The Beatitudes. They form such a poetic and wonderful introduction to Jesus Sermon on the Mount. Beatitude means blessing.
These blessings form a list of qualities, virtues, and actions that frame a Christian life – and we’re encouraged to adopt them and live them out in our own lives. Poor in spirit, mournful at the plight of the world, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, makers of peace, willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness. One way to think of these is as blessings for those who are able to practice them.
But what if we approach these Beatitudes from another angle? Imagine what it might be like to see the Beatitudes practiced and lived. What would it be like to stand outside of and behold a Beatitudinal community?
We’ve seen glimpses. There was the convent of sisters led by Mother Teresa ministering to the severest illnesses among the poorest of the poor in India. There was the Beloved Community of Martin Luther King, Jr. whose non-violent movement led to the collapse of the first Jim Crow.
I recently became aware of another example. Throughout 1988 and 1989, every Monday night people gathered in St. Nicholas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany, to pray for peace and freedom. Leipzig was in The German Democratic Republic, what we in the west called East Germany. These folk lived behind the wall that divided Berlin and the two Germanies. The prayers for peace began to attract larger numbers of people. State authorities set up roadblocks, arrested participants, and tried to cancel the peace prayers altogether. But the crowds kept coming and growing to the point that the two-thousand seats in the church were insufficient.
On October 9, 1989, some 1,000 Communist Party members along with Stasi (state police) were ordered to go to St. Nicholas Church in an attempt to take the majority of seats before the peace pray-ers arrived in early evening. 600 of these representatives of the state were in the church nave by 2 pm. What many haven’t considered is that these folk were exposed to the word, to the Gospel. At each gathering the Beatitudes were read.
One of the clergy from St. Nicholas has written:
I always appreciated that the Stasi members heard the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount every Monday. Where else would they hear these? So these people heard Jesus Christ’s Gospel, which they didn’t know, in a church they couldn’t do anything with. They heard from Jesus, “Blessed are the poor!” Blessed are the meek!” “Blessed are the persecuted!”
The prayers for peace that particular night ended with the bishop’s blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands – an un-forgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you cannot carry stones or clubs at the same time. The miracle occurred. Jesus’ spirit of non-violence seized the masses and became a material, peaceful power.
Within a month, this movement caused the party and the ideological dictatorship to collapse, on November 9, 1989.
Horst Sindermann, a member of the Central Committee of East Germany, said before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
People who had never heard the Gospel, standing outside of the Christian community, heard the words of Jesus and watched as they were practiced in deed. And they were blessed. The world was blessed.
The passage we heard from the Revelation to Johnspeaks about a vision of heaven where there was a group that were following Jesus, a group that was 144,000 strong. But John, in his vision then sees a far larger group.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
I like to think that the Communist Party members and the Stasi are among those multitudes that were too great to number. Looking at the Beatitudinal community, from the outside, they found themselves transformed.
The part of Germany near and around Leipzig was the area where Martin Luther lived and worked and witnessed almost 500 years earlier. Luther, early leader of the Protestant Reformation, was strongly opposed and resisted by many religious and secular authorities of his day. When Luther was feeling alone and oppressed, consumed by self-doubt, he would remind himself, “I am baptized!” It was a way of affirming that he was not alone – he was a child of God, and he was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: the saints of God.
All Saints’ Sunday is a family reunion. Barbara Brown Taylorsays that all of these saints are our relatives. This is one of the traditional Sundays for baptism. And although we don’t have any baptisms today here at St. Christopher’s, the reason that this is a baptism Sunday is that we want the new saints to meet the old ones. We don’t want them to miss knowing and connecting with their ancestors.
When we hear of the awful things that are happening in our world—racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of immigrants attempting to escape horrific circumstances, pipe bombs sent to politicians and news agencies, we remember Jesus, unjustly persecuted and killed on trumpted-up charges. We remember the saints who have followed him. And we take courage from their witness.
I conclude with these words from The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, a native American of the Choctaw Nation, retired Bishop of Alaska and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School:
“They are watching over us, all those who have gone before. They are our ancestors and they have seen enough in their own lives to know what we are going through. They have survived economic collapse, social unrest, political struggle, even great wars that raged for years. Now from their place of peace they seek to send their wisdom into our hearts, to guide us to reconciliation, to show us the mistakes before we make them. Their love for us is strong. Their faith in us is certain. When times get hard, sit quietly and open your spirit to the eternal grandparents who are still a part of your spiritual world. Receive their blessing, for their light will lead you home.”
The Rev. C. Fuhrer, St. Nicholas At Leipzig.
Revelation 7:9, 13-17.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way.
Facebook, Episcopal Intercultural Network, October 25, 2018