Homily, Sunday, August 27, 2017 at St Luke’s Memorial Church, Cleveland, TN
I’d like to thank Fr. Joel for allowing a mere layman such as myself into the pulpit. I know he doesn’t make the decision lightly, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
When I had a chance to sit down to look at the readings for this Sunday, I actually experienced a moment of chills. The passage in Isaiah 51 just happens to be one of my favorites in all of Scripture. Back in the day when it seemed an important thing to have a “life verse,” I frequently mentioned Isaiah 51: 1 and 2, but it’s really the whole chapter I love. In the three translations of the Bible that I keep near me, this chapter is the only passage with a marker in it – and it’s clearly marked in all three Bibles. So, I’m delighted to talk about it today, especially in reference to the other readings.
I’m going to read those first three verses to you again from the King James, not because I think the KJV is a superior translation, but because there is power in poetic language, and, for me anyway, Isaiah in the KJV packs a better punch.
Isaiah 51 King James Version (KJV)
1Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.
2 Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.
3 For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.
As Fr. Joel indicated last week, Isaiah 51 is part of that grouping, chapters 40-55, that comprise what OT scholars call 2nd Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah. Early Christian commentators were fond of referring to Isaiah as “the 5th Gospel” because of its many Messianic references and its focus on Divine salvation, but it was and continues to be revered in Jewish worship as well. Expressions from Isaiah have made their way into regular English usage, such as “the lion and the lamb,” “whiter than snow,” “man of sorrows,” and “swords into ploughshares.” Isaiah had a big impact on Georg Handel in the composing of the Messiah, on John Milton in writing Paradise Lost and on the memorable poetry of the English Divine, George Herbert.
But all of that is academic. What does Isaiah 51 mean and why is it so special to me?
If I can get a little personal here, at a period of my life when I was struggling desperately with my faith, it was a very dark time in my soul. Very dark indeed. I hold this particular passage dear because I have a very clear memory of the day I sat on my bed and read it for the first time. It was as if clouds within my heart parted and a powerful ray of sunlight shone through. The imagery about wastelands turning into gardens resonated with me very strongly, and seemed to point directly to the wasteland of my psyche. But the imagery that struck me most was that of being hewn out of the rock, of returning to the source, to the center of Being itself. For Israel, this meant looking back to God’s covenant with Abraham, and the miraculous birth from Sarah. For me, the image helped solidify what faith is all about, that my answers to life and being resided outside of the prison of the Self, that even the Self has a Source, and that Source is God. For me, this realization was a dramatic turning point. We are all of us hewn out of the rock, we are all of us sculpted from stone. We are all taken from the earth, but here’s the important part about that—as the reading in the Psalms said today, we are all fashioned intentionally for a purpose, as the work of God’s hands, like stones fashioned for a building.
This takes us seamlessly right on over to the Gospel reading, a famous and much talked-over passage in which the Apostle Peter makes the bold declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. To this day, controversy surrounds the passage where Jesus says, “I say to you that you are Rock (Aramaic Kepa, Greek Petros, from which we derive Peter), and on this The Rock (Greek taute te petra), I will build my church (Greek ekklesia) and the gates of Hades (Aramaic Sheol) will not prevail against it.” Whole denominations seem to rise and fall on what the “this” before “the Rock” is referring to. But I’m not going to talk about that.
I really don’t want to get into the fracas over Peter and the Keys of the Kingdom. That’s because there’s an element of this particular reading that is largely overlooked and I’d like to bring it to your attention. It’s in the innocuous part that says, “When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi…”
One might assume from the matter-of-fact tone that Jesus and his disciples, known for wandering around Galilee and its environs, just sort of strolled over into Caesarea Philippi, more or less in the natural course of getting from here to there. But the truth is Jesus was as likely to wander into that district as someone from this town in southeast Tennessee would be to just wander into Boston, Mass. It was a two-day trek north of Galilee near the base of Mount Hermon, in some pretty rugged country. And it was far outside any regular Jewish traffic. There was no city there at the time. It was, in Christ’s day, a remote Roman administrative outpost surrounded by a few scattered villages. But it was famous in the region for its Greco-Roman nature shrines dating back to when Alexander the Great came by there. In Jesus’ day, a brand-new temple honoring Caesar had just been completed up there, which is why its name had been changed to Caesarea.
This all begs the question, what were Jesus and his disciples doing there? Why would he even go there? The two Gospels, Matthew and Mark, that mention this story offer no explanation. But there are a few interesting contextual items.
The first item may be nothing more than a curiosity, but it’s worth noting. The main attraction at Caesarea Philippi was a very large, spooky cave, and inside the cave was an abyss that ancient travelers thought was bottomless. All they knew was that there was rushing water down there, some kind of spring. Greek tradition allegedly called the cave the Gates of Hades. The face of the mountain on which the cave opened was called the Rock of the Gods, and at its entrance, the Greeks had erected a shrine to the nature god Pan, a shrine that the Romans had preserved and expanded. Even in Old Testament times, this had been one of the infamous “high places” that were always needing to be swept clean of shrines to idols like Baal. For Jews in Jesus’ time, the history of the area had always been a dark, idolatrous one. But it did have one larger significance for the people living in Palestine—those rushing waters in the depths of the cavern? Those were actually part of the headwaters of the River Jordan. And it was possible, not far from the cavern, to find an overlook from which you could see the Jordan Valley spreading out towards the south—basically the traditional land of Israel.
The connection with the god Pan is curious because it’s during the life of Christ that a mysterious oracle in the Roman Empire loudly declared that Pan had died, something pretty unheard of. Gods in the Greco-Roman pantheon just didn’t just up and die for no particular reason. I don’t want to dwell on it, but the death of Pan in connection with the birth and death of Christ was made much of in Christian circles later, repeated first by the church historian Eusebius in the 4th Century and made even more famous in English literature by Edmund Spenser, John Milton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in turn. GK Chesterton elaborated on it in some length in his very influential book The Everlasting Man.
But let’s put Pan aside for now. Here’s the larger point. Many commentators assert, I think correctly, that Jesus was careful to arrange his messages in settings that served to amplify his words, often in more than one sense. One can almost see him gesturing around him as he spoke, applying powerful visual reference points for his thoughts.
So, it seems to be the case that, echoing the passage in Isaiah 51, Christ takes his disciples to the source of life for Israel itself, the Jordan, and in so doing he connects his own divine mission to so many images from the history of God’s salvation of his people, from the creation of humanity from clay, to Abraham and Sarah bringing forth life in their old age, to Moses bringing water from the rock in the wilderness, to unlikely miraculous deliverances from captivity in Egypt and Babylon, right on down to Christ’s own unlikely virgin birth. There’s a thread here, and Christ is careful to follow it through. It is precisely in the context of that thread that the pronouncement of Peter—Simon Rock, if you will—not only makes sense but becomes appropriate, as if on that day Peter is standing in for us, the Church, effectively translating the very idea of Divine deliverance from bondage into our own understanding, as today’s church, where we are tasked with spreading a deep and abiding understanding of deliverance from a full spectrum of human bondages, whether they be physical, political, psychological or spiritual.
And that brings us to a practical application in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, in Chapter 12, and the conclusion of the matter. I’m a big fan of the Disney/Pixar movie The Incredibles. Toward the beginning of the movie there’s a classic line, with the super hero Mr. Incredible uttering an all-too-understandable complaint. He says, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!”
As fallen human beings, we have a propensity for getting back into jeopardy, into bondage, often through “things done and things left undone,” as we pray. And then there’s those things that happen beyond our control that threaten to take us to the very mouth of Hades. In spite of the powerful work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, we seem to have a habit of losing our way. Daily life has a tendency to batter us, even when conditions are pretty favorable. Life in general may be good, but by the time we’ve digested the daily news, dealt with difficult co-workers, and managed matters both great and small in our households, it’s easy to gain a lot of distance from redemption. We see all that’s around us through our own limited and sometimes troubled lens, a lens we often assume other people are seeing through, but the truth is, they can’t, and we blame them for being selfishly short-sighted enough to look at the world through their own personal lens and not through ours. It’s very disappointing in them, isn’t it?
Our lenses need constant refocusing. Romans 12 reminds us firmly not to be conformed to the spirit of the age, the spirit that lives in bondage to its appetites, its pride, its hatred, its wrath, its selfish preoccupations… but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is good and acceptable and perfect. The Greek for “perfect” is “teleion” and means more specifically “perfected,” “completed” or “having achieved wholeness.” It’s a process word, and Paul is enjoining us to find our sense of completion in having our minds renewed, which is another process word “anakainōsei” that Paul may have invented, basically “starting afresh again.”
That concept of starting afresh takes us back to Isaiah 51. Starting afresh in this instance means going back to the source, to that Rock from which we were quarried, to that pit from which we were dug, to the purpose for which we were chiseled out of creation itself by God, each one of us. And Christ and Paul give us the key for how to get there, how to overcome the Gates of Hades, and that is to Be the Church, the Ekklesia, the assembly of believers who bring to one another the gifts we have been given and redeem them in one another’s presence, through worship and repentance.
I don’t know about you, and I am not here to tell anyone what to do. But for me, the Eucharist serves as that refocusing lens, that re-centering on the good and acceptable and perfect, that reordering of the mind along lines of redemption and deliverance and grace. The Eucharist is the key that so many times has unlocked that door for me. But the sense of redemption and deliverance I experience in the Eucharist isn’t meant to be a solely personal thing. It achieves its fullest realization in Ekklesia, in the Church, which is why the Lord’s Supper is the breaking of bread, not in solitude, but in community. The communion is with God … and with God’s people, with you, in other words. It sounds simple, but time and time again, it’s the simple things that are the most beautifully true, as the lovely Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” says,
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning, we come ‘round right