22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Readings: Ex.3:1-15; Rom. 12:9-21; Matt. 16:21-28)
As a Cathedral community we are particularly praying for the plight of all who are suffering in Iraq. On the news we have seen the photographs and videos of refugees fleeing across borders to escape the terrorists of the so-called caliphate; we have seen the gruesome and horrific reports of the atrocities perpetrated by these terrorists; from our very sheltered country, so blessed with peace, it is hard to imagine how our Christian brethren in Iraq endure or keep their faith amidst such horror.
In the final act of the darkest tragedy in our literature, King Lear, Shakespeare shows Lear, the ruined king, a deeply flawed and foolish man, at last reconciled to his faithful daughter Cordelia. It has taken great suffering and appalling losses for Lear to at last see through his blind follies, arrogance, pride, and embrace reality. In this moment of self-discovery and reconciliation, now bereft of everything he had previously thought important in life; Lear is strangely poised; whatever the future may hold he now looks toward a very different way of being in the world. Amidst the dark and corrupt world of the play, where violence and jockeying for power and influence are the norm, even in prison Lear and Cordelia will now live by a different understanding and inhabit a deeper reality, a different world. He says: (5.3)
… Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out,
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies
Lear is a changed man! For him now to live is to live very differently; all illusion shredded he sees reality so differently.
Now set Lear’s new understanding alongside our passage from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome where the apostle encourages his readers by reminding them of the Christian vision. When Lear says he and Cordelia will live and act “as if we were God’s spies” he summarises the Christian life and the Christian’s calling in terms that accord with Paul’s words.
Writing in the infancy of the Church, Paul speaks to us across nearly 2000 years and sounds just as radical now as when he first wrote: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them ... do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” Paul presents us with a different way of being in the world; a way of being connected to a deeper reality. But his letter is no abstract thesis, no spiritual manual, but an understanding grasped in the light that shines from the cross; and in that light everything is seen differently. It is Christ who sets the pattern of authentic living: who, on the cross, takes on himself the darkness, anguish, unreality and horror that evil presents – and overcomes it.
This is of course the issue at stake in the gospel this morning where Peter is rebuked. Peter has simply got it wrong and his head has lagged behind his big heart and bigger mouth. Of course Peter does not want Christ to suffer; we may be sure that Jesus did not want that either – but the great shaping purpose of God in creation cannot be achieved by short cuts, special passes or privileges. Reality has to be engaged with all that that entails – including the darkness that evil presents, its horror and fear.
Of course Peter says “NO”. Who wants that cross and all it represents? Who wants that much reality; that terrible glimpse into the abyss? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Like Peter we shudder and would turn away from it. We switch TV channels; find a book, potter in the garden, chat about the elections and ‘who’s in or who’s out’ (the world is full of diversions). Who wants that much reality?
I doubt that Moses wanted it either – and yet in the midst of his life God confronted him – and that place of encounter was holy ground and he had to remove his sandals and hear the great story in which he was now a part: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ We are told that Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Of course he was: who wants that much reality?
No sermon can account for the scale of human misery we glimpse in Iraq or presume how God may act; but even here, another world away, privileged and safe, we also snatch glimpses of human malevolence; may suspect the way our society favours affluence and power; we may even question our own self-centredness and failure to love. Yet the moments and places of our questioning, our searching and hoping are our ‘holy ground’ as the call to live differently resonates within us. As we respond we start to realise that the journey from illusion to reality is at the heart of the gospel: Christ shows us the way; you, me, Paul, Peter, Moses … and, yes, King Lear … we all follow in the way; God’s spies – all of us.