Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 13 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Prov 1:20-33; Ps 19; Jas 3:1-12; Mk 8:27-38

There’s an interesting theme that runs through today’s readings, about speech, about words and their meaning. It does not, admittedly, get off to a terrific start. In some of the Hebrew scriptures and later Jewish writings, Wisdom—Sophia in Greek—is a fascinating, subtle and complex figure, one whom John aligns with Christ the Logos in the first chapter of his gospel. But Proverbs is a book mostly of improving advice of a rather socially conventional nature, and the personified Wisdom seems to be raising a voice in the public square in order to impart ideas such as “Don’t lend money to irresponsible people,” “listen to your old parents,” and “women, amiright?”

James is also tending, in this particular passage from his letter, towards basic good life advice—though it must be said that it is good advice, to which we could all probably stand to pay more attention. I am fairly confident that not one of us is entirely innocent of using our powers of speech both to bless God and to curse human beings made in the image of God. It is one of the hardest of our damaging habits to give up, and it doesn’t seem likely that any of us are going to succeed entirely; but we must be aware of this, we must be constantly attending to, and repenting of, what we do in word as well as deed. Because words have meaning, and words matter.

But It is with the gospel reading for today that we get to the heart of this, because it is, to a large extent, about speech and words. What, asks Jesus, are people saying _about him? What are the words they are using, how are these words shaping their understanding of what is happening, what all this means? And what of the disciples themselves? What of their words, their choices of speech? What do you _say?, he asks.

This episode comes almost exactly halfway into Mark’s gospel, and it is a turning point. Until now, Jesus has been a mysterious, powerful, cryptic worker of miracles, whose identity has been uncertain and, often, deliberately obscured. The only beings who seem to recognize him are demons, and he is constantly exhorting both demons and people to silence. But now it is time for the disciples to speak. It is time to start shaping this experience in language—and how it is shaped will be unexpected. It will place Jesus, as he himself clearly knows, on an inexorable road to death outside the walls of Jerusalem.

The first word comes from Peter. It is fair to say that at no point in any of the gospels is Peter particularly distinguished by his ability to refrain from speech. The other disciples are probably sitting there thinking, I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it. Peter is, as he always is, the one who rushes in, and the one, in this case, who seizes upon a word. The word Messiah, mashiach, anointed one. It is a word which has a great range of possible meanings, and Peter is probably not wholly sure what he means by it. Simply someone consecrated by God for a special purpose? More likely, some version of the eschatological Messiah, the one who will usher in a new era of history, or an era beyond history. A triumphant military leader? A Davidic king? The one who will bring in a new time of joy and peace and intimacy with God, when all nations will worship the God of Israel? When, perhaps, the dead will be raised? All of this is floating around the word, and none of it is very clear.

And in Mark’s version of the story, Jesus treats this not so much as either a right answer or a wrong answer, but as a word which is not, at least at this point, to be said out loud. Obviously a powerful word, or there would be no need to insist upon silence. A word which may hold a good deal of truth, but also a good deal that is not true, or at least misleading. And, as far as we can tell, not a word that Jesus himself ever chose to use of himself. Here, as often elsewhere, he replaces the word maschiach with the even more ambiguous words “Son of Man”—_ben adam_ in Hebrew, bar’enos in the Aramaic which Jesus and Peter probably spoke, huios tou anthropou in the Greek of the New Testament. Son of Man; or Child of Humanity perhaps. The words can, and often do, mean simply “a human being”, but there are also Jewish writings in which the words indicate a stranger, more apocalyptic, figure, a figure, seen by some of the prophets, who hovers at the verge of human and cosmic possibility. These are the words which the Word himself chose, when he spoke of himself.

This is the first recorded incident in which Jesus attempts to take the containers which are these strange words and put meaning in them. To say that he has come, not to be a warrior or a king, not in triumph, not as a power competing on the field of the powers—instead, he has come as one who bears the weight and duty of infinite love, who will accept in his body all the abuses which power can hand out—betrayal, humiliation, torture and death, extrajudicial execution on a piece of wood—and rise again to say that this is not the end, that power will not finally prevail. To speak words which are language restored to the fullness of meaning, words which are a call to life. Peace be upon you. Do not be afraid. Mary.

Peter rejects this immediately, tries right away to talk Jesus out of it, to turn this story in some other, more triumphant direction. None of the disciples will be able to accept this, in fact, until they have lived it through to the end. And that is, probably, the main reason that Jesus, consistently in Mark’s gospel and most of the time in the others, does not let anyone call him “Messiah.” They cannot understand what that word means, not now. They will not be able to understand until they have made it to the end, until they have seen the forces of empire raise the Son of Man on a cross, seen the body placed in the tomb—and seen the tomb empty, heard again the beloved voice.

Losing your life for the sake of Christ, taking up your cross, these are difficult phrases, and they have often been misused. All too frequently, they have been used to exhort people to accept abuse and unnecessary, human-created suffering. They have been used to encourage the kind of self-denial that is rooted in self-hatred, in self-harm. None of this is what Jesus intends. Our calling is something truer, more living, if no less difficult. We are called into an identification with Christ himself, just as he, the child of humanity, identifies himself with the pain and loss and fear and suffering of all humanity, all the small victims of the world, as he himself goes down into the dark so that the darkness too may be filled with God’s presence.

We cling so hard to that little knot of ego which we think is our life, our self. We defend that clenched little false self as countries “defend” their borders against refugees; we defend that little self from others, from those who are strange or threatening, from those who would demand what we do not want to give; we defend it both from suffering and from self-surrender, from experiences which make us feel dependent or vulnerable or needy ourselves. We defend the little self from the burden of love—real, accurate, painful love. We defend the little self from the knowledge of our own mortality, the knowledge that we will end, and that we share this with all God’s creatures, evanescent, beautiful and temporary. We defend that little self so effectively that we can never get beyond it, and so we do end there, losing in that knotted defensiveness that greater life we might have had.

But the gospel calls us to begin to unclench that knot, to lose that little false self into something more, to recover our selves more fully and more truly in that loss. Sometimes part of that is exactly those small acts of verbal discipline of which James speaks; sometimes simply holding back the cruel thing which the self-involved ego wants to say, speaking kindly when there is no personal satisfaction in doing so, is a little death of the false self, a baby step into sharing the love that is God’s life. Sometimes it is allowing into our awareness one person who makes us uncomfortable, one need we must address. Sometimes it is a call which demands our full devotion, a vocation to an artistic practice—which, as some of you know, is a stringent vocation which requires many sacrifices—or a vocation to the work of care and nurture of the world’s many children, including the adult ones. It may be something like the sacrifice made by Sister Megan Rice, an 85-year-old nun who recently completed two years in prison for her protest against nuclear weapons. Or it may be just the long work of loving the people around us truly, as who they really are, not who we want them to be.

Whatever shape it may take, it is that losing of self which gives us back our being, our language, which gives the word of our lives their meaning. Which leads us beyond the field of power which is death, into the morning of possibility.