Sermon: Sunday 13 September 2015
Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Who do you say that I am?
During the summer, after an event for Leicester’s hospitals in the Cathedral, a Sikh man came up to me in the Cathedral and demanded to know where Jesus was. Why wasn’t there a big statue of him, and why wasn’t there a really big cross right in front that he could see. I gently pointed out to him the cross above the Cathedra and told him how that had been put there for exactly that reason of the lack of a cross, but he wasn’t having it. Too subtle. What he really wanted was a cross on top of the Nicholson Screen, which actually would recreate the medieval ‘rood’ or cross which people flocked to in pilgrimage in the late 12th Century. I tried to explain to him how the altartable continually makes Christians present to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but, not surprisingly that passed him by.
This week I’ve been with most of the Cathedral clergy, away on the Diocesan Conference where our subject was Jesus: Who do you say that I am. Isn’t it Interesting that its two weeks running we’ve had lectionary readings so strikingly appropriate to us – last week it was the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman when we were focussing on the plight of Syrian refugees.
Thomas Tangaraj, an Indian NT scholar who was our main speaker, reminded us that we needed to hear Who do you say that I am in the light of the question which comes shortly before it. Who do people say that I am? So its important to hear the question of the Sikh. But I think that listening to Thomas it became clearer that we need to be able to hear the voice that comes from a different place and speaks very differently about Jesus without being threatened by the fact that they are not emphasising the things we might want to hear first to reassure us that its going to be alright. And not judging accordingly.
At another point, when we were celebrating our final eucharist and invited to respond in different ways to the Road to Emmaus reading, I went to a session where we were invited to listen deeply to one other person and to look for the presence of Christ in them. It gave me a wonderful experience of seeing and being seen with a Pakistani priest and it put me back in touch with one of the people who has most profoundly seen me and shown me Christ in my whole life.
Another speaker reminded us of the two stage healing of the blind man ‘first he sees objects like trees’ – that is in fact the context for the scene at Caesarea Philippi and the question of how we see Jesus. Peter’s ‘getting’ that Jesus is the Messiah, but then so clearly not getting how Jesus is the Son of Man when confronted with Jesus teaching that to follow him will be to follow one who will go to his death before any kind of glory, and that when glory comes it will not be human glory as known through celebrity or empire. All of us need moments of recognition of where we have not been seeing Jesus clearly but that now we are called to move deeper in and behave differently, rather than resting simply and comfortably with our previous experience of him.
One of the things we need to see afresh in this passage is where Peter confesses Jesus Christ as the Messiah. It’s not in some cosy private gathering of the disciples, but rather it’s in Caesarea Philippi. It’s not facing east in a church building, but at the heart of the Roman Empire to whom Jesus being and teaching is a threat, named after Caesar and the local governor Philip, near a local cave called ‘the gates of hell’ (as Matthew’s version reminds us) where Pan, the goat god was said to be born. He presided over wild pagan worship. We’ve been reminded about the sort of cost which witness to Christ can involve through some of the atrocities committed against Christians in recent months and years. Beheadings, shootings, acts of arson, bombings.
This is not our context, though we can’t rule out that it might be one day. But we are called, like the people in those situations, to be witnesses, which is of course the root word for martyrs. I was reminded of this yesterday on the ride and stride round Leicester’s churches, on the back of Mike Black’s tandem. We stopped at the Church of the Holy Martyrs. It may like to call itself the church of the tomatoes and they’d just finished their Tomatoes shared breakfast when I arrived. But their windows portraying St George, William Tyndale, William Wilberforce and David Livingstone speak to their name. There was one window left blank along that wall and the church member who greeted us said that they’d thought about commissioning another stained glass martyr for their 150th anniversary, but had decided to leave it clear as a sign that we’re all called to be witnesses, to be martyrs
What’s the last situation we wanted to happen – where have things gone most wrong? Well, that is the very place where we need to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Harriet Harris spoke at the conference of how we are called to follow Jesus into his dying and rising, where we committed to go in our baptism. Or to put it into another language, we need to trust the God of the gaps, the one who comes to meet us at the very point of our own vulnerability and lack and reveals himself there.
But how does being prepared to die with Christ equate with ‘denying’ ourselves. How are we to understand this from a God who becomes one with us to affirm our humanity. Does it mean that we’re to ignore what makes us tick, stop looking to understand our calling given the person we’ve been created? That we have to do what we don’t want to do all the time?
An American scholar, Karoline Lewis, suggests that we might take it as ceasing to take ourselves autonomously, stopping seeing ourselves as self standing isolated individuals in our own little bubbles. ‘That is,’ she says, ‘you deny your selfhood when it rescinds relationship. You deny your autonomy when it refuses community. You deny your individualism when it rejects intimacy.’
Instead we’re to understand ourselves primarily as beings in relationship, and a relationship determined by our following Christ. Are we relating to the other as one who is part of the body of Christ along with me? Do we see the stranger as one who Christ has died for, made in the image and likeness of God, one who Christ came to love and to save just like me.
So, we need to take to the cross the times when we try to stay in our own isolated bubble because we think that we don’t risk loss and rejection or conflict there. We’re under the illusion that this is a safer place to be when of course it is what cuts us off from life and health and peace. Instead, those are the very experiences we need to take to the cross – the places of loss and rejection, the places of failure and disappointment, the places of conflict and misunderstanding which need the healing touch of Jesus and which are able to open us up again to community and intimacy.
This is the picture given us in Isaiah’s portrait of the suffering servant who prefigures Christ. One who listens deeply to God and out of that intimacy is able to speak as a teacher. One who ‘gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.’ This is the one who can say, discovering the presence of God in his suffering, ‘7The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;’
Jesus takes it further. ‘Whoever seeks to rescue his life will destroy it. And those who destroy their life for the sake of the Gospel will rescue it.’ We usually translate these save and lose but these words are just as valid. Abandon the Titanic, head for the lifeboats. What might our Titanic be? They said the Titanic was an unsinkable ship but in fact looking back it was deeply flawed in ways as simple as the quality of the rivets. What might be the dearly held belief about ourself that is in fact just that, a myth, and one which stops us from seeing what needs to change. It might be very different from unsinkability – it could be the opposite in fact, or that we can only trust ourselves – but it’s something we cling on to. It always takes a step of faith to leave a deck and put our faith in what seems like a tiny boat. The Titanic famously hadn’t provided enough boats, because they didn’t think it could sink, but we can be secure in the knowledge that if we are only prepared to step out, there are always enough lifeboats in the economy of God (through Jesus Christ). What is your myth? Why not bring it to the place of safety where we are about to gather, where all the lifeboats have been prepared, where Jesus brings us with him with his community through death and into resurrection.