Love your neighbor! It is the end or purpose of the commandments of God. Without this, all we have, all we do, and all we suffer is of no value to God. Where does this love come from? It springs from love of God. As we have proclaimed, over and over again, we are able to love because God first loved us, and God’s love always comes to us on its way to someone else.
With that great truth affirmed, what allows this love to flow through us? The answer can be found in this phrase, “purity of heart.” “Blessed are those who are pure in heart.” If something is pure then it is uncontaminated and clean. Purity of heart keeps the way clear of barriers and pollutants that block or pervert God’s love. Purity of heart is what allows God’s love to flow freely and abundantly, in us and through us. The cleansing blood of Jesus purifies our hearts from every unholy affection, all turbulent passions, opening the way for the patient and gentle love of God to flow in abundance.
We do the church a great disservice when we focus our thoughts on purity only around abstaining from outward impurities. A big example is where our Lord says, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ and with this quote many blind leaders of the blind only insist on “men” abstaining from the outward act. But Jesus says, “But I say to you, whosoever looks on another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart.” God looks upon the heart and works with us at that level. God wants for us (not just from us) pure hearts, not just surface cleanliness on the outside, like “white-washed tombs.”
This is serious business, so serious that Jesus challenged us with metaphors that are intended to shock us into thinking differently. He said, for example, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. … It is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29). If any person, or thing, or desire, or “pornia,” as dear to you as an eye or a hand, causes you to offend God’s will, separate yourself from that contaminant. Do so, first with fasting and prayer, next, by being careful to abstain, and then, if needed, ask for counsel from one who is charged with watching over the souls of the congregation. This is serious business.
Purity of heart opens our spiritual eyes to see God – to see God’s hand over us for good, guiding us into the depth of both God’s wisdom and mercy. This purity opens our eyes to see God’s blessings in all of God’s ordinances -- worship, in fellowship, as we pour out our souls in secret, as we listen to an ambassador of Christ proclaim the good news of salvation, and as we eat of the bread of life.
In this Sermon on the Mount, we see actions that pollute this purity of heart. Swearing, for example, can be used to confine God to one special job or responsibility or place. There are no special places or times for honesty to God and to one another. God expects this from us at all times and in all places (Matthew 5:34f). This passage, by the way, is not about taking an oath before a judge when required to do so for the public good. There are multiple examples of this in the scriptures. (Matthew 26:63-64; Hebrews 6:17; Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8).
This sermon is all about teaching the religion of the heart. Jesus first shows what Christians are to be and then proceeds to show what we are to do – how inward holiness leads to outward action. So, next we read, “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called children of God.”
Sometimes we use the word “peace” to describe separation. “You stay on your side, I’ll stay on mine, and we’ll have peace.” Here the word implies something much more. The Hebrew word (shalom) implies coming together in harmony. The Greek word (irene) implies active goodwill to all, in all circumstances, in time and in eternity. Blessed peacemakers are those who detest strife and contention, and strive to prevent this “fire of hell from being kindled,” or, when it is kindled, from spreading any farther. “They endeavor to calm the stormy spirits, to quiet turbulent passions, to soften the minds of contending parties, and, if possible, reconcile them to each other. That’s peace-making.
As followers of Jesus, peacemakers cannot confine this love only to family or friends, or party, or to those of like opinion. We are called to “step over all these narrow bounds.” The peacemaker rejoices in doing good, to body and spirit, sowing seeds of the kingdom of God, anywhere and everywhere. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
One might romanticize this blessing and believe that this person, so mild and gentle, so free of selfish design, so devoted to God, that they would be loved by all. Our Lord, however, was better acquainted with human nature in its present state. Thus, his next blessing is upon those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
Throughout the scriptures, we are reminded not to be surprised when we see disdain for those who are born of the Spirit. (Galatians 4:29; II Timothy 3:12; I John 3:13-14; John 15:18). People whose hearts are consumed by power, greed, and the fear that leads them to protect what is known, will engage in overt and more subtle forms of persecution. The more the kingdom of God prevails, the more the peacemakers breed meekness, humility and all the other divine temperaments, the more it enrages those determined on keeping power and maintaining the status quo. The spirit of the world is directly opposite to the Spirit of God. The proud must persecute the lowly to build themselves up. The light-hearted must ridicule those who mourn. The religious legalist must put down the openness, tolerance, and inclusiveness required within peace-making.
As a nation, we have been blessed. God has given us peace. God has caused the pure light of the gospel to shine among us. But what is the response? God looks for righteousness and instead hears a cry – a cry of oppression, a cry of ambition and injustice, of malice and fraud, of covetousness and lust. In this darkness, God will, at times, give us over to our persecutors, as a judgment mixed with mercy, a medicine to heal. Seldom, however, will God let the storm rise to the level of imprisonment, torture, or death. Most often, God’s children only endure a lighter persecution – estrangement from family, or loss of friends or work. They live Jesus’ own words: “I did not come to bring peace on earth, but rather division.” Persecution will come to all of God’s children in some form. It is a badge of discipleship, a seal of our calling. The meek, serious, humble, zealous lovers of God and humanity, who proclaim love for enemies, who welcome strangers, who seek peace with those in other parties, who give mercy to sinners, food to the hungry, and compassion to all who seem lost may be in good report with God and the congregation, but in bad report with the world.
How might we respond to this persecution? The call is to rejoice and be glad. That may be a hard word to hear. By this mark, you know to whom you belong and know that your reward is great. Therefore, let no persecution turn you from humility and love. Remember the words, “you have heard it said an eye for an eye, and to avenge evil for evil, but I say to you, do not resist evil; turn the other check; go the extra mile; do good to those who hate you; return good for evil; pray for those who persecute you.” Whether they repent or not, you have proved yourself a child of God by kindness and mercy. You know what it is like to stand in the light of God.
Considering all the beatitudes from the last three weeks, behold the religion of Jesus Christ in its purest form. See this vision of God, as far as we are able as human beings. This is the spirit of true religion, the essence of it. Oh, that we may all be doers of this word and not hearers only. Oh, that we all may give witness to the ways of God, which are definitely not our ways. Let this good word get into your soul so that you might go through life with a vision of what God wants for all creation. Amen.