© 2020 Evan D. Garner
“One was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” Today is All Saints’ Day, the day when the church celebrates all of her saints—those who lived “not only in ages past” but also the “hundreds of thousands still” here on the earth. Saints of God are the holy men and women and children who live among us and in every generation who, as the hymn declares, love to do Jesus’ will. But what does that really mean? What does it take to be a saint? How much do you really have to love doing Jesus’ will?
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus describes a way of life that we often associate with sainthood: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted.” Isn’t that what sainthood looks like and sounds like—meekness and mercy, persecution and poverty of spirit? But how will even our best intentions get us to that vision of holiness? What could ever make the hymn we sing about wanting to be saints of God and meaning to be saints of God something more than a Sunday-school pipe dream?
We can take heart in knowing that Jesus’ words aren’t a prescription for holiness. They aren’t a recipe for sainthood. They are a description of blessedness. These are the characteristics of God’s favor. These words describe the people and places where God and God’s salvation are to be found. The only imperative Jesus offers comes at the very end, when he tells his hearers to rejoice and be glad. As strange as it may sound for a preacher to say it, those of us who wish to be numbered among the saints of God aren’t supposed to go out and pursue a mournful countenance or purity of heart. In fact, as Christians we believe exactly the opposite—that saints of God aren’t holy people whom God claims for his own but ordinary, flawed, sinful people like you and me whom God claims for his own in order that they might be made holy.
The way that Matthew sets up this gospel episode is important. Right before this passage starts, at the end of Matthew 4, we see that Jesus’ popularity has undergone a meteoric rise. Starting with the villages near his home town, Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people.” And the people noticed. His fame spread quickly throughout the region, and, before long, crowds from all over were flocking to him so that he might heal the sick, diseased, lame, and demon possessed among them. Soon he was unable to go anywhere without a great crowd following his every move. And that’s where today’s gospel lesson starts—with Jesus surveying the crowd around him and deciding to go up on the mountain to sit down.
Matthew doesn’t tell us that Jesus left the crowd or that he went away from them. Nor does he mention that the crowd dispersed and went home. No, all he tells us is that Jesus saw the crowd and then went up on the mountain and sat down and began to speak to the disciples and teach them about the kingdom of God. But where did the crowd go? Where did the unrelenting mass of people who were desperate to see and hear and touch Jesus go? I don’t think that they went anywhere. I think that, as Jesus began to teach his disciples the strange truth about where God’s blessedness is to be found, the crowd was standing close enough to hear him—close enough to overhear what Jesus was teaching the disciples. And I like to imagine that the crowd, who had been impressed by Jesus’ ministry but hadn’t quite understood what he was all about, heard these strange words as an invitation to a new way of seeing the world.
Blessed are the poor in spirit? Blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are the meek and merciful? Those who yearn for righteousness and who suffer persecution? In what bizarro world is that true? In this world, Jesus tells us, when we finally see the world as God sees it. Jesus did not come to the earth to win any political campaigns or to build a new religious institution. He came in order that we might be saved from our sins and reconciled to God and to each other. And that doesn’t happen in places where people already have everything figured out, in communities where everyone has all of their needs met, in households where prosperity insulates people from the brokenness of the world. No, God’s salvation—God’s blessing and favor—come to those who are desperate for it. And Jesus came to show us that truth.
He is the one who reveals strength in weakness and salvation through sacrifice. He is the one who welcomes the outcast and lifts up the downtrodden. He is the one who shows God’s love for the unlovable and God’s blessing among those whom the world holds in scorn. He is the one who dies a shameful death so that sinners like you and me might have everlasting life. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—to see the world through those eyes. That’s what it means to be a saint of God—not to be an example of holiness for all the world to admire but to give our lives over to the one who came to proclaim God’s blessedness among the poor, the hungry, the meek, and the mournful. And those of us who believe that—who believe that that’s where God’s blessedness is to be found—are the ones who are made holy by God in Jesus Christ. That’s what makes us saints.
If that sounds strange to you, don’t worry: it is strange. It’s strange to think of the poor in spirit as the ones who display the riches of faith. It’s strange to see those who mourn as the ones who have a claim on true joy. In fact, it is so strange that, as Jesus warns his disciples, the world will push back against those who inhabit that strange approach to life. “Blessed are you,” he tells them, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And what are his disciples to do in the face of such rejection? “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” If Jesus isn’t speaking these strange words directly to you, don’t worry. You’re still close enough to hear them, and the invitation is yours if you want it.
In every generation, there are saints among us who have caught a glimpse of what the world looks like through Jesus’ eyes. They are the strange sort of people who have devoted their lives to the belief that the way of poverty, struggle, emptiness, and loss is the way that leads to abundant, overflowing life. They are the ones who know what it means to be saved not by the goodness of their own making but by the blessedness given to them by Jesus. They are, in fact, disciples of Jesus—sinners made holy by the grace of God, chosen and beloved to become God’s saints, “and there’s not any reason, no not the least, why [we] shouldn’t be one too.”