When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up 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.
After spending a year in our backyard building community, and a season preparing to move out into the neighborhood, it's time to come to grips with what, beyond the 'gate,' we will be doing, 'out there.' In other words, what exactly is our aim as we encounter people and share our story? What is to come from the relationships we build? A few weeks ago we read where Jesus tells Peter, 'follow me and from now on you'll be catching people." We saw Jesus call Matthew/Levi, the tax collector, "follow me." he said, and Matthew went. In fact the entirety of his ministry Jesus called people to discipleship with these same words, and they left everything and followed him. And we've eluded to aspects of discipleship; that following Jesus isn't always easy, or pretty, and more often than not, it comes with our giving up something, denying self, going counter to the way of the world. We've talked about these concepts before.
But what is discipleship, really? What is it about the teachings of Jesus that made Peter and Matthew and the other disciples drop everything and completely change their lives? What is the 'selling point,' if you will, to becoming a Christian and embracing this grand and world-changing truth that God loves you- no matter what?
The scripture I just read to you is the beginning to Jesus's "sermon on the Mount," the Beatitudes, or blessings. Each of the 9 blessings, or ways to happiness, name a way of being that leads to an aspect of wholeness for humanity and for all of creation. If we can live into these blessings, becoming poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and my favorite, persecuted and reviled, our reward is great in heaven. For us as moderns, who have, for the most part, grown up with a concept of heaven that means spending the afterlife in a place of beauty and peace- this makes total sense. We call it, eternal life... living forever...even our definition of salvation tends to include this idea of a place called heaven.
But Jesus was Jewish. The people Jesus called as disciples, were also largely Jewish. And the thing is, first century Jews did not believe in an afterlife like that. They had no concept of "heaven" as we know it. Eternal life, to the first century Jews meant living a life in rich full community with one another... on earth- now. Salvation, meant the way to save humankind; God's plan for saving creation. So what made these ordinary people become disciples of Jesus? Why become a Christian without the thought/reward of "heaven?"
I wonder about us... about modern Christianity. So much of the dogma of the church is based in this concept of the afterlife- in the constructs of heaven and hell- eternal reward or damnation- that fear has become a motivating factor in many of our churches and in our faith. And truly, I am not dispelling or discounting anyone's version of heaven- I'm not trying to deny anyone the thought that someday will will be in a place of eternal glory. What I am saying is that because of our human fixation on our mortality, and our thoughts about what will happen to us after death, and whether, as individuals, we will go to heaven or hell, we often become both self-conscious and self-focused. We can develop a very individualistic theology, based on our individual behavior, and individual eternal gain.
In a system based on eternal reward or punishment, we can find ourselves not only uber-aware of our own behavior, but of the behavior of others; ensuring our reward becomes our life's project, and we spend our time comparing, measuring, working to be as good as, or better than, competing with one another for the eternal prize. Our lives become focused of self-preservation, of self-edification; on some level, always reaching for the brass ring- striving for the best possible outcome after death.
But what if we took the away the project? What if we, like the first disciples, had no concept of heaven and hell? Ask yourself- Would you still be a Christian? And I use the word "you" because this is a question that each of us need to think about. Because this is exactly what the first disciples did. They signed on, signed away their individual lives, possessions, sometimes even families, and followed Jesus- with no thought of eternal reward or damnation. They became part of a world shaking, time altering movement! They recognized their wold was in trouble, and that God had given them the power, the resources, and the energy to fix it- and they wanted to be a part of it. Not for heaven's sake- but because it was God's will and desire for them to be part of the peacemaking activity, or righteousness (set-right-ness) of the world.
So I ask again- What would our Christianity look like without the thought of heaven as we know it?
John Lennon asks us that question in his song/poem, Imagine. The first line, "Imagine there's no heaven." It's a tough line, and even sounds blasphemous to some of us. And I hear you already- "you can't take heaven out of the equation- even Jesus mentioned heaven. He did... it's right in the first line of the beatitudes- blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs in the kingdom of "heaven". What is 'heaven?' then to the first century Jews?
In ancient Judaism, the name "God" was so sacred, it was not to be spoken-period. We've talked before about the Hebrew name for God YHWH- we as moderns filled in vowels, but the ancients wrote it that way for a reason- try to say it. Even today in Hebrew texts you will see the vowel "o" excluded. So the pharisees came up with euphemisms for referring to God- "heaven"was one of them. So when Jesus or other first century Jews said "Kingdom of Heaven- it can just as easily be translated "kingdom of God." " “Heaven” here is simply a synonym for “God”—much as we use “Heaven” today, for instance, when we exclaim, “Thank Heaven!” The terms “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” therefore, are interchangeable."(1)
"What? Pastor, are you saying you don't believe in an afterlife? In heaven?" Not at all!!! I absolutely believe that when we leave this earth we are joined with God in an eternal embrace- that all will be made clear to us, we will have full understanding of our lives on earth, and better understanding of the God who put us here and loves us unconditionally. We will receive the fulness of the grace of God and experience the depth of God's love for us. Heaven.
But what I am trying to help us to do today is search our souls for why we call ourselves Christian. If there were no project, no quest of reward in the afterlife-no competition with one another, no comparisons, no measuring- no brass ring... Would we be disciples? Because what discipleship meant to the early believers was a complete change of life. To live as if all are loved equally as we profess, and that God's unconditional, forgiving, saving, reconciling, healing love is lived out in everything we do... Complete denial of the self, of the ego, of pride, of working for one's own gain and instead working for the gains of Christ; for justice, for mercy, for love.
To be poor in spirit... denial of the self is what it means to be poor in spirit... to allow the spirit of self to be overshadowed, overtaken and ruled by the spirit of God- to make one's own spirit impoverished- desperate for God's Holy Spirit for nourishment and sustenance and direction... blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God...
Denying the self is the first step to discipleship. Understanding that my goals and my happiness, and 'me' are not my own, but belong to Christ. I give up the things the world teaches me are important, or tells me I should want or need- that will save my life, and instead follow the way that leads to the saving of all. This is what the disciples were after- this is the reason they followed. They lived in a corrupt world. They lived in a violent world. They lived in a greedy world and had fears and stress and anxiety and pain. But they saw and heard in Jesus a plan for the saving of that world. Jesus showed them a way- he outlined what they/we had/have to do to make it happen so that God's saving plan can be realized on earth.
"The kingdom of God is here now," says Jesus. This is possible- now. We've seen glimpses in our time through people who have denied self- gone against the grain- people like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa- we call them exceptions- but in reality, all of us have the potential to live as world game changers. To many of us, it may not seem so attractive, a life of self denial and commitment to following the way of Christ- it's not a life of ease, or putting your feet up and flipping channels, or amassing stuff for ourselves... in fact it may even seem scary, a life where the needs of the poor and marginalized and oppressed come before your own- where working for justice and equity could endanger your life or the lives of those you love.
Take a breath. Look around. None of us are alone here. We've spent a year building community and learning to lean on and trust each other... we've held each other and prayed together and grown in Christian love.
We are on a journey together. So let's take one small step. Imagine...
Over the next several weeks we are going to be taking a look at all 9 beatitudes- and how these simple teachings can lead us to a new life in Christ. At the same time we'll be taking a line or two from "imagine" in the hope that we can remember that these things Jesus speaks of, are possible for us as contemporary Christians as much as they were to the earliest disciples.
But for today let's reflect a moment- maybe re-set, a moment. And imagine- What would the world look like if we became true disciples, living into this reality? How would our community change- our relationships change? how would our interactions in the neighborhood change if we allowed ourselves to become poor in spirit?
If, as you reflect and pray, allow space and time for God to speak to your heart. No matter who you are, what you've done, where you've been or tho you've hurt- God loves you and calls you to participate in this world changing, time altering movement- to a life of discipleship and peacemaking.