The Upside Down Kingdom

A look at the Beatitudes – All Saints Day

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I don’t remember the first time that I read these words, or had them read to me. But I know that I have heard them since I was a small child. As with many other teachings from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) I was both amazed at their beauty and truth – as well as aware that they somehow seemed to represent a world that was completely different than the one I inhabited. Almost upside down.

While Jesus’ words seemed poetic, and somehow powerful (even as a child I could sense that….) they also seemed unrealistic, naïve, and simply wrong about their predicted outcomes.

“Nice guys finish last” seemed more accurately to describe the world I saw around me than “blessed are the meek – for they will inherit the earth”. I liked Jesus’ words better – but they didn’t seem very true.

As a seventh grader living in Minneapolis in 1968 for a year – only my second year living outside of Japan – I attended Bryant Junior High, a public school that was, at the time, 70% African American. I began to understand and think about race issues for the first time. It was a year when Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were all killed. My school of mostly black students was affected no less than other schools or parts of American society. Jesus words about those that “hungered after righteousness and justice” somehow didn’t seem to include all of the chaos felt that year. For many African Americans – both in 1968, and today in 2020 – a hungering after racial justice may put you in prison, or even bring about your death. What did Jesus mean… that they would be filled?

Or even today, I find myself asking…. Am I hungry for righteousness? I have to admit that in some ways my life is so easy that I’m not really hungry for much of anything. My desire for God is even amazingly small and weak at times – not because I’ve lost faith…. but simply because I’m so “filled” with blessings in other ways. Is it possible that my level of comfort and amount of blessings can at times even blind me to the fact that I would be completely helpless without God’s grace in my life?

So all of this points to the fact that for me – the Beatitudes describes a kingdom – one which has arrived, but also one that is not yet completely here.

  • The beatitudes are not a list of laws – “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not…”
  • They are not a series of suggestions to us of how to live…
  • Jesus simply describes the truth of “how things are” in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus says that those who are poor in spirit, mourn, hunger and thirst after righteousness, and are meek – are blessed and favored by God. They will be comforted, filled, and inherit the earth. Also, those that are merciful, pure in heart, those that work for peace, and those that are persecuted – are also blessed in the kingdom of God and will be rewarded by being treated mercifully, seeing God, being called “children of God” and receiving a great reward in heaven.

If this is a kingdom that is both here and yet not completely here…. How can we see signs of it? Where can we look to see it’s validity today?

Today is All Saints Day (or all souls day) in the Christian calendar. We remember those that have gone before us; saints that have already given their lives and received their rewards. We thank God for those who have been examples to us in our faith, both from the Bible and from our own histories. And so I suggest to you this morning that we can see the beatitudes – this upside down kingdom – lived out in at least 2 arenas: in the life of Jesus himself, and in the lives of those saints who have gone before us.

1. We  see this upside down kingdom fulfilled in Jesus himself. In his life, death, and resurrection, we can see the validity of every one of the beatitudes. Below is a quote from Professor Lance Pape:

“And so, for now at least, we do not yet see all these things, “but we do see Jesus” (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus not only declares, but embodies this new world. An old poem promises that a day is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that a crucified man is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). Everyone will see at last that the one hung upon a tree in shame, the one who in poverty of spirit was forsaken by everyone — even by God in the end, it seemed — the last of the last, is first, is Lord of all. Every tongue will admit that the man of sorrows, the mourner, is comforted at last in the power of resurrection.

Every tongue will confess that the meek lamb who did not open his mouth before the slaughterers has been granted the earth and everything in it (Matthew 28:18). Every tongue will confess that the one who longed for justice has lived to see justice; that the one who practiced purity of heart is standing in the presence of God; that the great peacemaker is now called the Son of God. On that day every tongue will confess that the one who was persecuted for the sake of righteousness (verse 10) is indeed Blessed of God.”

2. Can we also see the validity of this upside down kingdom in the lives of the saints? Think back on those in your life who have been the saints – who have led you to faith…. who have encouraged you in your faith? Do any of the characteristics described in the Beatitudes shine forth in their lives?

“Lord, help us to live lives that embody your words in these beatitudes. Although your values seem so different than those of the world around us, help us to believe in the truth of your kingdom, and to seek to live those values in our own lives – with your help and through your grace. Amen.”

(The above is a summary of the message shared on Sunday, Nov. 1st, during our zoom worship session.)