Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2002, dedicated to all who have been lifted to God's glory and always to the glory of God!

"Stairway to the Kingdom of Heaven"

Part II of II

Matthew 5:1-12; Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Last week I opened this two-part sermon on the Beatitudes with a reflection on Matthew 5:1-5. I explored the meaning of the poor in spirit, mourning and true meekness as steps to the kingdom of God. Today, I close with reflections on those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, acting mercifully, the pure in heart, peacemaking and those suffering persecution for righteousness sake.

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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This next step on the stairway to the kingdom of God is so significant that Jesus brings us to it twice in the sermon on the Mount - here and once again in Matthew 6:1-18. This step has to do with complete and total hungering and thirsting after all of righteousness. Jesus says, "They who hunger and thirst for the whole of righteousness, (or for complete righteousness), are partakers of the divine blessing, for they shall be filled." In this beatitude, most unusually, righteousness is in the direct accusative, and not in the normal genitive. Now, when verbs of hungering and thirsting in Greek take the accusative rather than the genitive, the meaning is that the hunger and the thirst is for the whole thing. That is to say, "I hunger for the whole loaf of bread. I thirst for the whole pitcher of water." Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for the complete righteousness!

My daughter Sarah and I have this game we play. Often when she gets hungry, she says, "Daddy, I'm hungry." I reply, "Glad to meet you hungry, I'm Tim." She responds, "Glad to meet you Dad, I'm really hungry!" I say, "Glad to meet you really Hungry, "I'm really Dad." (It's a game that gets old really fast!). But, how many of us cry out to God: "Lord, I am completely hungry and totally thirsty for righteousness!" For after all, righteousness means, "the right way," the way of justice." If we did cry out that way, God would probably respond - "Glad to meet you, Tim I will fulfill your desire for completeness in what is right!"

To be completely righteous, means to be righteous internally and externally - righteous in word and deed. Most people are content with outward righteousness. Often, I see this as a form of self-righteousness! When faced with a tight situation, someone will show off their righteousness to others. They draw attention to themselves as righteous. In essence, they are saying: "look at me, I am a righteous woman! I am a righteous man!"

The emphasis here falls on "Look at me!" The attention is drawn to self! As a result, the true attention for righteousness is lost! External righteousness is keeping the rules because you know what people expect of you, not because you really believe in them. It is sort of like perfume. It isn't apart of you, but you know if you have it on, you will smell real sweet and people will come to you because they like the smell. So, you draw the praise of others. And praise of others is often more highly sought after than all other things. But, the smell on the inside may be quite different. In fact, the smell may be downright foul!

Jesus was aware of this desire for praise, or what others called "righteousness." In contrast, he felt kingdom citizens were wholly integrated people. They had a deep and genuine sense internal sense of righteousness rooted in true love of God and humanity. While others may eat and drink, cotton-candy righteousness vended by religious hucksters, the kingdom righteousness is rich, nourishing and satisfying. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the complete and total righteousness of God, it shall fill their deepest needs.

The fifth step in the kingdom grows naturally out of this one. "The merciful are partakers of the divine blessing, for they shall receive mercy." In the original Greek, "the word "mercy" really means that, but it isn't a cold or condescending kind of mercy such as one in power might extend to his victim in return for gratitude or service." (Clarence Jordan, The Sermon on the Mount, Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA, 1973, p. 30). This kind of mercy is warm, compassionate, tender and never seeks to barter. By "the merciful," Jesus means "those who have an attitude of such compassion toward all people that they want to share gladly all that they have with one another and with the world." (Ibid.) If they give money, they don't only give until it hurts. They give until it's gone. Such mercy does not simply mean to feel another person's pain, it means to get inside their skin, to feel what they are feeling. That's what the word means. Like the word sympathy, which means "To experience the suffering together with the other person," mercy means to be one with another in their pain.

Imagine for a moment the tenderness of "God's mercy." Imagine you are able to be one with another in their pain. You can truly feel the depth of their hurt. If we felt this way, it would save us from being kind for the wrong reasons. Instead of being kind, because someone told us to be, we would extend ourselves because we felt deeply the pain of the other. Jesus modeled this for us in John's gospel story of the raising of Lazarus. He raises his friend Lazarus from the grave only after he weeps with and for Mary and Martha, Lazarus' sisters.

If we felt such mercy as this we would forgive and we would tolerate and we would accept others completely because we would understand and sympathize with them. When I think of this beatitude, I think of Jenny Dunlap. Jenny was a member of my first church in Cleveland. She was a sad and bitter woman. She had been a widow for at least 15 years when I came to Bethany. Her son had left her alone and had not been in contact with her for years, although he lived in Cleveland. She was chilly and hard to like. She was off-putting. She always made nasty comments about everyone and most things at the church. Try as I would to visit her, she would always be "too busy." So, one day I just stopped by. After knocking and ringing and having the dog bark at me for what seemed to be an eternity, she finally came to the door. As I entered, her house was piled up with lots of junk and things. Floor to ceiling piles. There was a distinctive smell about the place - the smell of depression and pain. As we talked, she began to smile and cry and open up. When I left, I gave her a hug and kiss goodbye. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she said, "No one has touched me or given me a kiss since my husband died 15 years ago. Thank you." Lonely. Depressed. Untouched. Unloved. Jenny Dunlap needed mercy.

Mercy - isn't that what God gave us in Jesus Christ? God came to us in Jesus, not as a detached, isolated, majestic form. God came to us in Jesus to hold us, to cry with us, to touch us, to love us. Blessed are the ones who get inside the skin of others and touch, and cry with, and hold on to, and love them. God will get inside their skin when they most need it!

The sixth step is a high one. "The pure in heart are partakers of the divine blessing, for they shall see God." This is a tough one. The word here for pure is "Katharos," which means "unmixed, unadulterated, completely clean." We might restate this beatitude as "Blessed is the person whose motives are entirely unmixed, for that person shall see God." Do you have unmixed motives when approaching other people or projects? Do you go about your work and life wondering - "what's in this for me?" To ask these questions may seem off-putting to you? I remember reading some years ago that Virginia Satire, famed child psychoanalyst, was studied by people in her practice to try and discover what she was doing so well. For her to be analyzed for excellence, so unnerved her, that she lost her focus for a while and struggled to regain her excellence. By raising questions about your purity of heart or your motivations may unnerve those of you who go about your work and life with the eyes and heart of God. But, most of us aren't there yet. The questions unnerve because we are not there!

And this is where God comes into this equation. Having taken steps on the kingdom stairway, we have given ourselves over to God and given ourselves over to a whole new nature. Having been given a Righteous Nature in step six, we avail ourselves to a purity of heart that is not of human creating. This new nature is a gift from God for those who want it and who will receive it and share it with others. It is a nature that is unpretentious - and unmixed!

I feel tempted to name people whom I have witnessed in this congregation whose motivations seem so pure in heart. But, in the words of Martin Luther, to call a saint by such a name is to turn that saint into a sinner. In other words, look around you and see for yourself who among us is pure in heart. The pure in heart reflect the face of God to us, for they have seen God! They see God because their lives are in focus. All they've got is concentrated on God alone. And as a result, they see the face of the Lord!

So many of us are either cold or lukewarm for God. But, those with pure hearts are hot for God! They wake up in the morning praising God. They go through the day trying to figure out what God would have them do. They seek no glory. They bring no focus to themselves. They come into focus for us because they shine so brightly. Their lives are shot through with no impurities of compromise for they love God with their heart, mind, soul, and spirit! Blessed are the ones who are on fire for God! They are never looking for excuses not to show up, not to serve, not to help, not to live for God for their motivations are unmixed! They see God!

Once they see God, become peacemakers for God. Step Seven says: "The peacemakers are partakers of the divine blessing, for they shall be called the children of God." It is God's nature to make peace. God is called the God of peace. God's son is called "The Prince of Peace." Paul says of Christ, "He is our peace." The consuming desire of God is voiced by the angels at the birth of God's Son, "Peace on earth, and good will to all people." (Drawn from Clarence Jordan in The Sermon on the Mount, p.34).

So God, our Creator and Provincial Lord, is a peacemaker! To follow in the nature and image of God is to be a peacemaker. But, what is peacemaking? I find that hard to define exactly - but I can say, "it is what God does!" And scripture portrays God as heaven bent on one thing - the salvation of the world! So, we can conclude from the word and deed of scripture, that a peacemaker is all about the redeeming of the world. In this way, the peacemaker is in the family business - the Father/Son Business of saving the world!

For Jesus, peacemaking was not only about stopping war. It was about changing hearts, too. Years ago, Dr. Howard Thurman went to visit Mahatma Gandhi in India. He asked him why during his campaign to end British rule, he withdrew for a period. Gandhi answered that he withdrew because his people did not have a wholesome enough sense of self to engage in sustained nonviolent revolution against the British. In other words, their hearts were not peacemaking hearts. I don't know about you, but Friday night as I watched the opening ceremonies for the Olympics and saw Nobel Peace Prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Lech Walensa among those who carried the Olympic flag, tears came to my eyes. There, bearing hope for the future were two of the greatest peacemaking warriors this world has ever known. And they lived in our generation! It was touching and beautiful (It was also great to see our own John Glenn carrying the flag).

God's plan of peace making is not merely to bring an end to fighting. It is also to create good will among all people. When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God on earth, he was not calling for people to be more comfortable in their sins. He was calling for no less than new life in the spirit and a new citizenship in his beloved community which alone is capable of peace.

The peacemakers, then are special agents in the kingdom of heaven. In the words of Revelation 11:15 - their assignment is to make "the kingdom of the world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ." (Ibid, p. 35).

Finally, we come to the eighth step on the kingdom stairway. They who have endured much for what is right are God's people: they are citizens of God's new order. You all are God's people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me, Jesus said. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that's the way they treated people of conscience in the past." (Matthew 5:10-11).

On the surface it might appear as Jesus is telling his followers to go and get themselves persecuted because you won't be a real Christian until you do." But, this kind of thing leads to a martyr-complex. Actually, there are people, like Mike Bray and others who bomb Abortion Clinics and kill doctors and nurses who work in those places who believe persecution is their divine right. It is also found in supposed Christian terrorists like Eric Robert Rudolph, Timothy McVeigh, and for generations in Ireland in Catholic and Protestants who bomb themselves into the mad annuals of history. Insane martyrs are the not divine right or creative invention of the Koran and Islam. We have our madmen as well (not to mention our most heinous Christian persecutor - Adolph Hitler).

This martyr-complex and mad desire for persecution has nothing to do with Jesus Christ! This is actually paganism - no matter what religious disguise it is veiled in.

Rather, Jesus is talking sense to people. He is actually saying, "look my friends, you've already been through a lot. But, you're just getting started. As you walked up these steps and came into my kingdom I made it clear that you were making an all-out commitment. So, you need to be faithful to your commitment, cost what it may. But, don't let anyone scare you, or cause you to back down. I am with you through it all. You are in the company of the prophets whose glorious past stretches back to the beginning of time and whose future has no end. So go to it. I am with you, always!" (As quoted in The Sermon on the Mount, p. 39).

In his book The Sermon on the Mount, E. T. Thompson tells the story of Dr. Turner, the pastor of the American Church in Berlin during WWII who visited Pastor Heinrich Niemoeller, the aging father of Martin Niemoeller, who defied Hitler and spent most of the war in a concentration camp. When the visit was ended, Heinrich said to Dr. Turner, "When you go back to America, do not let anyone pity me or my wife or the seven children of our son. Only pity any follower of Christ who does not know the joy that is set before those who endure the cross despising the shame. Yes, it is a terrible thing to have our son in a concentration camp. But there would be something more terrible for us: if God had needed a faithful martyr, and our son Martin had been unwilling." In other words, persecution is a terrible thing, but unfaithfulness is far worse.

Friends, the kingdom of God is ever before us. Let us step up and move into a life fully worthy of God in Jesus Christ. We can be salt and light. We can be leaven for the loaf of God's creation! Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and live into it. Amen.

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