Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost 13 September 2009 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 19B/Ordinary 24B/Pentecost 15 Textweek

Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

The ‘who do people say that I am’ question that is posed by Jesus in today’s gospel can be seen as an opportunity for us to reflect on our identity, to contemplate who we are, who am I; to contemplate who we are in the sight of God, who we are in the community of faith. And it can be a challenging contemplation as Peter found out in the gospel narrative. It can also be world-changing, and again in the gospel the whole Messianic expectations of the Hebrew people, the very vision of their faith, is turned inside out: a people with an expectation of the Messiah, that whole vision is changed. A new worldview is introduced and so too is the identity of those in the world.

"Who do people say that I am?" As we look at this question for ourselves, the two preceding readings are amazingly appropriate. In the second reading, James introduces the debate of faith and works – being and doing, so appropriate as we look at ourselves both individually and as the church. Do we identify ourselves by what we believe, and/or, do we identify ourselves by what we do? ‘What do you do for a living?’ is perhaps the most common question when meeting someone new for the first time, when establishing a new relationship, and it can be quite sobering to realise how much of who we are is actually established by what we do. The story of Mary and Martha would engender a quite different appreciation in its original hearers than it does to the present day listener.

The first reading from Proverbs begins, ‘Wisdom cries out in the street’, and you wouldn’t be alone in asking, ‘who on earth is wisdom?’ In our Western, Roman Christian tradition the figure of wisdom is little known and consequently of little significance. However, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Wisdom (Σoφíα, Sophia in the Greek), is an important person or symbol in their theological appreciation, just as it was in ancient Greek philosophy. The church of Haggia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom in Constantinople was the largest cathedral in the world for over a thousand years. Philo of Alexandria, who influenced the early Christian movement, sought to harmonise his concept of logos, (the word), with Sophia, (wisdom). In the mystical theology of the Eastern Orthodox church wisdom is understood as the divine logos, the divine word who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. Wisdom, Sophia, becomes Christ. You’ve got to ask what have we missed out on? Why have we not been shaped in the ‘Sophia” tradition? And we might ask, have we been deliberately shaped with the omission of the Wisdom tradition?

Wisdom (Sophia), in the Roman tradition and in the Eastern tradition is seen as a feminine personification of the Divine, and so maybe, just maybe in the Roman tradition she did not fit in with the patriarchal formula of Father and Son. If we follow that, maybe there’s another one: maybe we too have been shaped by a distorted image of the Divine, not just individually, but culturally and sociologically. Do women continue to receive, on average, lower wages than men because men are more valued as imaged in a Divine who is also personified in a masculine form?

It’s interesting when you start to ask where do the energies of shaping ourselves and our culture, where do they come from? As we contemplate the very simple question asked by Jesus -“who do people say that I am?”- not only are we looking at who we are but we also question our very understanding of the Divine.

The context of today’s gospel reading in relation to the overall text of Mark’s gospel is also quite illuminating, and maybe there’s an indication there of its significance. Both before and after today’s reading, there are stories in which Jesus heals a blind man, two quite different stories. The first of the healing stories is quite unusual in that after Jesus’ first attempt at healing, the anonymous man can only partially see; but after a second attempt, his sight is fully restored and he sent away home. In the second healing story, after today’s reading, the man is named, Bartimaeus. His full healing is immediate; and this time he follows Jesus “on the way.”

In between these two stories Mark is providing us with a definition, an identity of Jesus and for what it means to follow the Messiah, the very being and Doing of our identity. So perhaps for us this also can be an eye-opening gospel. It is very easy to see, and very understandable, that we are shaped by our culture. Jesus gives a counter-cultural explanation of what it is to be the Messiah:
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.

When Peter hears this version that does not accord with his cultural understanding, he rebukes Jesus and that in turn provides us with another example of how we are shaped, for Jesus turns and says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!” Peter’s very identity is reshaped in that moment, from the disciple who recognised the Messiah to Satan, And the explanation of the force of reshaping follows immediately after that moment: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." And that is the insight that we too can bring into our contemplation of the question, “who do people say that I am?”

As we look at ourselves, our faith and our works, our very identity, we might consider that to which we attend. Do we set our mind on divine things or on human things? In the modern world we have increased the degree of difficulty in terms of looking and seeing the Divine, because we surround ourselves with a “man-made” environment, an environment that does not allow the voice of Sophia to fall on our ears. “Wisdom cries out in the street”, but how on earth would we hear her above the noise of advertising jingles, mobile phones and traffic?

One of the values of community is the many opportunities we have to identify ourselves in relation to each other. We see our Divine image in relation to every other image of the divine. With our eyes, we can see community and we can be community;
with our souls, that is, with our eyes opened, we can become community.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris