Thursday, June 16, 2016

The 12th Sunday of the Year: 2016

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms— never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him. –The Brief Rule of St. Romauld

If any man would come after me

The English poet, Stevie Smith, who never managed to abandon or accept her childhood Anglicanism and called herself 'a lapsed atheist' complained in one of her poems:

            Oh Christianity, Christianity
            Why do you not answer our difficulties?

            Oh what do you mean, what do you mean?
            You never answer our questions.

Whatever else you might say about that, Christianity is the most questioning religion there is.  Fides quaerens intellectum: 'faith seeking understanding' so said Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. It may well be the case that we do not understand or like the answers because it is faith which does the seeking. But we are not the only ones to have questions; Jesus has some questions for us as in the Gospel this Sunday.

“Who do men say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” and an answer to a question which is not asked “who are you?”

In the first three Gospels this set of questions is a turning point in the life of Jesus. Jesus has acted like a messiah and you would have to be pretty dense to miss his messianic credentials. But messiahs are a dime a dozen. So the question is what kind of messiah? So important is this question that St. Luke prefaces it by telling us that Jesus prayed alone. This is St. Luke’s habit. When the heavens were about to open during Jesus' baptism, when Jesus was about to begin His public ministry, when He chose the twelve apostles, at the moment of His transfiguration, and on the Mount of Olives before His Passion, Luke specifically tells us that Jesus prayed. And so today's Gospel is on a par with these great events in Jesus life. The question of who Jesus is is the fundamental question. It is only once Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Christ of God, that Jesus is able to reveal His mission to His disciples: the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Peter gives, we think, the right answer: ‘you are the Messiah of God” Unlike St. Matthew’s account St. Luke does not mention any congratulations given to Peter: nothing about being blessed or being the rock of the Church because Peter’s image of the Messiah remains an Old Testament one.

Peter’s understanding of the Scriptures had led him and most of his contemporaries to expect the Messiah to be a triumphant king, who would liberate God’s people from political  tyranny, especially the Roman occupation.  But Jesus needed to teach the apostles to see His mission in a much harsher light. The Messiah would fulfil the role of the Suffering Servant of the Lord, as prophesied by Isaiah. He would be despised, rejected, suffer a cruel death, but would rise triumphantly from the grave. “Messiah’ is a term so easily misunderstood that Jesus forbids his followers using the term: ‘he charged and commanded them to tell this to no one’.

Whatever the crowds may say, whatever Peter and the other followers may say, Jesus knows who he is: “Messiah crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”.

It is at this point that things get really interesting and inconvenient. Jesus answers the unasked question: who are you. There is a kind of Christianity which imagines that once we know who Jesus is and profess our faith in that Jesus, then we have done all we have to do and Jesus will take care of the rest. But Jesus insists we have to become like him, be rejected like him, die like him, if we want to be raised like him. Faith must embrace fully conformity to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

Who are we anyway? Sigmund Freud maintained that man had received in the last few centuries three wounds to his pride; first he realized that the earth and its inhabitants were not the center of the universe; second that man himself was simply the product of blind biological processes; finally that reason, man’s greatest pride, was just the result of the survival of the fittest. That is a pessimistic view, which has nothing in common with the uniquely optimistic view of man found in the Gospel.

Rejection, self-denial, carrying crosses certainly sounds pessimistic but it presupposes that we have the ability to choose and that there is a choice to be made: “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it”.

If any man would come after me

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