Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the celebration and appropriation of the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on Jesus’ disciples. My reflections yesterday centered on the theme of freedom: The Holy Spirit frees us from spiritual slavery, from bondage to fear and everything else that holds us back. But, as I’ve noted previously, freedom demands that we consider not just what we are free from but what we are free for. In the reading that inspired yesterday’s reflection, Paul answered this question with another metaphor: that we are freed to become God’s heirs. But, as beautiful as that image may be, we might still rightly ask ourselves what exactly that looks like.
And this is where today’s Gospel reading comes in. Today we have the true blessing of considering the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These chapters contain the most thorough exploration of Jesus’ ethical teachings; so when, as Christians, we ask what holiness, what spiritual freedom, or what being a child and heir of God looks like, this is where we first turn. Specifically, today’s Gospel is the Beatitudes, the series of blessings with which Jesus begins his teaching:
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 receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This is a far cry from how our culture — sadly, even “Christian” culture — understands blessedness. Over the past few years, the social media hashtag #blessed has become something of a joke, as it’s become the spiritual version of the humble-brag: a way of showing off under the guise of gratitude. Of course, it’s a good thing to be grateful for the good things in one’s life. But what’s happened with the #blessed phenomenon is that it’s become about showing off an unrealistically idealistic image of one’s life, equating blessedness with a good date with one’s spouse, well-behaved children, a beach vacation, or a luxurious dinner. This is not the kind of blessedness Jesus taught.
The way of blessing Jesus outlines is rather a way of humility, of setting aside the ego. It speaks of poverty of spirit (in Luke’s version, simply “poverty”), of mourning, of working for peace, and of being persecuted. It may be a way of meekness, but meekness is not weakness. Meekness, true humility, is hard work. It takes courage, strength, and discipline to truly live the life of extreme vulnerability it asks of us.
The way of Jesus has always been counter-cultural, and this is particularly true now, in our cultural moment that insists that we stand tall and smile and say “Everything happens for a reason,” that has pathologized grief, and that thinks the humility, listening, empathy, coalition building, and compromise that peacemaking requires are betraying the cause. And yet this is what true, shackle-less, ego-less freedom looks like: no longer looking out for number one, no longer with anything to prove, no longer afraid to do what is right.
This is hard. It’s beautiful, it’s good, and it’s true, but it’s also, undoubtedly hard. It is a call to a supercharged life of vulnerability: to empty our self, to grieve, to hunger and thirst after what is good and right, to go the extra mile for people who don’t deserve it, to be single-minded in love, to step into conflict and make peace, to risk facing consequences for doing the right — the gracious, loving, compassionate, merciful — thing.
This is a call to genuine freedom. To co-opt Ken Wilber’s succinct expression of it, it is a call to Wake up, Clean up, Grow up, and Show up — to wake up and genuinely see what’s going on around us and within us; to clean up our messes, inside and out; to grow up into full human maturity and possibility; and to show up for ourselves and others, for the life of the world, to let our yes be yes and our no be no, to stand up and speak up for justice and use whatever influence we have in the world to lift up others.
This is a call to step out there and let ourselves be seen in all our freedom. And this is what the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost empowers us to do.
Are we ready?