Up until recently, I had thought that the Beatitudes and the verses that follow (I extend the reading to v. 15) were to address the crowd that had gathered. The meaning of this passage changes for me when I notice that Jesus spoke them to his disciples, away from the crowd. The previous chapter in Matthew has people bringing all kinds of invalids to Jesus for healing. I imagine the disciples being exhausted by this, perhaps fearing that there would be no end to those in need. The disciples might even have been a bit jealous of the time and energy Jesus was spending on the sick, the broken, the outcasts, and the unclean.
So Jesus sees the crowds and goes up on the mountain. His disciples followed him and sat with him. That’s when Jesus told them a bit more about the crowds who were coming to him with great need. These were not just needy, desperate people. These were human beings who are blessed by God. They are poor, grieving, meek, and hungry people who deserve time and attention; they belong to God and should not be turned away.
Lest they be overcome with guilt or shame at their complaining about the crowds, Jesus reassures the disciples, too. They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the ones who will be persecuted for the sake of the Gospel. And, they, too are blessed. Of course the line between the crowd and the disciples is not so clearly drawn, but I imagine the disciples felt reassured with these promises of blessing for all who followed Jesus. That is, until Jesus continued.
The disciples are part of the crowd, but they also have greater responsibility. They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They must retain their saltiness and never let the light be hidden or grow dim for the sake of all who come seeking. If they took in these words, those first disciples would have been awed at the charge given to them.
I think the role of the church in society today is the same as it was 2000 years ago. The church exists to be an agent of comfort, nurture, love, mercy, and peace in Christ’s name. We know more about human sickness and environmental changes than we did generations ago. Parents don’t have children with leprosy but there is autism and leukemia, for example. We also have a global awareness that simply did not exist in Jesus’ time. So the scope of Church is bigger. We have a responsibility to care for our planet, our neighbors, and the events around the globe. Offering comfort and healing extends to the whole of creation rather than just to the people of our communities. Mercy is needed everywhere.
In some ways it seems that people have a greater need for a sense of community and a place of belonging than they have in generations past. The church needs to continue to offer these things in the name of Christ. While the role of the church has not changed, fewer people are responding to the way in which church is offered. The problem is that our understanding of church, the shape of it, not the purpose of it, needs to shift. While it is important to maintain traditions and identity while discovering what might be in the future, it is necessary to consider ways of changing now. It’s possible that church does not have to be only on Sunday mornings, with organ music, ancient hymns, uncomfortable pews, and paper bulletins. We can try meeting in other places, at other times, with newer music, and a less formal structure. The details of how and where the body of Christ gathers is less important than effectively being Christ’s agent in the world.
This familiar passage reminds me of the responsibility Christians have of bringing Christ into the world, not just in name but in action. Jesus told his first disciples that they were the ones who would minister to the crowds in his name and it would not be easy or even predictable. No one would argue the point that society is more complicated than ever before with instant access to all kinds of information. But human beings have the same needs for healing, comfort, and mercy. Perhaps this passage reveals what is most necessary for the church today. The things that we think define us—buildings and community traditions—are less important than reaching out with mercy and peace.
RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 2, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:18-31