Summer School

Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount- Discourse I - A Devotional Paraphrase

Sermon 21 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley
By: Michael Roberts

Matthew 5:1-4

After preaching the gospel of the Kingdom through Galilee and healing many who were sick, it is natural that crowds would come. Seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up to the mountain, and began to teach. Let us take note of who is teaching. It is the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator of all, whose kingdom is everlasting. It is the eternal Wisdom of God, the one whose mercy is over all his works. It is the God of love who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

And what is he teaching? He is illuminating the way to heaven, the way to everlasting life. Next, we can observe to whom he is teaching – not to the Apostles alone, but to the multitudes, even to you and me. As hard as some of these teachings are, they are not just for the select few, and not just for super-disciples. They point to the way of life for all.

Finally, in terms of preliminaries, we can observe how Jesus teaches. He gives a general view of the whole, a foundational view of the values of heaven. There is nothing else like it in the scriptures, except maybe the Ten Commandments. With amazing love, Jesus pronounces God’s blessing upon the poor in Spirit, the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, those who hunger for righteousness. He reveals the deep longing of our souls. As the Lord of creation itself, he lays the foundation of true religion, in three big parts -- first through eight beatitudes, as they are called, secondly through a display of right intentions behind our outward actions, and thirdly, with cautions against the hindrances of faith.

First, Jesus lays out the sum of all true religion in eight key sayings. Some commentators believe that these sayings illuminate stages of the Christian journey. Others argue that these sayings are for all in all times. I ask, “Do we have to choose?” These temperaments are needed for faithfulness, in all times. And yet, there is also a reason why “poverty of spirit” is listed first, and then proceeds in some degree to active peacemaking and the possibility of persecution.

Each saying starts with the word “blessed”. Another translation of the word would be “happy,” although it is clear that Jesus is not talking about temporal happiness. Such happiness depends on outward circumstances. When things are going well we can be happy. When we are in pain, happiness is not possible. But Jesus uses this common word to point to a more “substantial happiness,” “a disposition of heart” that is possible for us in all circumstances, “either in this world, or that which is to come.” He speaks of spiritual happiness, perhaps related to “joy” or “rejoicing,” a gift of the spirit not dependent upon circumstances. This common word also shocks us to the realization that when we know God, and live in a life-giving relationship with God, we seek and find happiness in different things than those things that the world proclaims will bring happiness.

The foundation of this blessedness or happiness is poverty of spirit. It is easy to imagine that Jesus looked upon the crowd that day and noticed that most were far from rich, and he used this shared condition to make a transition from our temporal condition to the spiritual. Some have argued that the “poor in spirit” are “those who love poverty; those who are free from covetousness, from the love of money.” This perspective is supported by St. Paul’s observation that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Hence, many have thought it necessary to totally divest themselves and take vows of poverty. While this perspective is worthy of our pondering, I do not believe that Jesus intends us to focus on one particular vice. While love of money may be at the root of evil it is among “a thousand other roots of evil in the world.” Here, Jesus is focusing on something much bigger. His words are intended to “lay a general foundation upon which the whole fabric of Christianity may be built.”

The “poor in spirit” are the humble, those who know that they do not have the spiritual resources within themselves to make life meaningful or to make a connection to eternity. We are all poor in this regard. We are blessed when we are given “that first repentance, which is previous to faith in Christ,” that spiritual recognition that, apart from God’s grace, we are “wretched, and poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked.” In this condition, we will find ourselves seeking to build ourselves up with pride and haughtiness of spirit, with thirst for esteem and honor. Envy, anger, bitterness will appear “in ten thousand shapes.” These are the fruits of our poverty, and Jesus blesses recognition. This can be called that “first repentance, which is previous to faith in Christ.” This recognition, opened to us by God, leads to the kingdom of heaven.

What is this kingdom? The Apostle Paul says that the kingdom of God is “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” This is the kingdom that God wants to plant within us. First, the kingdom is righteousness. Righteousness is the life of God in the soul; it is the image of God stamped upon the heart. In a word, it is the love of God. Next, the kingdom is peace. This peace is “that calm serenity of soul, that sweet repose in the blood of Jesus, which leaves no doubt of our acceptance in him.” Next the inward kingdom implies “joy in the Holy Spirit.” This joy is a gift. It is a “seal upon our hearts of the redemption which is in Jesus.” As the Holy Spirit reveals this blessing, our response is to give glory to God and to cry out “from the ground of our heart.”

This blessed poverty is true and genuine humility. It is the inward knowledge that we are totally dependent on God, for every good thought, word, and work. It brings a “loving shame,” even for the sins we know he has forgiven, and a desire to grow in grace and advance in the love of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Perhaps there were those that day that stood in prosperity and claimed to never be moved. Our Lord, knowing that this triumphant state does not last for long, Jesus therefore continues with the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We might imagine that this refers to sorrow that comes from worldly loss, but more is implied. Here Jesus also speaks of those who “mourn after God.” They have “tasted the joy unspeakable,” but now “cannot see him through the dark cloud” of temptation and sin returned. Mourning the loss of this joy leads to comfort. God honors this mourning with a “fresh manifestation of love.” We discover, once again, that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God, through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

This whole process seems to foreshadow the words spoken by Jesus to his apostles on the night before he gave himself up for us, when he said that they would weep and lament but that their sorrow would ultimately turn to joy. (John 16:19f)

And then there is another dimension of mourning that needs to be mentioned. With Christ’s love within, we find ourselves in mourning for the sins and miseries of humankind. We weep with those who weep. Our hearts are opened to the hurts of the world, with all who are hurting. We grieve the weakness that leads us to sin. Yes, blessed are those who mourn, for this opens us to the very love of Christ who wants to bring comfort, even through us.

As Paul says, the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. All this talk of poverty of spirit and mourning seems to be downright lunacy and a distraction, or perhaps “mere moping and melancholy.” Having these, much religion has made you crazy, some might say. But, for those whose eyes are enlightened, we are able to see the light of love in these blessings and know that this is what is real, even unto eternity itself. In this light, we cry out. We weep until Christ wipes away the tears. We weep for the miseries that fill this earth, and trust that the day will come when the Lord of all will put a period to it all, and the “knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” Amen.