Search for   

In the Church

Petros Roukas: Blessed are the poor in spirit

Editor’s Note: On September 22 Petros Roukas, senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church left his home and didn’t return. A number of suicide notes were found later by his wife, Jan, addressed to his family and to his congregation. His body was discovered on Wednesday, September 29. Pastor Roukas had been under a doctor’s care for depression.

Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary, delivered the following message at Petros’s funeral. We offer it here in this spirit of “mourning with those who mourn.”

Matthew 5:1-3: Now when he saw the crowds, he went on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.

This is my wedding album. This picture shows the preacher who performed the ceremony, Addison Soltau. He is here today. This next picture is of my grandparents. They are not here today but with the Lord. In this final picture are Petros and Jan. And only one of them is here today. We would never have pictured it this way.

Jan, though we have lived hundreds of miles apart, it is interesting – a blessing – to consider how our lives have intersected. Petros and I only got to know each other as we entered seminary together. We even took New Testament Greek together although, as he was fond of saying, I suffered there alone. He had an unfair advantage with all matters Greek. Of course, that’s why he also became my favorite travel consultant when Covenant Seminary led a tour tracing the path of the Apostle Paul in Greece.

Petros and I also invited one another to each other’s place of ministry – for special services, for anniversaries, for support in times of crisis, for family camps, and for angle ball – which as I recall was played without Petros’s legendary compassion for others. We even shared vacations and congregations together at Horn Creek, Colorado, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

The reason that I refer to all of these lighter moments in our lives is, of course, because I feel the need for light amidst the darker shadows in which we now find ourselves without Petros. I need the light from memories of his smile, and his chuckle, and his accent, and his hugs to help me find my way from the shadow that has fallen over my heart – a shadow that looms from mountains of pain dredged up from my sense of loss, and grief, and anger, and betrayal, and confusion, and fear. The mountain of fear probably looms largest over my heart because it forces me to question that if one who was so reflective of the light of the Gospel of my Savior could not escape this dark valley, then how can I be sure no such valley of shadows awaits me also?

The questions that I dread to ask and, at the same moment, find that I must dare to ask, the Word of God answers in this sermon of my Savior. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” With these simple words Jesus assures us that being poor in spirit does not disqualify from the Kingdom of God.

But how can this assurance be true if such poverty of spirit, when it advances unchecked, can lead to such awful and sinful consequences?

The first reason that poverty of spirit does not disqualify from the Kingdom of God is that spiritual poverty is so pervasive.

If the poor in spirit did not qualify for the Kingdom, then the kingdom would be empty.

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Even if your mind does not have a ready definition, your heart knows. To be poor in spirit is to be empty inside; to know the anguish and heartache of not having what seems to be necessary for spiritual survival; to feel keenly the bankruptcy of our answers and our adequacy; to feel helpless before the wrong in our world and in our heart.

Petros knew what it was to be poor in spirit. But he was not alone. Jesus said these words to a crowd gathered on a mountain. If you have been there, you know that it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. A sloping field of grass and flowers overlooking the deep blue of the Sea of Galilee, but somehow the natural beauty was not enough to counter the spiritual poverty of those Jesus addressed. When he spoke of the poor in spirit, he knew he was not speaking of a hypothetical person somewhere in the world. Jesus was speaking to many before him for whom the beauty did not bring adequate solace. The crowds gathered and listened because they knew they were the poor in spirit. And, the reason that we come here today in numbers is because we are the poor in spirit – we know emptiness, the bankruptcy of our answers and adequacy, helplessness before the wrong in our world and heart.

Are there any poor in spirit here today? You need to be able to answer, yes, because your blessing according to Jesus depends on your poverty. We have trouble expressing or confessing such poverty, because it seems improper for those who know God to acknowledge their struggles, their emptiness. Perhaps that is why the Bible not only shows us the crowds who knew spiritual poverty but the saints, too.

One of the times that Jan and I talked in recent days – I do not remember which time – she said that she had just read Psalm 88 to her children. In a gift of providence that we both instantly recognized I told her that I had turned to that Psalm the same day. Do you know why we both did? Because we both know it is the only Psalm in the Bible where there is no way out. Oh, yes, there are many lament Psalms in the Bible, but they all end with some chord of confidence in God, some hint of salvation hope, some indication of the light at the end of the tunnel. Psalm 88 is the only Psalm that gives no such crack of light, and in a strange way that is its blessing. It reminds us that even an inspired writer – a saint so great his words are forever recorded in the Bible – even such a spiritual giant can come under the shadow of a mountain that for a time seems to obscure the light of the Gospel. And, yet, this time in the shadow does not mean that the man is apart from the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is populated with those who are poor in spirit.

The second reason that poverty of spirit does not disqualify from the kingdom of God is because our merciful God knows that spiritual poverty is so powerful.

If only those who could entirely overcome poverty of spirit were qualified for the kingdom of God, then we would all be overwhelmed. What Petros was entirely wrong and sinful in doing must still be seen in the context of the weakness we all share.

I speak now to those of you who have a worldview derived from Scripture and not from popular philosophy or a blind optimism. The Bible says that we live in a fallen world where every aspect of the created order is fallen and damaged. The effects of human sin have corrupted every aspect of creation. Thorns encroach on our paths, weeds invade our fields, cracks disturb our sidewalks, disease infects our bodies, hurricanes tear our shores – and we can be plagued by storms of mind as well.

The corruption of our entire nature includes our physical world and the world of our emotions and thoughts. We damage ourselves and others if we do not consider the full extent of this entirely corrupted nature. Disease may not only come to our bodies as a consequence of our fallen world; disease may come to our minds as well. And sometimes it does. As Christians, this aspect of fallen creation most challenges us because we want to believe that our minds, where affirmations of faith dwell, are somehow beyond the reach of this world’s corruption. Yet, the corruption of our entire nature means that the effects of the fall are entwined around every dimension of our being: physical, mental and spiritual.

Willingly succumbing to these entanglements of our corrupted nature is not excusable for the Christian, but it is understandable and forgivable. We do not excuse the sin that is a consequence of yielding to the corruptions of our nature because the Bible says, “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” Our spiritual resources through Christ are sufficient to resist the temptations of our corrupted nature. And, yet, at the same time anyone who has ever snapped at his spouse when he is tired, or been cranky because a meal was late, or blue because the day was rainy, or thought he would never get well again because a cold lasted for more than two weeks – such a person can begin to understand how one who, after months and months of mental anguish that he could not explain or escape, could have let down his guard and plummeted into the shadows that obscured the light of God for a time. And when you begin to understand that, then you know that what is still not excusable can be – must be – forgivable.

I do not know why Petros could not pull out of the crash dive that spiraled him downward in recent months. I do not know why he was not able to cling to the Gospel truths that he so ably preached for so long. But I do know that Jesus says that though we may lose our grip on him, he never loses his grip on us. In our fallen world these corruptible bodies and minds can go awry in ways that cause us temporarily to loose our grip on the better part of ourselves, and in those moments to do terrible things, but never do these things of earth pry God’s children from the hand or heart of their heavenly Father.

Last year my son was diagnosed with a chronic and debilitating disease that required him to take some powerful medications. He needed the drugs to heal his body, but they also affected his emotions and brought on a depression such as he had never before experienced. Something was misfiring in his brain as well as in his body. The worst episode came when on one occasion I reached to help him and, in frustration with all he was experiencing, he struck my hands away. Never in his life has he done such a thing or come close to it. The reaction not only startled me; it sent him deeper into despondency. He could not believe he was capable of such an act, and the realization only made his depression more acute. We have never prayed harder for our son, and praised God when the medications stopped being needed. But that was then, and in the last few weeks we have learned that the medications may be needed again. Because of where they took him emotionally and spiritually last time, my son does not want to take the medications again. But he must take them, and what I pray will enable and encourage him to take what will heal him, is the assurance that though he may strike away my hands, I will never stop extending them to him. Such is the love of our heavenly Father for Petros, and for you. No one and no thing can pluck us from his hand says our Savior.

Until we are with the Lord, we will probably not understand why Petros struck away all the hands that reached out to him and the assurance that the Lord held him. But if we do not allow ourselves to understand how one can fail to live fully in accord with what he believes, then we will not only blame Petros, we will have no choice but to blame each other for other failures. Part of our corrupted nature is to search for those to blame. Whose fault was it after all, that Petros did not hold to the hands extended to him? Was it merely Petros who did not believe enough, or …

Did his church not do enough?
Did the leadership not do enough?
Did his family not do enough?
Did his friends not do enough?
Did some of us expect too much, and in doing so put the pressures on him of our own idolatry of a person – because he knew he could not live up to our worship of him?

The answer to all these questions is, “Of course, we did not do enough; and, of course, we expected too much.” We live in a fallen world and our entire nature has been so corrupted that each of us who is responsible for one another in the body of Christ has in some measure failed to be all that we should be. We are, after all, the poor in spirit. We gather here today mutually bankrupt in spirit and empty of excuses. The reason that we should and can acknowledge our universal failure is because we know that being poor in spirit does not disqualify from the Kingdom of God. Even though we lost our grip on Petros, God does not lose his grip on us, and he will not. That knowledge should keep us from looking for others to blame for our hurt, or insisting that all heal at the same rate and in the same way, instead of confessing in mutual humility our need – now more than ever – of both the love of our Savior and the understanding of each other.

My friends and family in Christ, it is far more important now to be driven to Christ than to be driven to find explanations. We will not fix this, but Jesus will not fail us. He tells us this when he assures people like us that the poor in spirit are not disqualified from the kingdom of heaven because our God recognizes how pervasive and powerful is our poverty.

Still, the final reason and most important reason that poverty of spirit does not disqualify from the kingdom of God is that God’s riches are so much greater than our poverty.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit….” What does the word “blessed” mean to you? Those who are blessed are those who receive what they do not deserve and could not earn. Jesus does not say, “Rewarded are those who earn their way,” or “Compensated are those who measure up to my standards.” To the contrary, he promises the kingdom to those who cannot pay the fare and have nothing that they can claim.

When Petros stands before the throne of judgment, he will have nothing of his own that he can claim as his ticket to heaven. All he has preached, and lived, and shared will not make up for the wrong of what he has done. But someone else can make it up; the One who promises the kingdom to those who are too poor in spirit to make any claim for themselves.

This past summer I had the opportunity to meet a missionary family in Africa. As their older children got to be Lizzy and Nikos’s age, the father and mother decided to adopt another child. He was from the poorest of urban streets; the child of an absent father and an addicted and abusive mother. The child’s new family tried to show him love, but he had trouble receiving it. His obedience had too long simply been a means of avoiding abuse. He had grown accustomed to pleasing so as not to be rejected. The new family was not sure that he was capable of doing anything simply out of love. They were not even sure that his smile was more than a means to manipulate. Then one day all came undone. The boy could not find his comb, so he took his new father’s comb and forgot to return it. When he was asked if he had taken it, the boy said he had not. But that did not explain why the comb was in his pocket. When his lie was discovered, the child ran as he had always done to escape his natural mother’s abuse. He ran to his room and crawled into the darkness underneath the bed.

The child was not prepared for what happened next. The bedspread lifted, and the boy’s new mother crawled into the darkness with him. She took his face in her hands, put her head next to him, and said these words: “What you have done did not get you into this family; and what you do will not get you out of this family.”

Listen to me, what Petros did was wrong. But what he did for the last twenty-five years did not get him into the kingdom of God, and what he did almost two weeks ago will not take him from the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is secured by another – the One who came into the darkness of this world to give himself for those who are poor in Spirit. This is the Gospel: He who was rich, made himself poor so that through his poverty we might inherit the Kingdom of God. This same Jesus who came preaching of the kingdom of God is the One who came to die in our behalf to pay the debt for our sins. He emptied himself of the privileges and glory of heaven, so that through his poverty, the heavenly riches of his righteousness would be ours. The reason that those who are so corrupted that they can be guilty of selfishness, cowardice, insensitivity and sin – even the murder of themselves, and can yet inherit the kingdom of God, is because Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins, and he rose to intercede for us before the Father on the basis of his righteousness rather than our accomplishments. When we depend on what he provides by acknowledging our poverty and trusting in his provision, then ours is the kingdom of heaven.

Isaiah 57:15, "For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite."

Now I know the questions that you still are asking yourselves – I have asked these questions of myself also:

“Yes, God can save sinners of all sorts: those who falter, and fall, and even kill. But the ones that he saves are those who repent. And, since Petros took his own life, and there was no opportunity to repent from that sin, then can he still be eligible for the kingdom of heaven?” I acknowledge to you that, despite the depth of remorse that Petros expressed for his actions in the letter read to this congregation, his repentance is inadequate. But whose repentance is ever adequate? God does not forgive us because we adequately confess our sin, but because Jesus fully covers our sin when we trust in him.

But you are also thinking, “Did Petros really trust in Christ?” “Yes,” you will acknowledge, “Petros certainly was poor in spirit. But did he really trust in Jesus? If he had, could he have done this thing?” Ultimately these questions will be answered in the halls of heaven, but I will tell you what I think. Petros did not preach the Gospel all those years, or love us so well falsely. We would have known it. Instead, he got sick in mind and heart for reasons that I do not fully understand. That sickness made him very poor in spirit, and he lost his hold on what was best in him and for him. But I do not think that the strength of his grasp is what counts but rather the strength of the One who grasps him. The love of Jesus Christ is more than strong enough to compensate for any weakness of faith in us.

Ringing in my mind, yet, are the words from the note that was read to the church when your questions and concerns so needed some explanation. In that note Petros said, “I still believe the [Gospel] truths that I have preached, I think.” What was that added “I think” about? Was it an affirmation of truth; or, was dear Petros, despite all his years in America, still missing the nuances of American speech, as he occasionally did? Did he not realize that when you add, “I think,” at the end of a phrase, that you are actually casting doubt on what you have previously said? I think that Petros did recognize the doubt in his wording. So that what he was really saying was “I believe, but I recognize that I do not believe enough.” Does that remind you of anything? I pray that it reminds you of the father in Scripture who needed help for his ailing child and came to Jesus. Jesus asked, “Do you believe?” The man said, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Then Jesus healed his child. When a man confessed the poverty of his faith, Jesus supplied what was lacking there also. Even faith as small as a mustard seed God uses to lay claim to his Kingdom blessings.

I know that some will fear that if I do not shut the door to heaven to Petros for this particular sin that I may open the door for some others to consider doing what he did. I know that is a great danger, but the greater danger is to portray a god who does not understand human weakness and who draws a line beyond which his love will not go. I fear more the daily and eternal despair of belief in that god. The God we need is the one Scripture promises: the One who loves you so much that he gave his Son for you so that you need not fear even your greatest failures will deny you his eternal kingdom or his heart. Love for that God of grace will do more to hold you to life than all threats of hell from a god you dread and wish to flee. The Bible says the kindness of God leads us to repentance and draws us to life with cords of divine affection that nothing can sever. In that assurance there is love that is more powerful than death.

One last question: But if your God is so good, why did he let this happen? I do not know. But this I do know, our tendency in time of trial and misery is to look at earthly circumstances to judge the character of God. Our God will not be so confined. Always he is dealing on an eternal plane. Even the evil of Petros’s untimely, unjustifiable death God can use to remind us all of our need for eternal justification that can only be found in him. If we have been forced to consider our spiritual poverty and need of divine redemption by these events, then even this evil can be used for good by a divine hand. And should you doubt that our circumstances warrant such trust in God, then recognize that his Word does not point to our circumstances to define his character but to his cross. There where my Savior hung in suffering to provide for our eternal pardon, our God proves that he is good. And he demonstrates by that same cross that we can always trust that his hand will turn to good even the evil for which our hands are responsible.

Jan, in a book that I just completed this summer, I tell the account of when I was lost on a mountain and you and Petros prayed me down. The fog closed in along with snow and cold, so that my climbing partner and I were shrouded in darkness and lost for hours. Fearing the dark that was closing in, we set a time that we would stop trying to find the path off the mountain and we would instead try to make shelter to survive the night. That time never arrived. Unbeknownst to us, the watch we were using to clock when we had to stop climbing had stopped ticking. As a consequence we kept climbing far past our deadline and eventually found the path that led back to the camp and to you. I will never forget what Petros said when we got back. “Jan even prayed for time to stand still so that you could get down.” Little did he know that time had stood still so that we could get home.

I imagine that in these past few months you have prayed more than once that time would stand still again so that Petros would have the rest he needed to stop pressing downward and be able to find his way home from the darkness in which he seemed to be climbing an insurmountable mountain of pain. Ultimately he did not find his way home to you and his family, but he is off that mountain of pain and, we pray, home where time is no more, and there are no more tears, and there is no night there.

How can such a prayer be valid or possible? Because the Gospel is true and therefore, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Thus, I will grieve, but not as those who have no hope, but rather as those who can say in the face of dark valleys, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

To listen to Bryan Chapell's message, click here.