AIRWAY TO HEAVEN
A sermon based on Matthew 5:1-13
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 2, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From time to time, you have all heard the name of Clarence Jordan mentioned in sermons preached from this pulpit. Now Baptists do not recognize or canonize saints in the same way that some other Christian denominations do. But if we did, I would submit that Baptist minister Clarence Jordan should be among the first to be nominated as a Baptist saint. At least, I think he should…and I do not believe that I am the only one who thinks so. Clarence is one whose life demonstrated what the life of faith looks like. Unlike a lot of others, Jordan actually believed that Jesus said what he meant—and meant what he said.
To that end, he did his best to live his life in accordance with the principles Jesus laid down and to which the rest of the New Testament gave witness. Following the example of the church community in Jerusalem as described in Acts 2, Jordan created an interracial agricultural community of believers as an example of what Christian community could look like. And he did this is Americus, Georgia in 1942 when segregation was still a strong part of the prevailing Southern culture. It was a bold and controversial move that incited violence and persecution from the local people for decades. That community’s name was “Koinonia Farms”—“koinonia” being the New Testament Greek word for “fellowship.” Koinonia Farms closed soon after Jordan’s death in 1969. But part of Koinonia Farm’s legacy (and of Jordan’s legacy as well) is another well-known organization that evolved from the principles that Koinonia stood for. I am sure you have heard of it before. That organization is Habitat for Humanity…
Jordan earned a PhD in New Testament studies at Southern Seminary and was renowned as a Biblical scholar, lecturer and preacher. As a writer, he is probably best known for his translation of parts of the New Testament into what he called “The Cotton Patch Version.” This translation tells the story of Jesus and of the early church as if it took place in central Georgia in the 1940’s. For example, in the Cotton Patch version, Jerusalem becomes Atlanta, Bethlehem becomes Gainesville, Georgia, the Temple becomes First Church Atlanta, and the chief priests and Pharisees become the Southern Baptist Convention leadership. (Given the subsequent turmoil in the Southern Baptist Convention over the last forty years, that certainly was prophetic, wasn’t it?) And when people speak in the Cotton Patch version, they speak with a Southern accent, using colloquial Southern figures of speech and idioms. I have found the Cotton Patch translations to be both entertaining—and full of insight. I highly recommend them to you…
Today’s gospel passage from Matthew 5 is what is commonly known as “The Beatitudes.” This is the first section of some of our Lord’s best-known teaching: “The Sermon on the Mount.” Jordan called
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the Sermon on the Mount “Jesus’ Manifesto.” He made that statement because he believed that, in these three chapters of Matthew, Jesus condensed and explained every single one of the teachings that he deemed essential to be a part of the Kingdom of God. These are the ideas that would shape his disciples’ existence. As far as I can tell, I think that he is probably right. Jordan even went as far as to suggest that memorizing the Sermon on the Mount ought to be a mandatory requirement before anyone should be baptized.1 Hmmmm…I imagine that would considerably shrink the membership roll of almost any church, don’t you think?
In discussing the Beatitudes, Jordan referred to them as the “stairway to spiritual life.” He wrote, [The Beatitudes] “are the steps into the kingdom, the stairway to spiritual life. They are not disconnected, isolated ‘sayings,’ but a definite whole, with each step, or Beatitude, arranged progressively and in order…These are not blessings pronounced upon different kinds of people—the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and so on. Rather, they are stages in the experience of only one class of people—those who are entering the kingdom and who at each stage are blessed.”2 Or, if you prefer, instead of considering them as “steps into the kingdom,” you can call them the “Stairway to Heaven…”
I think that preaching on the Beatitudes represents a challenge for any preacher. That is because each one of the Beatitudes—in and of itself—is worthy of its own sermon…and then some. So the question arises, “How do you narrow it down? How can you adequately talk about the Beatitudes in just one sermon?” Over the years, I have heard preachers preach whole series of sermons on just these ten verses. It took them several weeks to complete. You may breathe easy—I am not going to attempt to discuss all of the Beatitudes in this morning. That would be a fool’s errand. Instead I want to focus our attention on only one of the Beatitudes this morning. And perhaps we can address the others at some other time…
Verse 8 is the sixth Beatitude. It simply states, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
The Greek word translated here as “pure” is the word katharōs. Does that word sound familiar to your ears? Katharōs is the origin of where we get our English words “cathartic” and “catharsis.” So in this verse, Jesus is saying that blessed is the one whose heart has undergone a catharsis—a cleansing, a purging, a scouring, an elimination of all foreign matter or debris. And for those whose hearts have undergone this catharsis, Jesus is saying that their motives have become pure. They will gain insight. Their vision is focused. Unlike many people in our world, they’re not trying to look at money on one side and popularity over on the other. Jesus says that the people of his Kingdom are people whose eyes are focused on only one object. Their motives are pure…or we might say “single.” To them, their vision is not muddied up by their own selfish desires. Nor have they let what other people think get the upper
1 Dallas Lee, ed., The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan (New York: Association Press, 1972), 62.
2 Clarence Jordan, The Sermon on the Mount (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1952), 8-9. Emphasis mine.
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hand in their hearts. People with pure hearts are not spiritually cross-eyed. NO—their devotion is to one single thing, unfazed by anything else. And that one thing is the kingdom of God.
And of course, Jesus himself is our example of what this looks like. Jesus was truly pure in heart. He kept his eyes solely on doing what God wanted him to do. He didn’t allow anything else to cloud his vision. He would not let anything else inject itself into his teaching and his actions—not concern for popularity, not possessions, not his self-interest, nothing. He was single-minded in his purpose.
The Apostle James reiterates this idea of our Lord in the book that bears his name. James 1:8 says that “a double-minded man is unstable in all he does.” James goes on to describe this man as one who is like a wave of the sea. It is blown about and tossed by the wind. There is no stability. There is no direction. Consequently this man is subject to every random direction in which the wind can blow. So it is with the one whose heart is not pure. Fads that come and go, changing desires, fickle emotions, unpredictable situations that threaten to upend our lives—these are the kinds of things that can toss us about like the ocean waves. But the one whose heart is pure—the one whose heart is focused solely on one thing—that one can remain steadfast in their devotion without getting blown off course…
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God…” The implication of that statement is that, if you have a pure heart, then one day you will actually see God. It suggests that such an event is in the future—that maybe we will be able to see God with our own eyes once we reach the other side of eternity. I have no quarrel with that. I believe that is a valid interpretation. Once we “slip the surly bonds of earth” and of these bodies, then we will be able to see God, our maker and Creator, face-to-face. Among other things, that is certainly what the Bible teaches what happens to us in the life hereafter.
But let me suggest something else of what this verse may mean. Perhaps we could just stop reading this Beatitude right before the last word of the sentence. That way, it reads, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see…” Maybe it is only the pure in heart who can really see—and really understand. To have eyes free from the cataracts of prejudice, clean from the astigmatism of preconceived opinions—without that, nobody ever found truth—about spiritual things or anything else.3 And it is those who are pure in heart who can best see and understand how God is at work in our world.
We live in a day where it is sometime difficult to discern what God is doing in our world. Wars, diseases, natural disasters, mass shootings, religious bigotry, the scourges of racism, poverty, greed, hatred, and the host of other ills in our society—these things sometimes makes us wonder, “Where is God in all of this? How is God at work here?” Well, maybe it is the one who is pure in heart—the one who is truly devoted to following Christ—who is the one who is best equipped to see behind the façade. Maybe it is the one who is pure in heart whose gaze is best able to penetrate appearances to get to the real heart of the matter, to see the reality behind the veneer, and to see and understand what God is doing even in the midst of a world that sometimes seems so crazy and out of control. The one who is
3 I am indebted to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s book What Is Vital in Religion (1955) for this insight.
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pure in heart sees the eternal in the temporal…the ordinary…and the mundane. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see…”
And just how does one obtain this “pure heart” that Jesus is talking about? I would suggest that none of us are born with it. Truth be told, even the best of us are a jumble of contradictions…a mess of mixed motives…we are full of desires that are not pure and single-minded. We cannot help it. It is just a part of the natural human condition. So what are we to do? How can we become “pure in heart” when we are so far away from anything resembling what that means?
We have in the answer in the preceding chapter. In Matthew 4, we are told that, when Jesus began his preaching mission, his message was just this: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has drawn near.” This word “repent” has come to mean “to feel sorry for” these days. That is true—as far as it goes. But repentance also means more than just feeling sorry for our misdeeds. It also means to change the direction of one’s life. To do a 180° turn, to go in the opposite direction. To repent means to let God have control of your life, to allow yourself to be led by the teachings of Jesus, to give place to the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide and direct your life. When we do this, then we are on the path to gaining a pure heart…a heart that sees God…
The sermon began with a short description of Clarence Jordan and of “The Cotton Patch Version” of the New Testament. I want to close this morning by reading today’s text, Matthew 5: 1-12, to you out of the Cotton Patch Version. As I read, I pray that these uniquely translated words of our Lord Jesus might speak to your spirit and that you may hear these ancient words again and gain a fresh insight into their meaning for us today:
When Jesus saw the large crowd, he went up the hill and sat down. His students gathered around him, and he began teaching them. This is what he said:
The spiritually humble are God’s people, for they are citizens of his new order.
They who are deeply concerned are God’s people, for they will see their ideas become reality.
Those who are gentle are his people, for they will be his partners across the land.
They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people, for they will be given plenty to chew on.
The generous are God’s people, for they will be treated generously.
Those whose motives are pure are God’s people, for they will have spiritual insight.
Men of peace and goodwill are God’s people, for they will be known throughout the land as his children.
AIRWAY TO HEAVEN