In this year, the modern lectionary we use reverts to the traditional Gospel reading for All Saints -- ‘The Beatitudes’. The Beatitudes are so called because they comprise a list of Jesus’ sayings, each one of which begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Yet when we say “count your blessings”, we are never thinking of beatitudes like these.
Jesus tells his disciples that they will be ‘blessed’ when they are persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is deeply counter-intuitive. Left to our own devices, we would naturally and understandably regard these as afflictions, not blessings. Jesus is of course aware of this, and also aware that his ‘beatitudes’ run contrary to traditional Jewish teaching. In the Old Testament passages where the same concept is used, it is normally translated ‘happy’. “Happy are they who have not lingered in the way of sinners; everything they do shall prosper”, Psalm One tells us. For the Psalmist, happiness is the emotional and material reward that is promised to those who faithfully follow God’s law. Here, it seems, Jesus is not promising his followers anything. He is warning them that, in ordinary human terms at least, discipleship is likely to be bad for them. So why would anyone become a disciple? Who in their right mind would sign up for persecution, contempt and slander?
The concluding verse of the Gospel offers an answer “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. Often this answer has been taken to re-direct our attention to exclusively post-mortem rewards – benefits that we can expect to enjoy, but only after we die. Yet, to follow Jesus solely for the sake of post-mortem benefits has the unwelcome implication that there is nothing to be gained from faithful discipleship in this life. If we believe in the saving work of Christ on the Cross we have reason to be glad now. A traditional hymn begins ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby’, and that seems right.
The short but beautiful Epistle from the first letter of John contains a crucial insight. The greatest possible blessing in life is "that we should be called children of God" and, the writer of the letter tells us, "we are God’s children now". Speculation about heaven and the hereafter, however intriguing or alluring is essentially idle, because "what we will be has not yet been revealed". To know that we are God’s children now, is a blessing great enough to outweigh all the negative things that the world can hurl at us.
None of us wants to be persecuted or reviled, and being ‘meek’ or ‘poor in spirit’ is not a goal we are inclined to set our children. Yet on All Saints Day we are invited to acknowledge two great truths. First, the people rightly regarded and celebrated as saints, are all those Christians, known and unknown, who set aside personal concerns in order not only persist with, but witness to the truth about Christ, and did this even when the hostility and contempt of the world in which they found themselves was almost unbearable. Second, we more wayfaring Christians are wise to pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial', as the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer has it, because most Christians most of the time are not likely to withstand the trial that the saints have endured. Probably this is truer for us now than it ever has been. With all the advances that have been made in medical science and all the modern conveniences that have been invented, we have come ‘risk averse’, valuing safety, security and comfort above everything else. “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult”, the hymn for St Andrew’s Day begins. Oddly, perhaps, it can be easier to hear his call over the noise of the tumult than through the layers of protection with which the modern world surrounds us.
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