The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, Grace Church, Spring Hill

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you… for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Lk. 6:22-23).

Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, unlike Matthew’s more familiar version, poses a series of blessings and curses. Jesus pronounces only blessings in Matthew’s version: on the poor in spirit, on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, on the pure in heart, and so forth. Jesus does the same in Luke’s version, in slightly different words, but adds to the blessings a series of curses, as we’ve just heard.

In both versions, Jesus draws a line of connection between his ministry and the disciples’ ministry, and the call of the prophets. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account… for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12): that’s Matthew’s version, closely aligned with Luke’s. To which blessing Jesus adds in Luke’s Gospel this curse, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:26). True prophecy is blessed, while false prophecy is cursed.

Jesus is conjuring here with the ministry of the prophets, their call to pronounce both the judgment and mercy of God. The ancient prophets interpreted what God was doing in the world, the signs of the times, expressed both as judgment and mercy. Jesus makes explicit the connection between the ministry of the prophets and his own ministry by pronouncing a blessing upon those who follow the prophets in declaring God’s word, and a curse upon those who (like the false prophets of old) only tell people what they want to hear.

Our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah reminds us of his ministry, which brought the word of God to bear on a particularly difficult time in the life of God’s People. In Jeremiah’s day, the People of Israel were engaged in a religious revival, led by King Josiah. God was recalling the People to the Covenant that he had made with their ancestors; recalling them to the Commandments and the Law of God. The People had forgotten that YHWH was their God and had drifted into the worship of false gods. King Josiah restored the true worship of God in the Temple in Jerusalem. It seemed that God in response was renewing his blessing upon the kingdom, and restoring his Covenant with them.

The prophet Jeremiah shook the kingdom by proclaiming a different word, an uncomfortable word that was not well received. Jeremiah proclaimed judgement and mercy, which was not a word that the People wanted to hear. The People’s confidence in God was not misplaced, but their confidence that they knew God’s will for them was built upon sand. The People looked for prosperity, while Jeremiah told them of foreign invasion. The People looked for restoration, while Jeremiah told them about exile. Jeremiah proclaimed the truth that God was reliable, come what may, while the People trusted God only as long as he acted according to their plans.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you… for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Lk. 6:22-23). The Gospel of Jesus Christ, like the word of Jeremiah, is a proclamation of judgment and mercy: judgment upon our sins, and mercy extended to us in spite of them. St. Augustine said that God loves the sinner but hates the sin. We don’t negotiate the mercy of God for ourselves; we don’t claim it as something owed to us. If that were the case, grace would cease to be grace, and God would cease to be God.

It says in our reading from the prophet, “Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord” (Jer. 17:5). Jeremiah taught them to be confident in God, not in their expectations of God. Then again, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart” (Jer. 17:9-10). Our hearts are complicated, with many dark corners; if someone tells you that he understands his own motivations, that person is kidding himself. Then again, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (Jer. 17:7). There it is again: blessing and curse; judgment and mercy.   This is Good News, Gospel itself, proclaimed by the One who died for our sins, and was raised to new life.

New life is on offer today: forgiveness and renewal based on faith in what God has done through the Savior; forgiveness and renewal made powerfully present through the sacraments we celebrate today. Our confirmands are showing us the way! We know that God is powerfully present in our lives, come what may, for those who have faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee