The Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, once observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This is a profoundly simple message. The only way for us to make sense of the world and our place in it, is if we reflect upon the past. How we got to where we are today depends entirely on the past, that which has been lived. However, life cannot go forward if we are constantly dwelling over things of a past that is no longer subject to our power. So, Kierkegaard urges us to keep living for the future; after all, if we do not live forwards, we will have nothing to understand backwards.
Looking backwards and living forwards is an important concept. Recently, I looked back at one small reminder of my past. It was my high school yearbook. In our senior year of high school, we were asked to put down the dreams, goals, or ambitions of our future lives. My life today bears little resemblance to what I had imagined it would be looking forward as an 18-year-old. However, as I now look back on the arc, images, and experiences of my life, I understand from my past the contours of my life today.
I think our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the moments Jesus’ apostles experienced as they walked forward with Jesus that they did not understood until they looked backwards. There would be many such moments with Jesus. Jesus’ disciples certainly could not make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion until they looked back upon the cross from the day of Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb.
Looking backwards to understand our life and then living forward with the confidence and faith is unique to humans. One dog may learn many tricks, but that same dog cannot pass along its experience, wisdom, and knowledge to another dog not yet born. We, on the other hand, have the capacity to learn from people separated from us by language, culture, and time. We are so able because we were all created in the image of God who transcends all boundaries and limitations.
Our Scripture passage today, transcends all limitations and is as much of the past of Jesus’ disciples as it is of our own past. What did Jesus share that day that was so important to his apostles and to you and me?
We call the overall context of Jesus’ words, “The Sermon on the Mount.” The opening to that sermon was given the subtitle, “The Beatitudes.” Why are they called “The Beatitudes?” They are only called that because in Latin translation of the Bible, each of the proverbial sayings begin with the Latin word, beati, which translates to the English words of "happy", "rich", or "blessed."
So, when we see titles and subtitles in the Bible, we need to remember those were added by the editors and publishers of the book we hold in our hands. They were not part of what God inspired. I do not like titles and subtitles very much. I think they tend to diminish our understanding of what God wanted us to know rather than improve it.
What was it that God wanted us to know that day from Jesus on the hillside? Let’s take a look at what Jesus said.
“1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said: 3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:1-10).
Countless sermons and Bible studies have come from these words uttered by Jesus on that hillside. Matthew wrote, “His [Jesus’] disciples came to him, 2 and he [Jesus] began to teach them [the disciples] (Matthew 5:1b-2). Others were present but the teaching was for the disciples whom Jesus had called to leave behind their pasts and to walk into the future with him.
In that teaching, Jesus told his disciples about the blessings of being part of God’s plan. Nine times Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those part of God’s plan. The first eight blessings were entry into the kingdom of heaven, being comforted, inheriting the earth, being filled, being shown mercy, seeing God, being called children of God, and Jesus concluded repeating the blessing of entry into the kingdom of heaven.
These eight blessings for being part of God’s plan were received because they chose to be born again, only this time by the Spirit of God. Through the spirit of God, those born again would be moved to make poor their own spirit and be made strong in the Spirit of God. Those born again would have mourned over their sin and adopted a spirit of meekness. Those born again would be hungry and thirsting for right living before God and would have a desire to be merciful. Those born again would seek purity of their mind, thoughts, words, and actions while seeking peace in their own life and the lives of those they loved.
Jesus was teaching that those people who would accept God’s invitation to become part of God’s plan would be radically different from those of the world. Jesus did not teach that those individuals would become wealthy, healthy, popular, or better looking. These are all temporal blessings that can be lost.
After teaching about these blessings, Jesus shifted his language just slightly but in a significant manner as he continued to upfold the blessings. Jesus said, “11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 [You] Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Jesus had shifted his language from the abstract to the personal. Jesus shifted from teaching that these blessings were possible to saying “you,” in the plural, “you disciples” have these blessings and you will be further blessed when people insult you, shun you, drive you away, harass you, and say false things about you because of your belief in Jesus. You will be blessed because you will know that you are speaking the truth about God and the relationship you have with God.
All these blessings Jesus spoke about had been bestowed upon the disciples. The disciples just did not realize the significance of the blessing in the moment but would come to understand them when they looked backwards onto their life. Jesus then said that in recognition of these blessings you will rejoice and be glad.
The Apostle Paul, who was not present at this teaching, came to understand it as he reflected upon his changed life after accepting God’s invitation. Paul said, “4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
Jesus, having taught his disciples how blessed they were because they had accepted God’s invitation, had one more key part of the plan to explain to his disciples. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a). We have all heard these words before but what do they mean. Jesus again said, “You,” in the plural. You, disciples, are right now, not someday, not might be, but you are the salt of the earth. You, this little bedraggled fellowship of fishermen, tax collectors, and sinners are the plan. You are the salt that will change the world just as salt changes anything it touches.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13).
You are the plan and that should you fail, there would be no change possible to the world. I seriously doubt the disciples understood the significance of what Jesus was saying to them at this early juncture of his ministry. I suspect the disciples only understood this teaching when they looked backwards through the lens of the resurrection and crucifixion and looked forward toward Jesus’ call to be his witnesses throughout the world.
“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) meant Christian faith was to be emphasized in simplicity and humility not grandeur. Christian faith shown by this band of blessed people was to be expressed in worshipping together with expectancy and wonder. Though they had differences and diversity, they had more in common that they started to think and seek together without embarrassment. They did not establish a headquarters or form an army. Instead, they became uncompromising people inspired and rejoicing in the blessings given to them by God and they built their life into an intensive fellowship of affection, worship, and work.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) and these disciples came to believe it and act accordingly. These people created fellowships that became infectious changing the cultural order. That is what salt does – it changes whatever it touches. They were successful because they believed and acted with hope.
When these disciples looked backwards through their life and their times with Jesus that recalled that their experiences were not a fairytale, or a philosophy constructed by a brilliant mind in the privacy of a study. What they remembered had occurred. Because it occurred, they knew there was hope in the future, promise in the future, even if the next step was in the present was a bit uncertain as to the immediate outcome. But they moved forward because they came to understand they had been blessed by God.
We, who have received Christ, are blessed. Did you, as a group, know that? Do you feel blessed to be part of this group? Did you know that God considers us, as a group, His own children and because He does this group has a place in heaven? Did you, this group know that God granted mercy and He gave His Holy Spirit to encourage and comfort this group?
We cannot know these truths unless we look backwards and see in the lives of Jesus’ apostles, all who came after them, and all that has occurred in our life the blessings of God. And in looking back, we realize we are blessed, we have the confidence, the faith, to move forward, not on our own, but as Christ’s church. We do not seek a fellowship of individuals, but a fellowship of families comprised of brothers and sisters.
Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message translation of the Bible put Jesus words this way:
13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. 14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16, MSG).
Let me tell you why you are here. You are here because you are blessed. God blessed this group to be salt and light in the world. We are not called to save the world. But we are called to make a lasting difference. We cannot do everything. But we can do something. And what we can do, we ought to do. That's what being salt, and light is all about. That is God’s plan for us. So look backwards on your life and then decide if you are willing to live forward as part of God’s plan? Let us pray.