The Sermon on the Mount is something of a theological football. It gets kicked around by different parties, all claiming it supports their views. And the Beatitudes, which open the Sermon, are dragged into that fight. Is this all about politics in the here and now? Is it about what heaven will be like? Do we sit around and wait for glory? Does the teaching of the Sermon apply to all people, or only to Christians? And so on.
I think we must first of all say that this is material that is primarily aimed at disciples of Jesus. When Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain, but it isn’t the crowd that comes to him (was he trying to escape from them?), it is only his disciples (verse 1). He is teaching his disciples.
What is a disciple, then? It is someone who is a learner, an apprentice, or a student. In Jesus’ day, bright young men asked rabbis if they could follow them. They would not only learn the rabbi’s teaching, they would also seek to copy the rabbi’s lifestyle, right down to some of the minutest and most private areas of life.
If, then, we are disciples of Jesus, we are those who are being called to learn his teaching not simply by memorising it, but by putting it into practice as he did. It is a lifelong task. No disciple of Jesus can ever in this life behave as if she has arrived. It doesn’t work like that. There is always more to know and more of Jesus’ life to imitate. There is no place for complacency. We should always be thirsty for more of Jesus’ teaching, and we always need to retain a passion to follow the example of Jesus. If we ever can’t be bothered to learn of Jesus or seek to model more of our lives upon his pattern, then something is seriously wrong with our lives, and we are not behaving like true disciples.
The story is told of a young girl who watched with fascination and incredulity as she regularly saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Why do you keep on reading the Bible, Grandma,” asked the girl, “Surely you’ve read it all by now and know it?”
The elderly lady smiled sweetly and replied, “Because I’m studying for my finals.”
I wonder if that is our attitude. We may have been Christians for many years, but still as his disciples we are called to study for our finals. It doesn’t require the physical strength of youth that may have departed years ago, it merely necessitates a serious commitment to Jesus.
For Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. He is not a run of the mill spiritual teacher. Note how he goes up the mountain in this story. That would have been very suggestive to Jewish people. Moses went up the mountain and came down with the laws of God. Any time someone goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something big happens.
In fact, just as there were five so-called ‘Books of Moses’ in the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – so there are also five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. He is the new Moses.
More to the point, he fulfils the ancient prophecy that one greater than Moses would come, for there is one key difference. When Moses comes down the mountain, he returns with laws given to him by God. Jesus does not go up the mountain to receive from God something that did not originate with him – he gives teaching that is his, and with authority (as we hear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount). We are called to be disciples not merely of a human teacher, but the Lord himself. This is all the more reason to take our apprenticeship seriously. He is giving us the New Law of the Messiah. He brings ethical teaching that is from heaven, based on future judgement and rewards, and earthed in true wisdom, all for our reception and action.
So yes, Jesus gives this teaching to disciples, but the crowd is at a distance, watching them. When we get to the end of the Sermon, we shall find they are still there. You might say that the teaching is given to disciples, but it is to be lived in the full gaze of the crowds, of the world. For this is teaching about a distinctive way of life, and right from the start here with the Beatitudes, we have Jesus painting a picture of good living that is vastly different from worldly expectations.
And that means we are onto our second observation about the text: it’s about what kind of disciples Jesus has in mind. Just pause for a moment and consider the list of disciples he gives us in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While some of those qualities are sporadically attractive to the world, they are not generally the kind of people who ‘get on’ in life. Society likes the full, the happy, the proud, those who aggressively trumpet their rights, the go-getters, those who lust and are lusted after, and those who will stop at nothing to achieve what they want. These are the people we celebrate. These are the kind we reward. Not Jesus’ list. We know how the world mocks the teaching of Jesus: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – provided the rest of you don’t mind, of course.’
If anything, Jesus gives us a list of losers. And you only have to hang around children and young people today to know that ‘loser’ is not a term of sympathy, but an expression of derision. But the disciples of the kingdom don’t look much like a photo-opportunity of celebrities that are getting themselves into our fairly news-free newspapers at the slightest chance. The disciples of the kingdom are usually a long way from the business success stories of our day, the millionaire sports stars, and even the celebrities of the religious world who gain millions of followers and sell thousands of books. Not that God doesn’t love these people too, but those who are alert to the values and ethics of the kingdom Jesus ushered in almost inevitably live different lives.
Why? Because when you look at the kingdom of God as described by Jesus, it is good news for the materially poor and the spiritually destitute. It is good news of healing for those who bear great grief. It is grace and mercy, not judgmentalism. It is about reconciliation, not putting one over your opponent. These are the things you know, appreciate and build on when you apprentice yourself to Jesus. These are the lifestyles you adopt when you sign up to be a student of Jesus.
Yes, they will put you at odds with the world. You may be teased, mocked or worse at times. But this is where following the Lord of life takes you, and in every case he pronounces the word ‘Blessèd’ over you. ‘Blessèd’ doesn’t simply mean ‘happy’, although that can be involved in it. Nor does it always mean that you are having a wonderful spiritual experience – although again, that can certainly be included. But ‘Blessèd’ means that the favour of God rests upon you, and what more could you want? How does a shiny new car compare with the favour of God? What comparison is there between a successful career and knowing God’s favour? Which is better – society putting your name up in lights or God lighting up your life with his blessing? Yes, those who walk in the ways of the kingdom, following Jesus may suffer rejection in this life, but they do so knowing there is One who does not reject them but does the opposite – he approves, he favours, he blesses.
And that leads us to the third and final observation this morning – it’s about the kind of blessing the disciples receive. Here is the list of blessings: theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will receive mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What do we observe about this list of blessings? Most of them are promised blessings for the future – they will be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, be called children of God. The first and last, though, don’t speak of the future, they speak in the present tense. Both the first and last blessings say, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Of course, the kingdom in all its fullness also belongs to the future. But it also starts now. God is already reigning in kingly power, but in this life his rule over all things is still disputed by rebel forces.
The blessing of Jesus’ disciples, then, is much like the kingdom of God itself. It has started, but is not fully here. There is great blessing to come in the future – there is a bliss to come, the description of which can only paint the shadows. But it is not simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’: the blessing starts now. We can see glimpses of glory even in the darkness of a sinful world. Even now, God begins to make what the American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘an altar in the world’. Jacob looked back on his dream of the ladder and said, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it,” and similarly with us. We may not expect to encounter the blessing of God in a world of sin, suffering, injustice, and death, but he breaks through in the ordinary areas of life as well as in the places we might more conventionally expect him, such as church services. And as he breaks in (not that he was ever absent), he smiles at us. In fact, I like to think that sometimes he even winks at us. He gives us the knowing look of the secret conspirator that all will not remain the way it is, and even now his pleasure is directed to us, with a view to that day when that joy will no longer be restricted by the powers of sin.
Indeed, about five years or so ago there was a Christian song doing the rounds called ‘God is smiling’, and the chorus said this:
God is smiling over us tonight
God is smiling over us tonight
Where hearts are broken, love unites
God is smiling, God is smiling over us tonight.
Yes – as the song says, even (and perhaps especially) ‘where hearts are broken’, God smiles. Not at the pain, but his subversive love breaks in and turns upside-down the pain of this world. And all that is a foretaste of the great reversal that began in the coming of Jesus and will be completed when God has finally made all things new. Then, the new creation will be populated by the meek, the pure, by the righteous, by those who have made peace, and so on.
It seems a long way off now, and it is still discouraging when being an apprentice of Jesus means walking in the difficult ways of the Beatitudes while the world watches, but what a promise is held out before us, a promise that even begins its fulfilment now.
So let us commit again to being the apprentices of Jesus, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to imitate him. And as the world looks on, sometimes puzzled, sometimes scornful, and at other times curious, let us rejoice that we are ‘blessèd’, the recipients of God’s favour, beginning now and becoming a torrent in the life of the world to come.
Stephen Altrogge has Seven ways to write an awful worship song. It’s funny in places, but also rather too close to the truth. Principle #1 put me in mind of all the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs. #2 made me think about ‘the dove from above‘ in Reeves and Mortimer‘s ‘Shooting Stars‘. The ‘poetry’ of #5 reminded me of that strange mixed metaphor in ‘I could sing of your love for ever‘ – ‘Over the mountains and the sea, your river runs with love for me.’ (Ever seen a river run over the sea?) As for #7, I thought about the old story Murray Watts used to tell about people saying to him, ‘The Lord has given me a poem.’ It was usually turgid. Watts would tear up the poem, saying, ‘The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’
Can you add to Altrogge’s list?
What would you nominate as an awful worship song, and why? (Don’t be nasty.)
How can we improve?
Singing The Faith is the first new official British Methodist hymn book for nearly thirty years, superseding the (in my opinion) deadly dull Hymns and Psalms. My copy arrived in the post on Friday, and I’ve been skimming through it for some first impressions.
Hymns and Psalms just had to go, and many churches were voting with their wallets. It had the misfortune to come out just before the explosion in contemporary worship music (twelve months too early even for Kendrick‘s ‘The Servant King’,
I seem to recall). But you got the feeling that even if it hadn’t, that stuff would probably not have been included. It was published around the high water tide of liberal antipathy to evangelical and charismatic Christianity in Methodism. Furthermore, the musical arrangements were, as one friend put it kindly, ‘for musicians by musicians, to interest musicians’. I can’t judge the truth of that as a non-musician, but it may explain why they were largely deadly dull to me.
It had its bright spots – and I think particularly of the additional verse it includes in ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross‘ (retained here) that I’ve never seen elsewhere, the scholarship applied to restoring original texts and the Scripture Index in the music edition.
Methodist Conference and the panel that put together Singing The Faith faced the implications of several cultural revolutions that have deeply affected how Christians, Methodists included, approach faith and sung worship. Revolutions in communications (especially the Internet), transport (you can more easily get to a church whose style you prefer) and ecumenism (people are exposed to other traditions more easily and frequently) mean that fewer Methodists will be easily satisfied with ‘what we already know’. Some would argue (myself included) that technological changes and the fact that churches had already bought all sorts of supplementary books, such as Songs Of Fellowship, Mission Praise and The Source, meant that a new hymn book probably wasn’t the answer, and another approach was needed. The moment of publication is the beginning of fossilisation today. However, Methodism is almost umbilically attached to hymn books, and so a new book it was.
Given that fact, the new book, then, would need to embrace a diversity of musical and theological styles. Centralised or hierarchical control of doctrine may technically be still present in our system, but for many people it is long gone. There is therefore a huge question here of how Methodism maintains her doctrine in this central aspect of our piety, our singing. It may be that the forthcoming additional resource Singing The Faith Plus will act as some kind of clearing house to reflect on which of the newer material that is published from now on is consonant with Methodist doctrine, but we’ll see.
When it gets to the handling of theological diversity, there certainly is a spread in Singing The Faith. It embraces both the neo-Calvinist emphasis on the wrath of God at the Cross in Stuart Townend‘s ‘In Christ Alone’
and at the other end we have Marty Haugen‘s ‘Let Us Build A House (All Are Welcome)’
which some have criticised for allegedly extended the universal offer of salvation into universalism. So the issue of acceptable diversity is alive and well within the book!
It is also worth noting the considerable reduction in Charles Wesley hymns – very significant for Methodists, this. Hymns And Psalms was originally to be edited by an ecumenical committee, but when Methodist Conference insisted on at least two hundred Wesley hymns, the United Reformed Church pulled out. And for the URC to withdraw takes quite something! In the new book, at a quick count Wesley is down to seventy-nine contributions. Much as I love Wesleyan theology, I think this is the right move. Indeed, if many in our churches who have been most vocal about singing Wesley hymns had been as fervently aligned to his doctrine as to the music, Methodism might be more vibrant! Here is a prime example of the argument that allegiance to hymns, however central they are to Methodist spirituality, has not always maintained and fed our faith in the ways to which we might aspire.
Two more traditional-style contemporary Methodist hymn writers, Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson, both participated in the STF committee, and both are represented in the final collection. Both have nine entries. With those numbers, I don’t think anyone can accuse the compilers of favouritism. I imagine the STF panel did what the HAP committee did, and required authors who were members of the group to vacate when their potential contributions were being discussed.
On, then, to think about those writers who have come more out of the explosion in contemporary worship styles. Matt Redman (also) features nine times, and the observation that interests me here is how it isn’t always his ‘hits’ that have been chosen. It looks to me like the committee has taken a real interest in what he writes about struggle and suffering. So as well as the popular ‘Blessèd Be Your Name’ we get ‘When We Were In The Darkest Night’ (‘God Of Our Yesterdays’)
and ‘We Have Nothing To Give’. No sign of ‘The Father’s Song': one hopes that isn’t about avoiding male language for God, in the way that Fred Pratt Green‘s ‘For The Fruits Of His Creation’ has been altered to ‘For The Fruits Of All Creation’.
Having said that, the compilers are less confident that middle of the road Methodist congregations are ready for much by the late Delirious? Martin Smith and Stuart Garrard get in a couple each, but that’s it. This might be about some of the slightly unusual ways the band expressed itself lyrically, or it is about the more performance-oriented style, or possibly some other reason.
There is also evidence of taking into account the effect of contemporary worship trends on older hymns. It has become popular, particularly under so-called ‘Celtic’ influences, to sing the afore-mentioned ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’ to the tune ‘O Waly Waly’ as well as ‘Rockingham’. This is recognised in Singing The Faith.
But beyond the contemporary worship movement, one area where I am particularly pleased to see innovation is in children’s worship songs. Mark and Helen Johnson of Out Of The Ark Music have been producing worship songs for primary schools for many years. Indeed, that is how I was introduced to them – by a primary head teacher. It’s a delight to see songs such as ‘Everywhere Around Me’
included, along with songs about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (which actually doesn’t feature that often in their lyrics). Sadly, the wonderful ‘Harvest Samba’
isn’t in. Did it lose out because it has a middle eight, and that would confuse some older congregations? I wonder.
However, overall, as you will gather, for someone who stays on the fringes of the Methodist establishment, and who is usually quite uncomfortable about it, I greatly welcome Singing The Faith. I still think a new book wasn’t the right approach in a fast-moving creative and digital world, but given that the decision was made, I think what has been produced is far better than many of us might have hoped.
I wonder whether you recognise this person? Those of you who remember news stories from the 1960s may do so. This is Archbishop Makarios III, a key figure in the Cypriot campaign for independence from Britain. He was well-known in my native north London, which had heavy pockets of Greek Cypriot communities. We had consecutive Greek Cypriot next-door neighbours. One family set up a thriving dry-cleaning business near Tottenham Hotspur’s football ground. They promised that if you brought your suit in before the match, it would be ready by the time you came out.
Makarios. I wonder whether you know what his name means? Blessèd. I don’t think the British authorities considered him blessèd or a blessing.
But ‘makarios’ is the word Matthew uses in the Beatitudes for the blessedness Jesus pronounces on God’s behalf here. ‘Makarios’ are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and so on. What do we understand Jesus to mean when Jesus says that these disciples whose characteristics are so far from what many say are the priorities of life are ‘blessèd’?
Infamously, the Good News Bible translates ‘makarios’, ‘blessèd’, as ‘happy’. So the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and the persecuted are all happy. Hmm. Maybe sometimes, but it’s not guaranteed. Take those who are persecuted for their faith. On occasion they will feel it is an honour to suffer for Christ, but at other times they will cry out for relief from that suffering. Does ‘happy’ cover it? I’m not convinced.
I think the point may not be that the disciples are happy, but that God is happy – he is happy with what they are doing. The Beatitudes describe attitudes, actions and priorities in our lives that bring joy to the heart of God. The Christian rock band Delirious had a song called ‘God is smiling’, and I think the ‘Blessèd’ of the Beatitudes may indicate that God is smiling when this is how we choose to live for him.
So the Beatitudes becomes a text for learning how we please God. There is a text in Ephesians where Paul urges his readers to ‘find out what pleases the Lord’. Well, the Beatitudes would be a good place to stop by and discover what pleases the Lord.
But before we plunge into them, there is one thing to remember about pleasing God in the Beatitudes, and it’s this. Jesus’ statement that God blesses certain things is followed by a reward. For example, ‘Blessèd are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What are we to make of this reward? How are we to understand the idea that God rewards us when we do what pleases him?
As a father, I’m delighted when my children do something particular in order to please me. But it’s not as though I wasn’t pleased with them before they did it. I can just go into their bedrooms at night and look at them sleeping to feel my heart leap with joy at the sight of them. When they deliberately set out to please me, it’s from an existing relationship of mutual love. It doesn’t earn my love, it simply brings my existing love for them to the surface.
It’s similar when thinking of our relationship with God. If we set out to make God smile by following the Beatitudes, it won’t earn us his love. We have his love already. He has offered it to us in Christ, and we have responded in repentance, faith and a commitment to following Jesus. If we embrace the Beatitudes, let’s do so because God already looks upon us in love, and we simply want to draw that to the surface with a heavenly smile.
Overall, then, the movement is something like this: God calls us – we respond – God rewards us.
Right – enough with the preliminaries. Let’s ask two questions about each Beatitude, then: firstly, what makes God smile? Then, secondly, how does he reward?
God smiles on ‘the poor in spirit’ (verse 3). When we so lack things that – rather than simply desire what the rest of the world lusts after – we throw ourselves upon him in dependence and faith, then God smiles. His heart aches when he sees people in poverty, but he rejoices when those who lack what is needed trust him to provide what they need. When we are in desperate straits but we trust him, God smiles.
And it is that complete dependence upon God that means the kingdom of heaven is our reward. Faith in God through Christ is what brings us into God’s kingdom. We are in that kingdom now, because when we trust ourselves to Christ we place ourselves under his reign. That kingdom has not yet come fully, because people, institutions and other forces still oppose God’s rule. But one day God will put every enemy under his feet. In the meantime, all those whose hopeless condition causes them to put their trust in God find themselves already in the kingdom. That is the reward as God smiles on their faith, even in terrible circumstances.
The second Beatitude we often quote at funerals, usually when the minister is walking in with the coffin. Those who mourn are blessèd, because they will be comforted (verse 4) – presumably by God. I wouldn’t want to deny that our God blesses those who grieve, but I would want to expand how we traditionally understand this particular Beatitude.
How? There is a clear link in the language with Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read out in his home synagogue at Nazareth to describe his mission. In that chapter, God promises ‘to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:2). Why are people mourning? Because the world is not the way God wants it to be. They are mourning not merely for themselves, but for a society where things are not as God would have them be. To those who grieve that the world is not as God wants it to be, Jesus promises comfort. ‘One day,’ he says, ‘it will not be like this. Your grief and anguish in prayer will be rewarded when the Father makes all things new in heaven and upon earth.’ So do not be afraid to keep weeping and praying for the world – God is pleased that you do, and your reward will be to see the coming of his kingdom.
Then we move to the London Underground, to the famous graffiti: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – so long as the rest of you don’t mind.’ The meek ‘are not persons who are submissive, mild and unassertive’, but those who have been humbled. Psalm 37 promised that such people would ‘inherit the land’, and the inheritance of the land was of course a powerful thought for Jewish people. (It still is, with arguments over territories and one state or two with the Palestinians.) But Jesus doesn’t limit this to the land of Israel: the whole land, the earth itself, is for those who have been humbled. God does not grant his new creation to the powerful, the wealthy or the violent, but to those of no account, those disregarded and trampled upon in the world. And many of the early disciples were just that. Beaten down, because they confessed Christ as Lord. To such people, and not to the emperors and armies, Jesus ‘promised the earth’. God would be pleased with their courageous, sacrificial witness, and he would reward their humble bravery at the end.
When we come to God’s delight in ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’, we are into the area of multiple meanings. You will know the old saying, ‘The Greeks had a word for it,’ meaning that the Greek language had many words to encompass different shades of meaning – for example, the several different words for the various kinds of love. However, it’s also true that individual words also carried a range of meanings, just as we look up a word in a dictionary and see several varying definitions.
That is true of the word ‘righteousness’ here. When we hear ‘righteousness’ in English, we tend to think of personal, individual qualities of right living. But the Greek word Matthew uses is one that has not only an individual meaning, it also has a social meaning – that is, ‘justice’. Jesus says that God delights in those who care so much for justice that they are hungry and thirsty (literally). They may be hungry and thirsty for justice, because they themselves have been denied it. But they will not keep quiet, they will not be denied, even at the cost of diet, nutrition and hydration.
Yet they will not be empty always, ‘they will be filled’ – that will be God’s reward. God is pleased when people do not sit down, lie back and accept injustice. He is thrilled by people who make his justice their mission in life, even at great cost.
But the ‘righteousness’ element isn’t lost in the concentration on justice. It is those who are righteous in God’s sight – vindicated by him through Christ – who will enjoy the justice of God’s kingdom rule. The person who pleases God and calls forth his reward is the one who wants to be right with him in Christ and who also then is restless for justice, to the point of personal sacrifice.
The fifth Beatitude is where we learn of God’s pleasure in the merciful, who themselves will be shown mercy. In a world which all too routinely says that certain things are ‘unforgivable’, and which calls for ‘no mercy’ to be shown to undesirables, Jesus extols mercy. Mercy isn’t the province of do-gooders, of bleeding-heart liberals who excuse the inexcusable. Mercy knows that sin is always unjustified, but it forgivers.
The other day, a friend of mine from Essex put these slogans about mercy from the American pastor Rob Bell on his Facebook wall:
Revenge doesn’t work
Bitterness is Unfulfilled Revenge
To forgive is to set someone free and then find out it’s you.
To not forgive is to let someone rent free space in your head.
Why let the wrong they did determine your joy?
When we show mercy, we not only set the sinner free, we set ourselves free – free from the chains of bitterness. The God of mercy looks with delight on those who have learned mercy from him. To understand the forgiveness of God is so to receive it that when we consider how much we have been forgiven, we have to extend that to others. God blesses that.
What, next, of the way God smiles on ‘the pure in heart’ who ‘will see God’ as their reward? I once had a conversation with a Muslim imam about this. He said that the inner person, the heart and the motives, didn’t matter. All that mattered was outward action. I don’t know how representative his view would be of Islamic teaching, but I beg to differ. Jesus knew that our inner life affected our outward action, hence his stress on the pure in heart. It was something the psalmists had proclaimed, too. According to Psalm 24, only those with clean hands and pure hearts (outward and inward life) would see God.
Of course, who can be completely sure of their motives and their integrity? But it is critical that we pay attention to them. I once read the testimony of a minister who had become enslaved to pornography. He tried various strategies to get free of his addiction. Eventually, it was this verse that set him free. The knowledge that he wanted to see God one day led him to purify his heart. When his heart was pure, he lost his desire for porn. The reward drove him to seek God’s pleasure.
The peacemakers bring pleasure to the Father, and will be called sons of God. Now that’s polemical in Jesus’ day. Who called themselves the sons of God in those times? The Zealots, the political terrorists who wanted to bring God’s kingdom by violence. But the kingdom comes not by causing violence but by suffering to bring peace – supremely in the Cross of Christ. It is the way of the Cross that God blesses – not only so that we may be forgiven, it is also the shape of our discipleship. Later, Jesus would say that his followers needed to take up their cross.
We’re near the end now. The last two beatitudes have similar themes. Both express God’s pleasure at those who bear persecution, the first group ‘because of righteousness’ (verse 10), the second ‘because of [Jesus]’ (verse 11). Is God sadistic in wanting to see people suffer? No: he is heartened by those who are brave to stand for what is right and for his Son, even when it costs them. He will not let their persecutors have the final say. So the kingdom of heaven is theirs (verse 10), and their reward will be great in heaven (verse 12).
Why? These are people who will not fight on the world’s terms, but in kingdom ways, and so they are rewarded according to God’s kingdom. Their attitude could be encapsulated in some words of Martin Luther King that an American friend of mine posted on Facebook in response to yesterday’s assassination attempt on an Arizona politician:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
How, then, might we conclude these reflections on the Beatitudes? They show God’s pleasure when the disciples of Christ follow him radically, even at the risk of sacrifice, because they go against the grain of the world. This brings such joy to his heart that it overflows in reward – not always in the here and now; sometimes it is a promise for the future.
But this joy of God – the smile on his face that says ‘Blessèd’ – comes from the fact that he already loves us unconditionally as his children. We take these brave actions of discipleship not in order to win his love but because we are loved.
So let God’s love for us draw out courageous discipleship from us in response. And may that lead to his blessing and reward – which leads us to further joyful service. May our life of love with Christ, therefore, be not a vicious circle but a virtuous circle.
When I was a young Christian, I wanted contemporary Christian music covered on Radio 1. When they covered the Greenbelt Festival, I was delighted. I wanted them to play Christian music, but I was embarrassed at the infamous attempt by Christians to get the band Heartbeat into the charts with their song ‘Tears From Heaven’. It was when well-known evangelical-charismatic preachers started saying it was the right thing to do that it was obvious something was wrong. It wasn’t their area of expertise, and one of the campaigners, Colin Urquhart, had one of his offspring in the band. I still wanted Christian music on ‘secular’ radio, but never understood just how much the BBC had to chase the coat tails of the commercial stations. Nor did I understand the irony of getting what was or should have been a counter-cultural message to have a mainline hearing.
Skip to my mid-thirties. I’m in my first appointment as a minister in the town of Hertford. A bunch of us are running youth worship events in the town, in church halls, a disused shop and eventually in the local night club, Zero. We call our event ‘One@Zero’. Some of our number have been going down to Littlehampton in Sussex to witness a youth worship event called ‘Cutting Edge’, led by what was called the Cutting Edge Band. That band morphed into Delirious? The teenagers at our event and we leaders followed them with interest and enthusiasm. When they started releasing singles in order to get into the charts, we all went and bought them. In fact, Hertford’s local independent record/CD shop, Tracks, used to supply a weekly Top 10 sales chart to the local newspaper. So we piled in there to buy them in the week of release. When ‘Deeper’
was released and made number 20 nationally, it was number one in the Hertford chart.
As they released more singles, we bought them. They had a few more to make the lower end of the Top 20, roughly comparable with other cult bands of the time. Nevertheless, the influential Chris Evans infamously refused to book them for his hit TV show TFI Friday, and Radio 1 still shunned them – something Q Magazine covered sympathetically at the time. It got to the point that the band called one of their albums ‘Audio Lessonover‘, an anagram of ‘Radio One Loves Us’. The singles eventually stopped, and they concentrated on their huge influence on the contemporary worship movement with evangelical-charismatic Christianity and beyond. I guess Christians shouldn’t have been surprised the band didn’t become the hoped-for darlings of the Smash Hits crowd. But you live and learn.
History repeats itself.
Because it’s happening again. Only in a different way, powered by social media. The principles of Clay Shirky‘s ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ are being applied by Christians. Facebook groups have sprung up, not orchestrated by Delirious? (who recently split up, anyway), but by fans. The first one I saw was called ‘Anyone up for getting a No. 1 for Delirious?‘ The founder, Steve Jeffery, describes his motives this way:
So some dude managed to get Rage Against The Machine to No.1 for Christmas. Is anyone out there up for doing the same thing for Delirious? If you are then join this group. You need to download the track between the 29th Mar & 3rd April, the track will be History Maker, will all need to buy it from iTunes (or other download outlet) in the same week.
Please only join if you are actually going to commit to spend 75p on iTunes to make this happen. Spread the word and join now! I think it would be a great gift from us fans back to the band if we can make this happen!
You can see the social media connections. This is a people movement, like those who couldn’t face another saccharine X-Factor winner having the Christmas number one, and who successfully gave Simon Cowell a bloody nose by supporting a Rage Against The Machine track.
The second group – with, at present, more followers – is called ‘Christian music topping the UK charts!‘ This too is motivated by the people power of social media, as they make clear:
Although this initiative has not derived from the band I have been in touch with their record company (Furious Records) and they are more than happy for this initiative to take place and are excited to see how it unfolds!
Those two campaigns are specific, and apparently time-limited to getting people downloading the track ‘History Maker’
during Holy Week, so that Delirious? get the number one slot on Easter Day (which may not be commercially significant in the music industry, but obviously is for Christians).
To these must now be added a (so far tiny) group with a longer aim, ‘Christian chart music for a year‘, who say
Christian music seems to be lacking from todays chart – yet there is some cracking stuff out there. We intend to try and push for at least one christian artist in the UK Top 40 every week for the next year. We’re not bothered about number one’s.
We want to inspire debate. To have DJ’s questioning why they are playing christian music. For people to talk to each other about their beliefs. To see churches swell with people who are curious. To say that we have a voice and that we are being marginalised. This could be an icebreaker to openly talk about your faith with someone else.
Approximately 5000 people buying the same track in a week will secure us a top 40 hit. Please help to spread the message of Jesus.
What can I do?
1. Press the “Become a Fan” button up top there.
2. Tell all of your Christian friends. (Click “Suggest to friends” to the left)
3. Post your ideas and suggestions in the forum (click the “Discussions” tab)
4. Support the single of the week
These are interesting reasons. Despite my background in remembering past failed campaigns, I don’t want to say anything cynical, especially since some of these campaigns are attracting young Christians and I don’t want to be negative in a way that damages their faith, or alternatively so puts their backs up they become obstinate. Instead, I would invite discussion around a number of themes.
Firstly, how are we going to engage in the proposed debate? It is a laudable approach, though – better the conversational approach in an Internet campaign, I think. Therefore the debate needs to be peaceable, not confrontational.
Secondly, let’s tease out the concern about Christians having a voice and the fear of being marginalised. That is an ongoing worry for many Christians, and is being heightened by the looming General Election in the UK. Will we be listened to? We have a right to be heard as members of a democracy. What we don’t have is any right to special status. Indeed, Jesus warned that only a few would take the ‘narrow way’, and the biblical images of exiles, of strangers in a strange land, are uncomfortable ones that we may have to embrace (without that in any way meaning that we should be silent). If the campaign becomes one about Christian rights, I think we can be sure there is a real sense in which we will not gain a hearing, because we will alienate people – just the opposite of what is desired.
Thirdly, if this is to be an icebreaker, let’s make sure our conversation is ‘seasoned with salt’.
Fourthly, let’s think about what constitutes good Christian witness. It won’t simply be Christian music in the charts – and especially at a time when the charts are less and less important. It will be about the kind of people we are. We still – even more – need to earn the right to be heard. We all need to be ‘history makers’ by our loving involvement in the world, so that people care about what we say and sing about.
Having just quoted in the last post from An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, there is a quote from that book I have been meaning to post for reflection for ages. She includes it in her chapter on authenticity. It would also fit with what she says about creativity.
She tells on page 186 of how a friend had drawn her attention to an article in GQ magazine that was painful reading for Christians. Walter Kim, not a Christian disciple, had chosen to immerse himself in the evangelical subculture for a week – music, videos, even an exercise régime. His words were damning:
‘[Evangelical Christianity] is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some decision that to compete with them – to compete with ‘N Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie and Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street – the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music … and head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off, on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale. What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing … has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith.’
(Walter Kim, “What Would Jesus Do?”, GQ magazine, September 2002, p 496.)
Well, where to begin? Mall Christianity? (Love that ‘It’s been malled’ pun, by the way.) Yes: so much evangelical Christianity is consumerist, and thus in denial of the Gospel. What a tragedy when you think where the contemporary Christian music scene started out from: the revolutionaries of the Jesus Movement around the late 1960s and early 1970s who were committed to a radical lifestyle. Now it only matters if it sells. No wonder the likes of Larry Norman never fitted in with it.
The quote is also the best piece of writing for making me reflect on why the wider world has despised contemporary Christian music. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t get played on grounds of prejudice, and I don’t doubt that is partly true – the deliberate snubbing by the media of bands like Delirious? is a case in point. But what Kim makes us forcefully see here is the sheer problem of a lack of originality. You can read reviews of Christian music and there is a need to compare the sound with something on the ‘secular’ scene that readers may be familiar with (I know that, I write reviews myself for Cross Rhythms) but sometimes it’s a sad expression of the paucity of artistry. Although too many of the American artists are certainly not working ‘for scale': some command enormous fees. Material poverty isn’t absent from the US scene, but it’s far more common this side of the pond.
But what has stuck with me most since I first read this a few weeks ago is the way Kim latches on to the positive regard he and others have for our ‘centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music’. I knew ‘the world’ liked our ancient paintings, sculpture, stained glass windows and classical music, but I had assumed that was a spot of traditionalism. I knew there was a fondness for gospel music, but had assumed there was a certain stereotyping going on. (Think Kenny Everett and the large hands.) What Kim is saying here is that these art forms were original. Perhaps that’s why there is an innate respect today for U2, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, et al. Integrity and authenticity require honest creativity.
Kim’s writing leaves me wondering whether to label him what I have called elsewhere in a sermon on the arts and culture one of God’s unwitting prophets. We certainly need to hear his voice.