4th Sunday after the Epiphany
S. Epiphany 4.23 “Following” Matt. 5:1-12
Last week, we recognized Jesus when we were out in the boat on the sea, plying our trade, and he called us to follow him. We recognized him as Yahweh, the LORD God, come in our flesh. Sheep know their Master’s voice, but, more importantly, the Shepherd knows his sheep: “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Really, what could we do but leave our boats and follow him, just because he says so?
Today, we take the first steps with the first few disciples down that road—following Jesus. And our boats—if not burned, are, well; behind us, abandoned, for now. And as that great Lutheran poet, Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. “Dr. Seuss” once wrote: “Oh, the places you will go, the things you will see,” when you follow Someone like this.
He’s taken us from the sea to the mountains, up to the top of a big one (it’s athletic, following Jesus! 😉 And when he sat down, we disciples came to him [and it would seem, so did many of the curious crowd who also recognized him]. And he opened his mouth and taught us. We couldn’t know at the time we were hearing the famous “Sermon on the Mount”. It was our first week following Jesus! And he certainly starts off with a good one! Wish I could write one like that, every week.
We had an argument, during last Wednesday’s book discussion on Anna Karenina. Why anyone argues theology/philosophy with me I’ll never understand. But I like it, like it, yes I do. Maybe they’re also working on achieving humility? Anyway, we’re discussing Levin’s epiphany (Tolstoy’s alter-ego) who’s been searching for the meaning of life and thinks he doesn’t believe in God anymore [but hasn’t found anything else to believe in] when a muzhik, a peasant, is telling him that Platon, a well-off and good muzhik couldn’t rent Levin’s land which an innkeeper was leasing because Platon couldn’t make it pay.
Levin asks, “Well how does Kirillov make it pay?” And Fyodor, the wise old muzhik, answers: “He makes it pay because pushes till he gets his own, takes no pity on anyone, but ‘Uncle Fokanych’ (Platon) “he won’t skin a man. He lends to you, he lets you off. So he comes out short. He’s a man, too.” Levin asks: “Why should Fokanych let anyone off?” And Fyodor says “Well that’s how it is—people are different. One man just lives for his own needs, like Mityukha (Kirillov) even, just stuffs his belly, but Fokanych—he’s an upright old man. He lives for the soul. He remembers God.”
And the Light comes on for Levin. “To live for God and the soul!” Yes! he realizes. This is the way! Not to live for one’s own needs, not always to be calculating what we get out of it if we do this or that, always making sure we follow the rules, keep safe, and make a profit, but instead heedlessly, recklessly living for God and the soul, letting loose, letting go, following him even if he leads us to a cross, death, and into hell itself. We don’t want to be happy. We want to be with him!
And someone retorted: “But Christians follow the rules! And people who follow the rules come out just fine. A man doesn’t cheat on his wife because he doesn’t want to get shot by a jealous husband!” And I said “No! A man doesn’t cheat on his wife because she is the love of his life and he has eyes only for her!!! If he’s only faithful so as not to get shot, he deserves to sleep on the couch forever!”
My interlocutor… argued: “Christians are people who follow the rules, of the road, of marriage, etc.” And Jimmy got a little… upset. I raised my voice and said “No! Christians don’t follow the rules! We follow Jesus, and there is a massive difference there! Rule-following, as Alasdair MacIntyre well shows in “After Virtue” is the vice of modern rationalist pragmatism, only doing what’s good for us, living for the belly! Being courageous, truthful, and just is notoriously incompatible with being rich, famous, or powerful in this world! We follow Jesus just because he says so and he was notorious for breaking many rules of church and state. That’s why they killed him!”
I don’t think I convinced. I’m not sure I was really trying to. But, he did, helpfully, like Erasmus with Luther, put his finger on the vital issue, the hinge on which Xnity turns. As Paul asked the Galatians: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by the hearing of faith?”
The Beatitudes shows us today just how different following Jesus is from following the world’s rules. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s a stunner to start with! He does’t say the poor in spirit will, eventually, become rich in spirit. No! He says that as the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Spiritual poverty is heavenly bounty. A tremendous paradox! And there’s more where that came from!
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Only the sad are really, truly happy. Another paradox! “Blessed are the meek (actually, the Greek is “gentle” as in the old patrician “gentleman” someone who doesn’t think too much of himself, who is unfussy, considerate for others—even if it costs him dearly) for they shall inherit the earth—by giving it all away! Another paradox!
“Jesus! Next you’re going to tell me that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness because they have none of their own, who’ve amassed no street cred by zealous rule following—spiritual bums, beatniks, beggars—they’re full of holiness?” “Uhm, yes. Good guess. You’re getting the hang of this paradox thing!”
The merciful are those who receive mercy. And the pure in heart are blessed (above all!) because they shall see God. Kierkegaard said (after Luther) that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” As Luther says: when our will is to have and be only what God wills—even if what God wills is to damn us to hell, that is the highest form of faith, the purest salvation. If we’d praise God even in hell, we’re in heaven!—because heaven’s praising God for whatever he does, and delighting in that. Purity of heart is to will one thing—whatever God wills, says, does.
This is to remove all sources of conflict with God, never to argue with him about anything—which makes us peacemakers. And blessed, above all, are we [going down the Paradox Road of being resigned even to damnation—if that be God’s will!] if we should be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for not following the world’s rules—worshiping God like Daniel, even when the state forbids it, being reviled as evil-doers on Christ’s account. “Rejoice, and be glad, [miscreants!]” Jesus says, “for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
“But I thought we didn’t care about rewards?” We don’t! The reward comes to those who live for God and the soul, heedless of results or reward. The ultimate paradox!
“So, to get this straight: following Jesus means throwing caution—and all thought of reward, peace, success, health, and safety—to the winds, means diving head-first and laughing into the holy rage calling our name?” Yes! This is the way!
“Hmm. How would I do that? Who has IT in them?” Well… none of us does! None of us can! But Jesus can; Jesus does it all; he has followed this narrow, difficult, dangerous, rule-breaking path into death, grave, and hell, and rose triumphant for us all. He did what we could not. And faith, granted to us now by Word and Sacrament, pulls us along after him, despite ourselves. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.