Today is the first Sunday of February, the first Sunday of Black History Month. So, let me begin with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The quote comes from a sermon Dr. King preached on June 11, 1967 at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. King said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” (The entire sermon can be read in the book, A Knock at Midnight.) I find Dr. King’s words hauntingly applicable to the church today. We have been lulled to sleep. We emphasize the wrong things and fight the wrong battles. We have individualized our faith to the point we don’t reach out beyond our church walls.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to lunch at American Baptist College, affectionately referred to as ABC. ABC is registered and recognized as an HBCU, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” In a lot of ways, the Civil Rights Movement started at ABC. The lunch was to inform us of a new emphasis on their mission. That new emphasis is “Empowering Churches to Heal Communities;” I quote, “empowering congregations in the black Christian prophetic tradition to respond to the rapidly changing church landscape.” It was a small gathering of about twenty invited guests. To my surprise, they highlighted our church as an example of what they meant by a church that is healing its community! After the lunch, I told the person who put the event together, “We need the black church to once again be the black church and lead us in what it means to be prophetic, speaking truth to power. If you lead, I will follow.”
More than anything today, I believe, what we need is a call to action, and we see that call to action in the part of the Sermon on the Mount we call, “The Beatitudes.” In fact, a key component to all Jesus’ teachings was a call to action.
Jesus said to His disciples, “Come, follow me…and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19, just one example).
He has called all of us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).
After healing a man with leprosy, Jesus told him to “go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8:4).
To the paralytic, Jesus said, “Get up, take your mat and go home” (Matthew 9:6).
He said to the rich young man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
Finally, after His resurrection and before His ascension, Jesus told us, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
In the practice of our faith, there is a place for solitude, worship, prayer, bible study, and contemplation, but ultimately, our faith is not to be kept quiet and kept to ourselves, our faith is to be lived out in the real world. Following Jesus is a call to action!
Transition to Text
What if Jesus really meant what He said?
That’s the question before us as we go through this mountain of a sermon Jesus spoke to a crowd of misfits, followers, and the curious, from the side of a mountain. This sermon takes up chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel. The first part of Jesus’ sermon consists of nine “blessed” statements that we call The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Jesus did not call them that, but that is what we have named them. For simplicity, we have arranged the nine statements into three categories. The overarching theme of all nine is justice in God’s kingdom. You see this emphasis in Matthew 4:23, where the bible clearly states Jesus’ teachings focused on the “good news of the kingdom.” Remember, justice is what God’s holiness looks like in public. Also, remember that each statement builds on the other. No statement stands entirely on its own. The first category, the first three “blessed” statements are “blessed are those who have experienced injustice—’poor…mourn…meek’” (vv. 3-5). The second category, the next three “blessed” statements (the ones we will look at today) are “blessed are those who fight for justice—‘righteousness…merciful…pure in heart’” (vv. 6-8). The third category, the last three “blessed” statements are “blessed are those who do not become bitter and vengeful living in an unjust society—‘peacemakers…persecuted…falsely’ accused” (vv. 9-12).
Fighting for Justice
Imagine the scene. A large crowd of marginalized people—the sick, the paralyzed, the oppressed, the formerly incarcerated, the poor, etc.—along with Jesus’ disciples, and the curious, are gathered around Jesus as He sits down (like Moses) and begins to teach. Jesus looks across this crowd with love and compassion. To these people who have been beaten up and kept down by society, Jesus says they are “blessed” because they are “poor in spirit” (v. 3). Then He says we are “blessed” when we see the situation people are in and the injustices they have faced, either because of personal choices or oppressive systems, if it breaks our heart and causes us to “mourn” (v. 4). If, and when, you find yourself in a situation where you are powerless to change it, in other words, “meek,” but you still trust in the sovereignty of God, you are “blessed” (v. 5).
But if you can do something about it, DO IT! If you can take action to change your life, or the lives of people, or the broken systems of society, DO IT! If you can stand up for those who can’t stand, and if you can speak out for those who can’t speak, DO IT! TAKE ACTION! FIGHT FOR JUSTICE!
Jesus continues, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Here is where we get ourselves in trouble when we only interpret and apply this statement to us personally, without putting it into the social context into which Jesus was speaking. Yes, without a doubt there are personal applications, but Jesus’ primary point (in context) is public application. Usually, when we apply “thirst for righteousness” we do so only in terms of personal holiness. If I strive to live a righteous life, if I strive to be good and holy by living a life separated from the world, then I will be blessed and filled. If we are not careful it becomes all about me and my personal relationship with Christ. While that may be good and true, it’s simply not enough and incomplete. One way to understand what Jesus meant by “righteousness” is by the words of Jesus, Himself, when He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Longing for “righteousness” is striving to know God’s will and seeking the welfare of others.
In both the Old and the New Testaments, the word “righteousness” is closely akin to the word “justice.” They are basically synonyms. You could use them interchangeably and not alter the meaning of the passages they are found in scripture. These two words (righteousness and justice) occur over 500 times in the Old Testament and 200 times in the New Testament. The idea is the type of righteousness, the type of justice, that restores the community to the way God envisioned it. Dr. King’s idea of the “beloved community.” The idea behind righteousness, or justice, is doing right by God, through our actions and our relationships. The prophet Isaiah used these words repeatedly to indicate the delivery of a justice that rescues the oppressed.
Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people who are (or have been) oppressed. They are suffering and in pain and being mistreated. He says seeing such things should break our hearts, and if we “hunger” and “thirst” for things to change; if we know there is a better way of living, a kingdom way of living, then with all that is within us, we should crave for righteousness; not just for ourselves but for society, as a whole. If we live this way—a deep desire for a world where there is no suffering and oppression—we will be “blessed” and we will be satisfied, nourished, and cared for by God Himself. In the words of Jesus, if we crave for a world of righteousness and justice we will be “filled.”
Do you want to live a life of meaning and purpose? Fight for “righteousness” and long for “justice.” Do you want your life to be different from what you are presently experiencing? Live like a citizen of the kingdom in the here and now. Do you want to live life to the fullest, with no regrets? First pray, like Jesus did, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Then, TAKE ACTION! Do something!
Jesus continues, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). In a couple of weeks Tennessee will execute another person, whose crimes are horrible. In this case, there is no doubt of this person’s guilt. He deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. But as followers of Jesus, we are commanded to live by a different ethic, a different way of doing things—both personally AND socially; both in private AND in public. Instead of extending punishment, we are called to show mercy. Why? Because each and every one of us deserves death. For “all have sinned”and the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23). If we want to be shown mercy, we have to show mercy! So, in a couple of weeks, we will gather and march for mercy (#march4mercy), asking Gov. Lee to show mercy by praying with those condemned to die. Matthew 5:7 is the verse behind the march, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” What if Jesus really meant what He said?
Another aspect of what it means to show mercy, and one that keeps with the context of what Jesus has been saying, is being generous in deeds of deliverance, reaching out to others with compassion, relieving their needs. Jesus fleshes out what mercy looks like in His parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. When you feed someone who is hungry, and clothe someone who is naked, and quench the thirst of the thirsty, you are showing mercy. When you welcome the immigrant and comfort the sick and visit the prisoner, you are showing mercy. As a result, you are “blessed”and will be “shown mercy.” TAKE ACTION! Do something! Instead of condemning someone, show mercy and shower them with kindness. You say, “Yea, but you don’t understand, they don’t deserve it.” Well, that’s the point.
Jesus then says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). This sixth “blessed”statement cuts to the motive of why you do what you do. If you stand up and speak out to be recognized by others, you will not be “blessed.” In fact, if your motives for following Jesus’ teachings is to be “blessed,” you will not be “blessed.” Jesus will return to this theme later in His sermon when He says, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret…But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen…But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:3, 6, 17-18). The way we say it at FCC is, “The way we love a God we cannot see is by loving those we can see. The way we serve a God we cannot see is by serving those we can see.” So, TAKE ACTION! DO SOMETHING! And do it for God and God alone, not to be noticed or recognized. When you do so, I promise, you will be “blessed,” and you will most definitely “see God” in the eyes of those you are fighting for and showing mercy to.
As I keep reading and reflecting on this mountain of a sermon, I keep returning to that question, What if Jesus really meant what He said?
What if He really meant it when He said I should crave for a righteous and just society so much that I am willing to get pushed out of my comfort zone and get involved in the lives of those who have been marginalized, oppressed, and forgotten by society? How would my life be different if I really believed Jesus meant what He said?
What if He really meant it when He said instead of wanting revenge, I should show mercy to the most wicked, unloving, evil, person I know because God has shown me mercy? How would my life be different if I really believed Jesus meant what He said?
What if He really meant it when He said if I want to see God, I have to look in the eyes of the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the drug addict? What if He really meant it when He said the way to encounter God is by serving others without ever expecting anything in return? How would my life be different if I really believed Jesus meant what He said?
One difference it would make is that I would get involved, I would be active in doing what Jesus did. I would look for ways to serve others, to stand up for righteousness, to show mercy, and to live unselfishly.
I’ve got news for you. Jesus really did mean what He said. Following Him is a call to action. It is time we all answered that call.