January 29, 2017: 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12–13 / from Psalm 146 / 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 / Matthew 5:1–12a
What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)
We live in a culture that prioritizes personal pleasure and convenience. If we pay attention to what the commercial world tries to sell us we will hear a seductive invitation to pursue bigger, better, nicer, sexier…. We are told to go after what makes us look good, whatever makes us happy, how to be the envy of others. There is a constant message that security comes from owning and controlling. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honor are the ultimate goals.
Jesus says the opposite as he begins The Sermon the Mount with what is commonly called the Beatitudes. He says God’s blessing rests on things that are polar opposites of what the world-spirit urges us to seek. Jesus uses words like poor, mourn, meek, insult, and persecute as a context for a right relationship with God. As Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, he commends them for being foolish, weak, lowly, and despised in the eyes of the world.
The world is full of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’….. That’s not the way God intended it to be. Every human being, man, woman, child, and even unborn child, bears the image and likeness of God, [no one has] more nor less dignity because some other people have heard of them, look up to them, or think they’re special. But [most] people feel that it’s better to be ‘somebody’ [in some way that makes them “better” than others. (N. T. Wright)
A right understanding of what God has said and done through his Son calls us to dare to believe that we do not need to live under the burden of what consumes our world, either frantically seeking the so-called good or living in fear of the bad. Christian Faith turns the world’s common values upside down. As Christians, you and I are asked to believe that there is another world far more important than this one….. and then let that belief––that faith––affect the way we think and speak and act.
For the next several Sundays, the Epistle and Gospel readings are going to be taken mostly from this section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and from Matthew’s presentation of The Sermon on the Mount. Again and again St Paul is going to contrast so-called human wisdom with God’s wisdom. The whole concept of wise and foolish is turned inside out. Paul insists that our glory as Christians is the cross of Jesus Christ.
Today’s Christians are mostly inoculated to the image of the cross. A cross is often a gold ornament on a nice chain that we wear. We even make a crucifix a work of art (and there is justification for that in the right context). Yet in those early years of the Church the cross was a scandal. It was nothing but an instrument of the most cruel and shameful death of its day. Imagine wearing a hangman's noose around your neck for ornamentation, or having an oil painting of an electric chair on your living room wall; that gives a bit of context for what people felt when Paul exalted “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
We hear these Gospel readings and we know, on some cerebral level, that it is Jesus giving divine teaching. But if we truly hear Jesus we can hardly believe he is serious: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad….. What?! Jesus, you have to be kidding…. you’re using hyperbole, right? You are all about love and mercy, right? You want us to be happy (don’t you?)…. What is this about insult and persecution when we don’t deserve it? ….But let’s finish that one verse: Rejoice and be glad…. for your reward will be great in heaven.
As we hear the readings over the next weeks, please try to remember this foundational truth (it’s the only way that Christian Faith makes any sense): Jesus came to bring––and teach and show––a whole new world: the Kingdom of God. Although we now can only see it by faith, we believe that Jesus and his kingdom is the lasting reality. What the world calls "the good life”–– the world’s veneer of nice things and beautiful people is going to dissolve. Jesus invites us to be free of the rat race and the fear of threats.
Think about it: no matter how wealthy or otherwise secure we are in this life, every one of us is going to die. Most people want to run from that reality. So much around us functions as a decoy to keep our minds and emotions occupied with something––anything––that seems to be important enough to keep us going and distracted. None of it is going to last.
Now it’s not that bad things do not matter, that we shouldn’t be concerned about them. It’s not that we should not desire good things. It’s just that even good things can be bad if they keep us distracted from what is most important, and no bad thing on earth is the worst thing that could happen. Jesus warned us to be more afraid of what can kill the soul than what can kill the body.
So we have Scripture readings like these to call us to a deep reality. The only way to live with any security in this world is to trust God. In love, God lets hard things come to teach us––to draw us––to run to him. God’s own Son, our Lord Jesus, suffered to the point of death so (among other reasons) we could see, in the context of our own fears and sufferings, that God is bigger than evil and death.
We will each leave here today and go out into a world that has all kinds of delightful distractions. Let’s not let them be too important in our lives. We will leave here today and perhaps have to face something awful (and if it doesn’t happen this week, something awful eventually comes to all of us); let’s dare to believe that God’s love in Christ Jesus is bigger than pain and death––even bigger than evil and hell.
Hear again part of our readings today: ….you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. God forgives us and heals us and delivers us from our false attachments through his Son. So hear again the words of our Lord himself: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. This is our faith.