This sermon is part of the sermon series "Change of Heart". See series.
The movie Braveheart tells the story of how a 13th century Scottish commoner named William Wallace led his country to freedom from an oppressive English rule. Fueled by his own personal loss and a great sense of destiny, Wallace leads a ragtag band of farmers and villagers to defeat their vicious oppressors. The turning point for Scotland comes at the battle of Sterling. The Scots are vastly outnumbered and begin to flee before the battle even begins. Wallace rides onto the scene and makes a passionate speech that inspires the band of brothers to fight for what they know they believe in. The Scots rally and follow Wallace into battle, winning the first major victory of the war and turning the tide against the English.
What is it that makes this story so compelling? It's not the blood and the battles, not the face paint or the horses and spears. What makes the story of William Wallace so compelling is summed up in one word: courage.
Courage—that inner quality that leads Wallace to forward the cause of freedom no matter what the personal cost. This courage stems from the conviction that there is something worth living for and some things worth dying for. Don't we all deeply yearn to live life with that kind of conviction?
Courage is required of us.
After reflecting on the Beatitudes, I've decided that it takes conviction to live life like Jesus calls us to. It requires us to live courageously, because the values of the Beatitudes run directly counter to the values of the world we live in.
It takes courage to believe that being desperate for God is better than being self-reliant; that facing our failure and brokenness is better than skipping along the surface of life; that living with an open hand is better than grabbing what we want; that pursuing God's goodness is better than chasing after the tangible prizes of the world; that mercy is preferable to justice; that purity is better than division; that peace is better than conflict.
These are the values of the Beatitudes! In your most honest moments, don't you sometimes feel like the soldiers on that battlefield? Do you feel like it would be much easier if you just gave up, gave in, and lived like everyone else? Do we really want to cultivate this kind of heart? Are we really ready to let go of the values that the world promotes and embrace the values of Jesus?
The more I've thought about it, the more I'm convinced that we must be people of courage.
Hearts that are brave
If you don't think cultivating a Beatitude heart takes courage, then listen to today's Beatitude: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
It's interesting that Jesus would end the Beatitudes with a statement like this—a heavy statement; one that would certainly cause any listener of Jesus to think twice about whether or not they wanted to embrace this kind of living. It's also interesting that Jesus doesn't just make this statement and move on quickly. This the only Beatitude that Jesus expands upon with a word of further clarification. It's as if he wants this thought to sink into the minds of his hearers just a bit more.
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." Jesus essentially says this: If you are going to be a follower of mine, you're going to have to have a brave heart, because persecution comes to those who embrace righteousness. So what is righteousness? Why is it that people are persecuted for it?
As the word suggests, righteousness implies that there is a right way to live. This rightness of living isn't conjured up by people; it isn't determined by human beings through general consensus or polling data. True righteousness is created and determined by God who himself is righteous.
God created everything that exist—the universe, the world, society. Our lives work best when they operate according to his good intention. Simply put, righteousness is what results when God is allowed to take his rightful place as the one in charge. Righteousness is the direct outcome of God's rule and reign. Everywhere that God rules, righteousness abounds.
The Kingdom of God
The human metaphor that we use to understand the idea of God's reign and rule is that of the kingdom, with God as king, humanity as his subjects, and the heavens and earth as the expanse of his domain. This Kingdom is taking shape here and now and will reach its fulfillment at the beginning of eternity.
Notice that the Beatitudes are bookended with words about the Kingdom of Heaven:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In between those words, with his fine point feather brush, Jesus begins to paint a picture of what Kingdom People look like with all their detail and texture: poor in spirit, broken over the world, meek, hungry and thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking.
In the places of our lives where we embrace God's kingly rule, our lives reflect his righteousness. As we embrace God as King, we become a part of the kingdom he is creating, with foremost allegiance to Christ.
When it's easy
What happens when a kingdom like this is created? People respond to it in a variety of ways.
Some people see its beauty and embrace the kingdom! Many of you are here today because you were attracted to the life of a person who lived like a resident of the kingdom of heaven. The inner qualities of their heart reflected something of real value to you, and you wanted to embrace what you saw in them. I think of a young woman here named Lori who was newly married, far away from home, struggling with feeling out of place, and soon to have a baby. Women came around her and threw an unexpected shower for her—that's the kingdom of God in action—and she turned towards the kingdom with an embrace!
Or maybe you began to look at your life and reflect on poor decisions you'd made and the consequences of years of wrong patterns of living. You didn't know about righteousness, but you knew life wasn't working well when you were in charge. Finally, in desperation maybe, you turned to a God who promised to lead you well, to forgive your wrong decisions, and to give you a new start as you gave him your life. Some people embrace the kingdom.
Some people simply decide that life in the kingdom just isn't for them. There are a lot of people like this in our world. One of the great virtues of the United States is its freedom—freedom for people with differences to live together in harmony.
You may have people in your life that you have gotten to know well. They may know of your faith and your values. They're fine with how you've chosen to live, but they've decided to choose another path. "You go your way, I'll go my way," they say. They are not embracing God's rule, but they're not rejecting it with outspoken hostility. Theirs is an understanding of respect and tolerance. As kingdom people we continue to live out an authentic faith in these friendships, and we trust God to be at work.
When it's hard
But not everyone responds positively or even with tolerance to the kingdom that Christ is creating. Jesus' words prepare us for opposition—persecution. Sometimes that persecution is mild and subtle, bruising our egos or effecting people's opinions of us.
There are many who don't understand Christians. They don't understand the depth and weight and richness and strength of the implications of God's kingdom and righteousness. They see the counter intuitive decisions that followers of Christ make with their time and their money, they discover some of our counter-cultural views about ambition or sexuality or ethics. They don't understand why we get so "hung up" on certain things. We are caricatured in the media through characters like Ned Flanders, the naÏve neighbor in "The Simpsons," or the judgmental, uptight Angela from "The Office."
None of us likes being misunderstood and misrepresented. But it's one of the things we have to be prepared for.
I remember when Jimmy Carter was running for president. He conducted an interview in which he tried to explain the role his faith played in his life. I never read the article, and I never heard anything about the context. All I remember is one line from it, because it was repeated in the media over and over and over again. During the interview, Carter said, "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times." It was that line that made the headlines. It was that phrase that nearly derailed his political aspirations.
Now to the world that didn't understand the root of his conviction, what he said sounded pretty odd, I have to admit. For some people, the thought of spending any energy wrestling internally against lustful thoughts simply made no sense at all. Carter got caught where we all sometimes get caught: trying to explain our kingdom values to people that simply have no categories for understanding them. He was trying to speak truth about the challenge of living with sinful inclinations while still trying to please God. He wanted people to know that just because he was a kingdom person didn't mean he couldn't relate to the challenges of temptation or identify with the problems people face. But alas, he was misunderstood.
Or maybe he wasn't misunderstood. Maybe people understood him too clearly. Maybe the straightforward talk about his personal struggles to live rightly felt to some like an indictment on their own way of living—their own lifestyle and convictions. You see, another reason persecution comes is because our allegiance to God can be perceived as a challenge to others. When you really live the way Jesus calls you to live, your life may cause others to examine their own hearts and motivations. They may see things they don't like. Now hear me carefully, Jesus doesn't call us to be judgmental or obnoxious. He calls us to live beautifully.
But here's what happens: goodness has a tendency to expose what isn't good; righteousness has a way of making sin more obvious by contrast. Have you ever been around someone whose life is loving and generous, and by comparison, you've discovered that you're actually quite selfish and stingy? Or maybe someone who lives simply and happily has shown you how much of your happiness is dependent on the things you acquire.
When people walk humbly with God, it exposes the evil of pride. Those who speak with compassion will throw callousness into sharp relief. And if you are spiritually minded, your life will be a challenge to the worldly-minded people around you.
Sometimes these experiences can lead someone to self-examination and a changed heart. But those who want to cling to life on their own terms reject righteousness for themselves and begin to resent it in you. For example, an "A" college student may find herself on the outside of some social circles; an employee might lose out on an advancement opportunity; a scientist may lose credibility in the eyes of his peers. These are the kind of subtle forms of persecution we experience in our lives—suffering that comes from righteousness. If we don't understand it as such, I'm afraid we might simply give in to our desires to fit in. It is here where the lines of battle are drawn in our hearts.
For most of us, the kind of persecution we experience doesn't seem like it would take a lot of courage to overcome—but it does! Every one of us wants to fit in—not to stick out. But Jesus' teaching doesn't allow for that kind of anonymity. As kingdom people, we are called to be beautifully different. Is your heart brave enough?
Because of righteousness
If we experience persecution in places where religious freedom is upheld, then imagine the challenge people face when they live out their commitment to the kingdom in places where the opposition is severe, where the institutions are corrupt and powerful, where government controls by coercion and force, where injustice occurs and human dignity is violated.
Some people are under the mistaken impression that God's righteousness is just a quaint idea for people who are religious. The truth is that righteousness isn't an unassuming force. The righteousness of God has sweeping implications. It presents a strong threat to corrupt systems of power. What strengthens my heart is when men and women of faith lead courageously in circumstances like these. They lead not by force of government or by the sword, but by allowing the righteousness of God to be both seen in their lives and proclaimed from their lips.
Dietrich Bonheoffer, a Christian leader of the Confessing Church in Germany, never wavered in his opposition to the Nazi regime. He stayed in Germany and led an underground church movement, even though he could have fled and sought safety outside of Germany's walls. He eventually lost his life in a Nazi prison.
Martin Luther King, Jr., lived and spoke courageously and confidently against the institutional, ingrained societal evil of racism and prejudice. He lost his life by assassination.
I recently spoke with a woman whose brother was a South Korean pastor who led a team of young adults from their church to support a number of local aid workers in Afghanistan. The group was captured, and Bae Hung-Kyu was killed by the Taliban guards, because it is illegal to share the gospel of Christ under Taliban rule.
The truth is that there are countless numbers of Christians today who live in countries that are hostile to Jesus' teaching and any who represent him—places like Iran and Egypt and China and Afghanistan. Believers in all of these countries practice their faith at great risk to themselves and to their families.
Statistics tell us that more than 200 million Christians in over 60 nations face persecution each day. These believers worship God with joy and celebration knowing well the risks they face. These are people with brave hearts.
We need to be careful though. Sometimes our thinking gets twisted around on this point. Have you ever felt bad that you haven't been persecuted like some of these men and women? Do you ever feel like you must not be committed enough to the things of God or that God is not evident enough in you for others to see him?
It's important to note that this Beatitude doesn't call us to be persecuted; it calls us to pursue righteousness. Doing so may lead to persecution along the way, and God wants us to be ready if and when that time comes—ready to continue to embrace tshe kingdom no matter what the cost.
A picture of our calling
I found a Time Magazine article from 1967 entitled, "Graham Meets Communism," that gets to the root of our calling from Christ. The article described Billy Graham's crusade meeting in Zagreb, Yugoslavia—Graham's first venture in a Communist country. Though the rally had only 3,000 attendees (compared to the 170,000 attendees in Rio de Janeiro), he considered it "the greatest meeting of my entire ministry." The article continued:
Graham skirted politics on his trip, announcing, "I am not a representative of any government. I represent the Kingdom of God." But he made several pointed references to the problem of believers living in "difficult" situations: "Christians will always suffer persecution, but every tear we shed here adds to our glory in heaven.
When Graham asked those who wished to make a "decision for Christ" to raise their hands, 500 timid hands rose—a small number when compared to the thousands of a typical crusade. Billy was unperturbed. Said he: "Wherever the Gospel is preached, whether to one person, on thousand, or one million, there is success."
Not only did Billy Graham have a brave heart, but so did the 500 Yugoslav men and women who, in the face of a government hostile to Christianity, chose to courageously lift their hands in surrender to the Lordship of Christ. What they gave to God at that moment was not just a raised hand, but a lifted life. They weren't just asking God to take their sin away, they were asking God to give them brave hearts to live for him in the days ahead.
The last Beatitude ends with a promise, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." When we truly give ourselves to God, what we find is that there's nothing left for others to take away from us—our safety, our pride, our dignity, our reputations rest in his hands. We've given them to him.
In return he gives us the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom? All of creation made right, with God as king and everything in its rightful place: relationships made right, suffering and death overcome, conflict and wars ended, everything functioning according to the righteousness of God.
He gives us the freedom to enter into that kingdom both now and forever, and when God gives that to us, no one can take it away.
Tom VanAntwerp serves as Pastor of Community Life at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.