Sermon by Fr Brian on Sunday, September 16, 2018
Context is king. Have you ever heard that expression? The context for Jesus’ words today is a location, a place called Caesarea Philippi. A guy named Philip was a local ruler in the first century. He built himself a capital city, and he wanted it, and himself, to look impressive to the rest of the Roman empire. He named it Caesarea Philippi. No ego there.
Caesarea Philippi had all the amenities of a Roman city. Temples to the gods: symbols of power, wealth and sexual pleasure. A wide main street for soldiers to march on. And a place for the ruler to live, everything around him in its proper place.
It’s with this place in the background, as the disciples crests the hill coming into town, that Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s standing in front of symbols of someone else’s power that Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
Imagine these words in front of the Cenotaph at Memorial Park, or in front of the Hospital. Imagine Jesus asking, “Who do people say that I am?” in front of Town Hall, or beside an intersection full of elections signs. Or on the site of the old Foundry or one of the mills in the area. In front of one of our churches?
How does Peter get it right, and then wrong in almost the same breath?
“Jesus, you are the Messiah”: Ding, ding, ding, cue the applause, right answer.
But then, almost right away, Jesus is saying “Get behind me, Satan!” Fail. Epic fail.
Why does Peter see things so clearly, and then so completely miss the point? Peter’s having trouble understanding how Jesus can be the Messiah and lose the battle. Those things have never gone together before. Peter would never expect a suffering Messiah. Perhaps Peter is caught up in a vision of himself as victor triumphant, standing up there on the Olympic podium with Jesus the Christ, leader of the tribes of Israel. That vision of himself, if that’s what is getting in the way, is more dangerous to Jesus’ mission than all the scribes and Pharisees, Romans and Sadducees. It’s no wonder Jesus wants to get this right before they go any further.
How we hear Mark’s Gospel today depends on what we believe Jesus means by denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him. Many of us will hear this in economic terms. We’re relatively rich by world standards. But Jesus was talking to the crowd, many of whom were already living hand to mouth. So, I don’t think he means “buy less stuff, take up your cross, and follow me.”
Healing people is one of the things Jesus does constantly and consistently in this gospel. Jesus just came from healing a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. He clearly wants people to be healthy and whole. So denying the needs of the body is not where he was going with this. Jesus just released a little girl who was possessed by a demon, so the state of souls – spiritual, psychological, social: these are all of concern to Jesus.
What’s left? What other aspect of ourselves is there left to deny? Our ‘selves’ means our identities. How we see ourselves. I think that might be closer to what Jesus is suggesting we need to release and invite God to recreate in God’s image.
Think about those times when we are challenged to the core, when it feels as if life is slipping away:
- The devastation of losing a job
- Coping with the loss of a spouse
- Watching your child leave home
These are crossroads in life when we are forced to redefine ourselves. Our core identities are challenged. Mark’s gospel is saying that the life of discipleship, following Jesus, is about willingly surrendering that core identity and finding a new life in the death of Jesus.
Some of you may have read books by Thomas Merton, an American monk. Merton is recognized as a writer, theologian and mystic. He was also a poet, a social activist, and a scholar of comparative religion. One of his most influential works is his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.
I found this reflection online, on a blog by a pastor named Christopher Brown:
“As Merton shares his life story, it becomes apparent while he’s studying at Columbia that his false-self is the self that wants to be a famous writer. He works on two novels which never get published, spends all his time in literature, and writes book reviews and stories for periodicals. Once he gets to the monastery, he thinks he’s left that false-self behind, until his superior starts assigning him translation and writing projects:
“By this time I should have been delivered of any problems about my true identity. I had already made my simple profession. And my vows should have divested me of the last shreds of any special identity. But then there was this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister. He is still on my track. He rides my shoulders, sometimes, like the old man of the sea. I cannot lose him. He still wears the name of Thomas Merton. Is it the name of an enemy? He is supposed to be dead.”
The Seven Storey Mountainby Thomas Merton, pp. 448-449, Harcourt (1998)
“He’s admittedly confused: Merton thought he gave up his prideful pursuits only to enter a monastery where he became a bestselling author. What was God doing with him?”
Thomas Merton’ life follows a pattern that seems to be what Jesus is getting at, what Jesus wants for his disciples and the crowd.
Denial of one’s self
Seeking a greater good
Discovery of the true self
What would you and I be asked to deny about ourselves? Being church leader or a priest? Being a parent? Being someone of influence in this community?
How might God use us if we weren’t so concerned about preserving ourselves? The only way to find out is to do what Jesus suggests: to pick up our cross and follow him.
Not to get too hung up on language, but Jesus invites followers to deny themselves, not necessarily to stop being themselves. Sometimes it’s not about abandoning our identity at the side of the road. It’s about asking our ego to get out of the drivers’ seat for a while and sit in the back so that our true selves can take the wheel.
Jesus isn’t asking for token denial of the things we like, but for a complete surrender of who we are in service of the realm of God. This is his way, the way of the cross. Christians at the earliest time were called people of the Way, and this is what they were referring to. This Way of the cross leads to the fullness of life, a life God wants for all God’s children. To follow Jesus in this way is to set aside other visions of ourselves, and to pursue who we really are, and who we might really become.