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

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity 20 2015

Isaiah 53.4-12
Hebrews 5.1-10
Mark 10.35-45

The three readings we have heard today are like a curtain rising to disclose the mysterious symbol at the heart of our faith: the cross.

We are so used to the cross that it has perhaps lost its power to shock. It is in every church, it stands over every altar, we have it in our homes, we wear it round our necks. Yet what is it? It is the image of a means of cruel and shameful death, and on it a man dying nailed to a piece of wood.

This is a most unlikely image for anything, let alone for a world religion. Who would choose that as their corporate logo? And yet, gazing on it, we see more than meets the eye. The cross shows us God for us, God on our side, God present in the worst that can happen, God present to save us. The cross draws us to the one who is shown on it. “When I am lifted up from the earth”, said Jesus, “I will draw all people to myself”.

The cross is so unexpected that it has to be of God. Only God could make suffering into peace, defeat into victory, death into life. The transformative power of God breaks into the deadlock of human sin and suffering and death, and against all our expectations does something new.

This is foreshadowed in the hauntingly beautiful passage from Isaiah we heard this morning. Most of the time the Old Testament prophets addressed themselves to the needs of the people at the time. If people were acting unjustly or not following God’s ways the prophets would pronounce judgement against them, so that they might repent. If the people were suffering or threatened the Prophets would speak of God’s care for them and his promise of deliverance.

The book of Isaiah is like that, mostly addressed to the needs of the people at the time it was written, and in this section of the book the people were in exile in Babylon.

But in the midst of the words addressed to their present need there comes a series of poems about the “Servant of the Lord”. This is a mysterious figure who suffers and is rejected and yet it is discovered in the end that God was on his side, and working through him. More mysteriously still, it is through his sufferings that many will become righteous, it is through him that sin will be taken away.

Who is this person? The Servant of the Lord doesn’t correspond to anyone in Israel’s history at the time that Isaiah was writing. And yet this poem discloses something of the heart of God. Even if the identity of the Servant was not clear, the poems did assure God’s people that God was with them in their exile, and that God could be trusted to work his purpose out even in the midst of affliction and rejection. God was not absent, even when he seemed to be silent. 

The idea that God can work through suffering and rejection was there in the Jewish tradition and in the scriptures. But it was there in a veiled way. For the disciples, it was not until after the resurrection that it all fell into place, and they were able to see how exactly Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord” described Jesus. Until that happened, they simply couldn’t understand that the Messiah had to suffer, however often Jesus tried to tell them.

And so James and John, in today’s gospel reading, are still getting it wrong. They think that the Kingdom of God will happen when Jesus drives suffering and oppression away. His glory, they think, is suffering avoided. His victory will come about in the normal human way, by Jesus rising to the top of the heap and crushing everyone else beneath him. And they want to be there with him.

How little they understand. Jesus warns them of the cup and baptism of suffering that he must drink. “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Who are those for whom it has been prepared? Mark tells us in chapter 15 of his gospel: “And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” These are the places that James and John think they want to occupy!

The Son of Man, says Jesus, came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And as the letter to the Hebrews says, Jesus was made perfect through suffering and so became the source of eternal salvation.

Now the rational part of us might want to ask, “How?” How does the death of Jesus bring our peace? How does his suffering earn our salvation? What’s the deal?

The New Testament is full of many images that show us facets of Christ’s saving death. He was paying a ransom, a price to free us from being held captive by death. He was fighting with the powers of evil and defeating them. He was the new Adam, the human race restarted, sharing everything that it is to be human including our suffering and death, so that all humanity might be raised to new life in him. He was showing what the love of God is like, so that we might learn to love. By his voluntary giving of his life he was paying the debt that sinners owe to God.

All of these images are there in scripture, but they are facets of a mystery. And, in the end, the cross itself defeats our attempts at analysis. It shows us a love and mercy beyond anything we can comprehend or define, because it is of God.

Julian of Norwich, the mediaeval mystic, wrote a great deal about the cross in her book “Revelations of Divine Love”. The book, the first written by a woman in English, tells us all that we know about her. It seems that she had been married, but her husband and children had died. Then she herself fell gravely ill and for a week hovered on the brink of death. Then she had a series of visions of Jesus on the cross. She recovered, and spent the rest of her life meditating on what she had seen. This is part of what she wrote:

From the time that [the vision] was shown, I desired often to know what our Lord's meaning was. And fifteen years and more afterward I was answered in my spiritual understanding, thus: 'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Keep yourself therein and you shall know and understand more in the same. But you shall never know nor understand any other thing, forever.'

The Cross does not take away suffering. It is not death avoided. It is not a sticking plaster on our wound. The cross shows us the heart of God’s love, imprinted with the wounds of our own suffering and sin. And it shows us love victorious, love in the midst of suffering opening the way to the resurrection and the Kingdom of Heaven.

The cross stands at the heart of our faith. We need to forget our familiarity and just stand and gaze as the cross opens to us depths of love that we could never have imagined and can never put into words. The cross silences our theories and questions and explanations and holds us until we know that it reflects back to us both the truth about ourselves and the greater truth, the mercy, love and hope that God has made known.

“'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning.”

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