Jesus and Human Flourishing
Passage: Matthew 5:1–5:12
As we begin this sermon series, I want to ask one question: What is your vision of the Good Life? You know, if you could imagine life at its best, what would it be? And in your vision of the good life – what KIND of person would you be?
I want that question to marinate right now. Maybe some of you had lottery tickets flash through your mind, am I right? This question I believe is as important, maybe more important, than its ever been.
There are lots of competing visions for the good life out there. Time would fail for me to survey even a small percentage of them.
But right now the most important question for the church is this: What is the vision of the Good Life? What is the Church’s vision of the Good Life? Well, I have Good News: Did you know Jesus actually told us, specifically told us, the answer to that question? His vision of the good life, as you will see, deals with what kind of person you are. Not in a law-based manner like “here’s a to-do list and if you get it all done, you’re good!” No, it’s actually much harder than that. He addresses at the deepest level the very things that make us who we are, our constitution day to day, our emotional state, our motivations, our posture towards others. It is a vision, if you will, but it is not an unreachable idea. Jesus in this famous sermon a message for us: if you want to follow me, you will FLOURISH – here is the kind of person who will flourish in my Kingdom.
America needs a flourishing church right now. I’m telling you that we are entering a new dark age, a time when some of the most basic and cultural institutions that provide glimmers of an orderly life are rapidly diminishing and vanishing. And we need to look at our own congregation, ourselves, and say – are we going to be swept away by it all? Are we going to buy into all of these other competing visions for the good life that will only destroy? Or, are we going to look at how Jesus defined the good life, strengthen ourselves around Jesus Christ, our Lord, and as the world gets darker we get brighter, and when those who are beat up and wounded from this broken world look for hope somewhere, that they see a church full of Jesus followers who are strong in him, faithful in him, and loving him with all of their heart, mind soul and strength?
I’ve called this sermon series Jesus and Human Flourishing. Let’s begin working our way through the Sermon on the Mount.
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
To set this up, Jesus just finished in chapter 4 healing a massive crowd of sick and diseased people. In essence, h emptied out the local hospital and healed them all. These people all came from Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding Gentile and Roman regions. The crowd was a rag tag bunch of busted up, rejected, and hurt people from society people. It is this crowd he gathers to speak these famous Beatitudes:
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons[a] of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Now to understand anything that lies ahead, we need to first define this word “blessed.” The Greek word is hard to get into English, and it traditionally is translated “blessed.” The word means something along the lines of “happy,” or “receiving a blessing” or “flourishing” or “congratulations!” – blessed can certainly mean those things.
Happiness and even blessing, however, is confused in our current America culture. If I went out and asked people “what does it mean to be blessed?” you would get numerous answers, and probably all diverse.
This is why it is hard perfectly translate this word, although as one New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington argues, the word “flourishing” can do, as Jesus in the Beatitudes is not so much giving out commands to be poor, or be meek or be humble – he isn’t saying “you want to be blessed? Be poor! Go mourn!” but rather he is talking about the kind of disposition his people should have in his Kingdom, the very essence of who they are as a person when they place Jesus at the forefront of their heart, mind, soul and strength. This is not really a to-do list. But a vision for what kind of person Jesus followers will (or should) be.
Lastly, to flourish as a human being, according to this sermon on the mount, will force us to face the three most important relationships in our life – our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Jesus here confronts all of these things, and begins reworking them.
So let’s read it with this in mind, and try to briefly walk through these, I will use the word “flourishing” as we work through each one:
“Flourishing are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
He is not saying “go and be poor!” but, knowing his crowd, many of them were indeed poor and spent much of their life rejected by society due to their diseases and illnesses. And here begins this vision for our orientation towards God, others and SELF – these people knew who they were. They were acutely aware of their poverty, literal, and also spiritual. These people knew they were impoverished. And when you become aware of your impoverishment, you become aware of your need and your lack of self-sufficiency.
Is Jesus just an addition to your life? Are you aware of our lack of self-sufficiency? To receive the blessing of the Kingdom of God requires you living as if you NEED King Jesus because you know the depth of your spiritual poverty without him. He is not an addition to our life, something we pick up when we want him, and drop him off when we no longer feel we need him. No – continual spiritual poverty says that we are in continual, non-stop, all day, every day, ever hour in need of him. This is the foundation for all of the Christian life, for flourishing in Jesus’ Kingdom.
Flourishing are those who mourn! For they shall be comforted.
What are we mourning? This original audience, most of whom were Jewish, but all of whom were living beneath the very heavy hand of the Romans and experiencing an unsettled peace due to their military threats and intimidations – broadly speaking, by looking at the Old Testament prophets and psalms, especially scriptures like Isaiah 61 that served as the longing and hope of Israel – everyone was looking for justice from God for the oppression that surrounded them. They knew that Israel’s national state was nothing of what it used to be, and they mourned and longed for the day that God would return to reset things and make then new and install his kingdom as he promised he would.
They mourned as, even though they lived in the promised land, they still felt as if they lived in exile. Jesus says – good. You are aware that things are not what they should be. I’m going to give you hope: if you’re in mourning, longing for things to be made right – you will be comforted.
Who wants all things to be made right? Who has looked over the scope of our nation and mourned over the chaos that have surrounded us? Who looks at the city of Wilmington and see its poverty and the violence, and mourns? Be comforted Church – he will one day make all things right. And as you mourn and ask him to come – you find yourself humbled before him, once again aware of YOUR need for Jesus – and the need of our neighbors and our city – perhaps an unlikely place to find blessing and flourishing. But in that weak moment, you will flourish as your mourn.
Let’s continue, and I’ll throw the next three together:
Flourishing are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Flourishing are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Flourishing are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Gentleness. Hunger and thirsting for righteousness [or justice, as it could be translated], and flourishing are the merciful. Can we stop right here and say something? This list Jesus is walking us through sounds an awful like a bunch of wimpy, weak, beat up people who are soft spoken and probably do not put up a fight if pushed around.
Let us not forget a few things here, before we break this down. John told us something very important about our Lord in John chapter 1: he was full of “grace and truth.” He was flipping tables in the Temple, and also afterwards was found gently speaking with a woman who was sleeping around with many different men by Jacob’s Well, gently confronting her, her sin and where her hopes in life lay.
To be meek or gentle does not mean that when the time calls you to flip a table in the name of Jesus, that you refrain. No – it means that you carefully approach that table before you flip it – and you know exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, if such a rough and dramatic action is best for those around, and when it is time for you to stop. It means that your hunger for righteousness and your thirst for justice in your life is ALL consuming and it guides you in every step of your life in every step of the way that you are allowing the Spirit of God to guide you and lead you and even extend to you the prophetic insight necessary to know HOW you treat others, how to speak to others, when to confront – with the gentleness and mercy of Christ guiding you.
Do you see how these Beatitudes is not so much a to do list as a WAY OF LIFE? Oh Christians, Church, I know I’m preaching to a camera but I need you listen and wake up! Wilmington needs bold Christians! And I’m not speaking of the American way of boldness – of arrogance, of pride in your own closed take on the world and to tell others how much of an idiot they are for not agreeing with you.
I am speaking of the Jesus way of boldness, which flips much of this upside down. Gentleness marks us as Jesus followers. Meekness. Humility. We are to be known for being hungry and thirsty for righteousness and justice – for being merciful to our neighbors. And this is far from developing WEAK Christians. Rather, as Jesus followers we become CONTROLLED by our love for God and neighbor. We become controlled in our truth telling with gentleness. We are driven by our hunger for the righteousness of Christ, and we extend our hunger for it with mercy. We don’t emotionally respond to things, no, we see the human beings who need Jesus, we see ourselves who need Jesus, and in a Spirit filled controlled manner we go after it with gentleness and meekness and quietness of Spirit.
Let me honest: some of you right now are letting our media control your outlook on this world. I get your emails, you know who you are. I need you guys to understand this: images are powerful. Media is powerful. Short 30-second videos and click bait articles are no way to engage and come to an understanding of this world. Most of our news companies are just advertising companies, making money from your clicks. And rage is the best way to get you to click or to watch.
I’ve seen Jesus followers today live their lives online like this, and the result is harshness, meanness, no gentleness or meekness to be found. And rather than a hunger for righteousness, they have developed an almost violent or militant hunger for a distorted view of partisan righteousness.
All the while, what about your neighbor? What about this broken city that our church is in? What about local ministry that as a Jesus follower, YOU can actually do something about? You see, Jesus is bringing the hammer of truth to us in order that we, as Christians, may be Christians of ACTION – just like Jesus was. He didn’t live his life in a corner, being gentle and meek and hungry for righteousness while twiddling his thumbs. No – he was out there, among the people, serving and loving his community. The world does not need another angry tweet from a Jesus follower. They need to actually experience the gentleness and the meekness that comes from Christians who are hungry and thirsty for the righteousness of Christ to fill their community. And here is the hard word, church: Jesus expects this of his followers. And some of you need to repent, even right now. Some of you need to repent of your lack of love for neighbor, of your lack of gentleness and meekness, and allowing other institutions to define righteousness for you, rather than Christ, his Church and his Scriptures to define righteousness for you. Maybe you need to take a knee, even right now in your living rooms, and ask Jesus for the grace of forgiveness. Maybe you need to be in mourning over your own sin this morning.
We must move on.
Flourishing are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
This is not so much talking about sexual purity as it is purity and oneness of soul and mind. James speaks of it as a “double-mindedness,” unstable in all of its ways – James 1:8. Gracious words are pure words, the proverbs say, because they are pure like God is pure. This is a call for you and I to be single-minded in the devotion of our heart, and not divided up.
To flourish in Christ is to walk in purity, to be a person who is not conflicted with their allegiances. If certain things or institutions or people or desires receive your primary allegiance in life, Jesus will remain cloudy in your sight. He will always seem to you as just out of reach. Even if you know him, if you allow these things to seep into your heart and life, God will always feel at arms length, and you will feel as if you simply cannot understand him. Jesus is pure, his followers are pure. Love King Jesus with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. He continues on:
Flourishing are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Let me read a verse to confuse you this morning, because I like confusing you with the Bible. Sometimes we need to learn to wrestle with the Bible. Here you go, from the mouth of Jesus, in the same book:
Matthew 10:34–35  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
OK Jesus… what’s the answer here? And to stay on track, we are looking at the question of FLOURISHING: how do we flourish as Christians in Jesus’ Kingdom?
To begin with, let’s look at the very clear Scriptural commands to be at peace with others. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14). Live at peace with everyone. Never avenge yourself, and leave it to the wrath of God, but as for you, if your enemy is hungry, feed him (Romans 12:18-22) Seek peace and pursue it (1 Peter 3:11). I could give you many more.
You see, there is a responsibility we have as Christians to be PEOPLE of peace. Yet, there is another side to the coin, and it is this: wherever Jesus enters and shows up, often his Gospel creates divisions and creates a lack of peace. As Christians, our thrill does not come from causing division. That is the way of the world. Many of you have experienced the pain of family rejection upon our conversion to Christianity – and you know that lack of peace is not thrilling, but painful. We are always aiming to be people of peace, to speak the truth, and let the chips fall where they may in the name of Jesus. In that nuanced place, we will find flourishing.
But what about day to day situations? Questions of self-defense when violence comes your way? Let me share a brief story. One time I punched a kid in high school because he threw a dodge ball just a few away from my face. The result were busted glasses, my nose cut into and blood all over my face, leading to an instant and very awkward punch from a guy who had zero fighting instincts. I did take him down, only to quickly learn that he and one of his friends were chasing each other around in their own mini game of dodge ball, and I happened to walk right into a throw intended for the guy behind me. It was all a mistake. Rather than stopping to ask, “hey, what happened? Did you mean to do that?” I just swung. Peacemaking calls for questions and clarity before violence – and violence must be necessary to bring peace, and must justify itself for a goal of peace, which my lame awkward albeit successful efforts towards a punch were not.
Violence is to be abhorred and regretted wherever it is found. Whether violence is found on the steps of our capitol, or from marches for racial equality that erupt into violence - Scripture guides us on this one. As Christians, we are to be people of peace – and in that, we will find flourishing. Let’s end with these verses:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As we follow and chase after Jesus, as we aim to, by the help of the Spirit, be people of the Beatitudes, flourishing in the Kingdom of Jesus, we realize this is a high and difficult calling. Even a nuanced one that calls for constant situational awareness, prayer, and constant grappling with Scripture to guide us as a compass throughout – sometimes we may rub into friction with our nation’s worldview, and our culture’s beliefs, and some of the core of Christianity – especially our understanding of biblical marriage and sexuality – may lead us to some type of pressure or persecution in modern times.
However, we are not to seek this out. That’s called having a martyr complex. So much of the Christian church seems to feel “vindication” when some of persecution comes, as if it makes our words and life more meaningful.
Now, Jesus does call us to rejoice in these moments – he even says that word “blessed” or flourishing. We rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus – when we actually are suffering from it. No, friends, receiving an angry tweet back online is not Christian persecution. We need to be careful to define true persecution – when we are told that we cannot speak in the name of Jesus, when we are told that everyone else can gather in large crowds in our nation, but we cannot have a church service – when we lose our jobs because of our belief in biblical marriage and homosexuality to be a sin – yes, rejoice that God has counted you worthy of it. But don’t wear it as a badge of honor, or as some sort of achievement in life. Quietly rejoice in your closet of prayer. Let’s keep our eyes and heart on Jesus, and again, let the chips fall where they may.
Now, we need to wrap this up, I’ll call the worship team up. The beatitudes are hard to preach. We covered a lot of ground, touching on many corners in our Christian life. This sermon serves as the foundation for the series that is ahead. Our nation needs wise Christians, walking in the ways of Christ – flourishing in the ways of Christ – and that is what I will leave you with. If at any point this morning, you feel especially convicted – do not be afraid if being on your knees in your own living room. In these challenging times, may we flourish in Christ.