Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 3, 2017
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 17A
My Friends: During the many years of my tenure as a religious studies teacher and chaplain at an independent secondary school, my students would, from time to time, ask some very thoughtful and provocative personal questions. And because I taught courses not only in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also in such eastern religions as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism, my students knew that I had a wide-range of knowledge and interest in the contemporary expressions of these many world religions. I even once quipped in the classroom that I have never met a religion that I didn’t like!
So one day, a student asked me why I had “chosen” Christianity for my own spiritual journey. It was one of those great moments in the classroom when a very pointed question awakens considerable thought rather than a ready response. I told the young man that I would ponder his question and reply in due course. And the student was comfortable with my postponement because he knew that I would eventually answer his question: it was neither the first nor the last time that I would think carefully about an issue before responding in a glib or superficial way to a student’s question.
Over the next week or so, I did, in fact, think about little else besides that question: Why had I embraced the Christian revelation, especially in this age of globalism and pluralism when you can practice almost any of the world’s great religions with depth and integrity—especially here in the northeastern states? Along with churches, mosques, and synagogues of every denomination, there are Hindu temples and ashrams, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, Baha’i communities, Buddhist Insight Meditation centers, Quaker meetings, progressive Sufi brotherhoods, Taoist temples, and Confucian Societies aplenty. And then there are the legions—especially in these parts—of those claiming to be “spiritual, but not religious,” many of whom are enjoying their Sunday newspaper with coffee and a bagel even as we worship in this church this morning.
So indeed, why be a Christian? Or, to be more precise, why embrace the rather outrageous claim that God, the creator and master of the universe, entered completely into human reality in Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant, first-century, Galilean rabbi, to suffer and die on a Roman cross as a result of malice and misunderstandings concerning his “good news” about the dawning of the “kingdom of God”? And if that decision were not improbable enough, why believe that this same crucified Jewish sage and alleged Messiah—“a perfect sacrifice for the whole world,” (BCP) in the language of our liturgy—destroyed forever the power of sin and death through his “resurrection from the dead…the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep”? Can it really be true that this crucified and risen Messiah is really present to his disciples in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist—food in the wilderness—as we continue his work in the world through the power of God’s Holy Spirit in his Church? Could this morning’s Holy Eucharist really be a foretaste of the “Messianic Banquet” in the risen life of the world to come,” when “God will be all in all”?
As I pondered these questions, I came to realize that the answer is contained in those very claims. Of all the great world religions, the Christian revelation is the only one to affirm categorically that God actually suffers in us and with us and for us. It’s the cross, stupid, I thought to myself, through which God in Christ shares deeply and intimately in every suffering and tragedy of human life, transforming them through love and solidarity with the human condition. In the words of emeritus Pope Benedict, “…the Cross is not the banner of death, sin, and evil, but rather the luminous sign of love, of God’s immense love, of something we could never have asked, imagined, or expected: GOD BENT DOWN OVER US!” And so, by wrestling with and loving my student’s question, I had stumbled upon my answer.
The centrality of the Cross and Resurrection to the Christian faith and life is the whole thrust of this morning’s Gospel. Peter, who has just affirmed that Jesus is the “Messiah, the son of the living God,” is not very keen on the prospect of a crucified Messiah. Like us, he doesn’t mind a risen and glorified Christ, but he chafes at the prospect of an ignominious crucifixion. He is so upset, in fact, that Saint Matthew tells us that Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’” Yet Jesus knows, in the words of the hymn, that “there is no crown without a cross,” and that the mercy of God is hidden and embedded in human suffering. So Jesus, in a scene reminiscent of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness immediately following his baptism, now “turns” on Peter and rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Like most of us, Peter just wants to dwell in a perfect world of peace, justice, and glory in which there is no pain and suffering and tragedy and death, what Jesuit Father William Barry calls “the just world hypothesis.” Peter, like us, finds it difficult to live from day to day with a “tragic sense of life” in the corrupted currents of this imperfect world. But that is simply not the way things are: we are living in an unfinished creation and an unfolding historical process that is still moving and evolving toward the perfection God intends, together with the vindication of the righteous that will come when the Father “will repay everyone for what has been done.” And Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the warrant and proof of that hope and that promise. All of the righteous will share in “the life of the world to come” for, as Jesus has promised “in my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, the Cross of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story, but it is an integral part of the story—of your story and my story. Jesus is very clear about this in this morning’s Gospel as well: “If any want to become my followers,” he tells Peter and the others, “let them 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 find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” As Christians, we know that the only way past suffering is through suffering—our own, and in solidarity with the pain and suffering of others. As the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote, “Authentic human life begins on the far side of despair,” and as the great Hasidic Rebbe Nachman said, “there is nothing in this world so whole as a broken heart.” Who can be alive in today’s world and not suffer daily with our fellow humans and, even, with the planet itself? And sooner or later, in large and in small ways, we will all find ourselves on that road to Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” there to wrestle with dereliction and a sense of abandonment by an often hidden God. But we will hang there with the knowledge that God in Christ has been there before us, and that “God raised Jesus from the dead.” That’s why you and I are here this morning; that’s why we are Christians! So, once more, in the words of emeritus Pope Benedict:
“We too must face anew the ‘today’ of suffering, of God’s silence—we express it so often in our prayers—but we also find ourselves facing the ‘today’ of the resurrection, of the response of God who took upon himself our sufferings, to carry them together with us and to give us the firm hope that they will be overcome.…Let us lay our daily crosses before God in our prayers, in the certainty that he is present and hears us…May the prayer of Jesus dying on the cross teach us to pray lovingly for our brothers and sisters who are oppressed by the weight of daily life, who are living through difficult moments, who are in pain, who have no comfort. Let us place all this before God’s heart, so that they too may feel the love of God who never abandons us.”
So, in answer to my former student’s question—and, perhaps, to yours as well—this is why I have embraced the Christian faith: Because of the holy Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have hope and trust that the mercy of God is hidden and embedded in human suffering. The Christian faith is, for me anyway, the only great religion that finds meaning and redemption through the universal experience of human suffering. In the words of the psalmist today, “my eyes are set on your steadfast love; I have set my course by it.” AMEN.