The Mind and the Cross
by Fr. Blake
A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2 September 2014. This Sunday also happened to fall on Labor Day weekend, and preceded the beginning of the Fall term at Brown.
Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Matthew 16:21-28, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen:
This is move-in weekend at Brown (as many of you may have noticed if you tried to park on the street!). Some of our young people here at S. Stephen’s are also returning to college. Our youth have all gone back to school: some starting high school for the first time, others in middle school, and the younger ones in elementary school. This is Labor Day weekend, and all of us are conscious of the impending close of summer and the start of a new “program year.” It seems fitting this morning to reflect a little on the task and privilege of learning: what it is that we do when we study, and where it is that our learning leads us.
In the classic Western understanding of the life of the mind, there are three major categories into which all study falls. All three are necessary in order to create a well-ordered person. First is the world around us. Mathematics springs immediately to mind, and the natural sciences: physics, astronomy, biology, geology, chemistry, and their “Applied” derivatives; also certain categories of philosophy, and others. These are subjects which teach us the basic structures of our world. Their methodologies lead their practitioners ever more deeply into the fabric of material existence, and their insights are invaluable.
This kind of learning is not the purview of experts alone. Children learning to distinguish colors are equally engaged in this process. So are youth learning the periodic table of the elements. So are adults on their morning commutes, traversing and internalizing the geographic contours of their neighborhoods and cities. We are all citizens of the world around us, and each of us is presented daily with opportunities to learn something about it, to grow in understanding of how this world works.
The second major category of inquiry in the classic Western conception of the mind is the human person. This is where subjects like history come most clearly into play, and more of philosophy; art, music, and literature; also economics and ethics, questions of justice, and how people in states ought to live together with their fellow citizens and with their fellow states. The life of the mind itself belongs in this category. Questions like, ‘What makes up the human person? What makes up myself? What should my hopes and dreams be, and how do I account for things like conscience and guilt and moral aspiration?’ It might be obvious the kind of contribution these questions make to society: ideals to strive for, principles to live by, systems to govern our common life, so that the greatest benefit for the most people is achieved.
We usually think of liberal arts colleges here, and economists and book publishers. But children learning to share their toys with their friends are engaged just as deeply in this kind of study (if not more so!). The whole process of growing up and constructing our lives in this world is rife with questions of the human person.
The third major category of learning in the Western conception of the life of the mind is God. So important is this category that great thinkers and professors from Augustine in the 4th century to Kierkegaard in the 19th understood God as the summit, the single necessary conclusion, to all other kinds of inquiry. Not because science is unequipped to answer its own questions; not because a human being is incapable of determining his or her own course in life; but because each thing, in its own way, points ultimately away from itself towards its own appointed end. As pattern points to order, as color points to splendor, as law points to justice, so does everything point to that which is beyond it towards that which gives it form and purpose. In this way everything points to God: not to fulfill a lack of human ingenuity, but to point to what is creation’s natural fulfillment.
We may think that to know God is the solitary, heady purview of theologians and clergy. But because of his own choice to reveal himself, we can all know God. A friend of mine is a priest in Orlando, and has written an article in the latest Living Church describing a strange and beautiful experience. It was a Sunday, and he was at the altar saying the Lord’s Prayer with the congregation. In the midst of all the voices, he heard the voice of his two-year-old son saying the words along with everyone else. He and his wife hadn’t taught him the words yet! But this two-year old had so imbibed the saying of that prayer after repeated exposure, and had been so impressed with the spirit of everyone praying it together, that he was compelled to pray too. My friend’s son seems to know something about God that maybe more clergy and theologians should learn.
The world around us, the human person, God — these are the three great categories of learning which undergird the whole structure and program of the Western intellectual project. They are nested inside one another: studying the world leads us into a deeper engagement with the human person. Studying the human person, and chief of all myself, leads us ever more deeply into an engagement with the God who made us and the whole world. It is a beautiful, coherent system, which has undoubtedly contributed much to the welfare and peace of the world. All who engage in learning should be proud of their task, and should go about it with patience and endurance and joy.
But this isn’t the end. Knowledge of God, the summit of human learning, is exactly where we pick up in our Gospel reading today. Just before the place we began, Jesus has asked all of his disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter famously replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He gets the right answer, he passes the test, he gets an A, he is set for life. Right?
Immediately following that episode — as today’s reading begins — Jesus teaches his disciples that as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” his purpose is to go to the cross and die. Peter insists that surely this must not be the case. Fresh from his triumphant right answer, he cannot allow that the Holy One of God, the one to save Israel, could possibly have to die. Jesus rebukes him, and leads all the disciples further into the mystery: “If any would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me. For he who would save his life will lose it. And whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jesus shows Peter in no uncertain terms that getting the right answer about who God is, is not enough.
It goes right on down the line, as it must in a coherent, interconnected system. Getting the right answer about myself and the human community is not enough. Getting the right answer about the way the world works is not enough. It is not sufficient in the eyes of God to be right!
We’re used to thinking of Jesus’ admonition, “Take up your cross and follow me” as a kind of pithy advice about our hardships, disadvantages, and frustrations. “We all have our crosses to bear” we say to one another – alternatively in pity or in jest, and sometimes a little of both. But this is not what Jesus means. Jesus himself goes to the cross for being right about who he is. He goes to the cross for being right about how he treats others. The cross for Jesus is the place where the best of who he is, the highest good he ever achieves, the greatest love he ever offers — where all of that is rejected and crucified.
“Take up your cross and follow me.” Be the best that you can be. Learn the most that you possibly can. Do the most good that is in you to do. And then? Give it up. Be willing to be crucified upon it. This is what is required, this is the last key piece of the Christian intellectual life.
Only in the darkness that follows, only in the tomb, does the light of the resurrection begin to dawn. There, in the still dark of early morning, the project is finally complete. There, where we have surrendered everything we might claim about the world and ourselves, there God makes himself known to us: not in words or images or senses, but in his very self, unmediated by any intervening thing or process. God himself. In the dark of the tomb, our great intellectual project is reversed: we find ourselves known, more fully than we could ever hope to know. In that knowing, there is love, unmitigated and unending. In such darkness as this, we finally see light.
“Take up your cross and follow me, for he who would find his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” Let this be our prayer for the beginning of the school year: that each of us would so encourage the process of learning in ourselves and in our loved ones that we might come finally to the place where knowledge fails and where love begins. In the meantime, let us be strengthened by our common work, our common prayer, and be built up together by the Sacrament we are about to celebrate — which is knowledge infused with grace.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.