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.