Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-It can be no coincidence that Mark (8:27-35) places Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death at Caesarea Philippi. Built by Herod the Great in honour of Augustus, self-styled ‘saviour’ of the known world, and seat of power of his son Philip Herod, this city reeked power and world wide influence. It is there that Jesus questioned his disciples about his identity, making clear that his power was not like that of worldly rulers. His style clearly shows that he wanted to demonstrate his continuity with the story of God and Israel, his ‘chosen people’, and to insist that he is God’s final word on that long journey of redemption. The upshot of his questioning is that Peter acclaims Jesus as the Christ, the one Israel was awaiting. But it immediately becomes clear that Peter, like so many in Israel, was thinking in worldly terms. This Christ or Messiah should be a warrior leader, strong and backed by a powerful army, powerful enough to throw the Romans out of Palestine. Jesus’ prediction of his terrible and ignominious death smashed through all their worldly fantasies, deliberately setting a completely different pattern of kingship, messiahship, based in the relationship of utter self-giving and impotence which is God’s way of being human in Jesus. God, who is always and entirely creator of the world and its continual sustainer, does not show his authority by throwing his weight around in the manner of earthly rulers, but acts precisely by throwing power aside. God who can truly compel offers humanity the ultimate gift – absolute freedom – in which to choose to accept him or reject the gifts he offers. Perhaps only one so truly divine, so other, so powerful, could act with such folly. Redemption is God’s great throw of the dice for a creation he ultimately trusts to recognise the truth.
Our reading from Second Isaiah(Isa 50:5-9) indicates that this has always been God’s way. Written during the 6th century BC and the Babylonian captivity, it is part of that great collection of Suffering Servant Songs for which this writer is duly famed. In its original meaning the Servant represented the nation personified, as it suffered for the failings, and exile of its wayward people. Christian generations naturally related these pieces of heart rending prose-poetry to the sufferings of Christ in redemption of the world. The best known is of course Isaiah 52-53 which we always read on Good Friday, but the dignity and humility of our passage too stands out as a vivid reminder of that long journey to God which will reach its culmination on Calvary with the crucified Christ. This is the story of God’s revelation to his people, the story of a humanity which finds it near impossible to believe that God could do this for us, and in consequence remains so much in need of Christ’s redemptive action. Our poem wonderfully captures the persistence of the servant with face set like flint, and the need for continual review of the evidence amidst the certainty of God’s vindication of his Beloved.
This I think is the message we can find in James today. (2:14-18) What becomes clear here is that there is no room for armchair Christianity, or perhaps put more prosaically Sunday only Christianity. It simply will not do to turn up on Sunday for the show, the Mass, swallow the sacrament and then leg it until the next time. James is insistent that faith in Jesus is to be made visible and active when the believers’ everyday behaviour shows forth the Christian message by some works of mercy or actions on behalf of others. The previous weeks actions of the people of Germany towards refugees has amply demonstrated that their faith, or at least their Christian heritage, has borne fruit. Perhaps the strong support offered by many British people in condemnation of our government’s refusal of asylum cases is even now demonstrating that a people largely indifferent to ‘politics’ has the capacity to be moved to respond when needs be. We carry within us daily the utter scandal of the cross and celebrate it daily in our Mass, and it must be this that we live by, this that penetrates our souls daily. We cannot afford ever to be comfortable with our faith, for it was forged in the foolishness of God, in the scandal of the cross, for a people he loved way beyond our deserving. If our actions in his name do not grate with the powers that be, then we will have failed to live as his beloved and redeemed children.