Sunday 27 August - Pentecost 12 - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN Pentecost 12: 10.30; Exodus 1.8-2.10; Matthew 16. 13-20

The feast of Music, the Arts and human creativity that is the Edinburgh Festival has again reminded us how rich life can be, sometimes how silly, and often how meaningful, even when the meaning is imperfect rather than fully understood. This year’s Festival is an occasion to celebrate all the breath-taking beauty, profound truths, and gorgeous nonsense that have enlivened this grey old city for seventy summers. It’s all the more difficult then, as the Festival reminds us of life’s richness and possibility, to be reminded also of two other anniversaries that fell this summer, and that tell a quite different story about human life, the centenary of Passchendaele and the seventieth anniversary of Partition: the bloody slaughter of the first world war battle and the internecine conflict between Hindu and Muslim in the separation of India and Pakistan, call into question all that Music, the Arts and human creativity tell us about life’s richness and possibility. The now vanished survivors of the trenches, and the Muslims and Hindus who escaped and settled in this country, never spoke, until their lives were almost over, about what they had experienced in 1917 and 1947. So we too may feel that in order to celebrate what the Festival tells us of human life’s richness and possibility, we need to suppress such reminders of humanity’s inhumanity as the anniversaries of Passchendaele and Partition.  How is it possible to see meaning in humanity’s contradictions?

Well, one answer, of course, is that it is simply not possible to make sense of the contradictions of the human condition. That seemed to be the conclusion of this Festival’s modern re-writing of the Oresteia, the ancient Greek tragedies about the endless cycle of vengeance and violence stemming from King Agamemnon’s sacrifice to the gods of his daughter Iphigenia in order to gain success in the Greeks’ war against the Trojans. The modern version, at the Lyceum last week, ends with Iphigenia, or her ghost, reappearing, to tell the other characters that she was really ‘only a little girl’ and implying, as I understood it, that all the terrifying ideas of divine vengeance that resulted in so much violence  were just ideas in their own heads. They needed to give up believing in these harmful myths, the little girl seemed to be saying, in order to live ordinary human lives, for at least some of the time happily; and the play ends with the little girl inviting the others to a children’s tea party, in other words, as one reviewer put it, ‘giving them permission to play’.

This modern version of an ancient tragedy then, seems to be saying that it is not possible to make sense of the contradictions of the human condition; and that the only way to live tolerably, is to give up the attempt to seek any meaning in life beyond living peaceably and sometimes playfully with one another. Now this view of life, I think, has some support from our own religious traditions. Contrast the ancient Greek story of Agamemnon sacrificing to the gods his daughter Iphigenia, with the Old Testament story of Abraham being prevented from sacrificing his son Isaac: the God who stays Abraham’s hand is the God who is gradually discovered to ‘desire not sacrifice’; and in the New Testament, the God who does not resist being sacrificed in order patiently to persuade humanity that it is not by power or vengeance, but by love alone, that God is great and glorious. And in the Old and New Testaments too, this modern ending of the Oresteia resonates with the prophet’s vision ‘that a little child shall lead them’, and with all that Jesus says about our need to become like little children. So is the answer, as this play seems to suggest, that we should give up the attempt to make any sense of the contradictions of the human condition, and any meaning in life beyond living peacefully and sometimes playfully with one another? Shouldn’t we, in other words, just let go of all that religion and mythologies have tried over the centuries to grapple with?

But is that really possible? Just living peacefully and sometimes playfully with one another is of course possible, when life is going well, when we are kept healthy and busy with work and play, and there is plenty more to distract us. But life is not like that for everyone all the time: misfortune, disease and death often inevitably intervene, as they have done throughout history and still do today for countless people in many desolating ways. Life moreover has its highs as well as its lows, moments when, through music or art, prayer and liturgy, human loves and friendships, we seem to glimpse that there is more to life than living, that we are more than we know.  The contradictions of the human condition are not just sorrowful but also joyful mysteries, and encountering mysteries, it is only human to want to understand what lies behind them.

But can we understand such mysteries? In a real sense we cannot. Because we are part of what we want to understand, we have no way of seeing the whole with certainty, of truly knowing all things as they really are. And if we think we have such certain knowledge, it can be disastrous. Part of the reason why religion often gets a bad name today is the role it played in tragedies such as those of Passchendaele and Partition: in 1914-1918, many Christian preachers, both British and German, claimed to have God on their side; in India, the massacres were fuelled by similar certainties held by Muslims and Hindus. But certainty that our religion is the right one and theirs the wrong, can be deceptive; and what it often betrays, is an underlying uncertainty and insecurity that can only be satisfied by suppressing or even killing the other who is different. And this is true not only of religions, but of many secular political ideologies and tribalisms also.

We cannot be certain about the mysteries we want to understand. But how then are we to make sense of the conviction heard in our Gospel reading today? Peter’s confession that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, comes from Matthew’s Gospel. This Gospel probably was written at least fifty years after the events it records and it includes a variety of different, sometimes conflicting memories of what Jesus said and did. Today’s reading for example has one of the only two references to ‘the church’ in the Gospels, the  other one occurring two chapters later, when not just Peter, but the disciples generally and even ‘two or three… gathered’ in Jesus’  name are told ‘that whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’. Jesus’ words to Peter of course would be cited much later to support the claim of papal primacy by the bishop of Rome: but even at the time when the Gospels were being written, the early church was trying to work out, on the hoof as it were, how the life and teaching of Jesus were to be understood in terms of its own life and teaching.

Peter’s declaration that Jesus, who called himself the Son of Man, was ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, was central to that teaching. But the conviction with which it was expressed, I think, was not the kind of religious certainty that claims we are right and they are wrong. Clearly there are traces of that in the New Testament separation of Christianity from Judaism, but there is also much more that emphasises their continuity, and that resists the sectarian certainties that have distorted the message of the Prince of Peace and King of Love. We would not have heard our Old Testament reading today, after all, had not the Church proclaimed Jesus not only as the Messiah but also as a new Moses.   Peter’s conviction and in its place in authentically Christian testimony, is not the certainty that betrays insecurity.  It is, rather, conviction born of everyday human experience, tried and tested in ever-repeated and never entirely successful attempts to live by Christ’s teaching, and then in turning to the Lord in prayer, grateful for unlimited forgiveness and acceptance, and in reliance that when we have come to the end of our resources, God is still there, ‘whose arms of love, aching, spent, the world sustain’.

In a few moments we shall sing our offertory hymn, ‘Brother, Sister let me serve you’. Perhaps it is only as we learn to live, as well as sing these words, ‘here to help each other/walk the mile and bear the load… till we’ve seen this journey through’, that we begin to glimpse the beauty and compassion of the mystery in which our human lives are enfolded, and learn in our own experience who the Son of Man truly is.