SERMON TEXT - The Adventus of Christ (First Sunday of Advent)
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, which marks the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
The English word advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’ and speaks of the coming or the arrival of something, or someone that is important or note-worthy.
Within the Greco-Roman world of the early Church, the Latin word 'adventus' had a very specific cultural meaning relating to the Roman Emperor. It referred to the ‘second coming’ of the Emperor to a part of the empire that had been rocked by some kind of disaster.
Much like our politicians today, if there was a natural disaster in some part of the Empire, like an earthquake or volcanic eruption, the emperor would make a visit to the city to survey the damage and to give encouragement to the people of the area. In doing so, he would bring with him a large sum of money to be used for the rebuilding of the city. This would do two things, it would maintain the loyalty of the people of that region to the Emperor, and also ensure the ongoing strength and stability of the Empire itself. Everyone knew that the emperor would one day return to the city in order to see what the people of that city had done with the money in order to rebuild what had been damaged.
This return, or second coming of the Emperor was described with the Latin word adventus. In Greek, the word would have been parousia.
When word was sent out that the Emperor was returning to the area there would obviously be a surge in work and activity to make sure everything was ready for his arrival. And as he drew closer, a lookout would have been placed in a strategic place to sound the call to tell the people that that the emperor Caesar was near. And when the Emperor would arrive, it was marked with the sound of a loud trumpet blast. As Marty Solomon writes, the city would not want to be caught napping with the Emperor knocking on the city gates.
When the Emperor arrived at the city, the first thing he would do would be to pay his obligatory respects to the dead, stopping at the graveyards that could normally be found outside the entrance to most Greco-Roman cities.
After the Emperor had paid his respects, honouring the dead and those who had gone before, the people of the city would then go out to meet him. Marty Solomon writes that this meeting between the Emperor and the people of a city was referred to in Greek with the words eis apantesien. And the purpose was to go out from the city to meet the emperor with joy, taking him metaphorically speaking by the hand to show him the great work that had been done in restoring the city.
In our passage from Thessalonians today the Apostle Paul speaks of the return, the parousia, or the adventus of Christ, and in doing so, Paul borrows imagery of the return, the parousia or adventus of the Roman Emperor. You can hear the Greco-Roman imagery echoing through the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The context in which Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians was written was to a Church community that was expecting the immanent return of Christ. And as a result, a number of people in the community had become lazy. If Christ was soon going to return, what use was there in engaging in any work at all, whether physical labour or work for the Kingdom of God?
Paul’s purpose in describing the return of Christ as an adventus or as a parousia was intended to communicate to the Thessalonian Church that they had work to do. As Marty Solomon writes, “...because God left them with a deposit and expected them to use it to restore, heal and rebuild.
In the passage from Thessalonians, in the same way as the people of a city would go out to ‘eis apantesin’ (pronounced ‘ice apantaysin’) or meet the Emperor and to show him the work that had been done in his name to rebuild and restore, so Paul suggests that when the trumpet sounds for the return of Christ, so the Christians of Thessolonica would get caught up to ‘eis apantesin’ the Lord, to meet Christ and to show him the work that they had done in his name to restore, reconcile, heal and rebuild.
Marty Solomon makes an interesting observation, that many of those Christians who speak today of the immanent return of Christ, and what they would call the rapture, when Christ will supposedly swoop down to take up all the true believers up to heaven have a similar theology of disengagement from life in this world. If Christ is to return and rescue Christians from this world, why bother with engaging in healing, reconciling, restoring and rebuilding work in this world. But, as Marty Solomon writes, this is exactly the idea that the Apostle Paul is teaching against in his letter to the Thessalonians.
As Marty Solomon writes: “Paul is not arguing for a disengaged theology… This is not a theology of disembodied evacuation; it’s a theology of physical participation.”
The early Christian’s expectation of the immanent return of Christ did not materialise. At different times in history various Christian groups have revived the expectation that the return of Christ is just around the corner. The coronavirus pandemic may have been another of those occasions that has fueled such an expectation. But I’m not so sure how helpful or healthy it is to live with the immanent expectation of Christ’s return. I think there is a danger that it can cause people to mentally check out of living responsibly in this world and prevent us from making wise long term decisions. But I do believe that the symbolism of the Second Coming of Christ still has value for us in fueling a wider and deeper hope within us; that hope and belief that despite the upheavals that often take place in this world in some overall and ultimate sense, God is still in control and will bring the deepest hopes and dreams of the human heart to completion, and that in the meantime, there is work to be done: healing, rebuilding, reconciling and restoring work, empowered by the spirit of Christ’s love in our hearts.
Over the centuries, the word Adventus came to be used for that Season of four weeks in the Christian Calendar leading up to Christmas. Advent has traditionally had a triple role…
1. Preparing the hearts of Christians for the remembrance and the celebration of the birth of Christ into the world 2000 years ago.
2. Secondly, the season of advent, has been seen as a focussed period in which the hearts of all Christians can be nurtured and cultivated, rebuilt and restored so that that the presence of Christ’s love and wisdom might shine ever brighter in our hearts, lives, words and actions. Preparing the ground for Christ’s presence to metaphorically be born within us again enabling the return of Christ into the world through the lives of those who bear his name: Christians.
3. Thirdly, the Season of advent, and particularly the first Sunday of Advent have been an opportunity for fixing the sights of Christians on the ultimate hope when God will bring all things to their completion in Christ’s love, when God’s Presence and Kingdom would be known in all it’s fullness, the hope of the day when God will be “all and in all”, when every tear will be wiped away and all things restored in Christ’s infinite light and love.
Over the past 20-30 years, as Christmas has been more and more been secularised and as it has been hijacked by a materialistic and commercial agenda, the call has grown in some quarters for Christ to be put back into Christmas. Just this week I was quite challenged by a meme on Facebook. It read as follows: Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, love the outcast, forgive the wrongdoer, inspire the hopeless.
And so, on this first Sunday of Advent, as we journey towards Christmas, celebrating the coming of God’s love in the birth of Christ, seeking for that love to be born again within our own hearts and looking forward to the day when all things will be brought to completion in that Love, as Marty Solomon writes, may we be reminded that we have work to do here – today. Amen.
SERMON TEXT - Blessed are the Persecuted, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
Outside Westminister Abbey stands a statue of Oscar Romero which stands alongside a number of other significant modern Christian witnesses. Oscar Romero was born on the 15th August 1917 in the country of El Salvador.
At the age of 14 he felt a call to go into the priesthood and after a period of training and seminary was ordained a priest. He was apparently a very good preacher but also did work outside of his normal parish work visiting those in prison and working with others in the Church to help provide help and food for the poor.
His compassion for the poor earned him a great amount of admiration from many Salvadoreans.
In 1970 at the age of 53 Oscar Romero was made a bishop. Just 4 years later, violence in El Salvador began to increase as the government and army began killing poor people who began to stand up for their rights in an oppressive situation.
After the army killed three people in a village within his diocese, Oscar Romero sought to comfort the families while also writing to the President of El Salvador to protest at what had happened.
In 1977 Oscar Romero was elevated to the position of Archbishop of San Salvador. Initially the rich people of San Salvador were happy about his appointment as Archbishop because they believed that he would pull his priests into line and stop them standing up for the poor.
But a few weeks after becoming Archbishop, his friend Fr. Rutilio was shot and killed along with two other companions. The following Sunday, Oscar Romero cancelled services across the whole diocese, holding only one service at the Cathedral. Having got the attention of the media, he spoke out at the service against the murders. Over the next three years, every Sunday, with his sermon broadcast by radio, he continued to speak out against the military violence and oppression. This was not taken too kindly by those in government and the rich and powerful who benefited from the Status Quo. Over the period of 1977 to 1980, he began to receive numerous death threats. The atmosphere was charged. Archbishop Romero realised that death was coming, and he had come to accept it.
On the 23rd March, on national radio, Archbishop Oscar Romero chose to speak boldly and directly to the army with these words: “In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each and every day, I beg you, I implore you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!”
The next day, 24th March 1980, The Military Major Roberto D’Aubuisson secretly gave orders for Oscar Romero to be eliminated. At 6.26 pm, while standing at the altar celebrating communion, Oscar Romero was shot with a single marksman’s bullet and he fell, one could say significantly and symbolically at the foot of a huge crucifix before the image of his Lord, who had also been brutally murdered at the hands of the Roman military machine.
We come to the final beatitude today in Matthew 5:11 which reads: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Some commentors suggest that this is the blessing that nobody wants, the blessing of persecution for doing or standing up for what is right and just, loving, merciful and good in the world.
Some in fact have suggested that this beatitude was never in the original list of Jesus but was perhaps added by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel as he wrote his gospel to an early Christian community that was experiencing persecution. Some would suggest that the clue is to be found in verses 12-13 where the wording changes from “Blessed are those...” to “Blessed are you...” almost as if the writer is directing these words to his readers or listeners, seeking to interpret the spirit and the meaning of Jesus into a new situation.
Regardless of whether they were spoken directly from the mouth of Jesus or whether they were Matthew’s attempt to make the spirit and the teachings of Jesus relevant to a new situation of persecution, this verse resonates with the story of Jesus own life.
While a number of the New Testament writers sought to interpret the reason for Jesus death, through the sacrificial metaphors of the Old Testament, suggesting that Jesus’ death was part of a divine plan to bring about forgiveness and salvation, and certainly that is a dominant view in most of the Epistles in the New Testament, there is also another perspective that is represented in the Gospels, that Jesus death was a consequence, a consequence of a life lived for goodness, love and mercy that began to upset and deeply threaten those who held religious, cultural and political power in Jesus day. .
Mark’s Gospel is the first of the Gospels to have been written, and very early in the story, we see a plot to take his life after he heals a man on the Holy Day of the Sabbath, apparently breaking the rules as understood and held by the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
An early attempt on Jesus life is also reflected also very early in Luke’s Gospel in Luke 4. At Jesus opening sermon in Nazareth, while preaching in his home synagogue about God’s grace and mercy shown to foreigners, the insular and narrow minded nationalist Jews of his home-town took offence and attempted to throw him off a cliff.
Jesus’ values and his love were apparently too large and expansive for many who held authority in the Jewish culture of his day.
-Firstly, he had a different interpretation of the Old Testament laws than many of his religious opponents. Jesus interpreted the laws through the lens of love and mercy. For Jesus, the laws were a means to an end, and that end was love, goodness and mercy. But for the Pharisees, the laws were and end in themselves and they were interpreted with no flexibility and certainly not in the name of love. When combined with the fact that Jesus was attracting the attention of the crowds who followed him, the Pharisees and Sadducees and teachers of the Law, all for different reasons saw Jesus as a threat to their authority. He was too radically redefining the boundaries of their culture and religion. If he had had only a few followers that would have been ok, but the fact that he had so many followers, left those who held the reigns of religious and cultural power threatened and worried.
-Secondly, Jesus hung out with all the wrong people. In effect, Jesus loved beyond the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. He showed love and care towards prostitutes and other sinners and spent large portions of his time with the poor crowds. Again, if he didn’t have such a large following, this would have been ok, but because he was so popular, those who benefited from the status quo were worried that he was destroying the foundations of what they believed it meant to be Jewish.
-Thirdly, it would seem that the final act that precipitated Jesus death was the cleansing of the temple. In cleansing the temple he was not just reacting to the use of the temple as a kind of market place. He was more specifically reacting to the way the religious elite were exploiting the poor for their own selfish economic gain. He was reacting against injustice. Again, for those with power and authority, this was a threat not only to their position in society, but also an economic threat. It was a threat to an economic system that was working for their own benefit.
Jesus vision and heart were too large for those in authority in Jesus day. He was too threatening to to both their own authority and to their comfort.
And that is the problem with humanity as a whole, we all prefer comfort to the truth. We don’t like our comfort threatened, even when it is threatened by goodness, fairness, mercy and love.
John’s Gospel puts it a different way… “the light came into the world, but people preferred the darkness” (John 3:19)
The reminder of this last beatitude is that to be a follower of Jesus and seek to live truly in his way of truthfulness, goodness, mercy and love will almost certainly at some point get you into trouble.
But where is the blessing in this? Where is the blessing in being persecuted for doing the right good and honourable thing in life?
The beatitude says “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for there is the Kingdom of heaven? But what exactly does that mean? If you are persecuted for doing what is right, good merciful and loving, it is surely a sign that you are already living as a citizen of the Kingdom of God and that you are already in touch with a love that is deathless, a love and a goodness that not even death can rob from us.
The apostle Paul new of this deathless love of God that nothing in this world could take from him. In Philippians he writes For me to live is Christ. To die is gain (Philippians 1:21). This is a person who has found the freedom of God’s Kingdom that transcends this life.
As Paul writes so powerfully in the book of Romans 8:31-39
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? ...Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for they have already found the treasure, the pearl of great price that neither death not life can take away from them. Amen.
SERMON TEXT: Blessed are the peacemakers
I was really moved this past week to read the story of Albert Goering. Albert Goering was the brother of Hermann Goering, one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi Party who had famously vowed to destroy the RAF. Albert was however, quite different from his brother Hermann. Albert never became a Nazi. While Herman Goering was found guilty in 1946 of being complicit in the Holocaust, Albert by contrast often risked his life to save those the Nazi’s were bent on destroying.
When the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, he moved to Austria and spoke out against the Nazi Party.
When Germany however annexed Austria in 1938, Albert rushed to distribute visa’s to Jewish residents to try and get them out and save them from what he could see was surely coming. He was also reported to have confronted Nazi soldiers in the streets who were forcing elderly Jewish people to do degrading things in public, such as washing themselves in the street. These were acts of bravery which could easily have resulted in him being shot on the spot.
During the second world war, Albert Goering managed to save hundreds of Jews as well as many anti Nazi dissidents. He also used his connection and influence with his brother Hermann to persuade him to release many prisoners of concentration camps under the pretext that they were “good Jews”.
During this period, Albert was in fact arrested on a number of occasions by the Nazi’s. Each time however he was fortunate to be released due to his connection with his brother Hermann.
Ironically however, after the war, Albert was imprisoned for 2 years for the very same reason, that he was the brother of the infamous Hermann Goering, and when he was finally released, this same fact of being the brother of Hermann Goering made him unemployable despite the fact that he had risked his life for so many. Although he died penniless, Albert Goering was looked after by many of those he had helped and saved during the war.
In our 8th Beatitude today, we hear the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
What the story of Albert Goering reveals is that being a peace-maker is often a costly thing. Many people in this world like the idea of peace, but there are not as many who are willing to pay the price, working for peace in this world. Albert Goering was one of them. And to those who were recipients of his help in a time of terror and violence, to them, he must truly have felt like a son of God, one in whom God’s likeness could be seen.
Returning to the beatitude, in Matthew 5:9, the word that is used for peace is the Greek word (i-ray'-nay) eiréné from which we get the English name Irene. The root word is eirō, which means "to join, or tie together into a whole". Instead of dividing the world into categories us versus them, the peacemakers of this world are those who often risk their lives to bring people together, to join them into one whole. Peacemakers are those who see beyond our human divisions to see the common oneness of our humanity.
The word that Jesus would have used would have been the Aramaic word ‘shlama’ or ‘shaloma’ which in Hebrew is word Shalom. The word Shalom speaks of a peace and a wholeness that encompasses the whole of life. It refers firstly to a deep inner peace that comes from a life that is in alignment with God, a heart in which the deep peace and presence of God dwells, a heart that has learned the art of being still and becoming aware of the Presence of the Great I Am who dwells at the heart of all of life. The heart of Shalom or inner peace, is a heart that has given up all forms of inner conflict within oneself and towards others. And from those still quiet waters within, that peace is able to radiate outward towards the rest of life, so that the person of Shalom, radiating God’s Peace, is brought into alignment and right relationship with our fellow human beings and with creation itself, in relationships with others that are fair and just, loving and caring so that those who live in the shalom of God seek the highest benefit not just for their fellow human beings but also for God’s creation as well.
The life of Jesus is a supreme example of a life lived in God’s Shalom. And so according to Paul, Jesus life reveals God’s secret plan from the foundation of the world, to bring all things together in oneness and unity and thereby in harmony and peace. But again, Paul recognises that this is costly work for which Jesus sacrifices his life. Paul writes in chapter 2:14 “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… his purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body, to reconcile both of them to God, by the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
Getting back to the beatitude, William Barclay points out that the blessing of this beatitude is on the peace-makers, and not necessarily on the peace-lovers. It is not enough to just love peace as an idea and do nothing about it in practice. There are many peace lovers in this world, but very few peace-makers, very few who actually put their desire for peace into the kind of actions that actually make for peace.
I heard on the BBC news this week that a recent survey shows that a lot of people like the idea of saving the planet and building a cleaner more sustainable world, but more than half of those interviewed indicated that they were not willing to make changes to their own lives to make that possible.
On this Remembrance Sunday, as we pause to remember the sacrifice of those who chose not to simply live for themselves, but who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of protecting the world from a cruel and violent Nazi Empire, so I believe their witness asks of us today whether we like the idea of peace or whether we are willing to make sacrifices in order to help it to become a reality. Do we like the idea of a clean, peaceful and stable planet, or are we willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the peace, wellness, wholeness and well-being of the planet?
To truly live in the way of Shalom, the peace of God, and the peace for which Jesus lived and died and sacrificed his life, it means that we cannot simply aim for our own little private peace, but that we should desire and actively seek this peace for others too, that we should desire the health and well-being of the whole and not just our little part and that inevitably incudes the whole of creation. And not just that we should desire it, but that we should translate that desire into actions, even if it is costly to do so.
The second half of the 8th beatitude tell us that those who are peace-makers will be called children of God. William Barclay writes that in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages there are not a lot of adjectives. He writes that often when ancient Hebrew speakers wished to describe something, they used not an adjective, but rather the phrase “son of…”. And so Barnabas in Acts who must clearly have had a warm, empathetic and comforting way about him, is called “a son of comfort” or a “son of consolation”. As William Barclay puts it when this beatitude says: “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the sons of God”, what it means is: “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be doing God-like work.”
A few months ago I came across the following story: Two senior British officers were surveying the carnage of the battle field at the end of one of the great battles of WW1. One was an atheist and the other a Christian. The atheist said to his Christian comrade, 'Where is your God in all this?" (Where is your God in all of this conflict, violence, destruction and death. Just then two British soldiers staggered into view carrying a badly wounded enemy soldier, and the Christian replied, 'There is my God'.
It is a fascinating story. Even in midst of a situation of conflict, those two British soldiers, as they rescued from the battlefield, not just the fallen and wounded soldiers from their own side, but also the fallen and wounded enemy soldiers, they were engaging in God-like work.
Peace-making always begins as an inside job. If there is war and hatred and division within our own hearts, how will we be peace-makers in the world?
What an amazing thing that those two British soldiers could engage in a terrible war without hatred in their own hearts. Their desire was not just for the life and well-being of themselves and those they were fighting with, but somehow, miraculously, their desire was also for the well-being and the health and wholeness even of their enemies.
In that act of rescuing wounded enemy soldiers who had fallen on the battlefield, those two British soldiers were acting in God-like ways, engaging in God-like work, paradoxically living as peace-makers in the middle of one of the greatest conflicts the world has ever seen,
“Blessed are the peace-makers” says Jesus, “for they shall be called children, sons and daughters of God.”
SERMON TEXT: Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God (Matt 5:8)
I’d like to begin by telling the story of Joy Davidman. Joy Davidman was a well known and prominent person in her own right, but today, most people would know her as the wife of C.S. Lewis. They were married for only 4 years before her death in 1960.
Before meeting CS Lewis, Joy Davidman was a well known American poet and writer in her own right who had often been referred to as a child prodigy.
She came from a Polish Orthodox Jewish background. Although her grandfather was devout, her father was an outspoken atheist. Her father instilled within her not only his own commitment to atheism, but also a self-confidence and a high sense of self-esteem that combined with her great intelligence, enabled her to be become a high achiever in life, earning a Masters Degree from Columbia University at the age of Just twenty. Some suggested in fact that her self-confidence and hi self-esteem bordered on an arrogance and an egotism, something that she herself would have admitted later in her life.
Despite her early success, Joy’s life was however shaken by a series of events in her life revealing that beneath her self-confidence and arrogance was in fact a deep fear of loneliness and failure. Her life came to a crisis point when she discovered that her first husband had been unfaithful to her, after which his life collapsed in an alcoholic breakdown. She was left on her own with two small sons and a very inadequate income. Her own sense of pride prevented her from going back to her parents. Such an act would have been a humiliation for her, because they had advised her against her marriage.
After receiving the news of her husbands breakdown, she found herself alone in her New York apartment with her children asleep in bed, with no-one left to call. In the stillness and quiet of the night, where she was confronted with her own fears and her own aloneness for the first time in her life, she writes that all her defences – the walls of arrogance and cock-sureness and self-love behind which she had hid from God – momentarily went down– and God came in.
She described her experience of God as follows:
“It is infinite, unique; there are no words, there are no comparisons. Can one scoop up the sea in a teacup? Those who have known God will understand me; the others, I find, can neither listen nor understand. There was a Person with me in that room, directly present to my consciousness – a Person so real that all my precious life was by comparison a mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute.”
During that moment, Joy was stunned to find herself, on her knees, praying. She later wrote how on that day she became world’s most surprised atheist.’ In that moment she later wrote: ‘God came in’,’ and ‘I changed. I have been turning into a different person since that half minute’.”
In Matthew 5:8 We read the words of Jesus “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”.
I don’t believe that Joy Davidman would have suggested that strictly speaking her heart suddenly became pure, but in that momentary lapse of concentration, when all her egotistical arrogance and cock-sureness slipped for the first time and her defences were down, a crack appeared through which the light of God could enter, and in a metaphorical sense, in that half a minute, she caught a glimpse of God that changed her life forever. It didn't remove the arrogance once and for all, but re-oriented her life in a whole new direction that would have lasting consequences for her, a process she referred to as an ongoing ‘conversion of life’, slowly but surely turning into a different person under the influence of God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart” says Jesus “for they will see God”.
In our passage today, the Greek word for pure in this passage is word ‘katharos’.
The word katharos is the root word of our English word ‘cathartic’ which is a process of purging in order to facilitate healing. It could mean, emptying and cleansing of the bowels, but is also used in a psychological sense of releasing of strong emotions so that inner psychological healing and letting go can take place.
In it’s ancient usage, it could simply mean to be clean as clothes that have been soiled with dirt have been washed clean. In it’s ancient meaning, it was also used most especially as referring to a substance like milk, wine or even a metal that was not mixed with another substance or impurity.
And so the basic meaning of katharos is for something to be unmixed, unadulterated, unalloyed, in it’s most pristine and untainted state and thereby for something to be clean and pure.
One of the best descriptions that I have read of a pure heart is from Stephen Mitchell’s book “The Gospel of Jesus”
“What is purity of heart? If we compare God to sunlight, we can say that the heart is like a window. Cravings, aversions, fixed judgements, concepts, beliefs – all forms of selfishness or self protection – are, when we cling to them, like dirt on the windowpane. The thicker the dirt, the more opaque the window. When there is no dirt, the window is by it’s own nature perfectly transparent, and the light can stream through it without hindrance.
Or, we can compare a pure heart to a spacious, light filled room. People or possibilities open the door and walk in; the room will receive them, however many they are, for as long as they want to stay, and will let them leave when they want to. Whereas as corrupted heart is like a room cluttered with valuable possessions, in which the owner sits behind a locked door, with a loaded gun.”
And so, Stephen Mitchell describes those with pure hearts as having a radiance about them, a lightness, a brightness and an openness. He goes on to suggest that as we read the Gospel stories about Jesus, we see a radiance in him, and a large hearted openness that was able to welcome and create room for both sinner and saint alike. Those who encountered Jesus whose own hearts were open enough to perceive it found in his presence, a deep peace and a sense of respect and reverence for him that far exceeded what they had seen or experienced in any other human being. In giving up his self-preoccupation, Jesus became filled with the vivid reality of the Unnamable. His personality became like a magnetic field. Those who were drawn to him had a hunger for the real; the closer they approached him, the more they could sense the purity of his heart and the radiance of God shining through him.
Joy Davidman’s experience reveals that the pure heartedness of Jesus, is in fact accessible to all of us. For a moment, her defences were down, and the light of God shone through, and then a moment later her defences went up and the fullness of her experience of the Divine was shrouded again. But for half a minute, she experienced the Reality that Jesus lived in as a permanent state. She had caught a glimpse of God. Jesus lived in that radiance of God’s presence as an ongoing experience, and ongoing reality. And in this 6th Beatitude, Jesus suggests that this is an experience that is open to all of us. It is in fact the birth-right of every human being made in the image of God. We all have a bright and clear window in our soul, which is capable of allowing the fullness of God’s light and radiance to shine through, giving us a new vision of the world as radiant with the Presence of the Divine. The only thing preventing the light from shining through is the dirt and grime of our own egotism, our fixed, rigid beliefs and ideas, our self-preoccupation and self-concern that prevents us from seeing clearly.
One of the theological strands in the Old Testament asserted that it was not possible to see God and yet still to live. In Exodus 33:20, God says to Moses, "You cannot see my face, for a human being shall not see me and live.” There is a great spiritual truth expressed in those words. In order to truly see God, there is a dying to self that needs to happen. A giving up of the self, until all that is left is the clear bright window of the soul, through which God’s light, goodness and love can shine. The dying crucified Jesus is perhaps one of the most profound religious symbol of that process of self-emptying and dying to self, a self-emptying that gives rise to that other great symbol of spiritual transformation: The Resurrection, the unhindered light of God shining through our humanity.
William Barclay suggests that this beatitude invites us into a life-long process of self-examination in which we become more and more aware of our mixed motives. The pure of heart are those who have given up all hidden agenda’s and are motivated only by the purity of God’s Divine love. The more we become aware of our own hidden agenda’s, our self-protectionism, our self-preoccupation, our rigid beliefs and judgements, the more God is able to clean away the dirt from the windows of our souls, helping us to see the Divine Radiance that is shining all around.
There is a line from one of Leonard Cohen’s songs that I quoted on the day of my installation in Dromore: “There is a crack a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”
For Joy Davidman, the initial crack which let the light in, came when her defences were down and she had become acutely aware of her own emptiness, loneliness and vulnerability. I have come to believe from my own life, that it is often through our failures and our weakness and vulnerability, the cracks of our well defended lives, that the light of God can come through. What God is looking for is not perfection from us. All God needs are a few cracks. When we become increasingly aware of our imperfections, our flaws and our cracks, and we are able to become honest with ourselves and others about those flaws, then God’s light is given space to shine through us. But as long as we deny that there is any dirt on the windows of our souls, and as long as we sit in the crowded room of our own hearts sitting behind a closed door with a weapon trying defend ourselves, to that extent, God’s light is hindered from shining through us and our ability to see God’s shining radiance all around us is blocked.
The first step towards a pure heart, is simply becoming honest about the dirt and grime on the window pain.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, says Jesus, for they shall see God.”
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