Thursday, 17 September 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 13th September 2015, St Mary's Cadogan Street, SW3

Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8.27-35)

Jesus is not interested in public opinion, or chatter, theories or ideas. It comes down to this: Who am I to you? What am I to you? St Peter replies, “You are the Anointed One”.
This is a vast statement. We, of course, filter his answer through centuries of speaking of Christ, as if it were a surname, or even of the Messiah, by which we can tend to think of an emissary from heaven to bring our times to their fulfilment and their end.

But Peter knew he was saying far more. He rejected the idea that Jesus was a Prophet, even the greatest like Elijah. Nor was he a prophet like the much loved and inspiring John, even though they were cousins from related families. He did not say that Jesus was a king, because the monarchy in Israel at the time was a foreign dynasty and a puppet government of the Roman Empire. Nor did he say that Jesus was a priestly figure, because, while the Temple was the Temple and the law required the People to go there and offer sacrifice and the priests had sacred duties to perform, the functionaries there had long since lost touch with the people’s life and faith, as Jesus’ satire, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with its unflattering portrait of Temple priests and Levites of people with neither purpose nor respect, powers to be worked around rather than powers that manifested the Kingdom of God.
Peter simply says, “You are the Anointed One from God” (cf. St Luke’s account). He is expressing the ancient faith of the Hebrews, long discarded by the priests and the kings in Jerusalem, that God not only visits His people but dwells in their midst with power and wisdom and brilliance. He does not speak to them only in texts and Scriptures, or govern them with laws and authorities. He is present to them, He stands before them and they stand before Him. They worship Him with both love and recognising insight; while He bestows on them light and joy, and help and blessing. Most of all, He bonds with them.

This is how St Paul will soon be writing, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8.39) and also, “It is not I who live but Christ Who lives within me.”(Galatians 2.20) It is how Jeremiah wrote, “They will be My people and I will be their God.”(Jeremiah 32.38) It is how Job was able to reflect, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. In my flesh, I shall see God … Him and no other.” (Job 19. 25f.)
To Peter, Jesus stands on the earth, close to the springs of Caesarea Philippi. He sees no priest, king or prophet but God His Redeemer, the one the country and the desert people had been expecting for centuries, the living manifestation of God With Us. In the ancient first Temple on the mountain in Jerusalem, it used to be that the successors of King David were bathed in fresh water, anointed head to foot in perfumed oil, and clothed in white array, before entering the Holy of Holies as the highest and greatest embodiment of all God’s People, taking them with him on his heart, and conscience and his very life into the very place of God’s Presence. There he was enthroned in light, and acclaimed as God’s own adopted son, united with Him in the Spirit and the exaltation of heaven. He would then descend, not bringing his own majesty, but bestowing blessing, forgiveness, healing and the power – as Jesus would later put it in His own prayer – the power to live in God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Ancient kings were looked on as somehow embodying the coming of God into the world. But here it was for real in what St Peter saw before his eyes in that moment of truth beside the clear waters: “God’s Presence and His very Self, and Essence all divine.” (Cardinal Newman, Praise to the Holiest in the height, from The Dream of Gerontius)
The question, “But you, who do you say that I am?”, is one that will not go away. To people who think themselves modern and developed, He is just the founder of another world faith. We have heard it all in this week’s debate in Parliament on whether it is right and moral to assist someone in the termination of their lives. We are hearing it echo in our national dilemma over how to allow immigration manageably and yet also respond to the desperation of our fellow human beings who are fleeing towards us for their lives. We hear in the exchanges of the markets, where humanity is not only the customer, but a commodity and in some cases a loss.
If Jesus is just a great human spiritual leader, we are free to form our judgment and follow him or not accordingly. But if He is God, God with Us, then there are consequences, because what we are saying is that this is not just a pious belief, but the way the universe is actually arranged. God is everything. We stand in order before Him, the One from God Who has brought to us the principles of how the Kingdom of heaven is arranged, not the realms of this world.
In the end, as so often with how Jesus speaks, the question and the story is not actually about Himself, but about us. He is in fact asking us, “Well, now you know Who I am, what does that make of you? Who do you say that YOU are?” The word Christian does not just mean a follower of Christ. It also means someone who has been christened: someone who, like Christ, is an Anointed One, someone from God.
In other words, can I be what Peter saw in Jesus so clearly in that moment of truth beside the waters? Am I a door for the sheep or a block to the Kingdom? Am I one who comes into church, washed in baptism, anointed in chrism and united with the Lord on His throne of brilliance, consumed with His own Body and Blood, only to come out somehow without being the living embodiment of His joy, His blessing, His reconciliation, His peace, His truth, His forgiveness, or the hope of His Kingdom? Am I Light of the World, or one who just wants the light shining on me to turn away, while I prefer to carry on untroubled in the dark?  This is not just about doing good, or better, deeds. It is about a state of being: “Who do you say that You are? If I am Christ, so too are you.” What would happen if we could recast that verse of Cardinal Newman’s hymn:
O, that a higher gift than grace – to me!Should flesh and blood refine – mine!
God’s presence and His very Self – in me!
And Essence all divine – that God may be seen through me!

The prophet Micah tells us to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.8). This truly is the way to the Kingdom and we keep the path clear and well lit by treading it. But ours is not a meek and mild faith, and nor is our following after Christ. The Kingdom is awkward. It does not fit the world, and the world does not fit the Kingdom. That is why Christ came to it with light, with truth, with love to reconcile what has gone wrong to what puts it right. The Lord Who healed, inspired, revealed and transformed water into wine, and death into life, is also the Lord Who opposes what he encounters, Who turned over the tables in the Temple, Who rebuked Peter, cursed the fig tree, and was such a figure of contradiction that He was put to death on the Cross.

So, when the Lord asks us, “Who are you saying that you are?” and we reply, “Christians, Anointed Ones, the ones who follow You, People from God”, we remember His answer: “Well that means renouncing yourself and taking up your own cross too.” Then if, like St Paul, we get to the point of saying, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me,” it is not because we have shed some light and joy, hope and reconciliation, and blessing in the world. It is because what shines through is a person who is Christlike not by virtue or religious prowess, but because everything has been penetrated by the cross of self-giving sacrifice and unconditional love toward God and to all. If that is Who I say Jesus Christ is, then that is what I say I am to be.

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