Blessed are the merciful Matthew 5/7
A true story……Waterloo station one evening: A passenger stood waiting for his train to Winchester. A man came up to him and spat in his face and said ‘I can’t stand Christians’ and walked off!
It was at this stage that the passenger realised that he still had his dog collar on after the conference he had attended at Lambeth Palace that day. He wiped the spit off his face and, as the train had been announced, walked onto the platform.
A number of other passengers had seen this incident and, as the journey to Winchester continued, they became increasingly outraged by what had happened to ‘this man of the cloth’!
But what would you have done, if it had happened to you?
Spitting at someone is a common assault and in this case it was an assault aggravated by religious hatred; a maximum penalty, I believe, of six months in prison.
Should the passenger have called the British Transport Police who, undoubtedly, would have been around?
Should he, would you, have punched the spitter on the nose?
Should he have raged with the other passengers about in the collapse of standards in our society? About how the country is going to the dogs, when a clergyman minding his own business can be assaulted in this way….etc. etc.
What he actually did was to beat himself up as to why it had not happened before…
Because, if we are truly a Christian, we are going to be a provocation to others and, he reflected that, perhaps, he had been a little safe in what he said over his career as a clergyman and when he had said it….
As we reflect Christ in our actions and our decisions, we act as a mirror to others…..they get a glimpse of who they truly are and they don’t like what they see….and tend to blame us for it. They feel judged…even when we say nothing at all; they feel, at the very least, uncomfortable as the Holy Spirit draws attention to their sins and it makes them angry.
But what I want to ask this morning is how that vicar avoided immediately punching the spitter on the nose, or calling a policeman, because, I think this will tell us what Jesus means when he says ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’.
As you know, we are doing a series at Valley Worship on the Beatitudes (taking a year to do it) by a monthly talk on each of these sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We started in February with the poor in Spirit, then those who mourn, then the meek, and then those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and now we are in June with ‘Blessed are the merciful’.
By November, we hope that Bishop David will be speaking to us about how Christians are the salt and light of the earth and will wrap up the whole series.
I explained early on that ‘Blessed’ really means ‘happy’. So what does ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’ mean?
Well, the first point to make is that if we are needing to be merciful we can assume that, whatever the situation is, that we are probably in the right to be very angry indeed about what has happened to us.
I can remember one particular chap who used to sit in a committee meeting that I was trying to chair, constantly criticising, using foul language all the time.
All of us will be able to remember similar events in our own lives and many more serious than these: it could be something to do with our neighbours, what we perceive as their selfishness; it could be the way that our children have behaved to us or our parents; a friend who is no longer close because of something she said or did. Any of these things can sometimes lead to sleeplessness, as we turn over in our head, over and over again, ‘what I should have said’, ‘what I should have done’…..
When I have in the past spoken to people about the need for forgiveness, the need for mercy, they have often said to me ‘but you don’t understand what they have done’, ‘you don’t understand how wrong it was’ and there is a long litany of ‘and then he said this and did that’ and then worst of all….that….’
I tend to say ‘I agree its awful and its not fair and you are right………but you still have to forgive them’!
As someone said, ‘lack of forgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die’: it damages our health!
But it is also a particular need for those of us who would call ourselves Christians. We will have prayed all those years, maybe every day ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. If there are people that we have not forgiven then we have been actually condemning ourselves daily before God, as we say the Lord’s Prayer!
But, as J John says in his book on the Sermon on the Mount called ‘the Happiness Secret’, in this area of forgiveness, we do need to be as wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves. Whilst we will receive a colossal spiritual blessing by forgiving those who have harmed us; and forgiving may involve praying for them and refusing to mention to others what they have done to us, on the other hand, we must balance mercy and justice. Although we should strive to be merciful, there may be situations in which we are simply not authorised to be merciful. I think particularly in the area of safeguarding, where merciful attitudes by clergy have turned out to look like irresponsibility and conspiracy as abuse was hushed up and ‘forgiven’.
I think as a general rule, it is one thing to forgive something done to me, quite another thing to forgive something done to another….justice must prevail and people who have committed crimes must carry the penalty, for the protection of society.
But, as Christians, we have this perpetual picture of Christ on the Cross and St Stephen, while being stoned to death, saying ‘forgive them they don’t know what they are doing’.
How do you do that?
How, when you are in great pain, caused by someone else’s malevolence; or how, when the attack comes out of the blue, how do you respond immediately in a merciful way?
Well, it could be done by self-discipline, as apparently the SAS say ‘never complain, never explain’. I can see that if you had been through the SAS selection test in the Welsh mountains, you could train yourself, by sheer self discipline, not to complain about someone when they hurt you, just keep the stiff upper lip, cope with it, whatever happens, however unfair, however unpredictable, but this is what RT Kendall calls in his book on the Sermon on the Mount ‘aggressive mercy’. Or, as I see it, ‘outward mercy’: you go out of your way to be merciful to the other person, overruling your personal feelings, burying them by sheer strength of character, because it is more important for you to do the right thing; but inside you feel nothing but anger and contempt for the people who have injured you, although you will never speak of it, and act as if nothing has happened.
But, I think, Jesus is calling us to a higher mercy than that: a feeling of actual pity, actual compassion for the person who has acted so badly towards you. How do you get to care about the people who have hurt you so badly?
I think a starting point is to get used to acting with mercy over the tiny things: the person who cuts you up when driving; the person who doesn’t know how to navigate the Coach and Horses junction, for example! If we do this every day, it becomes part of our character to be merciful, so that we can cope with the really serious, when it comes along.
On 2nd October 2006, Charles Roberts attacked an Amish school house in Pennsylvania. He shot dead five school girls and seriously injured five others.
The response of the Amish community, the families and friends of the dead girls to this terrible massacre was astonishing….. and is revealed in the book Amish Grace and in the movie of this name.
It wasn’t that they weren’t angry. Of course, they were angry; they were angry at the evil; they were angry at the death of their children but they found it possible to forgive Roberts, to hug his family and, notably, to attend his funeral, when none of the community from which Roberts came (the Americans that the Amish call ‘the English’); when none of them attended out of shame.
If you ever imagine that someone has done something to you which you simply cannot forgive, I suggest that your read this book or see the film and reconsider….
How did the Amish get to a situation where they could care so much about the murderer of their children that they attended his funeral when all the ‘English’ stayed away?
It’s all about the heart.
It’s all about the heart.
It’s only when we really understand how merciful God has been to us, that we can be merciful to others in the way that God wants us to be.
If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as quite good really: kinder than most, more generous than many, well behaved and brought up, then, actually, Jesus dying on the cross means nothing to us; he might just as well have not come because we have nothing that we need saving from; according to us…..
And inevitably we will see the spitter at Waterloo station, the difficult committee member, the challenging neighbour or family member, as objects of anger, deserving punishment, of justifiable rage. ‘Why can’t they behave more like me? Why aren’t they more civilised? Lock em up, constable!’
But, if, on the other hand, we see ourselves as sinners; if we see the whole world as fallen, lost, hopeless, addicted to sin, slaves to idolatry, constantly repeating the same mistakes and coming to God to ask for forgiveness and to repent, then God will give us a new heart; we will be reborn and then we will really see the one who has sinned against us as pathetic, pitiable an object of compassion, like everyone else in this broken world because ‘he doesn’t know what he is doing’: he is a slave to alcohol, or his hatreds, or his pride, or his idolatry, a slave to the world and the prince of this world – the devil.
Only when we truly understand who we are: forgiven, redeemed, loved, reborn, adopted sons and daughters of the creator of the universe, can we have pity and compassion on those who are not…
Only when this is our character…only when we are reborn with this as our identity….can we, like the Amish, say with confidence that we are blessed because we know that we will be shown mercy despite our faults….and we can be merciful ourselves….
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.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Salt and Light
(Mk 9:50; Lk 14:34–35)
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 5:1–17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Thanks so much to Revd Tim Sledge for the opening story.