In the pocket of the uniform of a fallen Civil War soldier, a folded piece of paper was found. On that paper was written a kind of prayer: “I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health that I might do great things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for but everything that I hoped for. I am among all men most richly blessed.” Now that is the voice of a disciple. And even though he fell in that terrible conflict, he was blessed.
The Beatitudes…the opening 12 verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…are called “Beatitudes” because of the recurring word, “Blessed.” “Blessed are…Blessed are…Blessed are…” But that word “blessed” is always tied to Jesus. It’s a Jesus word of joy, a gift, a lively joyful gift for every aspect of our living and our dying…as that unknown soldier was learning from the prayer on that piece of paper in his pocket.
Blessed…because the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” has caused the light of faith to shine in our hearts! Blessed…because we have been buried with Christ in Holy Baptism and have already been raised from the dead with Him! Blessed…because we were dead, are dead, in our sins…and yet God makes us alive in Christ. Blessed!
Oh…but the works of human hands are always more impressive. The works of human hands can be measured on some sort of scale of religious sincerity! And so often the Beatitudes become just that…works…something we ought to be doing if we want to be true believers!
“Okay now…get out there and be poor in spirit! Then you will be blessed with the kingdom of heaven! Get out there and mourn so that you can be blessed with comfort. Get out there and be meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, be merciful, be pure in heart, be peacemakers, get persecuted…get busy and do all these things and then you will be blessed with God’s good stuff!” Ugh!
But the Beatitudes are not about us and what we do! They’re about Christ and what He does for us and with us and in us. Just look at the Twelve! They learn discipleship, they are blessed, because Jesus led them into situations, into places and experiences in which He formed discipleship in them…very often by their failures in those experiences, places and situations!
He took them out on the Sea of Galilee. Big storm. “Help, Lord, we’re going to drown!” He calms the wind and reprimands them, “O ye of little faith.” And there they were blessed as they learned about their poverty of spirit, and about God’s mercy.
Jesus told them parables…one after another. “We don’t get it,” they said. And so they learned to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed were they. Another day they were arguing about who was the greatest. Taking a little child, Jesus told them, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And they were blessed because they came to mourn their pride and they were comforted by His grace.
Jesus led them to the Upper Room where He fed them with His Body and Blood. He led them to the Garden where they fell asleep. He led them to the cross where all but one ran away. At last He led them to an empty tomb…where no one had expected to follow Him! A great blessing!
And in each and every one of those experiences they were shaped in discipleship—–not by what they did, but by what Jesus did with them. And though they stumbled and fell…a lot…and sometimes they did rather well…it was always Jesus who was leading them, Jesus who was forming them as His disciples. And with Jesus, because of His work, they were blessed. That’s discipleship!
Now certainly there are many, many things a Christian can do to order his or her life of faith. Some people still fast before they come to the Lord’s Supper. Some believers order their devotional life by a fixed schedule for reading the Bible and for prayer. Some use a string of beads to order their prayers. Some folks use a system of percentages to order their donations. Some folks have a special set of clothes that they wear for worship. Any and all of these, and more, may be freely chosen. BUT…these things are NOT discipleship. Doing them does not advance faith. Leaving them undone does diminish it. They’re “a fine outward training,” as Luther says in his Catechism, but they’re not discipleship.
Discipleship is a gift…it’s the gift of what Christ does with us. And like the Twelve, He leads us. Christ leads us to this place so that we may hear His Gospel proclaimed—His sermons on the prairie—and in this place He feeds us with His Body and Blood, having once clothed us with Himself in Holy Baptism. Then from this place He leads us out into a wide world of experiences and places and situations by which He forms discipleship in us.
He leads us into situations where we need mercy…His mercy…and so we become merciful as He is merciful toward us. He leads us into experiences of mourning, where we need His comfort, and so we learn to comfort others with the comfort we have received from Him. He drops into the middle of conflicts where He is the peacemaker between us and God, and by Him we learn to be peacemakers with others, by the same peace we ourselves have received. Blessings…in all of that…because it’s Jesus at work in our lives. And we are blessed indeed.
And at the last He leads us to our own persecuting deaths, where we see how only the Christ can lead us. The works of our own hands are so incredibly powerless in the face of death…and certainly they can do nothing with the resurrection from the dead. Only Christ…who goes to death and to resurrection ahead of us…only Christ can say “Follow Me”…and then lead us into that final blessedness.
“Blessed are you,” He says. Not because our hands have been so busy doing our own discipleship thing. No! Blessed are we because Christ’s hands have been busy, His nail-pierced hands, busy forming us by His Word…and by His world…to be His disciples. And because His hands are forming us, this Christ who has called us to follow Him, we learn what that fallen soldier was learning: “I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I am among all men most richly blessed.” Indeed! In Christ, we have so many blessings to count!