Sermon for February 13, 2022

Epiphany 6, Luke 6:17-26

Once again in Luke’s gospel we find Jesus amidst the throng of the crowds. Recall what I observed on Baptism of Our Lord, if you happened to be here that Sunday: Luke reports that Jesus was one of many standing in line to be baptized by John. Jesus was one among a crowd, not seeking to separate himself from others in the throng.

In today’s reading, Jesus is amidst the people again. Luke says: “Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” from all over the place. He came down. And stood with – not over or aside from, but with. And it was a level place. A level playing field, if you will. Jesus among the multitudes.

This is the context for Luke’s version of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain. Luke’s version stands in contrast to the beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, where it’s the Sermon on the Mount which featured Jesus leaving the crowd to go up the mountain to address the disciples only as his audience. In Matthew, Jesus sits – a kind of speaking ex cathedra? – and the disciples come to him. In Luke, Jesus stands with the many, having come down to them on their level.

Moreover, here’s why the crowds gathered – to hear Jesus and to be healed of their diseases, that those troubled with unclean spirits would be cured. Luke reports that those in the crowd tried to touch Jesus, knowing that healing power came out of him.

Again, as I observed in the sermon on Baptism of Our Lord, it’s all so visceral, physical, embodied – very much in keeping with the concerns of Luke, who was a physician according to tradition.

This earthy context is crucial to understanding the nature of Luke’s version of the beatitudes. In Luke’s telling, it’s “blessed are you who are poor” – not poor in spirit as Matthew tells it. And in Luke, it’s blessed are you who are hungry now. Just plain hungry, literally empty stomachs, not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, which is a metaphorical understanding of hunger in Matthew. And in Luke, blessing is for those weeping, a more visceral and immediate expression than Matthew’s mourning, which may occur without much demonstrativeness.

Luke also adds a series of “woes” to the beatitudes, something Matthew does not include. “But woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now….” All of this pronounces judgment now on those whom the world would identify as the blessed ones. For the perceived blessed, they get woe. They get divine judgment, the burden of the law’s claims on them, and a prophet’s condemnation. We in our privileged circumstances may also feel the sting of such judgment.

But for those who suffer in all kinds of visceral ways, those whom the world would identify as cursed and full of woe, in Luke’s telling, they are blessed. Moreover, there’s the exhortation for the poor and hungry and weeping and the hated, reviled, and defamed to “rejoice” and “leap for joy.”

The gospel, the good news is precisely where we would least expect to see it. Blessed, or graced, are the ones who seem cursed. Cursed are the ones who seem blessed. This is quite the reversal of the wisdom of the world.

How can there be such rejoicing and joy for those named in the Lukan beatitudes who know such current suffering? And how can it be that the rejoicing is for now and not some future date? How does this logic of reversal work?

The answer to these queries is all about the one standing in the midst of the suffering multitudes, namely, Jesus, the Christ, from whose body comes power for healing. Now. Mediated through human contact, through touch.

Luke, of course, writes with the 20/20 hindsight of knowledge of Jesus having been raised from the dead. So, Luke’s account here in the Sermon on the Plain is a kind of foretelling of the resurrection and the powerful, healing effects of Jesus’ embodied new life on the plight of the suffering crowds. As a Passion prediction, the Jesus whose power goes out from him to heal in this part of Luke’s story-telling, is ultimately the resurrected Christ.

And this Jesus assures those whom he addresses, “for surely your reward is great in heaven.” This statement gives us occasion to ask, where is heaven? And when does heaven occur? The common answers are that heaven is somewhere up there and the when is after we die. But are those the only plausible answers? I’d suggest that heaven is wherever the resurrected Christ happens to be and whenever Christ is made known. Now and in the age to come.

Which is to say that the heavenly reward Jesus describes is something available in him at the present time. Hence the occasion to rejoice and leap for joy even now.

For Christ’s resurrection changes everything and turns the logic of the world upside down. Without Christ’s resurrection, it’s all for naught. At least that’s Paul’s conclusion in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians:
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-18a) But Paul concludes with confidence: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)

This is the rock-solid confession on which we bet and build our lives. This is the reality to which the multitudes were drawn, a reality seen in the person of Jesus Christ whom they tried to touch for healing.

It’s ultimately the same reality that the prophet Jeremiah extols when he says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:7) This in contrast to those who are cursed, “who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5b)

The blessedness that Jeremiah talks about and the blessedness that Jesus refers to in the beatitudes in Luke have to do with the quality of trusting in God. That is to say, it’s about faith, which in essence, is trust. Sola fide. Faith alone. Trust in the living God of the Hebrews. Trust in the living Christ whom God raised from the dead.

In Christ, this faith releases the power of God. In Christ, this faith makes for life. In Christ, this faith heals.

I love the image Jeremiah offers, again in today’s first reading. The blessed ones who trust in the Lord are “like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream.” (Jeremiah 17:8a) Here, seen from the perspective of Christ’s death and resurrection, I cannot help but imagine that the tree is the cross, our tree of life. A tree that is fed by waters and feeds waters, with roots which course with life flowing to and from the source of all life, the word of God made flesh who was at the beginning, at creation.

Our source of life is both the tree of the cross and the primordial living waters, the waters of baptism. And with the image of such a tree planted near or even in the waters, I can’t help but think of our baptismal life in terms of hydroponics!

Think of it. Hydroponics. That is, a form of cultivation in which vegetation is planted in nutrient rich water such that plants can bear high yields of fruit quickly and year-round. Water as soil. Think of our life in Christ, our baptismal life, as a kind of hydroponic cultivation, we who are continually nourished by baptismal waters feeding us the nutrients of Christ’s resurrected life now and always. Given the promise of this reality, of course we rejoice and leap for joy.

And then, too, we are also fed with the nutrients of Christ’s body and blood in a simple meal of bread and wine, at which we rejoice, we give thanks – for the words for rejoice and Eucharist share the same root in Greek, and it’s the word for joy.

Moreover, it’s in the meal where we reach out to be touched by the living Christ mediated through gifts of bread placed in our hands and wine put to our lips. And power goes out from this embodied, sacramental meal to heal us. Of course, we’ll rejoice and leap for joy at this.

And then we go on our way rejoicing back into the world, back into the crowds and multitudes, standing with them on level ground, a level playing field, bringing with us the power of the living Christ in healing ways through our loving service with and for our neighbors.

In our ministry as a congregation, may such life-giving energy flow from Christ through us, we who are his body, the church, for the benefit of the multitudes who clamor for healing. May they be touched by Christ through us. Amen.