Sermon for Proper 19
St John's, Decatur--Mark 8:27-38
Every year, when Holy Week rolls around, one of the things I look forward to is the opportunity to sing some of my favorite hymn texts. Many of these are about 1,500 years old. They were written by a sixth century Latin poet named Venatius Honorius Fortunatus. All of you, I would imagine, have sung at least one of the three feast day versions of the hymn Hail thee, festival day—there’s one for Easter, you know, and also one for Ascension and one for Pentecost. That’s one of Venatius Honorius Fortunatus’ hymns. You may also know the Easter hymn Welcome, happy morning, also one of his. But the ones that really tug at my heartstrings are typically used either on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. They speak of the cross, and Jesus hanging on the cross, in ways that are self-evidently profound. These lines are from #162 in our hymnal:
Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old;
How God the nations’ King should be,
For God is reigning from the tree.
O tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear.
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of Glory now.
Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price which none but he could pay
To spoil the spoiler of his prey.
And then there are these matchless verses from #166:
Faithful cross! Above all other,
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be.
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory,
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a while the ancient rigor
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
Gently on thine arms extend.
Having me just read these lines to you doesn’t really do them justice. Singing them, however, particularly singing them in their proper context, is another matter, and many times I, who am not by basic temperament a crier, have been moved to tears doing so. To sing about the cross, an instrument of shameful death, relaxing its natural rigor in order to “gently” bear the “King of heavenly beauty” evokes in me sighs too deep for words.
And if you need something more visual than poetry to really poke you where you can feel it, consider the really strange but rather common image of the Christus rex—Christ very much attached to a cross, but instead of wearing only a loincloth and suffering in agony, he’s wearing the eucharistic vestments of a priest, and, quite often, with a crown on his head, and not a crown of thorns, but a golden crown with jewels. This is actually a visible representation of what the Holy Week hymns of Venatius Honorius Fortunatus are talking about.
But there is here what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t add up. How can such poetry and such sculpture be taken seriously? We know what death on the cross is really like! It’s brutal, it’s ugly, it’s sweaty and bloody. There isn’t anything glorious about it, unless you’re a psychopath. Nobody reigns from the cross. Nobody who’s crucified is clothed with fine vestments, or crowned with gold. To speak of Christ reigning from the cross, to speak of the “sweetest wood” of the cross and the “sweetest iron” of the nails, defies rationality. Whether poetic or visual, it’s an image that makes no common sense; it’s absurd. It doesn’t represent anything that has ever happened or ever will happen.
That’s utterly true, of course, when we try to apprehend such things literally. Yet, from the proper perspective, from a position of faith, from a place of openness to mystical truth, nothing could possibly make more sense. Understood mystically, the Christus rex represents the highest possible order of truth. It’s all a matter of one’s position, one’s perspective.
As we join Jesus and his disciples this morning way up north in Caesarea Philippi, well outside their usual bailiwick of Galilee, and even further from Jerusalem, the Apostle Peter and his colleagues are having a similar problem with cognitive dissonance. They’ve been following Jesus around for a good while now, and they’ve seen his growing popularity and increasing public visibility. They have high aspirations for him, and for themselves when he comes into his Kingdom. They’re like volunteers who attach themselves to an obscure political candidate whom they hope has big upside potential, thinking that they might land prestigious jobs in the administration if the candidate is elected to office. Then Jesus throws a wet blanket on everything: He “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Peter is cheeky enough to rebuke Jesus—just the way a political operative might dress down a candidate who goes off script—Peter rebukes Jesus, and Jesus then rebukes Peter’s rebuke, using some rather emphatic language: “Get behind me, Satan!” Yeah, Jesus called Peter “Satan.” That had to sting. But it’s the “get behind me” part that we should be focusing on, because Jesus is inviting Peter to change positions, to adopt a different perspective, in order that he might see more clearly and understand more fully—just as when we set aside our literal eyes and begin to use our mystical eyes, the poetry of Venatius Honorius Fortunatus begins to not be irrational or absurd anymore, but to make perfect sense. And the position that Jesus is inviting Peter to assume is that of a disciple. A disciple follows the master, and is there lined up behind the master. “Get behind me, Peter, where a disciple belongs, and you will see that my talking of suffering and dying and rising again is not silly or distracting, but is a deeper truth than you have ever imagined.”
Some of you may know this already, but I have a reputation as a bit of a picky eater. I do eat many vegetables now, but all fruits and creamy sauces and most salads—all but one, actually—are still in my no-go zone. But, I’m a lot better than I used to be. There are many things that I now love, that for years I thought I didn’t like and wouldn’t eat. The right set of circumstances came together, and I was encouraged to try these things, and eventually developed a taste for them. Many of you, I’m sure, could say the same thing—if not about food, then a make of car, or a neighborhood, or a style of clothing, or something else. We announce our distaste for it, but somebody challenges us with, “Have you tried it?” Do you know it as an insider? And once we try it as an insider, it all comes together. It meets our needs. We like it.
The whole enterprise of Christian faith is just like that. As long as we have mental reservations, as long as we hang around edges, as an outsider looking in, there will be cognitive dissonance. The cross of Christ is abhorrent foolishness to us. Religious practice is meaningless ritual. Nothing makes us more uneasy than being asked to talk about spiritual matters, and nothing is more boring than public worship. Venatius Honorius Fortunatus is just a blithering idiot. A Christus rex is a pretty relic that means nothing. Jesus comes to us this morning and says, “Get behind me. Change your point of view. Get a new perspective. Line up behind me where a disciple belongs. Then it will all begin to make sense, and you’ll wonder why it took you so long.” My friends, we know the glorious mystery of God’s redeeming love when, and only when, we assume the position, and the vantage point, of a disciple.