Matthew | Blessed discipleship

What if the Beatitudes describe the progress of discipleship? A back-to-school reflection. (Listen.)

At last, the summer holidays are drawing to an end. Some of us are heading back to school; others, to university. Some of us are setting goals for reading the Bible; some are planning their professional development; many are thinking about what we will be teaching others. And so, one way or another, almost all of us are preparing ourselves for another year of learning and growth.

I was thinking about this as I reflected on the Beatitudes this week. They’re near the beginning of Matthew, in chapter 5; and in Matthew’s story, they’re the first recorded teaching Jesus offers to his disciples. What does he say? Blessed are a bunch of people the world often has contempt for: the poor in spirit, the merciful, the persecuted, and so on. ‘Rejoice and be glad!’ he tells them. ‘Your reward is great in heaven.’

Different people interpret these sayings in various ways, for example, as a list of the types of people who are blessed: the merciful, and also the humble. Others have heard them as a shaming of those with wealth and privilege; still others, as #blessed platitudes. And some of us have even been told they are instructions to be grateful for the terrible things that have happened to us (to which I say #callous). But what if they’re something else? What if they’re describing the natural progression through the school of discipleship? What if Jesus is setting out the movement towards fullness of life in God’s kingdom?

I suggest this with an important qualification. Many churches effectively teach that we earn God’s love and grace through repentance, right beliefs and/or right behaviour. This is not what I’m saying here. God’s love and grace are free gifts, and there is nothing we can do to earn them. There is no striving for them. God loves us exactly as we are and continues to do so whatever our life choices; love is our undergirding reality.

But there is something else. As Jesus’ disciples, we are invited to respond to God’s gifts of love and grace by entering into the life of God’s kingdom here and now: but for this we do need to do some work. We don’t strive for God’s love, but in Matthew chapter 6 we are told to strive for God’s kingdom and God’s justice. And the reward? Jesus promises that when we choose this orientation and do this work, we will receive everything else that we need (6:33).

So I’m suggesting that the Beatitudes might be read as a step-by-step guide into fullness of life in the kingdom; they’re like a school of discipleship. In this season of thinking about learning and education, then, let’s explore what this might mean.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ says Jesus, ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

Here, Jesus is saying that the blessed life is not experienced by the proud, who think they have all the answers; nor those who rely on their own strength and think they’ve got it made.

Perhaps you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. One praises himself and asks for nothing; he gets nothing. The other acknowledges his need and seeks mercy; he receives mercy and is made right with God. In other words, they each receive what they think they need. This is how it works. All God’s gifts are freely available: but you have to be willing to receive them, and for this, you have to admit your need. In the context of discipleship, we might say, ‘Blessed are those who admit their need of God, for the school of discipleship is for them.’ What next?

‘Blessed are those who grieve,’ says Jesus, ‘for they shall be encouraged.’

There are lots of ways to read this, but what strikes me today is that love and lament are inextricable. People and planet are wounded. Some shy away from the suffering and turn their attention to easier things. Others face the pain, and want to do something about  it. So we might say, ‘Blessed are those who are deeply concerned, for they will be encouraged and taught.’ In other words, those who acknowledge their need and face the world’s pain now enter the school of discipleship; and they find themselves in a place of encouragement and learning. What they hear next is this:

‘Blessed are the humble,’ says Jesus, ‘for they will inherit the earth.’

Now, there are different ways to be at school. You can turn up thinking you have all the answers, disrupting the class and sneering at the teacher and mocking those who like to learn. You can coast through, picking up just enough to pass and getting out as quickly as possible. Or you can be humble. You can admit there’s always more to learn, and so you pay attention to your teacher and your classmates and the world around you, and you learn about yourself, too, and you soak up everything that is good: and what with all that wisdom and learning, the world opens up to you. We might say, ‘Blessed are those who submit to the teacher, for the world is their oyster.’ And our teacher is, of course, Jesus, who goes on to name the fourth step for those who are receptive to further learning:

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.’

We begin our education by admitting a need that can only be satisfied by God. But our education is for something. We don’t admit our need of God and learn about kingdom life so that we can look good or make money or get in with the right crowd. That’s what an exclusive private school is for. Yet these things do not ultimately satisfy. That’s why our education is different. Our education is a process of formation. It gradually teaches us to see the world through Jesus’ eyes and it fills us with God’s desire for love and justice. We become more deeply dissatisfied with the way things are and the powers that be. We want justice; we want kindness; we want a grounded humility in our leaders and our selves.

And herein lies the paradox: for it is as we hunger and thirst for these things that we ourselves are being filled. Our very longing for justice shows that the Word is making a home in us and animating our lives. Our hunger is a symptom of being filled. Indeed, ‘blessed are those who hunger for justice, for they are being filled by the spirit of Christ.’ This brings me to the next step:

‘Blessed are the merciful,’ says Jesus, ‘for they will receive mercy.’

We know what happens when we hoard good things. Manna rots. Water stagnates. Possessions become moth-eaten or corroded by rust. We know what happens when we withhold forgiveness: we ourselves become toxic and bitter. We know what happens when we hide the gospel away: our own faith loses its vitality. But our education draws from a well that never runs out; as long as we share it, we’ll never know an end to sweet water.

Indeed, the more we are filled by the Word and conformed to Christ, the more we give our lives away. Everything becomes gift, ready to be shared: love, money, mercy and the gospel, lavished on friend and enemy alike. In the school of discipleship we might say, ‘Blessed are those who share what they learn – intellectually, materially, emotionally, and spiritually – for they will keep growing in wisdom.’ What, then, is the next phase of kingdom life?

‘Blessed are the pure in heart,’ says Jesus, ‘for they will see God. And blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’

The school of discipleship is no place for divided loyalties. As Jesus says later in his sermon, You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and Money (aka Mammon) (6:24): because they make competing demands on you. You need to choose. And if you choose Christ and keep turning your focus back to him, your vision will become clear, your heart pure, and you will see the god you have been seeking all along.

More, we become like the things we worship. So over time you will become more like him, the Prince of Peace, the one who breathes only shalom. Like him, you will become a conduit of peacemaking and justice seeking and healing in this world: and by this you will be revealed as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. We might say, ‘Blessed are those who stay focused on Jesus, for they will experience revelation. And blessed are those who conform to Christ, who choose the path of courageous non-violence and love; for they will be called honoured alumni of the school.’ Finally, Jesus says:

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for their pursuit of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

It’s true: life in the kingdom can be uncomfortable, even precarious. You cannot serve two masters, and so graduates of the school of discipleship will often find themselves at odds with the people around them, especially the powers that be: just as happened to Jesus.

But this is what it means to graduate into full citizenship of God’s kingdom. It’s to live so passionately, so generously, so urgently, so lovingly, so at-one with Christ that the shadow of the cross lies across our lives.

It’s not that Jesus wants us to suffer; for these very teachings are bracketed by stories of him alleviating suffering and healing people. It’s just that graduates of the school of discipleship are hard to ignore. They’ve been so transformed from the inside out, they’ve become a blessing themselves. So they get involved in the suffering of the world. They ask difficult questions. They embody surprising new answers. They have strange loyalties and odd priorities. They unite with other graduates to bring about healing and transformation. And in all their loving and healing and justice work and peacemaking and storytelling and seed sowing, they captivate some and enrage others.

And so persecution is often the consequence. But by then, graduates are so like their teacher that they are willing to give not just the scraps but their whole lives for the kingdom: and to do so will be nothing but joy. Because they know what lies on the other side of the cross: a beautiful garden, newness of life, the joyful city. So when your light is so bright that people notice and persecution comes your way, rejoice and be glad: you’ve arrived!

Of course, like most people I’m not there yet, and I won’t fully graduate until I die. But I’m committed to my continuing education, and so I’m sticking with the school of discipleship. So I’ll keep confessing my need; I’ll keep showing up for scripture and prayer, worship and communion; I’ll keep trying to find compassion for those who ignore, shun and reject me (and believe me, there are a few!). Too, I’ll keep turning back to Jesus; I’ll keep reaching for forgiveness; I’ll keep seeking justice and peace. Like our friend Jesus, I’ll keep sharing meals; and I’ll keep trying to scatter gospel seeds with a generous, open hand: for blessed are those who share what they learn—and who knows what soil is receptive?

This January, as you, too, prepare for another year of learning, will you join me in the school of discipleship? Will you open yourself to further transformation, and seek love, healing and justice in all things? Will you, too, allow your life to become an ever-greater blessing?

Because that’s what it’s all about. We are schooled in the blessed life for a wonderful purpose: that our lives so overflow with faith, hope and love that we ourselves become a blessing. Thanks be to God. Ω

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 5:1-12 (Year A Epiphany 4) given to Sanctuary on 29 January 2023 © Sanctuary 2023. Shaped by a conversation with Zoe M and Clarence Jordan’s book, Sermon on the Mount (rev. ed.) (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1952 (1970)). Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash.

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. After December’s rain, the sandy soil is now drying out and the garden is a travesty. Pigeons have moved into the roof and fledged their young, sending debris into the hall. Their flights through the roof cavity are very distracting, as is their incessant cooing: and I wonder about Psalm 84. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land—earth, sea, sky and even birds—be with us all. Amen.


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