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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Identity and authority (A21O)

As I was thinking over the readings for next Sunday, especially the gospel, I heard them in the shadow of last Sunday’s gospel, for which I once heard an excellent homily from my friend and colleague Fr. John Durbin. He said that he lifted most of his ideas from John Shea’s book, The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year Aabout the cycle A gospels in Matthew, but even if he did, they were ideas that really need to get out into the air, because they ring true, and people haven’t heard them enough.

Here’s the thing I was thinking, for what it’s worth. In Sunday’s gospel, we have the story of Jesus asking the disciples the question, “Who do people say that I am?” “What are people saying about me?” is another way of saying that. And I think that most of us have in mind that Jesus knows who he is, and he’s just sort of “testing” the apostles to see if they know, and of course, Peter answers with the big theological affirmation and gets the tiara. But what if Jesus doesn’t know the answer? What if he’s “advancing in wisdom, age, and grace” as the gospel of Luke put it, and figuring it out as he goes along, as one might expect a human person to do, as one of us might do? “Blessed are you, Simon son of John, because no human being revealed this to you.” That’s another way of saying, “Great is your faith,” which echoed last Sunday’s gospel, which got me onto this thing of identity. If no human revealed it, then it came from God. Faith is the gift of God. So those statements are very similar in meaning. What do Peter and the pagan woman that the apostles tried to shoo away last week have in common, and what do they have to do with Jesus’s emerging self-image?

The pagan woman who approached Jesus last week knew who he was. She was pouring herself out for her daughter, so she was “like God,” who is agape. She knew, better than Jesus, apparently, who he was too, calling him “Lord” (that is, one with power) and “son of David” (knowing him as both Jew and king). Jesus protests that his gift is only for his own, that, in the words unhappily sung since in the hymn “Ecce Panis Angelorum,” “the bread of the children shouldn’t be thrown to the dogs.” (Does anyone else find it woefully ironic that the only part of this dialogue that made it into the church's eucharistic sequence for Corpus Christi, the "Lauda Sion Salvatoris," is the line, "Vere panis filiorum/Non mittendus canibus"? In fact, in this case at least, Jesus was wrong about that!) The intrepid woman, overflowing with love for her daughter and knowing that God’s power would flow from this stranger, appeals to her milieu—“Lord, even the dogs eat what drops from the children’s table.” You see, in pagan households, the family dog(s) roamed the house freely, but in Jewish households, one had to go outside to take the scraps to the dogs, because the dogs were not allowed into the house itself. She’s saying in effect, “your house, or my house—you can take the food outside to me, or let me in to take it from you, I’ll do anything.” She sees, and he doesn’t, that God shows no favorites. In fact, Jesus says to her, “Woman, you have great faith,” which is to say, “I can recognize in your words the presence of God, a presence that I know well.” And he does what she asks. He changes. She changes him. It struck me, too, how this story is related to John’s Samaritan woman story, another story of the frontiers and borders between people, of risk, and of mutual life.

So in this Sunday’s gospel, we have Peter giving the answer to a question that Jesus himself doesn’t know the answer to, and Peter clearly doesn’t know what he’s saying, as we’ll see in next Sunday’s gospel. Peter doesn’t get what involvement with the God of Jesus means for leadership and destiny. Peter sees “son of the living God” and “the anointed (christos)” to mean that Jesus has a destiny like Herod’s or even Caesar’s. He misidentifies God with the emperor, a mistake multiplied over the centuries of the Church’s love affair with Constantine, Charlemagne, and the courts of Europe. Caesar is interested in borders; God’s interest is in reconciliation. Caesar rules by oppression; God rules by invitation and shared good. Caesar rules by victory; God rules by justice. Jesus realizes quickly that neither Caesar nor Herod is going to be interested in the reign of God, and that the powers of earth are going to line up against the God of life and justice. Jesus further knows and trusts that God is God, and Caesar is not, and not even the power of armies and death can staunch the flow of life into the universe.

But the link between rule and service is yet to be learned by Simon and the rest, and there is still time. It’s a new beginning, and Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas, or in Latin, Petrus. The new “Peter” will learn, over the period of a couple of decades, the lessons Jesus learned from the pagan woman on the frontier. He, too, will die at Caesar’s hand on a road outside the city, and in a strange reversal of fate that we have come to take for granted as a sign of divine favor, the humiliated Jew, crucified upside-down by the power of Rome, is remembered by a Basilica on the Vatican hill that is a symbol of the faith of billions of Christians who have followed in the faith of Jesus. Learning the way of the God who is agape, who teaches leadership through servanthood, will become the stumbling-block, skandalon, and school of discipleship for Christ’s followers as long as the sun shines. Maybe longer.

This Sunday at St. Anne -

  • Gathering: Dan Schutte's "Glory in the Cross." At some masses, we’ll use Tom Conry’s Psalm 23, “God alone may lead my spirit,” which translates well the Vulgate’s “regit”, “pastures me” or “rules me.” The shepherd-lord cares for me; nothing is lacking.
  • Psalm 138: On the Day I Called (Cooney) We’re using the refrain, “Faithful God, we praise you for your love; do not forget us now.” It’s a good prayer for today’s scripture - teach us, today, to know you as you are and not as we want you to be. Bend us, conform us to Christ the servant.
  • Gifts: Lead Me, Guide Me. "You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God." So I think it seems appropriate to sing "Lead Me, Guide Me" after making our confession of faith with Peter. If I weren't going to be away at a wedding this week, I think we could have also used Tom Kendzia's song, from the same collection, Change My Name,” his adaptation of the spiritual, so we could sing with St. Peter, “I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name!”
  • Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (GIA, Cooney-Gelineau) Ugh, I know, I don’t deserve to mentioned in the same sentence with the great Jesuit liturgist and musician who passed away on 08/08/08 at the age of 80 or so. But as I’ve mentioned before, I used his tune for the 23rd psalm verses with a new refrain that I wrote to celebrate my pastor’s, Fr. Jack Dewes’, 40th anniversary of ordination, a celebration of servant leadership. I hope, in the long run, my refrain and arrangement holds up well against Père Gelineau’s gorgeous and simple music.
  • Closing: We Will Serve the Lord. Enough said, I hope. “Ya gotta serve somebody,” says Bob Dylan. “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody.” May we learn quickly and thoroughly, and be changed into Christ for the world.