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

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 15 2015



Isaiah 50.4-9a
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-38

A little bit about geography, again. In last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel Jesus went to Tyre and the region of the Decapolis, and we needed to understand that those were Gentile places to get what Mark was trying to tell us about inclusion and the need of all human society for conversion.
This week it’s the same. Jesus takes the disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. As with last week this is a journey into Gentile territory. But Caesarea Philippi was not just any old Gentile town. It was an in-your-face celebration of pagan gods and the Roman Empire. Built around an ancient cave sanctuary of Pan, the horned god of nature and wildness, by the time of Jesus it was full of temples and shrines, cults and priesthoods serving the gods and offering sacrifices before their images.
It was also a place of luxury villas, in a cool valley watered by a mountain river, where the rich spent the summer. Philip II, the son of Herod the Great, had named it “Caesarea Philippi” in honour of the Emperor Augustus and himself, and had put up the biggest and newest temple of all, in gleaming white marble, dedicated to Caesar. The Emperor, a mortal man who lived in Rome, was worshipped at Caesarea as a god.
To devout Jews, Caesarea was culturally alien and religiously shocking. But it was here that Jesus brought his disciples to ask them the crucial question: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ By asking that question there Jesus shows what is at stake. The disciples are faced by a choice, a decision: what is it that is ultimately true about the world?
On the one hand, there was everything that Caesarea stood for: the worship of created things, above all of Caesar. In the Roman Empire might was right, and anything that you could achieve by power and force was permissible. There was no higher authority. The weak and the poor didn’t count.
But if Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed leader, then the Roman Emperor is not. If Jesus is the Messiah, then the one he called “Father” is the one true God, the creator of all things, and him alone must we serve. If Jesus is the Messiah then his law is the highest authority: the law of love and compassion, especially for the poorest, the weakest, the most marginalized.
In this choice there is no middle ground. It is one or the other. So when Peter says to Jesus, “you are the Messiah”, he is making a bold and risky statement of faith. He is rejecting Caesar’s claim on the world, and choosing to follow Jesus as God’s true anointed leader. And he was doing that right there where Caesar was worshipped as a god.
Even so, Peter’s faith has not yet led him to understanding. He sees that Jesus is the alternative to Caesar. But he does not yet see how very different those alternatives are. So when Jesus tells the disciples that he must – must – “undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed”, this to Peter is just nonsense. Peter imagines that if Jesus is to oust Caesar from his place of authority, then he has to operate in the same way as Caesar, only more powerfully. He has to be a stronger “strong man”, and conquer Rome by force.
But Jesus is the love of God in person, come into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved. The world needs saving, because the world is deeply resistant to love, deeply ordered against God’s purposes and law. The world, in the words of St Paul, is in slavery to sin and death.
Love, come into the world, can only win the victory and remain love by freely suffering what the world inflicts. Love has come to bear in his own person the consequences of sin, so that the world might be freed from sin. But love would cease to be love if it fought back in the way the world fights. And this means that love, in the world as it is, must follow the way of the cross.
And so, too, must those who follow Jesus. If we have made the choice to follow Jesus and not the powers of the world, then we are choosing to follow in his path of rejection and suffering and death. But we do so in faith that by sharing in Christ’s sufferings we will also share in his resurrection. Or, to put it another way, it is by dying to ourselves that Christ will come alive in us, so that in the end we can say with St Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me”. This is the pattern that is marked on every Christian life, the truth that every person lives who has made the choice to follow Jesus. The way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace.
This marks the whole of our lives. In Baptism we are adopted in Christ as children of God. That means that all of what we are is taken up in Christ and offered to the Father. And because we are in Christ, who is the Father’s beloved Son, we too are recognised by the Father as his beloved children.
This means that there is no part of our lives that is not Christ’s. We are his, claimed by him as his own, washed by him in the waters of baptism, buried with him in death and raised in him to new and eternal life. That is our identity as Christians. Death and resurrection is the pattern of the life of Christ, and the pattern of our own lives in him.
So in all things, great and small, we are called to follow Jesus, and not Caesar – or his modern equivalent. We don’t have temples to the Emperor any more but there is plenty of worship of created things. We are led to assume that anything we can do, we may do. The power of the world wants to be taken for the ultimate reality, with all its political structures and markets and the forces that drive out the weak and poor. So to follow Jesus is still the way of the cross, still the path of dangerous resistance to the way the world wags.
For some of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East at the moment, that can quite literally be a choice between their loyalty to Jesus Christ, and staying alive. For us the choice may not seem so stark. But the way of Jesus, the way of love and self-giving, is something that should permeate all our daily lives and decisions.
For example, in how we notice and care for the poor and the marginalized. In standing for justice against oppressors and bullies. In being kind to others, especially when that’s an effort. In how we use our money. In our personal relationships, in how we seek the other’s good and deny ourselves. If we have authority because of our role at work or in our family, let us remember that authority in Christ is to serve, and never to exalt ourselves against someone else.
Seen from that perspective, every day is full of choices, small but significant, to follow the way of the cross. We can go one way and seek self-exaltation and our own satisfaction whatever the cost to others. Or we can go the way of Jesus, the way of love and self-giving. That is the way of the cross, even in little things, because it always costs us something, always involves self-emptying. But dying to ourselves is what enables Christ to come alive in us. To die to ourselves and live to Christ is to choose what is ultimately true about the world. And that way alone is the way of life and peace.

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