Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 11 2014

Jeremiah 15.15-21
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Poor old St Peter! Last week he got it right, and proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But this week he gets it spectacularly wrong. Jesus begins to tell the disciples what the Messiah must do: he must go to Jerusalem, and undergo great suffering, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. To the disciples, this is shocking and incomprehensible. How can such things happen to the Messiah, God’s anointed leader?
So Peter, full of the new authority that Jesus had given him, rebukes Jesus for his words. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Jesus’ reply is one of the most memorable lines of scripture: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me.” Those words aren’t just random insults uttered in exasperation. They have a precise meaning. Satan is the tempter, the one who came to Jesus in the desert and offered him all the kingdoms of this world, if Jesus would but worship him. A stumbling-block, in Greek, is skandalon, a scandal, which is not just something you trip over, but something that both attracts and repels, that you keep bumping into but can’t get around, like a moth dive-bombing a light bulb. This is why scandals are so endlessly fascinating.
So if Peter is a scandal and a Satan, this means he is a tempter, and he is offering Jesus something that both attracts and repels. What is that? It is the alternative to the way of the cross, Peter’s version of the Messiah. The Messiah who does not have to suffer. The Messiah who will impose the Kingdom by conquest and drive out the unrighteous and unclean. This is exactly what Satan offered in the desert, and he offers it again here in the subtle disguise of Peter’s words, “this must never happen to you.” How reasonable St Peter’s view seems to be, how powerful a temptation.
But he is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things. He is thinking the way the world thinks. “This must not happen to you” implies that it’s not so bad if it happens to someone else. Indeed, that is Peter’s expectation of what will happen once the Messiah has conquered his enemies.
This is the whole human way of thinking: vengeance and violence, finding scapegoats, driving out those we think are not like us. Jesus has come to undo the whole human way of thinking and being, founded on violence and casting out. But in the world as it is that can only be done from within, by entering into the heart of human violence as its victim, and suffering it. Anything else, imposing a different view by force, would just be an alternative violent order. This is how radical the gospel is. This is how necessary the cross is. And this, in its turn, is a scandal, a stumbling-block, to the disciples.
Jesus “must” suffer, not because the Father wills suffering, but because it is inevitable within the human order as it is. St Paul in today’s extract from Romans talks about wrath, as he often does. But this “wrath” is not “of God”, that is a mistranslation and the words “of God” are not there in the Greek. Paul is describing as Godly the path of non-violence that renounces revenge, and that would not make sense if wrath was something that was in God.
Rather, wrath is the destructive power we experience when we choose to stay within the human order as it is, instead of letting God free us from it in Jesus. Jesus experienced that destructive power himself, for us, on the cross. Wrath is not God’s violence, for there is no violence in God, but the heart of human violence. God in Christ placed himself in the heart of our violence to save us from ourselves.
This can only be understood in the light of the resurrection. All the gospels tell of the disciples’ failure to understand, and all, of course, were written after and because of the resurrection. Peter is rebuked – but he is not rejected or sent away. The call of the Lord to him does not change. He is rebuked so that he can return to the right path and continue to follow Jesus – along the way of the cross, which is also the way of resurrection.
The Church, like individual disciples, can and does get it wrong. Jesus gathered a community to himself to carry on his mission until eternity, and gave them – us – the task of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. But so often, like Peter, the Church thinks it can decide what the Kingdom is to be. It faces the same temptation as Jesus faced in the wilderness, the temptation presented to him again by Peter today. The temptation is to define the Kingdom of God in terms of the old human understanding of violence and exclusion. And the Church, like Peter, often fails the test. When it does so it becomes a scandal and a Satan – an obstacle in the path of the Kingdom, and a temptation to turn aside.
The history of the Church is littered with accommodations made with the way the world thinks, apparently for the sake of the gospel, which actually betrayed the gospel. We may think of how the Church in Germany mostly failed to see the true nature of Hitler’s rise to power behind the smokescreen of social order and German greatness, and was only too willing to go along with it. Or in our own day, when Uganda is trying to enact violently oppressive anti-gay laws, which are nothing but scapegoating, with the active encouragement of the local bishops – and little criticism from the Church elsewhere in the world.
The word of Christ is a continual judgement on the Church: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” But even when the Church goes astray the call of God remains. The keys given to Peter to bind and loose are also the keys of judgement on Peter. But judgement is for salvation, always calling the Church back to its true path.
The story of our failures and sins, seen from the resurrection, becomes the story of God’s mercy and grace. It is necessary that this story be told! The story that says, here, where I went wrong, was where God was waiting to save me. And this is not only our individual stories, but also the story of the Church. The Church is the community that repents and is saved.

The way of the cross, which seems madness and nonsense, is revealed in the light of the resurrection as a positive choice for the gospel. This is the Church’s calling, and it is our calling. And when we go astray, and we do, Christ is present in judgement but for our salvation, to call us back to the way we must follow, which is his way, the way of the cross which alone leads to resurrection and the Kingdom of God.

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