“Happy: The Pure in Heart”
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Have you ever set out to do something with the best of intentions, only to fail miserably somewhere along the way? Maybe you didn’t plan for an important contingency, maybe you didn’t plan at all, or maybe your plans were just faulty, and the end result was less than you had hoped. I have done this on a number of occasions. In fact, I recall one of the first meals that I made for Sarah after we got married as one of those ill-conceived, but well-intended events. We had just returned from our honeymoon, moved into our new apartment, and started transitioning into our new routines. Sarah was in her last year of college and had transferred to the university where I was working as a software developer. So, in addition to all of the normal adjustments that come with a marriage, she was also getting used to a new school and town.
I thought I would surprise her by making a nice dinner one evening to show her how much I love and support her. I had it all planned out. I set the table with our new dishes, busted out our new cookware, and started hunting for an awesome recipe. Sarah used to be a bit pickier in her food choices, so I decided to stick with chicken as a safe bet. I found a recipe that looked amazing, bought all the ingredients, and got to work. By the time Sarah got home from class, everything was cooking and almost ready to go. I was so proud of myself when I plated the main dish and sides and we sat down to eat. I had prepared baked chicken breasts with a honey walnut glaze, and I couldn’t wait to dig in.
That’s when my plans got derailed. You see, I had great intentions that night. I wanted to prepare a delicious meal for my hard-working wife. But in my hurry to put those good intentions into action, I forgot the most important part of the meal. I didn’t ask Sarah if she liked the ingredients. As it turns out, at that time in our young lives Sarah did not like the taste of either honey or walnuts. In fact, she really, really disliked those flavors. So, while my intentions were good, they were misdirected. I had mistakenly assumed that what I would find pleasing would also please Sarah, and I had acted more out of my own desires than out of a desire to find what would most delight her. Fortunately, we moved beyond that not-so-tasty meal, and I learned to cook things for Sarah that she preferred and that would make her happy, and she learned to do the same for me.
II. Misguided intentions
That first meal as a married couple was a pretty minor disaster in the grand scheme of things. There have been many more instances over the last fourteen years, when my intentions didn’t result in my end goal. And my guess is that I am not alone in this. At times, we all pursue things with misguided – maybe even selfish – intentions. Sometimes, the consequences are fairly minor. In the case of that first meal as a married couple, Sarah found something else to eat, while I grumbled a bit and learned my lesson. Other minor situations might involve our children, who often have good intentions, but encounter difficulty with the follow-through on their plans. We should always praise such attempts by our children or other loved ones to please us.
But not all situations are quite so innocent. At other times, the consequences for our misguided intentions can be truly catastrophic. This is particularly true when it comes to our spiritual growth. You may have heard the phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” While we often say this jokingly, there is some real truth behind it. The veracity of that claim rests on the fact that good is so often the enemy of great. How many times have you or I settled for something good in our lives, when we could have had something truly great if we had just set our eyes on a different goal? God does not want his people chasing after goals we think are good; he wants our commitment to pursuing Him as our ultimate goal, so that he can give us truly great things in return. And our intentions are so easily misdirected. They can’t be trusted in a fallen world. Maybe that is why Jesus didn’t praise the good intentions of the crowds following him in Matthew 5:8, and, instead, called them and us to embrace purity of heart.
III. Blessed are the pure in heart
The Bible has a lot to say about purity, and I think it is helpful for us to make a distinction between the heart purity Jesus was talking about and righteousness according to the Law, or what we might call “right actions”. Jesus made this distinction himself in Matthew 15:1-11.
‘Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.”
Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? 4 For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’”
Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.” (NLT)‘
When Jesus spoke to the crowds about the blessings that come from purity of heart in Matthew 5:8 he was making the same distinction. His concern was not that the people should pursue specific behaviors. But this isn’t because Jesus didn’t find those behaviors important; rather, it was because he knew that purity of heart will always produce obedience to God’s commands. On the other hand, it is possible to do and say all the “right” things and still be wasting away on the inside, where it counts the most. The sort of purity that leads to true happiness must begin with the orientation of our hearts. And this is more than simply acting with good intentions; it is a heart that humbly seeks after God and submits daily to God’s designs for us. But what does that look like?
There are at least three characteristics scripture points to that will help us to recognize what Jesus meant when he described the blessed as pure of heart.
Purity of heart is first and foremost manifest as love of God. In Deuteronomy 6:5-6 God issued a command to Israel that would ensure their prosperity. “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. (NLT)” When challenged by the Pharisees to identify the greatest commandment of the Law in Matthew 22, Jesus echoed these verses saying, “’You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”(NLT). The pure heart is one that is committed to this singular focus of loving God, not just when we feel like it or when it is convenient, but all the time and with every ounce of our being. Only the pure heart can make this kind of commitment. A divided heart can never seek God fully in this way. And, as Jesus was careful to point out this sort of all-consuming love of God naturally leads to the love of others.
Purity of heart is also identified in scripture as full trust in God. In Hebrews 10:19-23 Paul encouraged the church to persevere in their faith saying, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (NIV)”
Do you hear the connection there between heart purity and faith? Paul said the heart that has been cleansed from sin should result in a full assurance of faith and sincerity. Not only that, but this is the foundation upon which the faithful can hold “unswervingly” to the hope we have in Christ. A pure heart hopes in the Lord, because it has trusts in God’s faithfulness. A polluted heart, on the other hand, cannot hope, because the guilty conscience remains, and condemnation along with it.
Finally, purity of heart is marked by the presence of the fruit of righteousness in our lives. In Luke 6:43-45 Jesus said, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (NLT)”
The pure in heart will always be known by the fruit they produce. They are filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruits of the Spirit. And they will also exhibit the fruits of righteousness, because a pure heart will always lead to holy living and obedience to God’s commands.
In Matthew 5:8, Jesus said the pure in heart – those who love God with a singular purpose, those who trust him completely, and those who can be recognized by the fruit their lives produce – are happy, because they are the ones who will see God. What does this mean? I believe it simply means this: the pure in heart are those who have surrendered self in order to seek after God. And, as Jesus promised, those who seek God will find him (Matt. 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10). God will give us the desires of our hearts, when our desire is for Him. A pure heart seeks only after God and proclaims, “not my will, but yours be done”.
When our hearts are pure, we never again have to worry about misguided intentions, because our desires echo God’s desires for us, his ways become our ways, and his goals become our goals. But, the only way we can gain a pure heart is to receive it by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. Purity of heart requires a full commitment to surrender everything to Jesus, and trust in the Spirit to give us His strength for each day. God has offered this gift to all who will receive it, and you can have it today.
Many of you have already received this gift of grace for yourselves, and maybe you remember the hunger and thirst you had for God in the beginning, but somehow, over time, you’ve lost some of your passion for him. Maybe your relationship with Jesus isn’t as strong as it once was. Or, maybe you sense that your heart is no longer as pure as God desires. Maybe you have lost focus.
The world we live in is filled with distractions, isn’t it? There are so many things vying for our attention at every hour of the day. It is so much easier now than it once was to become completely wrapped up in things of secondary importance. Let me encourage you to diligently guard your heart, so that you don’t trample on the grace God has given you and once again contaminate what God has made pure. When we choose to pursue other things in the place of God, when our desires become misdirected, or when our focus gets divided, we run the risk of losing that purity of heart that results in holy lives that please God.
So, how do we avoid the traps that lead to a distracted and corrupted heart? How do we guard ourselves, once we have received God’s gift of grace? What can we do today to ensure that we remain on the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life?
My friend and mentor J. D. Walt served for many years as the Dean of the Chapel and Vice president of Community Life at Asbury Theological Seminary, where I was privileged to attend. I saw him, day in and day out, weather storms and incredible pressure generated by his commitment to minister to students and their families in the stresses of higher education. In the midst of these storms and pressures, he prepared for and led numerous weekly worship services where he offered Christ to people who were in desperate need for the daily sustaining grace of God. The temptation to take short cuts in his own spiritual life must have been incredible. One day, as I sat talking with him in his office, J. D. seemed particularly weary, and I asked him, “How do you do it? How do you deal with all of the pressure and problems and controversy that comes your way every day?” Do you know what his answer was? He didn’t blow of my question with false humility and say he wasn’t really dealing with all that much, he didn’t cite the latest leadership principles as the key to his perseverance, and he didn’t quote some part of scripture as though the Word of God alone in a vacuum was self-explanatory. But his answer to me was scriptural. He said, “Isaac, I take the stairs to and from my office every day.”
Now, if you are like me, that answer doesn’t make much sense on the surface. But then he went on to explain how taking the stairs has helped him to weather the storms and pressures (and temptations) of this world. He said, “As I place my foot on each step to and from my office, I repeat this one simple prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” He was referencing Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus told his disciples a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood up and prayed to God, “I thank you that I am not a sinner like this tax collector.” And proceeded to list his good deeds to God as evidence of his righteousness. Meanwhile, the tax collector stood at a distance, beating his chest in his grief over his own sin, too ashamed to even look to heaven, and he begged, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Friends, this is the biblical picture of a pure heart that seeks after God alone for salvation and mercy and the grace to live a transformed life that casts off sin and embraces the way of the cross.
Jesus went on to say that this man, not the Pharisee, who had all the appearance of righteousness, was the one who went home justified on that day. This should stand as both a warning and a breath of fresh air for us today. If we would ask God to give us pure hearts and guard them from distraction, we must embrace the way of humility. Only when we recognize our own disease, will we be able to receive the cure with thanksgiving. Only when we empty ourselves of spiritual pride, will be given the power of God’s Spirit. Only when we confess our hunger and thirst, will Jesus offer us the bread and water of life. And only when we rely completely upon Jesus for everything that we are or will ever be, can we ever experience the purity of heart that leads us to see God in every situation we encounter in this life, and forever in the life to come.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not hidden your face from us, but have promised us that we will see you, when our hearts are pure. Lord Jesus, we have heard your words to us, and we know they can produce something new in our souls when we allow those words to take root in our hearts. Would you send your Spirit now among us? Would you give us your grace to surrender all of our own desires and good intentions to you, so that you can gives us pure hearts that seek only after you and your desires for us? Heavenly Father, we ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Our Response – The Sacrament of Baptism
There is no event in the lives of Christians, which symbolizes purity more so than baptism. Among other things, baptism is a symbol of the pure heart that God gives to those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. It announces the washing away of our sins, by God’s mercy and grace. It is a visible signpost of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives before, during, and after we confess Jesus as Lord.
There are many misconceptions or uncertainties about baptism in our churches today. This is particularly true when we baptize infants and children, the mentally disabled, or anyone who is unable or not yet ready to answer the questions of the baptismal ritual for themselves. So I would like to take just a few moments for us, as a covenant fellowship of Christians seeking to live as the body of Christ, to review some of the core beliefs of our tradition about this sacrament.
1. Baptism does not save us. Salvation is by grace alone, received through faith in Jesus Christ. There is nothing you or I can ever do, no ritual or action so great, that we can earn our justification before God.
Faith is both a gift of God and a human response to God. It is the ability and willingness to say “yes” to the divine offer of salvation. Faith is our awareness of our utter dependence upon God, the surrender of our selfish wills, the trusting reliance upon divine mercy. Our personal response of faith requires conversion in which we turn away from sin and turn instead to God. It entails a decision to commit our lives to the Lordship of Christ, an acceptance of the forgiveness of our sins, the death of our old selves, an entering into a new life of the Spirit — being born again (John 3:3-5, 2 Corinthians 5:17). All persons do not experience this spiritual rebirth in the same way. For some, there is a singular, radical moment of conversion. For others, conversion may be experienced as the dawning and growing realization that one has been constantly loved by God and has a personal reliance upon Christ.
2. Baptism is a Sacrament and Means of Grace. Sacraments are effective means of God’s presence mediated through the created world. God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is the supreme instance of this kind of divine action. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, viewed the sacraments as crucial means of grace and affirmed the Anglican teaching that “a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”’ Combining words, actions, and physical elements, sacraments are sign-acts which both express and convey God’s grace and love. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments that were instituted or commanded by Christ in the Gospels. The ritual action of a sacrament does not merely point to God’s presence in the world, but also participates in it and becomes a vehicle for conveying that reality. God’s presence in the sacraments is real, but it must be accepted by human faith if it is to transform human lives. The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which God has chosen to make grace available to us.
3. Baptism is not the same as dedication. We affirm and practice both baptism and dedication in the United Methodist Church, but we need to make an important distinction between the two. Dedication is a human act offering the gift of a life to God for God to accept. A sacrament, on the other hand, is a divine act where God offers the gift of God’s unfailing grace for us to accept. In other words, the core difference between dedication and baptism is the subject performing the action. In a dedication, we are offering a gift of ourselves to God for his use, according to his will. In baptism, God is the one who offers the gift of himself to us as a means of grace. Baptism is not primarily an act of obedience, as we sometimes make it out to be; rather, it is an act of God’s self-giving love on our behalf and for our benefit.
4. Infant baptism has been the historic practice of the overwhelming majority of the Church throughout the Christian centuries. While the New Testament contains no explicit mandate, there is ample evidence for the baptism of infants in Scripture (Acts 2:38-41, 16:15,33) and in early Christian doctrine and practice. Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save ourselves, dependent upon the grace of our loving God. The faithful covenant community of the Church serves as a means of grace for those whose lives are impacted by its ministry. Through the Church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of handicapping conditions or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to fully comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism.
The difference between the baptism of adults and that of infants is that the Christian faith is consciously being professed by an adult who is baptized. A baptized infant comes to profess her or his faith later in life, after having been nurtured and taught by parents or other responsible adults and the community of faith. Infant baptism is the prevailing practice in situations where children are born to believing parents and brought up in Christian homes and communities of faith. Adult baptism is the norm when the Church is in a missionary situation, reaching out to persons in a culture, which is indifferent or hostile to the faith.
 The following points are taken from the UMC document, “By Water and the Spirit” with some minor edits and additional comments added for clarity.