A while ago Andrew and I were trained to lead marriage preparation for engaged couples. One part of the course was on handling conflict, and we were taught about different ways people express anger. It was eye-opening for us, and explained why we got into a stew or a stalemate. The knowledge was helpful, but in those moments of conflict, we found it really hard to put the new knowledge into practice. It was dis-heartening, but we began to notice what we were doing more, and de-brief the quarrel afterwards. And each time we ran the course, we'd drive home and talk more probingly about what it felt like for each other in the heat of the struggle. Very slowly, we began to form new habits of handling conflict.
Keep your Bibles open to Matthew ch 5. I'm not going to go through the verses as I'd normally do, because we're looking at the topic of virtue, of wise and good character, but I'll be referring to the passage. My task today is to look at how virtue fits into God's kingdom, that is, into christianity. We're saved by grace, aren't we? We can't earn God's salvation by good works! So where does good character, which brings about good works, or virtue, fit?
We'll look at
- how Jesus established God's kingdom,
- how you join it or become a christian, and we'll
- take a glimpse at its future, all with - an eye on virtue.
But let's do a virtue check first.
I wonder how you describe yourself? A worker, a student, a friend, a son or daughter, a parent, single, with a partner, a volunteer, a sports-person, artist, musician, poet, reader... These are relationship and interest categories. We all have this kind of profile. But could you also describe yourself in moral or ethical terms, that is, with some kind of assessment of your character – let's think negatively first - as a gambler, an alcoholic, a person with anger issues, a person who spins the truth, greedy, a grump, flirtatious, lustful, (adulterous), rude, impatient, excessively fearful, a hypocrite, manipulative, controlling, a gossip, cynical, lazy, irresponsible with money, self-centred, stifling of others...
or alternatively, a humble person, dependable, kind, hard-working, peaceable, compassionate, meek, a person who mourns for others or themselves, who when insulted stares down the temptation within themselves to retort back, someone with the strength to stand firm in the face of opposition...something like the person described in the passage today.
As I read the negative traits, some of them may have slid past you, while others may have stung. I confess some did for me. And as you heard the positive traits, perhaps you felt you were making headway with some, while others made you feel like a failure. I confess to feeling overwhelmed too. When it comes to character and virtue, we are a mixture.
So how do we become capable of wise behaviour, of virtue, in our daily lives? Well, let's step back in time to the crowds who sat on the grassy mountainside and first heard Jesus speak these sayings. He was speaking to his newly chosen group of disciples, but a crowd was there too, we see in Matthew 5:1. They were there because we see a few verses earlier in 4:23-25, that Jesus had been travelling around their towns saying that the kingdom of God had come in his arrival! He had been doing kingly things like caring for people, curing their sicknesses, and teaching them, like a kingly ruler who was out and about, in his kingdom. They were of course under the Emperor in Rome and had to obey oppressive laws, but Jesus was making their lives better, and the crowds were flocking to him! But what would belonging to this kingdom look like? Well as they sit listening, he's telling them, and what they heard may sound a bit strange to you and me – Blessed are the poor in spirit v3, mourners v4, meek v5, having a hungry feeling, a thirsty feeling for right ways of living v6, merciful v7, pure in heart v8, peacemakers v9, being persecuted for standing up for what's right v10, even being verbally abused for belonging to the kingdom v11...they sound somehow needy or self-denying or costly or very hard...not immediately attractive!
In my family growing up, when it was my birthday, I remember this special feeling that seemed to just happen on that day. I had of course been eagerly waiting and counting the days! And when the day finally arrived, I woke up expectant (which is an empty place, even a needy place), then I became the recipient of gifts from my mum and dad. They told stories of the day I was born and how precious I was. They expressed their love for me more often than usual that day. All day as the 'birthday girl', I was made to feel special, a 'royal' for a day. And, at least in my memory, I recall 'behaving up', somehow wanting to be equal to the specialness I felt..I would wait my turn like a well-trained princess. I would be obedient to my parents and do my jobs happily, I'd put sibling rivalries aside, I'd remember my manners, and even offer to help! Somehow my behaving up, made me happy, as it did those around me! This touch of 'royalty' taught me something – it taught me I was capable of various forms of virtue appropriate to a young girl. But it came out of waiting, of being empty but expectant, of anticipating good things, and with a pure, trusting heart (not cynical, as yet), leading to me to more kindly and peaceable actions, which blessed others, especially my family.
You may be able to think of other times – a particular family member, an inspiring teacher or author, who made you somehow behave up.
Jesus was saying to his disciples and the crowd of people – that like waking up on your birthday morning, a new day had dawned, because he was now among them - God's kingdom had come in his arrival, and they could join it and try out living as one of its citizens – they could behave up!
Now the arrival of a promised king, a saviour, had of course been in their literature for hundreds of years, from the days of the OT prophets. But this appeared to him at last! A bit like waking up on your birthday morning and not quite believing it was here. And like a birthday, Jesus made them feel special - giving them gifts – he healed them! They, their loved ones, could see and walk again, and he fed 5000 of them one day, caring for their needs like a true king would. He taught them about God in ways they'd never heard before – that weren't oppressive, but inclusive of them, despite their failure to keep the law of Moses. They started to hope!
But Jesus wasn't pretending they were saints, he knew truthfully, that like the prophet said, their 'righteous attempts were as filthy rags' - a mixture of good and evil, like us. But he had the strength of a true king to also turn around and strangely believe they were capable of doing better than the law of Moses – of being changed in their hearts so the law was no longer external, but entered their being. As if from the specialness of being accepted, they could be propelled to behave up, from the core. That's what the prophets had said would happen when the promised king came – he'd take away their hard hearts of stone. They'd be like a child on their birthday, expectant, empty, ready to be given gifts each day, they'd develop an appetite for goodness – for virtue, to behave up, to have their characters shaped by the king, as citizens of his kingdom.
Jesus had not come to change the government of the day, governments come and go, and so would the Roman empire. He'd come to establish a new government that began on the insides of people, and would affect the current world through their virtue, their behaving up! It would take 15 hundred years for the separation of church and state, after the protestant reformation, but the thinking for it began with Jesus not wanting to take over the government, but change the way humans think about governing, about work and society, and family because they'd been welcomed into God's kingdom, a bigger category to tackle the lesser ones.
This was no easy task, as the negative profiles I read at the beginning remind us, but Jesus had come to tackle these evils head-on and establish a new category of being human, which would open the door to changed character – to virtue.
I want to remind you if you're a Christian, and tell you if you're not, that Jesus was utterly realistic and connected to the world we walk around in. The spiritual and the physical are not really separate, as we tend to imagine them. The opposition, the powers of evil that Jesus came to tackle, are present in us, but Jesus came to take them on – all of them! Just hink about it. He took on religious evil when he over-turned the money changers and told them to stop making people pay for God – stopping people get to God. He took on legal evil showing it up, when he was tried by two courts and sentenced to death, without a conviction. He took on political evil when he became a political football tossed between the Roman governor and the Jewish leaders, as they struggled for power. He took on societal evil when he exposed the fickleness of the Jewish people to hail him as king one week and howl him to death the next. He took on the evil which exists when intimate relationships break down, when his closest friends deserted and denied him, like he wasn't a person they even knew. And the weight of all that he exposed lay on his shoulders because he identified himself with it, on our behalf. We can only guess at his mental health at this time. And finally he seemed to lose his connection with God the Father himself...my God, my God why have you forsaken me. Maybe you've felt forsaken..helpless. So did Jesus. It killed him.
He had exposed evil in all its forms, and it took him down. But he also took it down, because inside himself he was not evil. He was pure. As the perfect priest he had gathered up the evil of the world and offered a sacrifice to take it away – himself. He expresses the depth of his love for us, by his death on our behalf. Its his gift to us, if we realise how poor we are without it v3, if we mourn over our failures of character v4, if we are meek enough to admit our neediness v5, if we've felt hungry or thirsty for new ways of behaving v6.
A Christian is someone who's understood the level of love, the welcome, the acceptance, Jesus is offering, and their own neediness, and said, 'Thank you, I'll take the inclusion, the love and acceptance, the forgiveness. You can see the mixture I am, of good and bad, hopes and fears, but apparently that's ok, so I accept'.
If you're a mature christian, or a young christian, or a tired christian, or questioning christian, or still searching, this gives you choices: to find out more, ask questions, or to say again, or for the first time, 'Thank you, I accept'.
You come into a blessed space, a citizen of God's kingdom, a safe place where you and God can work on your character, and grow virtue, as a friend, worker, family member, golfer, in all areas of your life. Now we can see why entry into the kingdom is by poverty of spirit, meekness, a pure heart that really wants God v8, a hunger and thirst to be another kind of you, a wiser you, someone who is merciful, like God v7, someone who creates peace v 9, someone who might even stand firm against evil, and bear the cost v10.
You know, a day or two after my birthday, the specialness would seem to slowly vaporise and I would gradually slip back into my old ways, with a touch of sadness, but I knew deep down that I could do it, I'd caught a glimpse of myself doing it. Change is not easy, but as a member of God's kingdom, and with the help of God's spirit, and God's community, it starts. Handling conflict in any relationship is hard work, but we begin to catch glimpses (like when a frazzled parent kneels beside their bed and pleads for patience and strength as they relate to their teenagers and aging parents. Or when a frustrated teenager shares their fears about exams rather than blaming their parents for being late. Or like a professor of applied mathematics I met in Canberra recently, who though not a christian, is influenced by his PhD student who is, regarding the ethics of how to use a new form of computer technology. Or the young lawyer and staffer in Bill Shorten's office – a Christian, who's reading material on the Sermon on the Mount because its been influential in Labour political thought, and he wants it to be so again).
As a school boy, the Oxford scholar, convert to Christianity, and well-known author of the Narnia stories, C.S. Lewis, had to learn his Latin and Greek verb forms, and to conjugate his nouns. It was all a rote exercise which he did because he had to, not because he had any idea of the joys of reading classical literature that lay ahead of him. He had no idea how his heart would sore with delight reading Greek myths and legends in the original language. It was only looking back that he was grateful to the masters who'd taught him day by day, believing in the good of what they were doing, and therefore moulding habits which would shape him. He saw glimpses as he advanced through school no doubt, but the full glory lay ahead.
Its like that with God and us. He gives us opportunities day by day, moulding us, shaping us to fit into his good kingdom. Its slow, sometimes painful, but listen to the benefits – the kingdom of heaven, comfort, the earth, being filled with righteousness, receiving mercy, where we will finally see God, and be called his children, rewarded richly.
The kingdom had already started when Jesus spoke to the crowds that day, simply because he – the king had come, and his defeat of all evil when he died on the cross installed God's kingdom forever. And it begins in us as we accept his welcome of us. We see glimpses of it in our forgiven, loved selves as we slowly practice new virtues, expecting change, putting aside old ways, and having poor needy hearts, ready to meekly try new ways, like better conflict management. This changes families, society, and even political structures, but the Bible is clear that there is a fuller glory ahead. (c.f. Is 65:17-25).
Virtue, arising from good and wise character is, because we're headed for the new heavens and new earth, where our hearts soar with delight, in every good way humanly possible. But it starts now for the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourner, those hungry for virtue.