‘Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were — Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter’.
Many of you will no doubt know these words from your own childhood, or from reading them to children. They are the opening sentence of the Tale of Peter Rabbit written by Beatrix Potter. The name Beatrix means ‘a woman who blesses’, from the Latin beatus meaning ‘blessed’. This is how we get the word Beatitudes, meaning ‘those who are blessed’, for Jesus’ teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount.
Today’s Gospel contains the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a section often referred to as the Beatitudes, which was Jesus’ first extended teaching. Each of the sayings beginning with the phrase, ‘Blessed are…’. In a few sentences Our Lord proclaims how Christians are supposed to live. Jesus’ words are based on the teaching of the prophets. This is clear in today’s first reading from the prophet Zephaniah, who says:
“Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility;” (Zeph 2:3)
Humility is the opposite of pride. To be humble is to recognise how much we depend upon God and each other.
We constantly hear how the world around us values success and confidence, and looks up to the rich, and the powerful. By way of contrast to this, Jesus says to the gathered crowd:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)
‘Poor in spirit’ is not a term we are used to using, but it means the exact opposite of pride. It places humility as key to living a Christian life: knowing who we are, and our need for God. Only if we rely upon God, and not ourselves — asking Him to work through us — can we truly live out the Christian life.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt 5:4)
We mourn those we love, but see no longer in this life. Because we love them we miss them, we want to see them, and hold them, and talk to them. Our parting, while temporary, is still very painful. Thankfully the Kingdom of God is a place of healing and comfort with the promise of Eternal Life.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:5)
Gentle people are not weak. Meek folk know how to use their strength, and how not to use it. As Jesus will later say in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Mt 11:29). This is how God wants us to live as human beings. Christ is the example of gentleness we must follow. Once again, God’s vision of the future turns human expectations upside down.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Mt 5:6)
Should we care about injustice in the world? Absolutely! Should we pray that God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven? Definitely! Jesus taught us to pray this way. Our faith should influence how we live our lives, so that we work for the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Clearly God wants to see our world transformed and has invited us to help in the process. Doing this gives us fulfilment.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7)
We see what God’s mercy looks like in Our Lord’s death for us on the Cross. In following Christ’s example, we ask for forgiveness for our own sins, and forgive those who sin against us. This forgiveness can transform us and also the world around us, and it is how the healing and reconciliation of God’s Kingdom functions.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt 5:8)
To be pure in heart is to want what God wants: to align our will with the will of God. It is to be saintly, and thus have the promise of Heaven — which is less of a place or a time, and much more a relationship. To see God is to know Him, and to experience His love for us. This relationship is what Christ comes to restore to humanity, and it is our hope.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt 5:9)
First and foremost, we know that Jesus is the Son of God because He made ‘peace by the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20). We too are called to follow Christ’s example and take up our Cross, and work for peace. Peace in our own hearts and lives, in our families and communities, and in our world.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Mt 5:10-11)
Following Jesus will not make us popular, often quite the opposite. If, however, we want to see God’s Kingdom as a reality in this life and the next, then we must be prepared to be shunned, or even ridiculed by others. To follow Christ is to take up the Cross, and to expect persecution, and false accusation. But we are not alone in this, Our Lord has gone before us, showing us that the story does not end with death on a Cross, but instead with the glory of the Resurrection and Eternal life.
Following the Beatitudes and living the Christian Life is a challenge. There is no doubt that. At its heart, being a Christian, and following Jesus, means living in a way which is unlike the world around us. The world tells us that we need power and wealth to be a success. Jesus knows otherwise, and invites people to live profoundly counter-cultural lives. To swim against the current of popular opinion is not an easy option, but it is something we can do together, by supporting each other to remain faithful to the values of the Gospel, and encouraging others to join us. It is simpler not to do this, which is why for two thousand years Christians have struggled to live up to what God asks of us. But just because something is difficult, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and do it, especially since with God’s help all things are possible.
In today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians we see the Beatitudes lived out in a Christian community. God turns human values on their head, to offer us new life in Him. This is how we can truly flourish as human beings, loved and redeemed by God. God takes the initiative, and does the heavy lifting, so that we can live as He intended us to live. We are called to be loving, generous, and forgiving, because that is what Jesus has taught and shown us. We can be different to the world around us because we belong to a new community, the Church, the community of faith, built on our relationship with Jesus Christ, who came to save humanity from itself.
Let us then live out our faith together, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever. Amen.