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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Christian Qualities

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

Published in honor of Rev. Jerry Reiter’s 92th birthday celebrated in Heaven on Sunday 01/29/2023. Originally delivered Sunday 02/02/2014.

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“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 be shown 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 because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:1-12

The Sermon on the Mount may well be the best-known part of the teachings of Jesus. It may also be the least understood, and is probably the least obeyed. Which is a shame, because it’s Jesus’ own description of what He wants His followers to be and to do.

Today’s Gospel lesson, called the Beatitudes, is the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And the Beatitudes describe the balance and varied character of Christian people. These are not eight separate groups of disciples, some of whom are meek, while others are merciful, and yet others are called upon to endure persecution. Rather, they’re eight qualities of one group of people who are one and the same time meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted.

Furthermore, the group having these qualities is not a special group, a small spiritual aristocracy remote from the common run of Christians. On the contrary, the Beatitudes are Jesus’ own specification of what every Christian ought to be! All of these qualities are to characterize all of His followers! Just as the ninefold fruit of the Holy Spirit which Paul lists is to ripen in every Christian character, so the eight Beatitudes which Jesus gives describe His ideal for every citizen of God’s Kingdom. Unlike the gifts of the Holy Spirit which He distributes to different members of Christ’s body in order to equip them for different kinds of service, the same Spirit is concerned to work all of these Christian graces in all of us. As Christians, we are to want them all!

Jesus says that Christians who have these eight qualities are blessed. What is the blessing? The second half of each Beatitude explains it. They possess the Kingdom of Heaven and they inherit the Earth. The mourners are comforted and the hungry are satisfied. They receive mercy, they see God, they are called the Sons of God. Their Heavenly reward is great. And all these blessings belong together. Just as the eight qualities describe every Christian – at least in the ideal – so the eight blessings are available to every Christian.

Are the blessings present or future? Both, I’d say. It’s plain from the rest of Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God is a present reality which we can “receive”, “inherit”, or “enter” now. Also, we can obtain mercy and comfort now, can become God’s children now, and in this life can have our hunger satisfied and our thirst quenched. Jesus promised all these blessings to His followers in the here and now but the promises of Jesus in the Beatitudes have both a present and a future fulfilment. We enjoy the first fruits now; the full harvest is yet to come. So our sorrows are comforted now, and in Heaven there will be no sorrow!

Before we take a quick look at each of the Beatitudes, I need to make something perfectly clear. The Sermon on the Mount, and its Beatitudes, are kind of a “new Law.” And like the old Law of Moses, it has two purposes, both of which Martin Luther clearly understood. First, the Law shows the non-Christian that he can’t please God by himself, because he can’t obey the Law, and it directs him to Christ to be justified. Secondly, it shows the Christian who has been to Christ for justification, how to live so as to please God. As the Reformer used to summarize it, the Law sends us to Christ to be justified, and Christ sends us back to the Law to be sanctified.

Speaking of the first purpose, Luther said, “The Sermon on the Mount is Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree,” because it’s a Law of inner righteousness which no child of Adam can possibly obey. It can therefore only condemn us and make the forgiveness of Christ necessary.

Luther is even more clear about the second purpose of the Sermon: “Christ is saying nothing in this Sermon, about how we become Christians, but only about the works and fruit that no one can do unless he already is a Christian.” The whole Sermon assumes an acceptance of the Gospel and Jesus Christ as Savior. It describes the kind of people Christians should be. So the Beatitudes set forth the blessings God gives to those in whom He’s working such character.

Understanding this, let’s take a quick look at these eight Christian qualities Jesus wants us to have:

  1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” To be “poor in spirit” is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty before God. Because we are sinners, under the holy wrath of God, and deserving nothing but the judgement of God. We have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy our way into Heaven. In the hymn, “Rock of Ages”, we sing:

“Nothing in my had in bring,

Simply to thy cross I cling;

Naked, come to thee for dress;

Helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Savior, or I die.”

This is the language of the poor in spirit. We belong alongside the publican in Jesus’ parable, crying out with downcast eyes, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” To such, and only to such, the Kingdom of God is given. For God’s salvation is a gift as absolutely free as it is utterly undeserved. It has to be received with the dependent humility of a little child.

2. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” You could almost translate this second Beatitude, “Happy are the unhappy” since it already sounds like a paradox. What kind of sorrow can it be that brings the joy of Christ’s blessing to those who feel it? It’s plain from the context that the people promised comfort here aren’t primarily those who mourn the loss of a loved one, but those who mourn the loss of their innocence, their righteousness. It’s not the sorrow of bereavement to which Jesus refers here, but the sorrow of repentance.

This is the second stage of spiritual blessing. It’s one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it, it’s another thing to grieve and to mourn over it. Or, in more theological language, confession is one thing, contrition is another!

So the Apostle Paul groaned, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And so we are right to sing, “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me.”

3. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” “Meek” does not mean “weak”! Rather, it speaks of a person who is strong, yet gentle. The person who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do. That makes him gentle, humble, sensitive, and patient.

These meek people, Jesus added, will inherit the Earth. You might think that meek people get nowhere because people either ignore them or run rough-shod over them. It’s the tough, the overbearing who succeed in the struggle for existence. But the condition on which we enter our spiritual inheritance in Christ is not one of might, but one of meekness, for the way of Christ is different from the way of the world.

4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Righteousness in the Bible has at least three aspects: legal, moral, and social. Legal righteousness is justification, and Jesus is talking to those who already belong to Him. Moral righteousness is that righteousness of character and conduct that pleases God. For this we should hunger and thirst. But Biblical righteousness also includes social righteousness as well, in which we care for those around us. Luther put it this way: “The command to you is not to crawl into a corner, or into the desert, but to run out – if that’s where you’ve been – and offer your hands and feet and your whole body, and do all you can do. If you can’t make the world completely pious, then do what you can.”

5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Our God is a merciful God; the citizens of His Kingdom must show mercy too. The same truth is shown in the next chapter: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.” That’s not because we deserve mercy because we’re merciful, nor that we are forgiven because we forgive. It’s because we don’t receive the mercy and forgiveness of God unless we repent of our sins. And we can’t claim to have repented of our sins if we aren’t merciful toward the sins of others. To forgive and to be forgiven; to show mercy and receive mercy: these two belong together, as Jesus showed in His parable of the unmerciful servant.

For to be meek is to acknowledge to others that we are sinners; to be merciful is to have compassion on others because they are sinners too.

6. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Jesus got after the Pharisees because they worried about how clean their cups and dishes were, but inside they were full of greed and wickedness. Or worse, they were “Like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones.”

Luther, as always, said it plainly: “Christ wants to have the heart pure, though outwardly the person may be a drudge in the kitchen, black, sooty, and grimy, doing all sorts of dirty work.” And again, “Though a common laborer, a shoemaker or blacksmith may be dirty and sooty, or smell because he is covered with dirt and pitch, and though he stinks outwardly, inwardly he is pure incense before God.”

7. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Sons of God.” Every Christian, according to this Beatitude, is meant to be a peacemaker both at home and in the church. Now, we need to remember that the words “peace” and “appeasement” are not synonyms. The Peace of God is not peace at any price. He made peace with us at a tremendous cost – the life of His only-begotten Son! And we, too, will find peacemaking to be a costly endeavor. To proclaim “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, is the work of the false prophet, not the Christian witness. Peace often comes through pain. When we ourselves are involved in a quarrel, there will either be the pain of apologizing to the person we’ve injured, or the pain of rebuking the person who has injured us.

Of course, a cheap peace can be bought by cheap forgiveness. But true peace and true forgiveness are costly treasures – worth the work.

8. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” It may seem strange that Jesus would go from peacemaking to persecution, from the work of reconciliation to the experience of hostility. But no matter how hard we may try to make peace with some people, they refuse to live at peace with us. Not all attempts at reconciliation succeed. Some take the initiative to oppose us, and maybe even persecute us and say all kinds of evil against us.

Of course, we might deserve it. But Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. And how did Jesus expect His disciples to react under persecution? “Rejoice and be glad!” He said. We’re not to retaliate like an unbeliever, nor to sulk like a child, nor to lick our wounds in self-pity like a dog, nor to just grin and bear it like a Stoic – still less to pretend we enjoy it, like a masochist.

What then, if we’re persecuted because of Jesus? “Rejoice, and be glad, because great is your reward in Heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The ways of God seem topsy-turvy to us. God exalts the humble and humbles the proud, calls the first last and the last first, ascribes greatness to the servant, sends the rich away empty-handed, and declares the meek to be His heirs. The culture of the world and the counter-culture of Christ are at loggerheads with each other.

We could say that Jesus congratulates those whom the world most pities, and calls the world’s rejects “blessed.”

That’s us: the world’s rejects. But that’s okay – we’re blessed!


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