The world turned upside down: What the Beatitudes tell us about the Kingdom of God
There's an old English ballad, written during the English Civil War, called The World Turned Upside Down. It's about the Puritan Parliament's decision to ban the celebration of Christmas. Though this is hardly a live issue any more (we 'celebrate' Christmas from mid-September, of course, these days), I love the title of the song.
It speaks of the possibility of flipping the globe on its axis – changing the status quo so radically, that the blood runs to your head and gravity is subverted. In fact, that's the topic of a modern song of the same name, written about that same period in history and the Diggers' attempts to build a 'common treasury for all.' This all came to mind while I was watching my favourite viral video of the last year or so...
There's just something about it that warms the heart... most people will struggle not to burst into applause when the tortoise gets turned the right way up.
Why? Because we realise there's something deeply wrong with the situation. The tortoise is on its shell, legs in the air, and there's nothing it can do to put itself right. Its whole world is the wrong way up and it needs someone else to come along and flip it upside down to make everything right.
Our faith can be a bit like this. Jesus tells us he's going to turn the world upside down, and that if we follow him, we can be part of turning everything the right way up. In the Beatitudes, he tells us how we should live in the light of that.
But what does it mean that people and the world are upside down? First, there's that feeling we all have sometimes that all is not well. That the things we do wrong and the wrong things that other people do to us make everything in some way wrong. On a small scale, it could be the lies that cause a friendship to end. It could be the selfishness that causes a family to argue and maybe even break up. It could be those very small things we all do wrong, which mount up and make us and others around us miserable.
On a bigger scale it's the same. We only have to look at what's happening in Syria and Iraq where there are now millions of refugees to know that there's something deeply wrong with the world. We only need to glance at what's happening in Nigeria and Pakistan at the moment to know that people with evil intentions have got the upper hand. That's not right. You only have to look at the fact that a million people are relying on Food banks to know things are the wrong way up in our country too.
So, everything is the wrong way up. It can't continue indefinitely, or we despair.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus is turning everything the right way up. He's also telling us that we can't do it on our own. We can only do it through him, and alongside others who are part of his body – the Church.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Matthew 5:3-4)
This doesn't sound like the way our world works. The poor and those in mourning aren't the ones we usually see on the front of our newspapers and Saturday night TV.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (Matthew 5:5-6)
Again, this doesn't sound much like our world. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness often end up getting killed. Think of Martin Luther King, or Archbishop Oscar Romero. And the meek? They certainly don't get precedence in our world. Those who get the attention, who are called 'blessed' by our society, are those who push themselves forward, even if they've got nothing of substance to say. Think of Celebrity Big Brother. Think of those politicians who sound like clanging cymbals.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:7-9)
This, too, sounds a long way away from our world in 2016. Those who make war are rewarded with political office and with big contracts to make more and more bombs and guns. And those who try to promote peace? Well, what about those brave Christians who demonstrate outside arms fairs here in London only to find themselves arrested and on trial?
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
"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 5:10-12)
Again, I'm not sure we see much of that in our world. In the UK and the USA where it's safe to be a Christian we've even been guilty of forgetting the people who are persecuted for Jesus' sake. All over the world from North Korea to South America, Christians are being persecuted right now because of their faith in Jesus.
The world just doesn't look like Jesus says it will. Richard Rohr puts it this way, "This is the world I was born into. It is preoccupied with domination and status-quo logic and finds itself incapable of understanding, much less believing most of the clear teaching of Jesus. Poverty, meekness, tears, justice, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, persecution are His opening statements. But try to get elected in a Christian country while following those teachings!"
So, if the current world doesn't live up to what Jesus promises here, what are we to make of that? Did Jesus just get it wrong? Is this just the way it is and we have to deal with it? No!
The world is becomng as Jesus describes. The Kingdom is coming. Yet this doesn't mean it's down to us to change everything. Actually, the reality is already different to what we thought. So, coming back to the Beatitudes – Jesus has already flipped the world around. We just have to look at the new map and act accordingly.
The world is turned upside down by Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus is the one who turns the whole world and our lives the right way up. We just need to turn up, join in and point others towards the world as it should be, the world as it is becoming, the world as it truly is and will be.