Today we come to consider the last beatitude. It is far longer than all the others, running through verses 10, 11 and 12. This emphasis gives it extra importance.
Jesus said, “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you.”
He might well have added, God will bless you when people kill you.
Imagine being one of the people who had sat down near Jesus on that seaside hill to hear his teaching. How must they have been feeling by the time he reached the eighth beatitude? Many among them had followed him up there on that warm sunny afternoon hoping to learn the way to a quiet happy life without Roman oppression, and after just a few minutes they might have felt they had already listened far too long.
Here at the climax is a strange combination of tragedy and victory. The kingdom of heaven is yours (victory) when you suffer and die (tragedy) for doing right.
There is sometimes a tendency for us to sing happy songs and talk of the joyful life we have as followers of Christ. We focus on the blessings in the here and now.
But that isn’t the message of the beatitudes. They tell us that we have to live a life of active selfless love, and that kind of life means we must be poor and realize our need for him, mourn, be humble, hunger and thirst for justice, be merciful, have pure hearts, work for peace, and be persecuted for doing right.
This is a complex, subtle and deeply profound way of life. It is an extremely risky way of life. It is a way of life that promises blessing, but also warns that we may lose everything if we take Jesus words seriously. Jesus says to us that if we live his way of self-giving, self-sacrificial, merciful, peacemaking love, we are likely to be persecuted and even martyred.
And if this awful fate befalls us and we lose the whole world, even our life, we shall be blessed beyond our understanding. We shall gain everything of true and lasting value.
For eternity we shall enjoy the limitless rewards of life in heaven.
In the year 155, an elderly man of 86 was made a martyr. Another man of 90, Pothinius, a church elder in Lugdunun, was dragged in front of a tribunal where he was kicked so badly that he died two days later.
The 86 year-old man was a revered church leader named Polycarp. First he was interrogated, a nasty process designed to force its victims to recant. Polycarp was told that he had to repent in two ways. He was told to curse Jesus Christ, and to ‘swear by the genius of Caesar’. Polycarp was famous and the crowd loudly denounced him. They said: ‘The teacher of Asia. The father of the Christians. The destroyer of our gods. He has persuaded many not to sacrifice and not to worship.’
Polycarp told them, ‘Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?’
So they decided to burn him at the stake. Polycarp undressed and refused to allow them to nail him to the stake, as was the custom. He said, “Leave me as I am; for he that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile”
He stood there in the flames for the longest time and the fire did not consume him, only he looked like a loaf of bread in an oven, and so at last a soldier killed him with a dagger in the heart.
The church wrote down the eyewitness accounts of his death. The report was circulated around the other churches to encourage them. They saw persecution and even martyrdom as a privilege to be spoken of as a triumph, and not as a terror to fear. They rejoiced at the fate of Polycarp and Pothinius and very many others.
It was reported: “Others achieved such heroism that not one of them uttered a cry or a groan, thus showing all of us that at the very hour of their tortures the most noble martyrs of Christ were no longer in the flesh, but rather that the Lord stood by them and conversed with them. … With the eyes of their heart they gazed upon the good things reserved for those that endure patiently.”
In the year 167, the evangelist Justin Martyr was killed in Rome. He told his judges that he desired to be martyred and so go quickly to experience his salvation.
Despite the horrible deaths they faced, and how easy it would be to avoid death by saying a few words, these Christians rejoiced. They were upbeat, buoyant, optimistic at the prospect of a miserable painful death.
They responded to the martyrdom of the apostles with rejoicing. There was no gloom, no despondency, no urgent prayer requests to escape the bitter pain. No nights of petition to be set free and never arrested again.
In Acts 5:41 it says, “The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus.”
The measure of worthiness among the early Christians was not the power of their anointing. They had no aspiration for material prosperity.
They saw it as a privilege to be identified with Jesus. They did not have the same perspective on life that most of us have. So many of us are plagued, we are cursed and not blessed, because we are Christians with a self-centred desire for comfort and ease and happiness. The body of Christ in the world is often flabby and unhealthy.
The great martyrs took careful note of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when he sent them out. Read with me Matthew 10:28 – “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul.”
This instruction was for his loyal followers. It is not for those outside the faith. It is for us. Be careful dear brothers and sisters that in trying to save your life you will lose it.
The way to salvation lies through the flames of persecution that purify us and cleanse us from all sin.
Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is yours when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.’
We come today to the end of one year and stand at the door ready to enter a new year. What attitude will you take with you through the door into 2014? Will you seek the easy way or the right way. Will you seek your way, or our father’s way. Will you walk the way of self-giving love, or will you walk a path of comfort and ease that puts yourself first.
Won’t you pledge yourself in 2014 to live the way of the beatitudes. The rewards he offers are eternal blessings, but you must reject the temptations of the world.
So lets us determine that next year we will be poor and realize our need for him, mourn, be humble, hunger and thirst for justice, be merciful, have pure hearts, work for peace, and be persecuted for doing right.