Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Jesus Guide To Happiness (Part 5)... Blessed are the Merciful

Missional is a word that has become quite popular in Church circles recently. It is a way of talking about being church in our twenty first century context. We’ve come through a long period of time when the church was, to varying degrees, at the centre of our western civilisation. What people call Christendom. Now we find ourselves more on the margins. I don’t have to tell many of you this, you may not have the words for it but you’ve been living through it, the world has changed in the west rapidly over the past fifty or so years and Christianity has become sidelined. In the face of growing materialism, secularism, migration with its ensuing cultural and religious diversity, and if we are honest troubles within our own faith, there has been a decline in church attendance. As Ian Grant says “most New Zealanders now can’t remember the churches their grandparents were staying away from.” In the Christendom mode churches were what are called settler churches, you put up a church where a new group of people settled to cater for the people of your denomination or flavour in that place. You opened your door and those people came. This church at its roots was part of that in the 1940’s and 50’s as Auckland expanded. (Al though there are parts of this parish whose history goes back over 135 years).

Being Missional or a Missional a church is being aware that things have changed, that we can’t just sit back and expect people to come; rather that again we have to go into the community. We need again to take seriously Jesus Commission that we heard at the end of our Easter Sunday bible reading to go into all nations, all people groups and make disciples, showing them and teaching them the good news of Jesus Christ. In Christendom that was overseas mission, in post christendom it’s right here and now. As we work at what that means it’s good for us to focus again on Jesus Sermon on the Mount, which has been called the manifesto of the Kingdom of God, or the job description for followers of Jesus, because as Dietrich Bonheoffer has said 

 “The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”

That’s probably quite a heavy introduction but it’s why this year we are taking the time to explore the Sermon on the Mount, starting with looking at the Beatitudes: ‘The Jesus Guide to Happiness’ or what NT Wright more aptly calls the ‘wonderful news’ of God’s activity in the world through Jesus of Nazareth. It’s good after having celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection to go back and look at that list with Jesus commission ringing in our ears and the promise that He is with us to the end of the age, even in turbulent times like we are going through.

This morning we are looking at the wonderful news for those who are merciful, they shall receive mercy’. Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

We all use the phrases like “you don’t get anything for nothing these days” or “there is no such thing as a free lunch” or “you’ve got to spend money to… make money” we are used to that sort of economic thinking. So when you read this beatitude it’s easy to do so with the idea reciprocity in mind. That in order to get mercy you must show mercy. That it’s a simple tit for tat transaction here: Mercy, in mercy out. And I have to admit taking it in isolation it does have that kind of feel to it, although that doesn’t really jell with the idea of showing mercy. Does it?

To understand it we need to see this beatitude in the context of what’s gone before. Here is the fifth beatitude,  what has gone before talks of people who are spiritually poor, who mourn, are humble and meek, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in each case those things are meet by God through Christ. The Kingdom of God is theirs, they shall be comforted, they shall inherit the land, and they shall be filled. In a real sense they are the process by which we come to know Jesus Christ and are restored to a relationship with God. It is that great invitation that revolution of grace, that we experience. We encounter God’s grace and mercy and it fills us up with new life. Now we see that from that wonderful news that revolution of grace mercy should swell up in our own lives towards others. We have encountered God’s great love and like a spring of living water it overflows from within us to the spiritually poor, mourning, humble, thirsty and hungry round us, reflecting the one who is with us and is transforming us. It’s a natural outworking of the working of God in our lives. Yes there is reciprocity involved but what little we are able to do pales in comparison to what God in Christ has done for us.

In Matthew 18:21-35 Jesus tells the parable which the TNIV calls “Parable of the unmerciful servant.” A servant owes Millions to his rich king, more than he can ever wish to pay back, even if he won the 26.5 million in lotto. You’d still have to keep your day job at the local supermarket. When he is called to account before the king he begs for mercy and his debt is forgiven, wiped clean, written off, no serious fraud squad investigation or anything. Then he goes out from there and sees his mate who owes him $10 from the other night and when he can’t pay it throws him into prison till he can pay. The king hears about this and has the servant who couldn’t show mercy thrown into prison. We tend to view this parable, with through the lens of reciprocity. We tend to think the punch line is if we don’t forgive other people our sins then God will not forgive our sins, God is the ultimate IRD inspector, making sure we pay every cent under the law. We don’t read it with a sense of humour, we miss the absurdity, the almost Monty Python-esque nature of this parable. That one who has been forgiven so much should even think of not showing mercy to someone whose debt was so small in compassion. We are to be merciful because we are so filled with the mercy of God, we are to forgive because we have been forgiven so much, we are to love because God first loved us and sent his son to die on the cross, paying the price for all we had done wrong. We don’t show mercy to receive mercy, we will and I’ll get on to that soon, but because we have been shown so much mercy, the steadfast love of the Lord which is new every morning. Amen…

Can I say sadly down through the ages the church hasn’t been known first and foremost for our mercy and love…We should be, but we are broken people spiritual poor on a journey back to God and back to wholeness. We need to be shown the on going mercy of God in our lives.

What does it mean to be merciful, to have mercy? This picture comes from Anne brink and her big city gallery and looking at the Sermon on the Mount from  her urban setting.

In the sacred journey Chris Surber picks up the idea of mercy being the character of the God who dwells with and within us he says

“We are not called to acts of mercy. We are called to be merciful. The merciful acts of our hands flow from the abundance of the mercy which dwells or does not dwell with in us.”

In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount Martin Luther points to the fact that for Jesus contemporaries it may have been easy for them to agree with Jesus statement blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, as that was what the Pharisees were all about but it was a false righteousness as they simply poured scorn and were angry at those who did not live up to their standards.  Luther points out that true holiness is compassionate and loving. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap, in the first of the seven letters to the seven church in the book of revelation, the church at Ephesus is commended for keeping the truth, but reminded that they have lost their love, their first love for God and their willingness to show love and compassion.

J Ellsworth Kalas is a bit more practical he says being merciful is the costly process of showering kindness on other people.

He says it’s costly in three ways.

It’s emotionally costly, because to have mercy is not to sit back disinterestedly from the plight of other people but to be willing to enter in to their world and plight and empathise with them. if it is to forgive there is a very real emotional price tag we have to be willing to deal with all the anger and pain that goes along with slights and wrongs done to us individually and as groups.

It has a high practical price tag as we are often called to sacrificially give to care to those in need. In our time poor culture, where leisure time is a sign of real wealth, the investment is often in costly time given as well .

And it is intellectually costly because of the challenge to show mercy in a way that will lead to the best outcome: To work out the just and merciful solution. Will simply giving money to a family made poor by gambling addiction be the merciful thing or will it simply put off dealing with the underlying problems. What is the best way to show mercy in that setting?

That’s a challenge for us individually and as a church. Showing mercy is at the heart of being missional. Something I think we are all still learners at. AS my friend John Daniel who has been a missionary to New Zealand for the past forty years from the Indian sub-continent says it’s about the four ‘L’s of mission.  It calls us to live with our community, not separate from it, not some sort of Christian ghetto,  learn to speak their language; I don’t know about you but I’ve become so in-culturated in churchy-ness, in Rotorua one young person came up to me who remembered me from speaking at a school assembly and said hey your that church guy, and had to admit yes I am ‘that church guy”,  I find myself talking at cross purposes with people, when I want to be about the purpose of the cross. That's where the third "L" comes in Learn to Listen intently. And the fourth L is love them where they hurt. It was interesting to read in the Herald the other week about a survey of the needs of mothers of young children in New Zealand. One of the main issues they felt was a sense of isolation, made worse by the fact that this new thing we call suburbia enforces that isolation, and that with that came a growing sense of depression and then after reading that to walk out into wondrous chaos and community that is mainly music and sporty 4 kids.

For you they will receive mercy is the promise attached to this beatitude: It is the wonderful news of Jesus teaching and Jesus person. As we live mercifully towards others in response to the great mercy and grace we have received from God, we experience God’s continuing grace and mercy in our lives. The wonderful news is that Jesus is alive and is with us in the up and downs ebbs and flows of life, and does not treat us as we deserve but with mercy. He is a help in times of trouble. He knows what we are going through because he has identified with us, remember a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. He is able to help, often that mercy comes through the hands and feet of other people, or in ways I describe as being surprised by the goodness and love of God, unlooked for and undeserved. he is a god who is patient with us, and forgiving.  He is a  God who can be trusted to act in the right and righteous way, not always the way we want, let’s be real God is not a cosmic wonder drug to make it all right but there is ‘wonderful news’. AS it says in the book of Jeremiah, my plans for you are good not for harm. We also live in the world of instant gratification, of the seemingly miraculous solving of problems, we saw it with the Rena disaster, why in this world of amazing technology are they taking so long to get all those containers off the ship and to stop an oil leak,  how difficult can it be?” But part of the comfort we have is that God is not captive to the here and now yes we experience that mercy now but we will see his mercy fulfilled in eternity.

Let me just finish by quoting 1 John 4:10-12

10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy

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