‘A person in your situation needs to be able to stand on his own two feet’ was what my stepfather said to me. ‘Don’t expect any support from me’.
I do think he meant well…he needed me to take responsibility for my own future. And perhaps there are many of us today who had similar conversations with our parents.
He was essentially saying ‘be a man’,’be independent and be strong’.
It was the post world war 2 philosophy. If the middle class Victorians and Edwardians prized duty above all….the middle class of my stepfather’s generation, those who fought the Second World War, prized ‘success’ above everything….
In the 1950s and 1960s, we Brits viewed the example of the United States, the American Dream: that freedom and hard work, independence from the State, standing on your own two feet, could lead to prosperity and success; so that the United States was a nation living the proclamation in their Declaration of Independence that everyone had the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
Ultimately, that was what I was taught by the values of our household: work hard, build your self confidence, make money, be independent….live comfortably and you will be happy. These are the essential values of the of the modern world: certainly the Western World.
But Jesus, in describing in the opening words of the sermon on the mount (in a series of statements which begin ‘Blessed are….’ which describe the characteristics of a follower of Christ), Jesus says: ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’; ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’.
He goes on to describe Christians, in a number of other ways as well. But the entry level characteristic, the one which all followers of Christ will demonstrate, if they are followers of Christ, and the one we are looking at today is this: ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.
But what does he mean by that and why does it matter?
Firstly, what does blessed mean?
The word for ‘blessed’ in the original Greek is ‘makarios’ which means ‘blessed by God’ or ‘receiving God’s favour’ or ‘happy’. So you could read these words ‘how happy….. are the poor in Spirit’.
But it sounds like a contradiction in terms: ‘happy are the unhappy!’
How does that work?
‘Happy’ here means not the sort of passing joy of buying and trying out a new car moving into a new house or a new job, but a profound underlying happiness. Indeed, one psychologist has described the Sermon on the Mount as ‘Jesus’ theory of happiness’ and he has described those who act in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount to ‘have discovered the basic formula for mental health’.
But whether that is true or not….(and I wish that solving mental health problems were as simple as just contemplating the Sermon on the Mount)….If we are blessed by God, we are in the best position to obtain the settled state of joy, of contentment which can only arise from engagement with the Person who created us for whom we were made; which can only arise from engagement with the Person who knows what we need physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
But, secondly, what does ‘poor in spirit’ mean?
Well, someone who is ‘poor in Spirit’, is not standing on their own two feet. They recognise that they cannot. Someone who is poor in Spirit, knows that they are dependent, unable to cope…..
Someone who is poor in Spirit, feels totally unable to do what they need to do out of their own strength. They know that they need to rely upon God…..
It is sometimes said that ‘Christianity is a crutch’. Here is a crutch. Is Christianity like this? Something needed temporarily because you have been injured; only needed by needy people, by weak or injured people?
Christianity has of course a very important role for the needy.
Last week, I visited my friend Arthur Botham who is the vicar of St Gabriels Popley. Its an area of great deprivation in Basingstoke. Arthur has been doing amazing work there for the last 17 years and the church is bursting at the seams…But there are a lot of needy people in the community.
But Is Christianity only needed by the needy, by those who need a crutch?
What about in the Itchen Valley where there is not anything like as much deprivation as in Popley?
Is our role in the Itchen Valley Parish to provide a crutch for the needy, so that God can tell us ‘well done’? Is what Jesus is saying in the sermon on the mount: that church is a means by which those who are fortunate like us….can do good things and get to heaven when they die by looking after the needy now?
Is he saying in effect, ‘Blessed are those who look after the poor in Spirit theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven?’
We cannot earn our way to heaven!
But also…..he is talking about us too…if we are His followers….if we are Christians….
‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’ – that’s us too….
Actually, Christianity is needed, Jesus is needed by everyone. God is needed by everyone.
But we may say ‘I’m not needy!’, ‘I can stand on my own two feet!’.
But the fact that we need something doesn’t necessarily make us needy. We need air; we need food; we need water – everyone needs them, but that does not make us ‘needy’. No-one would see air, food and water as a crutch….
We might say ‘well those are physical needs, that’s different!’
But we have other needs as well which are not physical: we need love. It’s not needy to need love. It’s not leaning on a crutch to look for something to provide love.
One of the horrors of the end of the Communist regime in Romania was the discovery of the silent orphanages there, which were full of babies and children who had given up crying for attention, which was never going to come. The psychological damage of not receiving love at a young age is colossal. We are not needy to need love….without love, we become dysfunctional human beings.
So our needs are not only physical but also emotional….we all need air, food, water and love.
But we all have spiritual needs as well. It’s not needy, it’s not leaning on a crutch….to need to have these spiritual needs met. Its normal…
We have three spiritual needs in particular:
Firstly, we all have a need for hope in the face of death;
I don’t mind admitting that I need hope in the face of death.
I married a wonderful young couple in the Summer, friends of my youngest daughter Marina, at one of the colleges in Cambridge. The groom told me after the service that he had never been so happy in the whole of his life – wonderful….
At the end of this month I am going to his funeral….
We all need hope in the face of death.
It’s not needy to need hope in the face of death. Hope in the face of death isn’t a crutch. It’s a human need.
Secondly, we all need forgiveness.
Guilt about the past robs us of our joy in the present…
We can try to get rid of it by all sorts of means, but it is real…guilt is real.
Apparently, the author Kingsley Amis said just before he died: ‘one of Christianity’s advantages is that it offers an explanation for sin I haven’t got one…’ He continued ‘one of the great benefits of organised religion is that you can be forgiven your sins. It must be a wonderful thing….I mean I carry my sins around with me, there is no one to forgive them’.
Any of us, if we look back over our lives, even if there are many things we are proud of, there will also be things of which we are ashamed. Things about the way we have treated others; about the way we have treated God….
Jesus is saying ‘I love you so much that I don’t want you to die and be punished for these things. I don’t want that to happen. I am going to die in your place and in dying I am going to carry that guilt and enable you to be forgiven. When we understand this: that we can be forgiven our sin and we can be given a fresh start; it is incredibly liberating.
It’s not needy to need forgiveness and release from our guilt; its not a crutch: its human.
Finally, it is not needy to feel the need to fill the emptiness in our hearts.
St Augustine wrote 1500 years ago ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
As Jim Carrey the famous comic and actor has written “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer”.
Standing on our own two feet ultimately doesn’t fill the restless emptiness in our hearts, even if we are good at standing on our own two feet!
It’s not needy to need to fill the emptiness in our hearts. Its not a crutch; its human.
So the need for hope, in the face of death; the need for forgiveness, in the face of guilt and the need for meaning, in the face of emptiness; these are the needs faced by every human being.
But if we all have these needs, what makes the difference between every human being and those who are followers of Christ, Christian disciples?
The difference is that followers of Christ look to Jesus to satisfy those needs and don’t try to stand just on their own two feet. Thus, Jesus says they are blessed, they receive God’s favour, they are happy. Because when we recognise that we have these needs and ask Jesus into our lives to fulfil them…Jesus says we are blessed….
‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’
As we have found, when we recognise that we are poor in Spirit and we ask Jesus into our lives and we lean not on a crutch but on our Creator…we find that ours is the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom which meets every human spiritual need; ours is the kingdom which is now and hereafter and which transcends death; ours is the kingdom which through repentance and forgiveness overcomes guilt; ours is the kingdom in service of which the emptiness of our lives is filled.
With acknowledgments to Rico Tice of All Souls Langham Place for the central section of this talk
5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.