Although not special to most of you, today is special to me because this afternoon I will be installed officially as Dean of Marsh Chapel and Chaplain of the University. At that service, to which you are invited, I’ll speak briefly on the special duties of a university pulpit, especially one in a university town such as Boston.
The lectionary texts for today are enough to give one pause about a university pulpit, however. The passage from Proverbs 1 starts happily enough with a strong speech by Dame Wisdom, one of the Bible’s most outrageous characters, that begins “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” She goes on to say that she pours out her thoughts but the simple ones ignore them, leading to their calamity. “For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them.” What an advertisement for higher education!
It is dangerous to be simple. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that we should seek simplicity, but distrust it. He was right. The reason to distrust simplicity is the narrowness of evidence it takes into account. Unless simplicity is a state of mind and soul attained after mastering worlds of complexity—and this is not what Dame Wisdom had in mind—it lives on inherited prejudices for which a person can barely be responsible. Simple people of the sort Dame Wisdom criticized are ignorant of the cultures different from their own and of circumstances where things are at stake that are different from the issues of their own circumstances. This often makes them bigots with regard to different people, fools with regard to different circumstances, and complacent when some new beast comes slouching toward their holy place. The world today does not allow many people to meet only their own kind or deal only with their inherited circumstances. The University at its best sometimes imparts the vision and experience required for wisdom. A university pulpit should aspire to this task in religious matters.
Nevertheless, a great gulf exists between Dame Wisdom, the divine personage of the Book of Proverbs, and us mortal teachers. The University finds it easy to miss the mark in the wisdom department and should take to heart the admonition in the Letter of James with which I title this sermon: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” James went on to say that the tongue of a teacher is like a bridle on a horse, a rudder in a ship, or a little fire in a tinder forest—small but capable of enormous consequences. We so-called teachers of wisdom need humility, James warned.
Perhaps James had in mind the incident related in our text from Mark’s gospel. The disciples were abuzz because people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah, or some other prophet come back from the dead. Jesus asked Peter what he thought, and Peter answered that Jesus was the Messiah. In Matthew’s account of this incident Jesus says that God must have revealed this to Peter, because Peter’s “flesh and blood” was not bright enough to get it. Immediately after this Jesus said that he, Jesus, would be made to suffer, would be rejected, killed, and then would rise in three days. Peter, back in the flesh and blood mode, rebuked Jesus for saying these horrible depressing things. Jesus retorted to his prize student, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Given Peter’s subsequent role in the Christian movement, we have a super object-lesson of teachers getting it wrong. Teachers can go from true witness to unwitting Satanic betrayal without batting an eye. Peter thought he was just cheering up Jesus when he got wrong the whole meaning of Jesus’ identity as Messiah.
Religious teachers have a difficult road to walk, responding to Wisdom’s demand to help the simple without making some small mistake, often out of a desire to comfort, that has very large and damning consequences. If the only teachers in question were preachers and professors, this point would have a valid but limited range of application. The problem is that we all are religious teachers for our neighbors, children and friends. James might well have written, “Not many should become teachers, but for better or worse you all will be.”
Therefore we should look more carefully at what Jesus said went wrong with Peter: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What can this mean? Perhaps it depends on the audience. Mark is particularly detailed in his account of who was talking to whom in this incident. Jesus asked his small group of disciples about his identity, and in that intimate group Peter said he was the Messiah; Jesus responded by enjoining the disciples not to tell anyone else about this identification and then explained to them that he would suffer, die, and be raised. Peter took Jesus aside in private to rebuke him, but Jesus turned back to the whole group of disciples to rebuke Peter as Satan: he did not respond to Peter alone, as he might have if he were gently correcting his favorite student. He meant it as a lesson for the disciples. Then Jesus immediately called the large crowd of followers to join the disciples and made the remarkable speech about how they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross in order to follow him. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In Mark’s text, Jesus’ address to the crowd is an interpretation of setting your mind on divine rather than human things. The crowd diid not know that Jesus was the Messiah, only a spooky hero come back to life. They did not know that the Messiah is to be betrayed, killed, and raised from the dead, a point that only the disciples had heard and had not yet comprehended. What the crowd was told was that following Jesus is a matter of life and death.
In Deuteronomy 30 Moses had told the Israelites, as they were about to enter the Promised Land, that he set before them life and death: choose life, that you might live, he said. Jesus renewed that challenge but with a huge twist. Moses said that to choose life, which meant following God’s commandments, would secure long life and prosperity in the Promised Land. Jesus said that to choose life, which meant following him and his gospel, could lead to forfeiting both worldly success and life. Those who would save their life in Moses’ sense of gaining the world will lose it. Those who lose their lives to follow Jesus will gain it in a divine sense.
Jesus’ main point is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and it has two sides.
First, in the divine perspective, right living before God does not correlate with worldly success. To be good does not necessarily lead to long life and prosperity. As we would put it, there is no divine moral governance of the world, rewarding the worthy and punishing the wicked. Rather, Jesus’ paradigm is that the Messiah who restores people to a right relation to God gets betrayed and killed. Resurrection for Jesus did not mean that he returned with an army to drive out the Romans and establish justice, nor did it mean that he returned to set up a university that surpassed Plato’s and Aristotle’s in teaching divinity. In the most literal reading of the resurrection accounts, Jesus left Earth for Heaven after forty days. History remained ambiguous and treacherous for Christians ever after. So we should not expect the ordinary life of even the saints among us to be more successful in worldly senses than education, prudence and luck can ma
ke them. Nor is suffering a mark of divine disfavor, however much most of the world’s religions, including corrupt forms of Christianity, have believed that.
Second, the gospel is that the true meaning of life is to be found in the ultimate perspective of God. Jesus had a lot to say about this, including the readiness to deny ourselves for others, to build communities of love, and to witness to the divine perspective when the world has other values. Next week the gospel text is about how those who would be first will be last, and vice versa. The central task of Christian teachers—and all Christians teach one way or another—is to articulate what life looks like from the ultimate perspective of God, what its ultimate predicaments are in contrast to its worldly problems, and what its ultimate salvation consists in contrasted with the lure of worldly successes.
In pre-classical times many people believed in God as a kind of super-human agent, with human virtues and powers intensified to a supernatural degree. With this conception, the divine perspective was something like an all-powerful control panel for history. God could be imagined as a totally righteous and powerful king insuring justice within history. In classical times, including the time of Jesus, many people believed in God as an infinitely removed Spirit high above a cosmic stack of heavens and hells, and they believed that souls were immortal or, as in the Christian case, could be raised whole with a celestial body. The classical conception imagined the divine perspective as placing a soul after death in a level of heaven or hell appropriate to the person’s merit; for Pauline Christianity it meant that because of Jesus’ merit the saved went to the highest heaven where Jesus in a properly celestial form dwelt with God the Father. Some among us might share these pre-classical and classical assumptions, both of which are found in the Bible. But most of us read the Bible and imagine God differently. Our task as teachers today is to articulate the ultimacy of the divine perspective, and its significance for what is ultimately important in human life, for a world understood through modern science, shaped by confrontations of civilizations, and criticized by the prophets of imagination.
I invite you all to take seriously what it means to be a follower of Rabbi Jesus. Have pity on the simple people of the world, teach them the complexities of life, and strive for a new simplicity while distrusting it. Join with the disciples in learning that the most Satanic simplicity is to judge ultimate matters with worldly standards. Hear with the crowd that the choice of ultimately true life in following Jesus is costly in worldly terms. Please join with those who would deny themselves the ambition to gain the world and enter into the discipline required to teach divine wisdom to the simple. For the simple will be taught by us no matter what we do. I invite you into the Christian Way in which we catch a glimpse of divine wisdom through living a life patterned by crucifixion and resurrection, as Jesus told the simple disciples. Amen.