The Reverend Kathleen Killian
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Inside the Proper Order
Curses and blessings, blessings and woes, the righteous and the wicked, the happy and the doomed—are you a parched shrub or a fruit-bearing tree? Are you full or empty? Rich or poor? Are you weeping or laughing? Right/wrong, black/white, good/bad, into which binary column are you assigned?
Our scriptures this morning offer a rather harsh rendering of an either/or, one-or-the-other theology. Woe to the preacher, I thought, who has to preach her way through the divide—but blessed am I who wrestles with the Word—and blessed are we who have ears to hear—but cursed are those whose hearts are turned away from the Lord.
And yet these dualistic conditions and their consequences are more so costly words from the prophet Jeremiah and our Lord Jesus about the nature of the human heart and the counter-intuitive kingdom of God.
For the prophet Jeremiah, blessedness consists of radical trust in God and dependence upon the Holy One, which begins and takes root in the deep interiority of the heart, where the Lord searches and tries us true; for Jeremiah, in the hearts of all of the people of Judah, and for Jesus in the hearts of all of his followers.
In last Sunday’s gospel when Jesus directed his disciples to “put out into the deep water and let down their nets for a catch," he was effectively deepening their trust in him, which entailed both risk and reward. To be a disciple of Jesus and faithful to God means that ultimately “deep” is the only direction to go. Any outward-bound, horizon-bound, or mission-bound movement must spring from such inward depths of trust and love so as to accomplish the will or desire of God.
And so we must ask: do we so deeply trust in God’s love for us?
When Jeremiah preached, he did so in a time of upheaval and transition. He began his forty year ministry during a brief period of religious revival and reform, but then saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and was himself exiled to Babylon with the rest of Israel. There was no going back, and exile was “the new normal.” How were the exiles to respond? Which was both the question and mandate central to Jeremiah’s message.
How are we to respond? For the world—our nation and global relationships, the church at large, religion itself, the very earth and creation—all are undergoing upheaval and transition hastened by a global pandemic. There is no going back. Are we not exiles too? The sick and ill from health, the poor from security, the underemployed from a viable living, the homeless from safe shelter, refugees from their homelands, children from parents, family members from family members, the embittered from hope, the ignorant from wisdom—are we not all displaced in some way large or small from the wholeness and great love of God? Is not the primary quest to return home and be restored to dignity and unity with and as the Holy One?
In Luke's Gospel, we find a special emphasis on Jesus’ compassion for those who are exiled, marginalized, and outcast because they are poor, female, sick, and sinners lost from God in their own hearts. As Luke tells the story of our gospel passage today, these “others" have come from everywhere—from Judea, Jerusalem the power center, and the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon—a clear message that Jesus is for all people, Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders alike. All are seeking healing—all are hoping to touch Jesus for the power of the Holy Spirit is literally pouring out of his body—and in his deep compassion, Jesus heals them all.
Then, standing “on a level place,” he looks up at his disciples and says: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, mourning, sad, and expendable. Woe to you who are rich, whose stomachs are full, who are full of laughter, and regarded well. He turns the world and our expectations upside down in the wild nature of God’s kingdom economy, which seems to make no sense at all.
But make no mistake, Jesus neither glamorizes or valorizes hardship and poverty—he in fact alleviates suffering in every way possible before and after these pronouncements, and his is always a healing ministry of restoration and redemption. Jesus preaches on level ground, and his sermon is on the plain. He speaks plainly and levels with us: this is the way of the world, and this is the way of God’s kingdom.
The beatitudes or blessings and woes proclaim grace and prophetic judgement, not law or ethical rubric. And though they might seem like opposites, such as the opposite of blessing is a curse, this is not the case. In the Greek, the word for blessing (μακάριος/makarios) can also be translated as happy or fortunate (as in Psalm 1:1); in preaching the beatitudes, Jesus rejoices in what he wants for us, which is our happiness and good fortune. His blessings show us the way.
The Greek word for woe (οὐαί/ouaican) also be translated as alas, and literally means “an exclamation of grief”—and a particularly public, even official proclamation of grief. In preaching the woes, Jesus publicly laments for all those who settle for less than the fullness of life that God desires to give us; he grieves for those whose self-satiety will lead to wanting and lack, and for whose self-satisfaction will lead to unhappiness and alienation. The woes show us the way not to go, both the blessings and woes a kind of roadmap to the kingdom.
Jesus issues a pressing challenge to all of his disciples past and present, that they reorient their hearts and lives—now—so we will stand rightly before God—in the future. In doing so he declares, as did Jeremiah, a “new normal”; that the kingdom of God is already here but not yet fully realized. The kingdom of God is already but not yet. And so, even in the face of being hated and defamed for his sake, Jesus’ disciples are to rejoice and leap for joy now, for surely, Jesus says, your reward is great in heaven.
I think a fair understanding of Jesus’ teachings could be that “heaven” is the realized reversal of the social, economic, and political conditions of the poor, downcast, hungry, and maligned; for in prioritizing the last and least of these, Jesus depreciates glut, entitlement, and privilege of any kind. Having such advantage and more than a sufficiency, such that we lose our sense of weakness and dependency, obscures and obstructs our relationship with the Holy and God’s kingdom life.
But, neither is a simple reversal from this to that, from woe to beatitude or fullness to emptiness, or shrub to tree enough; for then, might not the powerless desire to become the powerful? Or the oppressed oppressors? No. What Jesus speaks to is a profound shift of colossal proportion that far supersedes the limits of diametrical opposition—even that of life and death; for as we read in 1 Corinthians: if our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable. In fact, however, Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep. (I like the word “asleep,” which connotes not only physical death but lack of awareness while alive.) Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in the proper order.
If we go deep into our hearts with depth and honesty, and into the truth of Jesus’ blessings and woes, we will live eternal life now—outside of dichotomy—and inside the “proper order” of Christ—within God’s boundless grace—disciples comforted, challenged, and changed; shaped, transformed, and loved into the fullness of our humanity—a sign of hope for the world and all creation.
In this season after the Epiphany, as we make our way from the synagogue in Nazareth to the wedding at Cana, the lake of Gennesaret, to the sermon on the plain, and finally to the mount of the Transfiguration, may we do so strengthened by the hope promised us this day, and illumined by the ever present light of Christ.