There is the story about a little girl who was one day drawing a picture. She was so engrossed in her work that her mother asked, “What are you drawing?” “Oh, it’s a picture of God,” said the youngster. “A picture of God?” “Darling, no one knows what God looks like!” “No,” said the little girl, “but they will when I get through.”
Even though we know, deep down, that God cannot be put in a box of our own devising – our own imagination – we will still try. However imperfect our efforts may be at explaining God — and imperfect they often are! — we live, like the little girl, with the confidence and sometimes arrogance that says: We know it all! I am in control! And that’s good, to a point.
But then we grow up and life happens — we suffer, we mourn, things don’t go according to our plan — and we question God’s very own existence. Usually, our response is very individualistic. When we struggle with end-of-life realities, for example, I often hear questions about whether or not “I” am worthy for heaven. And people struggle, sometimes on their death beds, with their own, individual, deserving, as if their salvation hangs on their own merit and achievements, or lack thereof.
First, let me say that challenging events in our life need not be signs of God’s displeasure –presuming God is out to get us for our misdeeds. Rather, challenging events are invitations to go deeper into the truth of life and death. And therein we discover the wonder of God and God’s loving stance towards us.
The church has always understood our rising and dying in Christ as a collective experience, not an individualistic enterprise. All Saints Sunday which we acknowledge today emphasizes ALL the SaintS (plural) — not just one or two. Moreover, every Sunday when we celebrate the sacrament of the table, we connect with the “communion of saints in heaven and on earth”. We are part of the Body of Christ, members of something larger than us, individually.
In the reading from Revelation (7:9-17) we hear about “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). As members of the body of Christ we are primarily a people, not individuals that can be counted or measured. This truth is not meant to diminish our individuality but to encourage us in faith.
I pondered a photo recently taken of my godparents standing with my twin brother around the very font I was baptized in with him on November 30, 1969, about a month after my birth. Looking at the faces of my 5 sponsors now in their senior years, I was struck by how at my baptism — even though I couldn’t make those promises by myself at that time — the communion of saints held me in my faith and belief. Even though there are times in my life when my faith is weak, by myself, I can rest in the faith expressed by the larger faith community which holds me in prayer and membership. And this, to me, is of great comfort and encouragement.
Admittedly, it’s difficult for us to understand such a mystical and communal truth, in a highly individualistic culture bent on individual achievement and autonomy. But a life of faith in Christ Jesus invites us to consider reality and truth in a paradoxical way: That the poor are blessed, and so are the peacemakers, and those who mourn. In a world that lifts up those who achieve individual success and power by their own merit, the Beatitudes introduce a way of life that sees God in precisely the kinds of circumstances and communal expressions we would rather avoid, deny or at best tolerate.
Some have compared the 8 Beatitudes with which, in Matthew’s gospel (5:1-12) Jesus begins his teaching — what is called the Sermon on the Mount — with the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament.
This is an interesting comparison, on many levels. Someone mentioned in the lectionary study this past Monday how little airtime the Beatitudes get in our churches of late; much more emphasis is on the 10 Commandments. They remembered a time decades ago when the Beatitudes where enshrined on church bookmarks, wall-hangings, posters, cards in the narthex. They were all over the place. But no longer.
I wonder, is it because in recent times, especially, we have downplayed the subtle, albeit unpopular, aspects of the faithful life. Is it because we are uncomfortable with the humble truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — who gave up his whole life on the cross for the sake of all people? This is the essence of the Gospel which is captured in the Beatitudes, a way of life that faces the challenges of life head on and embraces those struggles as integral to, as the fodder of, the faithful life.
Conversely, the 10 Commandments are easier to comprehend, rationalistically, aren’t they? After all, here a bunch of rules to follow. And rules are easier to grasp than paradoxical sayings. Rules have cut and dry consequences. Rules are wrapped up in rewards and punishment. And we get that. We live in a culture that is driven by meritocracy.
Maybe it’s time we take another look at the Beatitudes. Because life happens. And when it does, we have some choice and a responsibility in the matter of how we will respond. We don’t have to search out suffering for suffering’s sake. The tough times come. And when they do, what will we do? How will we respond?
By saying, “We don’t deserve this? It shouldn’t happen to us?”
We can only go so far with the 10 Commandments — and the ‘Law” for that matter. Because while the Law provides a good order for living, no one individual can fulfill the demands of the law perfectly. The function of the law is to drive us to the throne of grace — to lead us, in the words of Martin Luther — “as beggars”, to God who is the starting and ending point of our lives.
One of Martin Luther’s greatest contributions to theological thinking is a paradox: he said that we are simultaneously saint AND sinner. Now, you can’t rationalistically explain that ‘both/and’ formulation — just like you cannot easily explain other sayings of Jesus; like, in order to find your life you need to lose it; or, just like you cannot explain that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine; or, just like you cannot easily explain the mystery of the real presence of Jesus we may experience with God in the Holy Communion. That is why the prayer of the day for All Saints Sunday emphasizes ‘the mystical union’ we share with the whole body of Christ on earth and in heaven. These are all precious paradoxes that describe — like the Beatitudes do — the fundamentals of our faith.
The gift of the Beatitudes — these fundamental teachings of Jesus — lies in their promise to us. What are the promises to those who courageously follow in the often messy, inexplicable, uncertainty of Jesus’ way of the Cross?
Ours is the kingdom of God, we will inherit the earth, we will be filled, we will receive mercy, we will see God, we will be called children of God, and our reward will be great in heaven.
Here is a wonderful, true description of faith that is full of promise, not condemnation; that is about hope in the midst of despair, not a fearful avoidance of reality; that is about affirmation and encouragement, not judgement and punishment; that is about blessing with an eye to new life.