Sermon: Sunday 4 March 2012
The Very Revd Vivienne Faull, Dean of Leicester
Jesus takes his disciples to what were then the northern borderlands. To what is now the Golan Heights, and still the disputed territories between two of the most highly militarised states in the world, Israel and Syria. To what was then Caesarea Philippi. The name is significant.
The first part was the name of the Roman Emperor, Caesar, sometimes known as the living son of God, the self-styled saviour, protector and deliverer of his people. The second part is named after Philip, ruler of the region, lapsed Jew and puppet of the hated Romans. Philip’s wife went off with Herod Antipas, which led to the death of John the Baptist. So the name Caesarea Philippi represents all that was wrong with the way Palestine was governed in Jesus’ time. The town was also and still is, known as Banyas, after the Greek God Pan, who had a shrine there. So Jesus is in the borderlands the edge of Jewish faith and culture, the border with Gentile power and religion. And he is therefore at the heart of the question of where authority lies in Israel.
Immediately before the verses read in our gospel, Jesus asks those following him about that authority. ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Who do you say I am?’ And Peter says, ‘You are the anointed King Israel has been waiting for 500 years. You are God, present among us. You are the one who will restore the intimate relationship between God and his people’. Or words to that effect.
In Matthew’s gospel the story pauses there. Out in the borderlands between faiths, ideologies and political power blocks Jesus chooses this moment to found the church: saying to his closest follower then called Simon: ‘you are Peter. On this rock I will build my church’. It’s quite a Genesis thing to do as we heard in the first reading: ‘no longer shall your name be Abram, but Abraham, which means father of many.’ The man who, as Paul’s purple prose puts it, ‘believed in the presence of God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Romans 4). And next in Matthew’s gospel Jesus announces that he will give Peter the keys of God’s empire, the swipe card to the universe. Peter will become the one who, with divine power, is commissioned to bind and loose. It is extraordinary stuff: here the edge of the world has become, through Jesus’ call to Peter, the centre of the cosmos.
In this series of Lent sermons I am describing some of views of Christ’s kingdom, mapping the routes to God’s empire. At Caesarea Philippi, out on the edge of the known political and religious world, the disciples had their first glimpse of the new realm of Jesus, a realm spreading as far as their minds and hearts could stretch. And then Peter was handed the keys.
Let’s look at today’s passage from Mark close up so we see more of that kingdom:
It is clear Jesus and Peter are right out on the edge, and not just geographically. But on the edge of their relationship, in emotional territory they haven’t covered before. Peter took Jesus aside, and began to rebuke him, perhaps putting an arm around him, perhaps wanting to protect him. And the response was stark and dark. ‘Get behind me, Satan.’
This is the heart, the literal and literary centre of Mark’s gospel and Peter has just said for the first time: Jesus is Messiah.
And Jesus has told him to be quiet.
Jesus then says that the Son of Man must suffer.
Peter then silences Jesus.
And Jesus then silences Peter.
Here is a profound stand-off between divine and human authority, between Jesus and Peter.
There is no middle ground. At the heart of Mark’s gospel is this clear challenge.
There is no middle ground.
Peter must get back behind Jesus again; go back to being a follower, a disciple. Not yet a friend, a companion. The friendship would come though, after the tough training, the betrayal and denial, beyond the crucifixion and the resurrection, to a wonderful conversation featuring a lake shore, a camp fire and a shared breakfast.
But for the moment for Peter (and perhaps for Jesus) it must have felt like starting all over again.
Peter silenced Jesus. Jesus silenced Peter. I wonder when you have felt silenced. And I wonder how you found your voice again.
Jesus is right out on the edge of current religious thinking, particularly thinking about the hoped-for Messiah. He doesn’t want to risk being misunderstood so he talks not of the Messiah but of the Son of Man. Who must suffer. As must his followers. He talks of a very particular form of suffering. Crucifixion was inflicted by the Romans on the lower classes. On slaves, violent criminals and unruly elements in rebellious provinces. The condemned person was compelled to carry his own cross to the place of crucifixion. And the execution was always carried out in a public place, a crossroads, high place, or the scene of crime, as a deterrent. The equivalent of putting severed heads on London Bridge.
Take up your cross
It’s worth looking at the detail, as these phrases have become so familiar, so taken for granted.
‘Deny yourself.’ The context here is not Lent, and the challenge of giving up chocolate or alcohol. The context is the law court, and a defendant put on trial for their faith. The follower has to choose either to profess Jesus as Lord, or deny Jesus. And to profess Jesus requires self-denial to the extent of risking crucifixion.
I wonder if you have had to answer for your faith before the authorities?
In this Cathedral community, with members drawn here from across the world, it is likely that one or two really have risked their lives to profess Jesus as Lord. ‘Those who save their life will lose it’, Jesus continues. The rhetoric here is from the battlefield, from military commanders promising immortality to those who die nobly.
But Mark is not goading the disciples to military heroism. He is introducing the central paradox of the gospel. The threat to punish by death is the ultimate power of the state. Fear of death keeps the dominant power intact. By resisting this fear and pursuing the kingdom, disciples contribute to shattering the rule of violence and death.
I wonder if you have ever had to stand against violence?
‘For what will it profit them if they gain the world and forfeit their life?’ The text moves us on from the battlefield to the trading floor. To renounce Jesus, the argument goes, would be a bad investment, for even if it showed a return it would not represent a profit, but rather a dead loss. Faithfulness to Jesus literally has no price. This ultimatum will be acted out in the rest of the gospel. Peter vows self-denial but will scurry to save his life. The rich man who will turn away from Jesus’ call because of his wealth. Judas will betray Jesus for a small profit. Everyone has their price. Except Jesus. On Golgotha he will be reviled by his enemies for his commitment to save others but not his own life.
I wonder if you have had to choose between God and money?
Today’s gospel is edgy: out on the far reaches of the land it explores the far reaches of relationship and theology and allegiance. By pushing at the edges of the known it allows the shape, size, feel of God’s kingdom to be exposed. By pushing at the edges it shows the stark choices which have to be made if followers of Jesus are to resist the military power of Caesar, the corruption of Philip, the confusion of Pan.
I wonder if you have been to places on the edge which have given you a glimpse of God’s kingdom? I wonder if you have been faced with hard choices which pushed you to take time at the edge?
Some from our community are at Launde Abbey this weekend, on the edge of this diocese, for a time of prayer, discussion, and no doubt just a little feasting and laughter (of a Lenten sort). Some may be facing hard decisions, or hard questions. Launde is a good place to face them.
Another edgy place is at the heart of our city, where the Sisters of the Community of St Francis live in a converted pub in the heart of St Matthew’s council estate, surrounded by many of those who seek refuge in Leicester. The sisters sometimes join us here for prayer: they were here for the Friday Eucharist and asked us to pray for Catherine, who has also been worshipping with us at the Cathedral and has been testing her vocation with their community. At exactly the same time as the Queen arrives here at the Cathedral on Thursday, Catherine enters the novitiate as Sr Catherine Iona and begins the next stage on her journey to the edge and towards the kingdom. We hold her in our prayers, along with all those on the edge.
© The Very Revd Vivienne Faull