The qualitative difference between Christianity and the three other major world religions (Judaism, Islam and Hinduism) is Jesus Christ and his claim to be fully God and fully human. And the cross is at the center of Jesus’ claim. It’s all about the qualitative difference the cross makes in a person’s life. The story is told…
Visitors to the Smithsonian Museum of American History see the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814. The original flag measured 42 by 30 feet. It was the immense size of the flag that allowed Key to see it from his position 10 miles out to sea, following a night of gunfire. The means by which a flag that large could fly on a pole 189 feet in the air is on display at Fort McHenry on Baltimore’s inner harbor. There, in one of the barracks, are two oak timbers, 8 foot by 8 foot, joined as a cross. National Park Service personnel discovered this cross-shaped support near the entrance to Fort McHenry in 1958, buried nine feet below ground. Not only did “the cross” help rangers locate the original site from which the star-spangled banner flew, but it answered the mystery of how such a large flag could fly in stormy weather without snapping the pole. This unseen wooden device provided a firm foundation for the symbol of our national freedom. Similarly, the cross of Christ provides the foundation by which our faith is rooted and supported.
A Christian’s thinking and experience must be shaped by and rooted in the cross. Therein lies our foundation and support in life.
The texts in Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and Matthew 5:1-12 dismantle the notion that humans can choose God and “make,” if you will, God do things for us. Christianity claims that God chose humans and not the other way around. God frames human experience in doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. These characteristics are compassionate acts of empathy. Valuing unity and the sharing of power takes compassion to the next level. And the beatitudes, which is the focus of this sermon, drive home the point that the qualitative difference the cross makes is a life marked by empathy, acts of compassion, doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God, unity and sharing power.
In Matthew, Jesus’ presence on a mountain, whether his temptation by Satan, need to withdraw and pray, transfiguration, final hours prior to the crucifixion or teaching on eschatology, signaled matters of significance. And the case is no different in Matthew 5:1-12, the Sermon on the Mount. With blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn and blessed are the meek, Jesus identifies those people as special recipients of God’s favor. The middle four blessings of blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart and blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus gives us insight about the hoped-for kingdom of heaven and the promise of an eschatological (end times) reward. The final two blessings, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and blessed are you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account, speak of the adverse consequences of living the middle four blessings. Embracing the beatitudes, with the results of contentment and adversity, nurtures our relationship with God and others.
God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. A warm relationship is characterized by listening, caring, loving, acting, being empathetic, speaking and living with compassion. The actions of the beatitudes come forth from the essence of the person as a result of responding to God’s favor and presence. Experiencing God’s favor and presence is an ongoing manifestation of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer), in and through our lives.
Today is The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The Greek word epiphaneia means “manifestation.” Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God, fully God and fully human, to humanity at his baptism. Will things be different in your life because of the manifestation of Jesus? Of course. But maybe a better question is, do you expect things to be different because of the manifestation of Jesus? Richard Rohr, the author of The Universal Christ writes, “Today on many levels, we are witnessing an immense longing for the mature feminine at every level of our society—from our politics, to our economics, in our psyche, our cultures, our patterns of leadership, and our theologies, all of which have become far too warlike, competitive, mechanistic, and noncontemplative. We are terribly imbalanced.” Embrace feminine ways of being. “Feminine power is deeply relational—and thus transformative,” writes Rohr. Trust in and draw from your experience of the manifestation of Jesus Christ in your life.
At the center of our Christian Faith is the claim about what God has already done on the cross for you, me and all humanity. As we authentically plumb the “scary” places in our lives…. the hurts…. the misunderstandings…. the mistakes…. the misgivings…. God meets us in warm relationship. And others do as well as our vulnerability invites them in. Again, Rohr writes, “…the deep feminine often works underground and in the shadows, and from that position—creates a much more intoxicating message.” Be transformed by the cross. It is the power of the cross that enables you to live the Sermon on the Mount. The cross is the qualitative difference for having a warm relationship with God and others.
In the textual analysis of this paragraph and the one following, I have benefited from the thinking of Patricia K. Tull, Ken Evers-Hood, Charles L. Aaron Jr., Scot McKnight, Christopher T. Holmes and Zaida Maldonado Perez in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 209-212, 212-213, 216-218, 218-220, 221-223 and 223-224.
Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York, New York: Convergent, 2019), 128.