The New Community of the Beatitudes
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain”
We live at a time when all of our hopes and expectations for better living are placed on our political leaders and structures. So much so that experts on political movements speak of “messianic political figures” as the trend in voting, choosing and electing leadership in government. This happens first and foremost in third world countries where there are high degrees of corruption. But it can happen anywhere when people are seeking leaders who will quickly and easily fix and repair the woes of a given nation with the sweep of a pen or worse with an edict or decree.
Today in the Gospel we here Jesus’ first Executive Action for his followers. He is making his first Public Speech to his followers. From now on, his followers are asked to take to heart his set of presumptions about being a Disciple and follower of his Movement. We known this speech as the “Sermon on the Mount.” The sermon on the Mount begins with a Manifesto. This manifesto is known as the Beatitudes. Matthew is presenting Jesus as the New Moses. The old Moses gave us the Law, filled with ‘Thou shalt Nots”. The new lawgiver, Jesus, gives us a set of principles and laws that begin with Blessed are those….who…
Was the Beatitudes that Jesus gave his disciples a political manifesto? Or was it a blueprint for a new Religious Community? This is something that many have pondered for a very long time. I would say it depends very much on the time in history in which you read and inwardly digest these important words to us from Jesus today.
Friday January 27th of this week was the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Which was chosen because it was the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
For Christians, there were some people who stood out in resistance to the Nazis. One of them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer the great Lutheran Martyr and Theologian of the Nazi regime who spend an entire chapter on his seminal book The Cost of Discipleship discussing the meaning of the Beatitudes which we heard today in the Gospel.
Remember he was writing in a time when the Church and People of Germany were facing the Dictatorship of Hitler. It was also a time when the church was silent over the rights that were being trampled upon, especially the members of the Communist Party, the Jews, (6 million victims) the Jehovahs Witnesses (5,000 victims) , the Gypsies from Rumania, (200,000 victims) Free Masons, (150,000) the Mentally Ill, the Aged, the Physically Handicapped, (250,000 victims) and Homosexuals (15,000 victims). These were some of the major groups that Hitler chose to set apart and persecute since the beginning of his political movement which started as the National Socialist Party. The church, both the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church were basically silent about his decrees and public speeches against these groups. It wasn’t until Dietrich Bonhoeffer created a separate Lutheran Group called the ‘confessing church’. (Bekennende Kirche). that organized religious resistance began against the Third Reich. It was this group of lutheran Pastors who were directly opposed to Hitler on religious principles based on the teachings of Jesus. In his famous book, “The Cost of Discipleship”, Bonhoffer speaks directly about the meaning of the Beatitudes for his time and day, as they faced the oppression of the Third Reich.
From the book Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dallas Roark, he wrote a summation of Bonhoeffer’s views on based on “The Beatitudes”. He says,
The poor in spirit are those who have accepted the loss of all things including their own selves for His sake.
Those who mourn are those who do without what the world calls peace and prosperity. Mourning means to refuse to be in harmony with the standards of the world.
The meek are those who give up claims to their own rights for the will of Christ.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those renouncing all claims to personal achievement, who wait for God’s reign of righteousness.
The merciful, having given up claims to their own dignity, become men for others, helping the needy, sick, outcasts–all those who need any kind of ministry.
The pure in heart become that by giving their hearts completely to the reign of Jesus. Under His rule, He purifies their hearts with His Word.
The peacemakers renounce all violence and maintain fellowship where others would break it off.
The persecuted for righteousness sake suffer for any just cause, and will be rejected by the world, but God’s kingdom belongs to them. To this motley crew the world says “away with them” and God agrees with the world. But He intends them for the kingdom of heaven, where their reward is great.
When I do funerals of People I do not know, at Angelino Funeral Home, I always like to read the Gospel of the Beatitudes, because this is basically what each of us, you and I will be judged by at the end of our lives. They are so simple, yet so complex in their living out from day to day, depending upon each of our life’s circumstance. But they are THE measuring stick of our attitudes and behaviors as earnest followers of Jesus.
In some ways they are standards that seem impossible to achieve, but in other ways, when they are lived out in Community, in Religious community, they are more attainable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this exactly, which is why he began his movement within the greater church of resisting the oppression of the Third Reich.
“Having reached the end of the beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place of this earth for the community which they describe.”
“They seem so challenging yet Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found – on the cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. From the cross there comes the call ‘blessed, blessed.’” (113-114).
It is odd yet somehow fitting that this is the Gospel that is being read during a time of great transition in the United States. New questions are and will be arriving in the upcoming weeks and months on how We as Christians should respond and believe in relationship to the many recent decrees made in the last week in Washington DC. Luckily we have a “standard” from which to work from, to ponder on, to think and reflect upon. This standard is of course the sayings of Jesus and even more importantly The Beatitudes that we have heard today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer imagined a Church, a community of believers that was not afraid to stand for its true values and ideals even in the face of fascism. It was not easy for him and in the end it even cost him his life as he was executed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that the only future for his country was to resist oppression, discrimination, and hate towards specific ethnic and religious groups. He sought a Restoration of the True Church, not the church that was aligned with the National Powers of the Government.
“The restoration of the church,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in 1935, “will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ.
These words by Bonhoeffer have become the manifesto for a new revolution both inside and outside the church. A nonviolent revolution based on community, service, and prayer. It is the seed of New Monasticism which invites all of is to go deeper and to seek God more intensely.
Many say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced as a Seminary Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. IT was there that he met and worked with many Baptist and other African American Christians who were discriminated against both legally and
socially during his years just before World War II in 1930-31. Dietrich’s guide to the Black American experience was Charles Fisher a Baptist Preacher. With him he spent many Sundays in Harlem, celebrating and living the Black experience. As one Baptist Theologian and Pastor from Oakland California, Dr Alfred Smith writes in relation to Bonhoeffer, “African-American Spirituality is a spirituality that was born and shaped in the heat of oppression and suffering. To know blackness is to be connected to the suffering, hope, and purpose of black people.”
So, There you have it. What would the church look like if we really took seriously the Beatitudes of Jesus given to us today as a Manifesto for all of his followers. I am afraid to ask.
But I am comforted that we, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, do have a standard from where to begin.
Pope Francis said it this week…
“You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes”
I leave you with this famous Litany written by Pastor Martin Niemoller a close friend of Bonhoeffer, and an active member of the Confessing Lutheran Church under Nazi Germany.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”