1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Two pastors were standing by the side of the road one day, holding up a large sign on which they had written, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!” A car approached, and the driver rolled down his window to yell “Take a hike, you religious nuts!” before speeding on down the road. A few seconds later, the two pastors heard the sound of screeching tires and a giant splash. “Do you think,” said one pastor to the other, “we should have just written ‘The Bridge Is Out’ instead?”
The end is indeed near for our sermon series on God’s Beautiful Attitudes. Today we come to the very last beatitude: Blessed are those who are persecuted. As far as grand finales go, this one seems a little strange at first. Christian writer John Koessler puts it this way:
“Imagine you are in the market for a new car. You visit the dealer and the salesman who is showing you the latest model takes you for a test drive. As you turn out of the parking lot, he launches into his sales pitch: “Three hours in this car,” he says, “and your back will be so out of joint, you will need physical therapy to walk upright again! The cost of repairs alone will put my children through college. And when you drive it down the street, every head will turn, because everyone who sees you will be laughing at you.”
Would you buy that car?
Jesus, at the climax of his sales pitch for the kingdom of God says, “blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In Luke, he says “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” I know of one pastor who refers to this beatitude as “the blessing that no one wants.”
And yet, here it is. Not only is it the last of the beatitudes, it is (in both Matthew and Luke) the longest of the beatitudes. In Matthew, it is the only one of the eight addressed directly to the listeners (“blessed are you”). In both Matthew and Luke, it is the only beatitude that is accompanied by additional words of commentary and explanation, and the only beatitude that comes with a command: “Rejoice and be glad!” (which is probably the last thing you’d want to do if any of these things happened to you). In Matthew, the promise for this last beatitude is the same as the first one: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . Blessed are the persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
All of these things together indicate that this beatitude carries a special significance–it is placed at the end for a reason. It’s important. I’m going to argue today that this beatitude–blessed are the persecuted–is both a climax and a summary. It is Jesus’ most essential teaching in a nutshell. So basically, you all chose a great day to come to church!
Blessed are the persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Before we talk about what persecution is, and who is persecuted, I’d like to spend a little time talking about what persecution isn’t.
For over 1,000 years, Christianity has been (and remains) the largest, most populous belief-system in the world. To put it differently, there are more Christians in the world today than any other single religious system.
According to a 2015 study (by New World Wealth), 55% of the total world wealth belongs to Christians, followed by Muslims (5.8%) , Hindus (3.3%) and Jewish people (1.1%). Seven out of the ten wealthiest countries in the world are predominantly Christian.
In the United States, over 70% of the population self-identifies as Christian. In our highest legislative body, the United States Congress, 92% of our elected officials identify as Christians. And despite frequent claims to the contrary in every generation, 100% of United States Presidents have identified themselves as Christians.
Christianity, taken as a whole, is the most powerful and wealthy religion in the world. And there are more Christians in America than in any other nation. So when I hear Christians here in America claiming that they are persecuted for their religious beliefs, I’m somewhat skeptical.
Please don’t misunderstand me–there are Christians in other parts of the world who are certainly persecuted for their religious beliefs. I will come back to that in a little while.
But usually when I hear Christians in this country crying persecution, what they are really complaining about is a slight loss of relative power and privilege in our culture (like when my children tell me they are “starving” because they missed their afternoon snack). Sometimes (like recently in Arizona and Indiana) the cries of persecution mean “we have lost the right to discriminate against others whose beliefs we disagree with.
In a democratic system of government, it is virtually impossible for a minority to persecute those who have the majority in wealth, power, and numbers. That’s not persecution; it’s a persecution complex.
Cries of persecution by American Christians become all the more hollow when held up next to the very real persecution of Christians in present-day Kenya, China, Central Asia and parts of the Middle East. All of the global partners our church supports have worked in these sensitive places. Michael, whom many of you have met and remember, knew that I would be preaching on this beatitude today, and from his own experiences had the following to share:
“(I’ve) been thinking about the whole persecution thing the last couple of days. (God’s speaking a lot about it right now.) We’re seeing increases in the level and intensity of persecution in various places around the globe as well–especially China (a friend and his team were arrested there last week; had a note this morning from another friend in China who is feeling it as well). At any rate, here’s what I would want people to remember about persecution: Persecution has always preceded an increase in the harvest. In every instance of increased persecution, we’ve seen it followed by growth in the numbers and maturity of the church in the same area. I believe Jesus “blesses” the persecuted because blessing is the calling forth of the intents of God on a person (or people). Persecution forces us into increased dependence on God and increased interdependence on the community of faith. Both of which are original intents of God. And, the world will know you are disciples by your fruit–interdependence, love, joy, peace (shalom), etc.”
I’m grateful for the work that Michael and James and others do, as American Christians, to actually leave behind their place of power and security, to live in solidarity with Christians who are in the minority and genuinely persecuted for their faith. I’m grateful that we have the opportunity to help them do that, through our prayers, our financial support, and our ongoing relationship with them. I pray that Michael is right, that the persecution we see in the news today will precede growth in numbers and maturity for those communities.
In just about every sermon I’ve preached in this series, I have stressed that the beatitudes are not a magical formula that we can follow in order to be blessed; they aren’t behaviors or attitudes we can adopt in order to win God’s favor or inherit the kingdom of heaven. I don’t recommend that those who are not persecuted should seek out persecution. Rather, what this beatitude teaches is that God loves those who are persecuted, they matter in God’s kingdom, and therefore they should matter to everyone else as well.
But who are “the persecuted?” So far, we’ve talked about persecution of Christians (perceived and real). But I don’t think that’s the entirety of what Jesus was talking about. Christians didn’t even exist yet in the largely Jewish crowd that Jesus was speaking to. Besides, in the 2,000 year history of Christianity, Christians have done about as much or more persecuting of others (Jews, Muslims, heretics, women, minorities and even other Christians) as we have been on the receiving end of such persecution.
Jesus said “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And I think the key words here are “on my account.”
Later in Matthew, in a famous parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The righteous ask him when they did these things, and Jesus replies, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Who are those persecuted on account of Jesus? The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. Sound familiar? It should. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the poor and the meek. We’re talking about the same group of people here. And more: Blessed are the merciful, the purehearted, the peacemakers–those are the ones who are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick and imprisoned.
In this final beatitude, Jesus encapsulates all of the other beatitudes in a reciprocal economy, which he calls “The Kingdom of God” where those who are persecuted are shown mercy, those who are excluded are welcomed, those who are hated are shown love — regardless of religion, race, orientation, or political affiliation.
Most days, we live in a world that is pretty divided: Haves and have-nots. Insiders and outsiders. Citizens and Foreigners. Liberals and Conservatives. Educated and Uneducated. Gay and Straight. Black and White. Accepted and Rejected.
And whatever category we fall in, we tend to think that the way to become whole is by gaining (or keeping) power over the other side. If we become bigger or stronger than those on the other side, then we can defeat them, or demolish them and we will be the only ones left. Then we will be whole.
But if we’re actually successful in that, we won’t be whole…we’ll be diminished.
In the beatitudes, Jesus continually gives us another option. He looks at our divisions, at both sides of the line drawn in the sand, and he sees the side that is smaller, weaker, more vulnerable, more persecuted. He calls them blessed. Important. Part of the whole. And then he steps over the line, to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and he invites us to join him on the other side. The smaller side.
Not so we can be blessed…but so we can be whole again.
Not by getting more, but by letting go. Not by winning, but by losing.
The mystery and the beauty of the beatitudes is this:
We become whole when we help others to become whole.
We become holy when we recognize, honor, and celebrate the holiness in all of God’s children.