The Nature of Discipleship, a sermon on Matt. 5:1-12

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

These next few Sundays, the theme of our scripture readings is about the nature of discipleship.

And today we get that most famous of Jesus’ sermons on discipleship, the sermon on the mount, also known as the Beatitudes.

Truthfully, when I hear the sermon on the mount, the first thing I think is that the standards for discipleship are impossibly high.

What, we must mourn before we are comforted?

We need to be meek, before we can inherit the earth?

We have to be pure in heart, before we can see God?

We have to be persecuted before we receive the kingdom of heaven?

No one in their right mind would willingly seek loss, vulnerability and persecution.

And who among us can claim to be completely pure in heart, or to always be merciful?

If that is the standard of discipleship, then few of us indeed are able to meet it.

We would need to suffer greatly, in order to be true disciples.

When we hear the Beatitudes as a kind of equation, do this, and then you shall receive this…

then it doesn’t actually sound all that generous or comforting, especially not to those of us are lucky enough not to suffer persecution or grief for our faith.

I suspect that we tend to hear the Beatitudes this way because we live in a transactional society.

We expect to receive exactly what we give, and without being able to hold up our share of the bargain, how can we hope to receive in return?

But God is not transactional in God’s relationship with us.

When we look closely at the Beatitudes, we realize that they are not a transaction at all.

It is not a do this, and then you shall receive this scenario.

To look just at the basic grammar of today’s gospel, the Beatitudes are in the present tense, not the future tense.

Jesus says blessed are those who follow me,… Not blessed will you be, if you follow me…

There’s no transaction here, simply gift.

We are blessed. It has already happened.

It is already true for us, as disciples of Jesus Christ.

We walk this world as a blessed people.

And to be honest, “blessed” is maybe not quite the right word.

For us, in our Western English language, the word “blessed” carries connotations of being a recipient.

We get something as a blessing, which sometimes serves merely to reinforce our tendency to see our relationship with God as a kind of give and take transaction.

In the original Greek, the word that is translated as “Blessed” is actually Makaros.

And makaros doesn’t carry the same sense of receiving an unexpected or undeserved gift.

Makaros actually means something more like “satisfied.”

So a more accurate translation of the beatitudes would go something like this.

For what we need, those needs are already met by God.

We are satisfied.

We are a people who are blessed, living satisfied in this world, because of who God is and who we are as God’s people.

And that changes the nature of discipleship.

Discipleship is not something we need to earn, it’s who we are.

We are already blessed.

Our task, as disciples, is to carry that blessedness and show it in the world.

Today’s first reading from the prophet Micah is rightly famous for its beautiful call to the life of faith.

The prophet’s words today take the form of a kind of courtroom drama.

There is about to be an inditement, or as the prophet says, a controversy, over the failure of the faithful to follow God.

Admitting that the inditement is valid, the faithful asks how they should make amends.

I love the intentionally humorous, over the top ridiculousness of what the supplicant thinks God might want from them in the life of faith.

Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

No, not enough? Should I come with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?

Not enough? Should I sacrifice my firstborn?

While there is an intentional, humorous irony in the prophet’s words…

There was child sacrifice happening in Judah at the time the prophet was writing.

Some people did actually think that God demanded this kind of painful, personal sacrifice in order for them to be true people of faith.

And so there is tremendous comfort in the prophet’s words, when the inditement is finally issued.

When the controversy is put to an end.

No, God neither needs, nor wants that kind of sacrifice from God’s people.

That is not what faithful discipleship is.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Nothing else; this is all that is asked of us in the life of faith.

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.

And lest you think that the call to walk humbly with God, places God’s people in a place of mere subservient acquiescence…

The Hebrew word translated today as “humbly” actually means something more akin to “deliberately”

God asks nothing of God’s people but that they do justice, love kindness, and walk with intention with their God.

We do not crawl behind God, we walk with deliberateness beside God in God’s work in the world.

It is that intention, to do justice and to love kindness, as people who are already blessed by God, that is the nature of discipleship.

It is an active, engaged, intention in our lives of faith that makes us disciples.

And we do not have to be perfect people in order to do this.

As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians today,

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards,

not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;

God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are,

so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

Put another way, all of our brokenness might actually serve to glorify God, when we walk beside God with intention, not perfection.

To go back to the Beatitudes,

We do not need to be perfectly pure of heart in order to be satisfied.

We may not yet be completely merciful, but we can still show mercy.

It is enough simply that we intentionally try to live with pure hearts, with mercy, and blessedness from God flows out of that effort.

And not just our own blessedness, but also the blessedness of others.

And this is where intention becomes especially important.

Because we are not disciples solely for ourselves, for our own well being.

We are disciples for God and for God’s people.

Without that kind of intention, then sometimes I fear that discipleship and the life of faith becomes our own self-help program.

Discipleship becomes about meeting our own needs and increasing our own self-righteousness.

Discipleship becomes about us.

True discipleship is not just about us; it is about serving God and God’s people, of which we are a part.

When we come at our own discipleship from that stance, that the life of faith is about God and God’s people rather than simply ourselves…

When we recognize our own blessedness as inherent to who we are as God’s people, and not something we need to earn…

When we understand that our own brokenness can serve as blessing to others, that we do not need to be perfect in order to be discipleship…

And when we walk this world with the intent to do justice, love kindness, and walk deliberately beside our God.

Then we are disciples in the truest sense of the world.

Blessed and blessing indeed.