by Jason Micheli
Matthew 5.8 (click to see Scripture text)
My friend and mentor Stanley Hauerwas likes to tell the story of his cousin, Billy Dick. That Billy Dick’s name is Billy is but an indication that Billy Dick is a Texan. According to Stanley, one Easter when Billy Dick was six years old Billy Dick was in Sunday School at Lakewood Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. The Sunday School teacher was in the midst of retelling the story of Christ’s crucifixion when suddenly, for the first time, young Billy Dick realized that the Passion story does not turn out very well for Jesus.
Thrusting his arm in the air, Billy Dick waved his hand in an earnest and urgent attempt to get the teacher’s attention. Finally, the teacher paused her narration and called on Billy Dick.
Billy Dick stood up and with an innocent but righteous indignation shouted, “If Roy Rogers had been there on Good Friday, those dirty S.O.Bs wouldn’t have been able to do that to Jesus!”
The story of Billy Dick is funny because, of course, the desire to use force to defend a crucified messiah who lays down his life rather than take up the sword is a terrible way to exemplify the story of Jesus. To show up in the nick of time, with guns blazing, in order to rescue Jesus would make Jesus and the Kingdom he brings unintelligible. It’s a misreading, a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation of the scripture text.
We laugh at six year old Billy Dick, yet just last week congresswoman Lauren Boebert stood on the stage of a Colorado church and, to a chorus of amens and gleeful applause, announced that if only Jesus had been packing an AR15, then maybe his government would not have managed to kill him. From the medieval crusader who cried “Christ is Lord!” as he crushed the head of an infidel with an axe to Charlemagne ordering the execution of thousands of Saxons while he made edits to the Nicene Creed; from Stephen Ayres— an Episcopalian— who testified on Tuesday about how he stormed the Capitol to violently defend a lie to the Ohio politician who suggested this week that it was the will of Christ that a ten year old child should be coerced into carrying the child of her rapist, there are so many Billy Dick stories.That there are so many Billy Dick stories makes it crucial simply to point out that there are right ways and wrong ways to read and respond to the scriptures. There are correct and incorrect ways to interpret and embody the story of Jesus.
You don’t get to choose for yourself what it means.
The story of Billy Dick is illustrative of a fact often neglected by churches in the attempt to underwrite the egalitarian presumptions of liberal democracy; namely, the liberal presumption that we are all equal. Jesus makes inequality explicit in his sermon. He announces that some are “blessed” and, by implication, many others, perhaps most, are not— or, not yet. That the community of disciples is not an egalitarian society is explicit in the very term discipleship. After all, the closest English equivalent to the biblical term disciple is the word apprentice.
“Do it the way I do it…you don’t yet know how to be fully human…”
In other words, Christianity is not a set of convictions just anyone can access or understand in an unmediated manner. It’s a craft you can’t known or perform apart from apprenticeship under a master. This is exactly the analogy in the vows you all made as a church to Bailey moments ago at her baptism. Your promise implies that Bailey cannot possibly ever be a Christian without you. This is why there’s no salvation outside of the Church. There’s no salvation outside of the Church because you’ve got to be initiated and trained into salvation because Jesus is salvation.
Christians are made not born.
It’s an unfortunate legacy and unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation that many believe the meaning of scripture is self-evident. Thanks to the advent of the printing press and the Enlightenment’s elevation of the individual, the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura mutated into the modern supposition that just anyone by their lonesome can pick up the Bible and rightly read it.
Sola scriptura became simply sola.
You as the sole arbiter of meaning.
Indeed the Sermon on the Mount makes clear that Jesus does not believe we even know how to pray properly without undergoing training so we should be suspicious of the contemporary notion that just anyone can understand scripture. Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we neither apprehend Jesus nor understand the Bible apart from being with Jesus; that is, his Body the Church and specifically it’s school of craftsmanship called tradition. As citizens of an empire no less problematic than Babylon or Rome, we are all too possessed by unexamined but corrupt habits to be able— much less trusted— to read the Bible on our own.
Just ask yourself the question: whose interest is served by the notion that Christianity is somehow more accessible and less rigorous than, say, learning how to play baseball or how to throw pottery? Whose interest is served by reducing Christianity to spirituality? The Church’s interest? Or the Empire’s interest? Remember, Rome didn’t execute Paul because Paul believed Jesus had saved his soul.
As the Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote in his Journals, individual Bible study can be a wonderful and endless way to escape the summons of Christ upon your life— that is to say, any attempt to make scripture intelligible in and of itself apart from a community of authority can only be seen as an effort to protect ourselves from the challenge of having our lives changed. I realize the assertion that you cannot right read scripture apart from apprenticeship under a master will sound authoritarian and elitist. Then again, communities cannot exist without authority and as Christians we so believe in the value of expertise that we enshrined elitism into the creed. Never forget— the wisdom of the saints is one of the claims you’re required to believe as a Christian.
And the saints are not simply those who’ve died in Christ.
They’re the masters of the craft.
The saints are those who know how to read the Bible better and follow the way of Jesus better than you or me. One of those saints, the ancient church father Athanasius, registers this very point when he writes, “For the searching and right understanding of the scriptures there is need of a good life…and for Christian virtue to grasp the truth concerning the word…one cannot possibly understanding the teaching…unless one is trying to imitate the saints…” It’s about imitation. It’s about apprenticeship. You can’t simply come to a scripture text and choose for yourself what it means.
I stress this point because our scripture today is the sixth beatitude. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” is a text that could do profound damage when wielded in the hand of an uninitiated novice. For example, reading the sixth beatitude by yourself, apart from submission to authority and expertise, you might reasonable conclude that the pure in heart are those who would be quite comfortable walking about with all their inmost thoughts as visible as a reply all email. The pure in heart, you might decide, must refer to those who always act with only genuine motives, who speak with no subtext, whose interests are always innocent. To be pure in heart, you might determine, is to lack that voice inside your head, to be without that devil on your shoulder, to have an ego without an id.
But, of course, this can’t be the meaning of “pure in heart” because no such people exist and by declaring the pure in heart “blessed” Jesus surely announces that the pure in heart do, in fact, exist.
In real life.
So purity of heart cannot mean the absence of an inner monologue or mixed motives— it cannot mean an absence of sin or perfection of love— and to so think is to impose upon other people an impossible and unending burden of self-accusation.
Perhaps even worse—
If you approach the sixth beatitude like the novice at the art museum who looks at an abstract painting and says, “I could do that,” if you’re not trained to read the sixth beatitude, then you might easily fall down the rabbit hole of thinking the purity here in question is sexual purity.
Blessed are those who savin’ it.
Blessed are those who kissed dating goodbye.
Blessed are those who trust that true love waits.
They shall see God.
It can sound ridiculous, but I know three different women about my age who grew up in evangelical culture and as teenagers were given purity rings with the sixth beatitude engraved on the inside of the band. By definition that’s to take a blessing and twist it into a command; it’s to turn the Gospel into the Law.
Ask yourself the question: whose interest is served by having us read scripture as autonomous individuals apart an authoritative tradition such that we end up equating following Christ with policing women’s sexual behavior? Is it the Church’s interest? Or is it the Empire’s? And before you answer realize that as long as so-called Christians focus exclusively on sex we can forget that the Gospels chiefly tell the story of a nonviolent messiah who spoke most often about the poor and the spiritual dangers of wealth.
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
It’s not about sex.
But you can’t know it’s not about sex. You can’t possibly know it’s not about sex unless you’ve apprenticed yourself under the community of discipleship. Scripture says the Law is written on all of our hearts. Religious or not, Christian or not, whether we believe in God or not, the Law is inscribed on every individual human heart. If we come to a scripture like the sixth beatitude as individuals, therefore, apart from a community of authority and expertise, we will always approach it in terms of the Law. In terms of our goodness. But “pure in heart” is neither a recommendation nor an affirmation of our goodness, sexual or otherwise. In fact, the pure in heart are those who have forsaken their own goodness. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, the entire beatitudes are a list of renunciations. It’s a description of what those who have heeded the call to discipleship have given up in order to follow Christ. Just as the merciful are those who have renounced their own dignity, the pure in heart are those who have renounced their own goodness and instead cling to the goodness of God in Jesus Christ. But again— discipleship is a craft. You’ve got to be shown not simply told what it means to renounce your own goodness.
Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who a few years ago published a book entitled Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Arnade was an unbelieving, french-cuffed financier on Wall Street. When the market crashed in 2008 and he lost his job, he began traveling through urban, rural, and rustbelt America, interviewing homeless addicts and prostitutes and squatters and taking their pictures.
In one of his essays, Arnade writes about a forty-something woman named Takeesha. She talked to him for an hour standing against a wall at the Corpus Christi Monastery in the South Bronx. When she was 13, Takeesha’s mother, who was a prostitute, put her out to work the streets with her, work which she’s done for the last thirty years. “It’s sad,” Takeesha told Arnade, “when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. The Holy Ghost. Whenever I got into a guy’s car, the Holy Ghost stuck with me and got into the car with me.”
Takeesha has a framed print of the Last Supper that she takes with her— a moveable feast— wherever she goes to sleep for the night. She’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.
“He’s always with me,” she told Arnade, “reminding me.”
When Chris Arnade finished his interview of Takeesha, he asked her how she wanted to be described for the reader. And without missing a beat, Takeesha responded: “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a beloved child of God.”
Takeesha, the prostitute, is pure as the Church understands purity.
The good news really is good news!
But you’ve got to be trained into it to see it
When the author expresses surprise at her candor, Takeesha said, “the Holy Spirit tells me that I am not what I do; I am what has been done for me. My worth is not in what I do— or don’t do— but in who God says I am.”
Takeesha is the pure of heart.
She will see God.
“The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes, homeless and squatters,” Chris Arnade writes in his book Dignity: “On the streets, with their daily battles and constant proximity to death, they have come to understand viscerally the truth about all of us which many privileged and wealthy people have the luxury to avoid: that life is neither rational nor fair, that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes.”
In other words, it’s those believers in back row America who know what most of us have the power and agency and wealth to ignore; namely, our only hope— our only ultimate hope— is the goodness of God.
In 1937, Frankfurt police arrested twenty-seven students at the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had started as an alternative to the Christian nationalism that had flourished in Germany. One of the students wrote a short letter to Bonhoeffer from prison. “The Lord Christ!” he wrote, “This is life, this is blessedness, for this is forgiveness of sins. As a good theologian one knows this perhaps, but in such a situation one really experiences it.” Bonhoeffer commented on the note, “It is strange how every word counts which comes from such a situation.” He meant that his student had become the pure in heart.
The pure in heart is the publican in Jesus’s parable who goes up to the temple with no other prayer to pray except “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The pure in heart is Job when he could no longer help himself and finally bowed down before the inscrutable God.
The pure in heart is Takeesha who knows that the grace of Jesus Christ for her makes everything else in her life penultimate.
The preacher of the Sermon on the Mount is not only God. He’s also a good Jew. He knows, therefore, that the word heart in Hebrew has an all-encompassing, threefold meaning: heart, will, and mind. Your heart, then, is your center, your core, your foundation. The pure in heart, Karl Barth says, are those who are clear about their core, firm in their foundation, centered on their center.
What is your center?
It’s what Bonhoeffer calls “the strange foundation of the living, dying, and rising of Christ.”
Purity of heart is not about morality.
Purity of heart is about certainty.
The pure of heart, Bonhoeffer writes, are simply those who believe the Lord who tells them that your life is justified and they live on no other basis. There is no word of God— for you or for anyone else— that goes beyond God’s grace.
To be pure in heart, therefore, is to live expecting no further, future word from God but grace.
To be pure of heart is to know this grace is the ultimate word on you (and, by extension, every one of your neighbors).
To be pure of heart is to know that God’s word of grace in Jesus Christ for you is “irreversibly ultimate” and so it’s to love God and desire God in response.
Back in June, I was preaching on Isaiah and I was attempting to show how whereas God’s oracles of judgment are in the plural— the Lord speaks his promises of salvation in the singular. To emphasize the point, to make you feel the distinction, I simply repeated the promises and inserted the names of some of you here in the pews.
I have redeemed you, Todd.
I have called you by name, Josh; Kelly, you are mine.
Pat, you are precious in my eyes.
I only managed to get about four or five names into what I had planned to be the powerful crescendo to my sermon when Randy— who was, providentially, still in the sanctuary at the end of my sermon— interrupted me and pleaded out loud, “Don’t forget me. Don’t forget Randy. I want to hear God say it to me too.”
That’s the pure in heart.
DON’T YOU SEE?!
THE GOSPEL’S TRUE!
JESUS IS RIGHT!
THE PURE IN THE HEART ARE REAL!
AND THEY’RE RIGHT HERE AMONG YOU!
And by some miracle you can learn from them how to become more than you otherwise might be.
And not just them but from Christ as well, for in a few moments he will be our host.
So come to the table.
For here at the table there is no further, future word from God than the one feast upon here: Broken, Poured Out, For You.
Come to the table you who are pure in heart and you who are hard of heart and you who are hard of hearing to Christ’s call. Come to the table you who are merciful and you who are merciless. Come to the table you who make peace and you who manage to make every conflict in your life worse. Come to the table you who would want to show up on Golgotha with guns blazing to rescue a nonviolent savior.
Come to the table.
For here, the irreversibly ultimate blessing of God goes well beyond the beatitudes.
Here, in creatures of bread and wine, all of you, no matter the condition of your heart, all of you will get to see God.
”Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
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