“Jesus, you’ll be the death of me!” Lent 2B

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Who can blame Peter for remonstrating with Jesus about his perceived “death wish“? Peter sounds so thoroughly modern in wanting to avoid suffering.
I wonder what Peter and Jesus would say about our multi-billion industries driven by our denial of the realities that life includes suffering? Longevity, Youthfulness, Beauty, Leisure, Comfort, Entertainment, Sensual and Sexual fulfillment. We want it all and now. “And How!”

The modern attraction that the ancient religion of Buddhism has for so many in the West, intrigues me. Yes, I know that many of the “Buddhists” I meet are merely parroting their favourite film stars. Any halfway intelligent question quickly exposes this, like, “So what school of Buddhism are you a member of?“, or “What is your core practice?
So discounting the fad-trendy Buddhists, it remains interesting why Buddhism has become a fascination for many in the West.

Could it be that Buddhism does not try the Petering move of avoiding suffering?
The core teaching of Buddhism is grounded in the four noble truths which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, stress)
  2. The truth of the origin of dukkha
  3. The truth of the cessation of dukkha
  4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

Coming to understand these enobling truths, Gautama Buddha, the founding, historical character in the religion was guided to enlightenment by confrontations with what he called “the heavenly messengers“; old age, sickness and death.

He didn’t have a Peter to dissuade him, he had a Prince of a Father who tried to shield him from ever seeing suffering until the the day he got out of the pleasure palace and saw  an Old person(old age), a Leper(sickness), and a Corpse(death). Those “sights” caused him to renounce his life of pleasure and become a mendicant beggar searching for “insight” and ultimately enlightenment.

I am not sure these events from the Buddha’s life which preceded Jesus’ life by five hundred years, are so very different from what Jesus was trying to get across in Caesarea Phillipi.

Jesus, in the Roman town where politics oozed from every stone and symbol had just been been associated with the longed for Messiah of Israel. Realizing the socio-political weight of that association, all the expectations and projections placed upon that role; he commanded silence and then began to suggest that the path to true liberation leads through a confrontation with human suffering.
There is a cross, not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Only through the portal of embracing the reality of death is there any hope for born-again(resurrected) life.

Peter, bless him, wouldn’t see it.  Jesus’ rebuke acknowledges that it is human, but not helpful, to avoid the cross.

We cannot speak of Jesus as messiah without speaking of Jesus as Crucified
The power of the cross is not merely the bloodletting, it is the willingness of the crucified one to be scapegoated in the machinations of mankind and never to stop loving those who are destroying him.
Only when we can be with suffering in this way will it redeem us.

René Girard has been so helpful in my understanding of this.

He suggests we need a special way of seeing the suffering for it to transform us.
To learn this, let’s eavesdrop on Archbishop Cauchon in the epilogue of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924). Here is a conversation between two churchmen, one of whom, de Stogumber, is speaking of the traumatic effect upon him of witnessing St Joan’s martyrdom:

DE STOGUMBER: Well, you see, I did a very cruel thing once because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing: you must see it. And then you are redeemed and saved.

CAUCHON: Were not the sufferings of our Lord Christ enough for you?

DE STOGUMBER: No. Oh no: not at all. I had seen them in pictures, and read of them in books, and been greatly moved by them, as I thought. But it was no use: it was not our Lord that redeemed me, but a young woman whom I saw actually burned to death. It was dreadful: oh, most dreadful. But it saved me. I have been a different man ever since, though a little astray in my wits sometimes.

CAUCHON: Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?

You see, it is frightfully clear that if we cannot imagine a crucified messiah, and follow him onto, and faithfully through, the cross, we will simply continue to create suffering for others.
Imagine who we could be if we would follow Jesus daily all the way to the cross?

Mazeltov! You are suffering! – All Saints

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I suppose it is somehow significant that since my sublime school days I have seemed a sucker for alliteration.
What is it in the way those similar sounding consonants cascade that makes them most memorable?
It also seems an easy way to get people to remember things. I will often be asked, “What was the third “P” in your sermon last Sunday?”

So forgive me if in my digging over of the text of the gospel for All Saints, I was intrigued by the alliteration in the Greek text of the Beatitudes.
According to the classic Matthew five text, Jesus says to the disciples who come to him when he has sat down on some raised ground, “Blessed are the…

Ptochoi (poor), Penthountes (grieving), Praeis (meek/humble), Peinontes (hungry)

More modern translators suggest Makarioi not be translated “Blessed” but rather that “Congratulations!” would be more in order. Who knows perhaps in the spoken moment it might have been “Mazeltov” that came from the Rabbi’s mouth?
Also quite recently (a decade ago), the Jesus 2000 Seminar decided that the most authentic core of this teaching is probably “Congratulations, you poor!… Congratulations, you hungry!… Congratulations, you who weep now!…”
Congratulations? Blessedness? You must be joking!
These are the very conditions that evoke commiserations. To congratulate poor, hungry, grieving people is surely only to mock them? It is an affront to all that is decent and polite.
Yet that seems to be what Jesus says. What could he possibly know that we can’t see, which makes him say something so counter intuitive?
Is it possible that Jesus knows what Buddhists have also observed? That acknowledging sufering can lead to a place where suffering can end. In the life of the Gautama Buddha he experienced old age, sickness and death as what he later named, “the heavenly messengers“. Those confrontations with the less than perfect events of life which, if skilfully understood and held, may in fact lead to a perfection far greater than the false perfection that we focus on so obsessively in trying to avoid suffering at all costs.
Congratulations! Mazeltov! You who are experiencing the anguish of humanity stand at the doorway of God’s domain.
Step inside your frailty and you will find a greater freedom and perfection than any avoidance behaviour can promise.

  • Ptochoi
  • Penthountes
  • Praeis
  • Peinontes

Why, that might just be perfectly liberating!
All the Saints I have ever known or read about knew this secret.

Now you do too.