5 - Rejoice

Greg Aikins on January 2, 2020

(Commands of Jesus in Matthew)

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.  Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad; for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12, KJV).

                This exhortation to “rejoice” comes at the end of Jesus’ call to radical discipleship, which we call the Beatitudes.  In these verses he is teaching his followers that following him will distinguish them more and more from those who are not.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Cost of Discipleship, "Every additional Beatitude deepens the breach between the disciples and the [rest of the] people. The disciples' call becomes more and more visible."  Jesus expects that his followers will renounce the world’s notion of success (as those who mourn), seek out and stand with those in misery (showing mercy) and completely give their hearts to Jesus (as those who are pure in heart).  They will be peacemakers who will give up self-assertion and who are persecuted because they stand for a righteous cause. The result of obedience to these commands is that they will be both rejected and blessed.[1]

We might ask, “Why is Jesus so demanding?” Perhaps because he knows that to be identified with him is going to be costly.  Sitting in a pew does not makes one a disciple.  Neither is assenting to a certain theological, philosophical or political position the mark of a Jesus’ follower.  Jesus is calling us to radical living as we follow him, learn from him and become like him.  Bonhoeffer says in another place, it is an invitation to “come and die” that we might live.  To be a Christian is to stand with God and thus suffer as Jesus did, that we may share his joy.

Yet, while Jesus speaks of the humility and pain of separating from this comfortable place in the world’s system, this mainstream way of thinking and behaving, he puts a positive note on each step of separation.  Blessed, he says, are those who are, step by step, on this downward-yet-upward path.  And finally, he says to us if we arrive at the last step – experiencing rejection, slander and hurt for his sake - “Rejoice!”  Or as the King James expresses it - “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.”

  It seems odd to think of being commanded to rejoice.  Shouldn’t that come as a natural reaction to a joyful happening in our lives?  But like all things in the kingdom of God, this is a different kind of rejoicing.  It is a choice.  I am choosing to be joyful in the face of trouble because I’m fixing my gaze on something and Someone beyond what I am currently experiencing at the hands of those who may be causing my pain.  

That means I am going to need to change my expectations.  I will need to let go of the notion that God is going to step in and smooth the way every time the going is tough.  I will have to let go of my determination to control my life, protect myself from hurt, and have people’s approval.  I will be forced to face the distractions of the world, temptations of the flesh and attacks of demonic forces that are aligned against me.  I’ll need to expect difficulty in entering the kingdom of God (Cf. Acts 14:22).

To rejoice in discipleship I’m also going to need to change my focus.  Henri Nouwen reminds us that we “do not fight distractions by pushing things away, but by focusing on one thing.”[2]  As the song says, I am a soldier of the cross who is “climbing Jacob’s ladder.”  While it seems like I’m journeying downward, “every rung goes higher, higher.”  At the last rung waits Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross (Heb. 12:2), and who strengthens me with each step that I may share his joy.

[1]Mary L. Vanden Berg, “Bonhoeffer's Discipleship: Theology for the Purpose of Christian Formation,” Calvin Theological Journal.  44 no 2 (2009), 333-4.  

[2]Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith (New York: Harper-Collins, 2015), 67.