“The messengers must model the message.” N.T. Wright, Simply Christian
In the Beatitudes Christ says the merciful are blessed. Why? Because, He says, they will receive mercy. So, is Jesus suggesting a simple formula for improving the treatment you receive from others? I think not. Perhaps it’s helpful to first understand the point of the Beatitudes and what being merciful is all about.
It is commonly thought that the Beatitudes are prescriptions for Christian behavior. In fact, they are often referred to as the, “Be attitudes,” meaning that these are the attitudes you should be as a Christian. Some imagine that in the Beatitudes Christ was teaching His disciples how to act like a Christian and what the benefits would be if they did. Most biblical scholars I believe would disagree with this position. The Beatitudes are not prescriptive, but descriptive. They describe what the community of the messiah is like.
Seeing the Beatitudes this way, however, can lead to another subtle misunderstanding. They can be thought of as simply eight separate distinguishing traits of the church. In reality, Christ is not talking about a set of characteristics, but of the fundamental nature of God’s people. In reference to the Beatitude on the poor John Driver explains this idea:
“Rather than taking the Beatitudes as eight independent characteristics of the community, we should understand that the messianic community which inherits the kingdom is essentially poor. The nature and mission of this community of the poor is then developed in the Beatitudes.”
The label, “The merciful,” is part of this picture that Christ paints.
Conversion to Christ is a conversion from the normal way life is conducted in this world, which is based upon competition and power. In a fallen world people seek advantage over others as the normal course of life. In popular language we say it’s a, “dog eat dog world.” The ancient Romans held that, “every man is a wolf to his neighbor.” This is somewhat an oversimplification, but the idea is that people seek to be strong, not weak. One only has to watch children play together to see that this is true. Advertising, office politics, fashion, team rivalries, and even “reality” television shows confirm that people strive to be on top. In the Beatitudes Christ tells us that His kingdom is populated by those who have stopped playing this game – they are poor (in the world’s eyes) and they are blessed.
A synonym for “poor” is “meek.” Meekness aptly describes what were talking about here. The meek are humble and don’t take advantage in their relationships, but instead serve. They’ve stopped climbing on top of others. They’ve stopped playing the power game. In contrast, they bless others and care about the weak. They forgive and seek the welfare of others as their normal course of life. In this way, they mimic their Master. The merciful are the poor and the meek. The poor, meek, and merciful are just different terms for kingdom citizens who live by another law, the law of love.
Why are the poor, meek, and merciful blessed? Because they’ve chosen to live with the grain of the universe rather than against it. The Maker of heaven and earth is poor, meek, and merciful. God, as Trinity, lives in love and is the ultimate source of the universe. The truest fact behind our existence is a God who serves. To be merciful is to be like our Father in heaven and to live as we were intended. Living in this mode of love and mercy allows us to enjoy the fruits of cooperating with reality. That’s mercy and that’s blessed.
A pastor greets a new family to his church and spends the next fifteen minutes extolling the virtues of the congregation and its talented members. He walks away hardly knowing anything about this new family, not to mention the basics of manners.
A missionary team visits a third-world country with the goal of helping “those poor people.” At the end of their trip, an indigenous pastor vows to never have these teams come again because of the worldly and materialistic influence they have on his young converts.
Two congregations find themselves subtly competing with each other. The one church, with a large membership, can out perform, out class, and out spend the smaller congregation on almost every front. Whenever these two churches meet for fellowship, the members of the smaller church have to endure long sessions where all the marvelous accomplishments of the larger church are recounted. The large congregation is glad they have something to offer the smaller, struggling church.
What do the welcoming pastor, affluent missionary team, and large dynamic congregation all have in common? They believe that ministry means telling others, “We’re great, try to relate.”
Does ministering to others mean showing off? Christians are called to spread the gospel. Is the gospel message a declaration that I have something other people don’t? Sadly, that’s what I used to think and I suspect many others do, too.
Embracing the gospel, rather than making me think that I’m better than others, should subdue my pride and deliver me from attitudes that hinder relationships. The gospel is all about restoration of relationships (with God and one another). Why do some Christians turn a relationship restoring message into a competitive opportunity to demonstrate their greatness? Possibly, because they misunderstand God and His gospel.
The story of the Bible isn’t a story of a conquering God. It’s the story of a serving and suffering God. Starting right from Genesis we see the Trinity making space for man, inviting him, accommodating him, and wooing him. The Prophets paint a picture of a Grieved Lover. Christ, God incarnate, explicitly says that if you have seen him you have seen the Father. And what do we see in Christ? A serving, healing, and suffering Lord. One who becomes poor so that others may become rich. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The triumph of God is a triumph of love. Ministry means transmitting this message.
If we truly want to spread the gospel, we must become poor in order to make others rich. Bragging about how talented, how smart, how strong, and how morally right we are won’t help anyone and it won’t identify us as children of the servant God. The goal is the healing of humanity and the restoration of community. Rather than declaring how wonderful we are in hopes of attracting people to God (or perhaps more truthfully, to us), our cry should be, “You’re great, I want to relate.” Ministry to others means serving them in weakness so that friendship and communion can flourish.
“…the living God fills heaven and earth, and yet he chooses to dwell particularly in one place. And that place is no longer a building, in Jerusalem or anywhere else. It is a family, the family of those who belong to the Messiah.” N.T. Wright, After You Believe
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Eph. 2:19-22
What is astonishing about the Jewish temple in the Old Testament is that it is where the omnipresent God chose to localize Himself in a particular place. The temple was the location where people could concretely find and relate to God. It was the physical setting where they could know His presence and commune with Him. It’s not that He couldn’t be found elsewhere, but it was the primary place to come in contact with Him.
What is perhaps more astonishing is that in the New Testament the church becomes the place where God localizes Himself. Consequently, it’s among God’s people we primarily come in contact with God. The church is God’s temple today. No where in the Bible do we get the modern image of an individual Christian finding God on her own, on a solitary quest to become the person God wants her to be. Niether do we get the idea that the church is simply a place where like-minded believers go to strengthen each other on their own personal Christian journeys. No, the church (and I don’t mean a building) is a sacred place where God dwells and where we come to know Him.
If we see the church (God’s people) as a holy place where the living God is manifest, then maintaining unity and commitment to the family of the Messiah becomes a top priority. Unfortunately, for many, church is a meeting they go to, and an optional one at that.
Lately we’ve been thinking about how to be our brother’s keeper in the best sense of that phrase. Living closely together makes any superficial ideas about our responsibility toward each other seem ridiculous. We know the answers are much deeper and more costly than you might typically hear. We were intrigued by Carolyn Arend’s song, “No Trespassing,” and felt there was a message in there for us.
The following are some “raw notes” of the concepts we teased out about how to be my brother’s keeper. I call them “raw notes” because they are straight from the fire hydrant – not much editing and not intended to be thoroughly polished. We basically saw our calling summed up in three “S”es: Support, Supply, and Signal.
Each person’s journey is hard and uniquely difficult.
- We listen.
- We’re friends that cheer each other on (believing in each other).
- We have empathy for each other (compassionate understanding).
- We make our resources available to each other (spiritual, material, financial, intellectual, vocational, and time).
- Prayer for each other.
- We provide guideposts for one another as to what is right and good.
- We should look to each other to see how to navigate life’s decisions. Life is complex and things don’t reduce to simplistic questions. There’s no rule book we can go to. If others have reservations about a particular activity or action we do, we shouldn’t judge that and blow it off, but consider that God may be supplying us through that.
- We should be willing to express concerns and we should be willing to receive them. We express concerns unapologetically, but not from a position of omniscience. Some exhortations are more judgment or opinion. Others are specific, concrete warnings that are clear from the scriptures.
- We receive expressed concerns gratefully, with full trust and understanding that the person isn’t saying they’re better than us or that they know everything. Basically, take it the same way you would want your expressed concern taken.
I think we often have false concepts about growth and maturity. We think that growth will mean that we’ll be less emotionally upset by negative situations. The farther along the Christian path we are, the less negative emotional energy we’ll experience. We envision maturity to be a state of emotional calm and peace that can’t be easily disturbed. Additionally, the more we grow the less needy we imagine we’ll be. As we navigate life and acquire knowledge and wisdom (including familiarity with scripture) we think we’ll find ourselves in a place of answers rather than questions, and having answers means we won’t be needy. Being needy, after all, is quite distasteful. Most likely these ideas come from the influence of stoicism and probably other philosophies. The Christian idea of growth, however, is very different.
The difficulty in trying to define Christian growth is that these other ideas have a sliver of truth in them. Growth should mean that we become more emotionally stable. We shouldn’t be flying off the handle or given to roller coaster like emotional rides. One of the reasons people have unstable emotional lives is because they lack self-control and understanding. Growth will mean development in both of these areas. But in other ways, growth will actually evoke stronger emotions then one would have otherwise. When understanding is developed, one has the ability to see beyond the superficial, and that means true injustice will be more easily perceived which should elicit strong emotions. Understanding can enable us to have a better picture of the whys behind people’s actions, and if those actions stem from selfish motives we will naturally be more grieved or angry (or both). Growth wakes us up, both to more good than we could see before, and more evil than we could see before.
Likewise, growth and maturity are going to involve gaining experience which should help us navigate the vicissitudes of life with greater skill. But the secret here is that the skill acquired isn’t about how to handle things single-handedly, but how to remain in an interdependent relationship with both God and other believers. Christian growth and maturity means growth as a person, someone who is capable of relationship with others. God is a communion of love (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and humanity was created to join in that communitarian dance. We are, at the heart of our design, relational beings and we come into our fullness when we can relate well with other people. Christian maturity is relational maturity.
As we grow we roll with the punches better and are able to respond to negativity more beneficially and less vindictively, but it doesn’t mean we have fewer “punches” or disturbances. Our lessons become more profound, but not necessarily less frequent. Maturity means we’re more open, more teachable, more aware, more sensitive to real injustice and less sensitive to personal offense. In short, we’re better persons, more capable of communion, but more vulnerable to the grief that comes from those things that destroy relationships.
In N.T. Wright’s new book, After You Believe, he brings out a powerful thought about the metaphor Paul uses for the church – the human body. In 1 Cor. 12 Paul uses the human body to describe the church, “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (verse 12). What Wright points out, however, is that this is not just a random metaphor Paul is using, but rather it has greater significance than to just illustrait a unity in diversity principle.
The body metaphor is in fact a metonymy, “A figure of speech that consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another.” In other words, the church being represented as a human body points to the reality that God’s people are a symbol of the new humanity, inaugurated in Christ through His life, death, and resurrection. Through Christ, the second Adam, what it is to be human has been redefined. Instead of the individualistic, self-promoting way people have lived on earth since the first Adam’s fall, Christ as the firstborn among many brothers has put humanity back on course and shown us a new way to be human, a way in which love and servanthood are the norm. The church embodies this new humanity through its life and unity.
This concept is why virtue and unity is not a nice option for the church, but critical to its mission. Without love being lived out practically among God’s people, we miss the entire purpose of the gospel. Community is at the heart of the Christian message.
“There is an appropriateness about this metaphor; or, if you like, this is not only metaphor, but also metonymy. The construction, and proper operation, of a new way of being human is exactly what it’s all about. A human body isn’t just an illustration drawn at random. It is a signpost directly into the heart of what’s going on…The challenge to live as a single body is the challenge to live as the New Human. When the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah comes to dwell in Christians, individually and corporately, this happens so they can be – all together – the place where his genuinely human life actually and physically continues within the life of the present world.”
“Since ‘love’ is the primary virtue (Col. 3:14), community is the primary context.” N.T. Wright, After You Believe
“That which is going to be true in the future…must be anticipated in the present.” N.T. Wright, After You Believe
“…people tend to go in one of two directions when they think of how to behave. You can live by rules, by a sense of duty, by an obligation imposed on you whether you feel like doing it or not. Or you can declare that you are free from all that sort of thing and able to be yourself, to discover your true identity, to go with your heart, to be authentic and spontaneous….What are we here for in the first place? The fundamental answer…is that what we’re ‘here for’ is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by ‘following Jesus.'” N.T. Wright, After You Believe