“Blessed are the meek…
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
“Blessed are the merciful…
“Blessed are the pure in heart…
“Blessed are the peacemakers…
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…
“Blessed are you when people revile you…
That’s revival-level preaching, a real barn-burning, show-stopper. So why did Jesus keep it just to the first few disciples?
Well, secret or semiprivate teachings like this are not so unusual in our tradition. In the gospel of John, for example, after Mary Magdalene has found the empty tomb, it says that
Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. (20.30)
That used to make me nuts. Why didn’t someone write them down? Argh!
It isn’t until recently that I’ve come to appreciate the answer to my question: because maybe not everyone is ready. Because there is a stream of Christianity, perhaps better illustrated outside of the primary, canonical gospels, that stresses preparedness for Christ’s deeper truths.
Let’s take, for instance, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE
In the canonical gospels, we learn that Mary was healed by Jesus of seven demons, a number that indicates she is perfectly healed. She then supported him on his travels. She was at his cross and his burial and then at the empty tomb. She then became the disciple to the disciples, sharing with them the good news of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene is the second most-referenced woman in the gospels after Mary the mother of Jesus.
Mary Magdalene’s gospel was written down in the second century, though it likely circulated from the time of Christ until the early 300s. It is unclear whether the Magdalene’s gospel was then suppressed or simply fell out of popularity and no one taught or copied it any longer. In the era when Mary’s gospel was active, written accounts of Christ were only supplements to the real space of learning: the dialogue between teacher and student. That relationship was paramount, essential because of the intimacy involved and the active participation it required.
In Mary’s gospel follows that model, with the risen Christ appearing to only Mary and the male disciples. When he leaves, the male disciples panic because they are afraid that if they follow Jesus’s teaching, they will get killed like he did. Mary reassures them by sharing a private encounter she alone had with the risen Christ. It begins with the Christ saying
Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. (7.9)
There is a pattern, then, within both the canonical and the extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus Christ passing on teachings to only a few or even one. The implication is that not everyone can stand, unwavering, in their encounter with holiness. Not everyone is read for the lessons that holiness has to teach.
Are we? Are we ready to hear that the poor and the meek and the peacemakers are a blessing?
Remember the definition of blessings that I offered last September: conduits of holiness that can open the receiver of the blessing to the hope and help of God.1 That’s from United Methodist pastor Jan Richardson. Author, philosopher, and former priest John O’Donohue adds that we get the word blessing from an older word that means “to sanctify with blood.” Blessings, the seemingly abstract, he writes, are really as earthy as the blood that pumps through our hearts.2
Taken together, blessings are embodied vessels to God.
What does it mean that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are embodied vessels to God? What does it mean that the persecuted and reviled are embodied vessels to God?
I am not sure how to answer those questions without sounding completely self-serving or self-righteous, in equal measures. Either I am calling someone who is mourning a special gift from God, which makes that person and their suffering an object for my own transformation, or I’m saying my desire for justice makes me a special gift from God, and I think we know the problem and risk there. What seems so simple, so beautiful at first pass proves to be complicated, puzzling at the second.
But Jesus thought the first four disciples were ready to receive it, unwavering. In abandoning their professions to follow Jesus, in their witness of his healings and teachings, Jesus found them ready for what the crowds were not.
And because we are reading it today, they must have disagreed with him. They and those who followed must have decided the Beatitudes were worth sharing even with the unprepared, even with the wavering.
BECOME THE AUDIENCE
I thank God for that decision.
As recent years have shown, we can be pretty poor storytellers on our own. On our own we can tell a pretty bad story about the poor, the meek, the peacemaker. So even if we understand the Sermon on the Mount’s meaning but through a glass dimly, it tells a far more hopeful and redeeming story about our life together than we can on our own.
And so we will keep studying it. We will keep making ourselves the audience.
As the membership anniversaries we just celebrated, and the new membership promises we will give and receive in a few minutes show, we want to follow the examples of Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. We want to seek out the divine, to sit at the feet of holiness, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the growing crowd of this dear church.
Even if we are not ourselves merciful or pure in heart, we want to be.
In a world riven by destructive humanity, our steadfast, unwavering attention to this teaching may allow us to become a blessing, to become embodied vessels for our creative God.
1Richardson, Jan. 2015. Circle of grace. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, pp. xiv–xv.
2O’Donohue, John. 2008. Bless the space between us. New York, NY: Doubleday, p 119.