“The language in this passage makes me tremble, because it is so surprising,” said Saul Cruz from Armonia, reading out words whose familiarity has eroded their cutting edge.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Or, as he put it, “Congratulations”. “Congratulations to you who mourn, for you will be comforted. Congratulations, you meek, for you will inherit the earth.”
The surprise, he suggested, is that negative stuff is transformed in the kingdom. Tears, hunger, poverty, persecutions: here bad things are re-signified.
Tremble is a good word for that heart-skipping sensation I get when someone speaks about this back-to-front, last-are-first, already-but-not-yet kingdom, especially when they do so from experience and dedicated service. I was on the edge of my seat.
But I was also looking at myself and the congregation, a far cry from the Mexican slums where Armonia works and from the motley crew lapping up Jesus’s teaching on that mountainside. Not wanting to deny the unseen pain and brokenness underlying our polished facades, it’s nevertheless fair to say that we’re hardly the weak things of the world. On the contrary, many are wise by human standards, well-connected, and – if not necessarily of noble birth – of decent enough stock.
So what do we, gathering like those beatitude-hearing crowds at Jesus’s feet, do with our affluence, education, and capacity to influence the powers that be? How do we consider all these things loss for the sake of Christ, in practice not just in theory?
Because actually these things are really useful assets when we seek to extend the kingdom. Right? In fact, we’d been celebrating the vast sums generated at an annual fundraising dinner for our work with the community’s young people. This programme is exciting and life-transforming and I can’t rave about it enough. And, by all accounts, the event was brilliant; full of celebrities, auction prizes and champagne. The high-end, attention-to-detail investment paid off: it’s gob-smacking how much generous individuals will give to transform the lives of others.
It is great. But it also flags up the age-old tensions facing the Church as we negotiate kingdom-living in a socially- and financially-diverse big city context. We come from and intersect with parallel worlds but together we’re to be a unified body where no one has cause for boasting aside from the cross. Where our own flourishing is intimately connected to that of others, where there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, where resources are shared and where the homeless, the disenfranchised, the unemployed, and all those defined in relation to a lack of assets, are prized as equally valuable.
The same issues creep in as we get excited by the potential ‘strategic’ impact of a big name speaker at our carol services. We want to eschew worldly values, but suddenly we’re talking about charging for tickets for the one event that ‘outsiders’ may be tempted to come to. Yes, we need a bright, articulate, respected communicator who can speak our friends’ language so that barriers might be removed and we might win some. (Don’t we?). But it’s easy to slip into banking on celebrity and ability to lend credibility to foolishness.
Speaking to myself as much as to those around me, I scrutinise the financial, social, educational and political capital that we draw on for our kingdom-building initiatives. With increasing niggle and frequency, I wonder if those very resources impede, somehow, our access to the congratulations and blessings which are to be found in the things that are not.