Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
The Second Sunday of Lent – Year B
One of the true joys of working with teenagers and young adults over my thirty-two years of teaching has been their complete unwillingness to tolerate fraud and hypocrisy: they can smell it miles away. This means that when you’re speaking with them—especially about important and ultimate things—they require complete honesty and absolutely no equivocation whatsoever. They seem constitutionally incapable of tolerating evasion, and they will always ask: Why? Young people literally demand to know the truth—“the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as they say. So, the exchange between the teacher Jesus and his student disciples at Caesarea Philippi in this morning’s Gospel reminded me of many such exchanges between me and my students in the religious-studies classroom. One question leads to another question, until we finally get to the heart of the matter. And things are never what they first appear to be. Nothing should be taken at face value.
In the ancient world, a temple was not just a place for sacrificial worship. It was also a bank, a market, and, most importantly, a classroom. Teaching was one of the major activities of temples in the ancient world, and, as we know from the Gospels, Jesus himself was no stranger to holding forth in the Jerusalem Temple. In fact, the bulk of all four canonical Gospels consists of the teacher Jesus instructing both his disciples and the public at large, often through the literary device of the parable, a common rabbinic practice of his time. So, there is nothing unusual about the story of Jesus teaching his disciples outside a temple in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Mark.
What is very strange—even jarring—about today’s Gospel, however, is to find a Jewish rabbi with his circle of Torah students teaching among the Gentiles in a major Greco-Roman city, and just outside that city’s famous Temple of Pan, which is the setting for this morning’s Gospel. It was a major pilgrimage site for the Gentiles of the region and, if you visit the actual place in the Holy Land today, you can still see the remains of this temple and easily imagine the very odd juxtaposition of this Jewish rabbi, with his circle of Torah students, holding forth in the midst of Greek teachers of philosophy—with their coteries of students—in the precincts of a pagan temple. And yet, this is no accident. Saint Mark is setting the stage for the contrast of two competing versions of the ultimate truth, and you and I today are as much his intended audience as the original community for whom Saint Mark wrote. He is presenting us with nothing less than a direct confrontation between what we would characterize today as secular wisdom versus sacred truth. And standing right at a center of the dominant, Hellenistic culture’s received wisdom and worship, Jesus uses the tried and true Socratic method of questions and answers to go right to the heart of the matter: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer: “John the Baptist; and others Elijah; and still others one of the prophets.” All true enough and worthy answers to the question. But, like every good teacher, Jesus wants to know what they think. “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. And, as usual, the bumptious Peter gives him the correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” Now, if this were the game of Jeopardy, the bell would ring, and Peter would get the money.
Well, as you and I know, this is not a game of Jeopardy, and the stakes here are much higher and more important. At issue is nothing less than the substance of Pilate’s famous last question to Jesus; a question that has reverberated down through the ages; a question that still haunts and perplexes us to this very day: “What is the truth?” In this instance, Peter has given the right answer without fully understanding any of its implications. Jesus is indeed the “Messiah,” God’s “anointed one,” but he is not the expected warrior-Messiah who would drive the Roman overlords from the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael, and secure the triumph of Jewish national ambitions. The messiahship of this Jesus of Nazareth will consist of the “suffering servanthood” described in detail by the holy prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible: a messiah marked by utter rejection; humiliating death; and abject dereliction for the sake of and as a representative of God’s holy people Israel. And, in complete accord with the teaching of the Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples that this messiah’s murder will be followed by “resurrection from the dead”: the destined and final vindication of all those innocent victims of murderous violence—in every age—who go to their daily deaths “sanctifying the holy Name” of God, what Jewish tradition since the time of the Maccabees has called “Kiddush HaShem.” What is new here and in striking contrast to the conventional wisdom of the day—Jewish or Gentile—is Jesus’ teaching that : “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” But that’s not the end of the matter, because the rabbi Jesus, a word meaning “my master teacher,” like every great teacher, ends his clarifying discourse not with an answer, but with a provocative question: “For what will it profit anyone to gain the whole world, and forfeit [her or] his life?”
Now, that is the great question, isn’t it? And that’s the question that Jesus, the “Messiah” of God, puts to each one of us every single moment and day of our lives concerning everything we do—large and small. What does it profit you or me to gain the whole world and lose our eternal destiny as a child of the living God? And if I really and truly believe, like Peter, that Jesus is the “Messiah,” “a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of his people Israel,” according to Saint Luke’s Gospel, am I willing to take on the burdens and responsibilities of “suffering servanthood” in a developed world gone mad with religious extremism, terrorism, materialism and conspicuous consumption, while the “have not’s” die in their thousands as a result of genocidal war and famine and environmental degradation every day? When the Jesus of the Gospels is so very clear and unequivocal about the “cost of discipleship,” why am I always so surprised when Jesus presents the bill in the circumstances of my daily life? I guess that’s why it takes God a whole eternity to make us true disciples of the “Messiah” of suffering love. And maybe that’s the reason why some today—even Christians—recoil at the sight of the body of the crucified one hanging upon a cross: it’s not a price that we are naturally inclined to desire or to pay. And yet, as we read in the Letter of James, it’s “the royal law according to the scriptures.” Perhaps even Pilate had a fleeting intuition of this truth after all when he insisted that a plaque identifying the crucified Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” hang over his sacred head in the three languages of the day.
So, what’s wrong with Peter’s answer to Jesus’ provocative question? Why does Jesus “rebuke” him so sternly, going so far as to call him “Satan”? If Jesus were to put the very same question to each one of us this morning, would we—all pious and orthodox Christians—not answer him in very similar terms? I know that I would.
Clearly, the accuracy of Peter’s statement is not the issue in this morning’s Gospel; the problem is its glibness and conventionality. Do Peter and you and I really and truly understand the full implications of declaring Jesus Christ as “Messiah” and of following him as “Lord,” especially in the unprecedented context of our time and place? In this holy season of Lent, are we preparing ourselves for participatory atonement in Christ’s Paschal mystery by taking up our Cross to follow him, perhaps even to lose our life for “the sake of the Gospel” as those twenty-one Coptic Christians did at the hands of the so-called Islamic State on the Libyan shore two weeks ago, confessing their Christian faith at the very moment of their brutal murder? Who is Jesus for us actually? I think that is exactly what Jesus is asking Peter and you and me in today’s Gospel: to put what we know and affirm with our mind—that Jesus is the “Messiah”—into our heart. And that placing of the mind in the heart is much more difficult than simply testifying to it with our head, as Peter does in this morning’s Gospel, because it defies the conventional wisdom of our day and our secular age as much now as it did then. Jesus the “Messiah” is asking us to
lose our life to gain it;
to take up our Cross every day;
to embrace a life of “suffering servanthood”;
to hope—in the face of all evidence to the contrary—in the “resurrection of the dead” and in Jesus Christ, the “first fruits” of that risen life.
Only the life of prayer and the grace of the sacraments can lead us to these things.
These affirmations and this agenda were complete nonsense to those Greek teachers and students of philosophy outside the Temple of Pan in Caesarea Philippi; they were not easy or well-understood even for Jesus’ closest and most ardent disciples; and they are no easier for us today in the so-called Information Age. Perhaps this is why Saint Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great ancient teachers of the Church, wrote to a student: “The trouble with philosophy is that it is always in labor, but it never gives birth.” And yet, as a graduate of a theological seminary, I’m not sure that modern theology is really any better than philosophy. But I do know for a certainty that the life of prayer, together with the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, at least places us on the road to morality and wisdom—even “Holy Wisdom”!
When we leave this church this morning, we will be stepping into one of the preeminent “Caesarea Philippi’s” of our own day, full of temples and teachers of so-called wisdom and ethics. And as a teacher for many years, and as an alumnus of several of these very temples of learning, I am not disparaging secular knowledge. Yet, I also know that, for those on the spiritual journey, there can be no stopping there. If “fear of God is the beginning of true wisdom,” and if Jesus the Christ is an incarnation of “the Way and the Truth and the Life,” then we will need to enroll in the “school of love” found in a life of prayer and discipleship; in the Holy Scriptures; in the sacramental life of the Church; and in the local Christian community, the Body of Christ in the world.
Let us pray, then, on this Second Sunday of Lent, for the grace—and for the strength and courage—to follow what Saint John Paul ll called “the higher Gospel” of suffering love for God and our neighbor. And above all, let us pray for the guidance and the grace of the gift of prayer—always placing our mind in our heart—that we may come on the Great Vigil of Easter to the knowledge and the joy of the risen Lord Jesus: who was and who is and who is yet to be; the Alpha and the Omega; the Beginning and the End.