On a day such as All Saints’ Day, we remember all those who have gone before us in following Christ. It is a day where we can think of those countless multitudes who have traced the footsteps of Jesus. It is fitting then, that our Gospel reading gives us the roadmap of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and a follower of Jesus.
In the beatitudes we have a list of eight encouragements. These eight points, these eight spokes of a wheel turning on the road to heaven, emerge at the very beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry. They were the first things Jesus formally taught his disciples. These eight ‘blessed’s are the things of first importance for those who desire to follow Jesus.
Before we look at them in turn, let’s look at the theme that runs through all of them – blessedness. In Greek this word is makarios and it also means ‘happy’. The point that is being made here is that those who follow Jesus with conviction will find true happiness.
Now we all want to be happy, it is one of the most basic desires we all have in common. Many parents raising children nowadays say they do not mind what their children do when they grow up as long as they find something that makes them happy. Sometimes in the Church we forget that God wishes us to be happy. We can often get bogged down in the idea of duty, of doing things we ought to do in a way that brings ourselves no joy. Indeed, the very concept of duty is bound up with the idea that to do something that brings us no personal happiness is somehow more virtuous than doing something that does. The beatitudes challenge that assumption. In these eight statements, Jesus promises a happy life for those who follow him.
So far, so comfortable. We are affirmed in our search for happiness and Jesus offers us the promise of happiness in the footprints he has left behind. The moment of challenge and surprise is when we compare the sort of life Jesus calls happy with what sort of life we might call happy.
The happy life according to Jesus is one that is poor in spirit, it is a life that mourns, that is meek, that hungers and thirsts for righteousness, is merciful, pure in heart, that works for peace, and finally, it is a life that is persecuted.
Now, when I did a quick google search on how to be happy I found tips like: celebrate yourself, focus on your strengths, be thankful, look for the good in people, choose your friends carefully, meditate and exercise. How then do we make sense of what Jesus has said? How do we understand the blessedness of having a poor spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger-and-thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peace-making and persecution as paths towards true happiness?
Now, rather than take you through them from beginning to end, I want to group these eight things into two groups: positive encouragements and negative prohibitions. To put it more simply, there are four things here about doing, and four things about not doing. In other words, there are four about taking something up; four about avoiding something.
So what ought we to do to follow Christ? The first part of the answer is to focus intensely on God.
Every human being is a worshipper. In our quest to find happiness we always latch upon something to fill the gap in our hearts. Everybody will have something they turn to. In all of us there will be something we have elevated to supreme importance in our lives. We all trust in something to make us happy.
The unhappy truth is that all the things we set our hearts upon in this world fail to give us the happiness we long for. We may find something that puts a patch on things for a while, but after a while we return back to where we were at the beginning. The truth is that we were all made to enjoy God and find our happiness in him. Whenever we try to worship other things, we find that they cannot keep their promises like God can. It is only in God that we can put our trust to be happy.
This is what it means when Jesus says blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who hunger for righteousness. All of these things are intimately related to focusing on God. Mercy is an attribute that God majors-in throughout the Old Testament and the New. Mercy is a hair’s breadth from love and we know that God is love. Therefore to be merciful is to be an imitator of God.
To be pure in heart is to know exactly where your top priority lies. Soren Kierkegaard said that a saint is a person whose life is about one thing. To be pure in heart is to have simplified and ordered your desires.
To hunger and thirst for righteousness demonstrates what the pure heart ought to be focused on, namely: righteousness. And what is righteousness? It is the attribute of following the will and purposes of God. A person who desires righteousness is a person who desires God and follows God’s purpose in their lives.
And finally, blessed are the peacemakers. To be a peacemaker is to follow in God’s slipstream. God is a God who desires to gather all things together. Indeed the primary mission of Jesus becoming human was to bring peace between God and human beings. That peace between man and God is so important that it cascades down into peace between human beings and peace between human beings and their environment. To be a peacemaker is to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
So positively, the promise of blessing and happiness awaits those who focus on following God with a clear focus and a pure heart.
What then are the negative aspects of these promises? What ought we to avoid? The answer is we ought to avoid becoming too attached to the things of this world. As was said earlier, we ought not to look for other things to fill a gap only God can fill.
We begin with the poor in spirit. We start by detaching ourselves from ourselves. To be poor in spirit is to be aware of one’s complete dependence on God for one’s continued existence and also it is to be aware of one’s utter unworthiness before God’s holiness. It is the knowledge that we depend on God moment by moment and that every breath is a gift we have not earned.
Next are those who mourn. It is those who mourn who know all about the limitations of the present world. They know palpably that true happiness is not to be found in this earthly life; they know happiness must be found elsewhere. Blessed are those who mourn because they know and feel viscerally that ultimate happiness cannot be found in our attachments to other people.
Then comes the meek. To be meek is to be humble, to be grounded in the truth about who we are. A meek person is someone who has dispensed with the desire for power and the desire to be honoured and praised. They know that happiness is not to be found in self-aggrandisement. A meek person is someone who has escaped the whirlpool of social approval.
And finally, there are those who are prepared to suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness. Those who are prepared to suffer for righteousness are those who have learned to put away the desire for comfort and take up the desire to follow God wherever he leads. It is these such people who have been set free from the cords of comfort that bind all of us and can enlist in the service of God in whom there is perfect freedom.
So there we are, the blueprint for a blessed life mapped out in eight points. Happiness promised for those who engage in focusing and forsaking. In this teaching, Jesus invites us to follow him as focuses on God and forsakes the world as the chief priority in his life. Let us join with all those Christians already on the same road as us and let us remember all those saints who have gone before us as we continue to celebrate All Saints’ Day in our liturgy. Amen.