“Sing, muse, of the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles,” begins the Iliad. The Iliad, scholars tell us, was poem handed on from Homer on down by voice and memory until finally some Greek wrote down what he had heard. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy.” That’s another of Homer’s poems, the Odyssey, another song of voice and memory sung before the assembly until some Greek wrote it down. Plato hated the idea of written language. He thought it meat the end of wisdom, since humans would rely not on their memories but on marks external to themselves, filled not with wisdom but the conceit of wisdom. The tongue, the voice, speech, the essential and beautiful property of the human being: speech, language. When you go to the theater, you know the play is real when the actor opens his mouth and speaks—“Now is the summer of our discontent made glorious summer by the sun of York; and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean are buried.” Poetry is a beautiful and precious thing: “I sing of warfare and a man at war. From the sea-coast in Troy in early days he came to Italy by destiny…” That’s Virgil, writing about 20 years before Jesus was born. We still read his Aeneid today--sing Muse, sing. We sing because the words alone don’t do justice. It’s the expression and the poetry and the telling of the story, the unfolding of necessity, the click of recognition, the pleasure and pain of human feeling. All the old poems began with an invocation, as do all our own worship services now, a naming of our God who was the first to speak: “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Who do you say that I am? It’s clear today that our texts direct us to examine our own speech and song, our poetry. How are we supposed to use our awesome power of speech? A long time ago, when I was in training to be a pastor, I had to spend a summer working in a hospital. As the summer was over, I met a woman on my rounds who had just been diagnosed with a kind of cancer of the blood. She was Southern, originally, and wanted to talk about her faith and God with me, at first because she was just tickled that somebody would pray with her in the hospital. It turned out she hadn’t had someone to pray with for a long time, because she hadn’t been to church for a long time. Instead she had stayed home and watched Joel Osteen on television. I don’t remember now why she did that. For some reason I think she did it because she had a bad experience at church, and Joel Osteen never let her down. Until she was dying in a hospital and he couldn’t come to see her because he didn’t even know her name. Until she longed for the sacrament but he couldn’t give it to here because he lived in Houston and preached at a megachurch that never gives communion but rather tells stories of how faith helps you get to your plane on time. So I walked with her until she died. I was too young and I barely even knew her. And yet, if what I think I remember is true, then I have to not simply blame the TV preachers, but also the church for it’s own failure to minister to this woman, who was smart, and funny, and deserved as much as anyone to have someone walk with her on her road to death.
I think of her when I hear Jesus’ words today. How do we confess what we believe? What do we say when someone asks us to give an account of our faith. Listen to what Jesus has to say about the Messiah, the holy one of God: “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.” This is not what Peter had envisioned when he called Jesus the Messiah. He had envisioned glory, power, angel armies, battle and war. “I sing of warfare and a man at war”—I think Peter would have felt good about Virgil’s opening lines if he had heard them applied to Jesus. I think many of our brothers and sisters in Christ would love to have their muse sing of Jesus the warrior, the strong man. Indeed, Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he was going to suffer and die. How can the Messiah die? How can God let us down like that? Far be it from you to suffer and die. We can imagine what Peter must have felt, the sense of glory slipping away.
But listen to how Jesus describes those who truly wish to follow him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.” Nothing will induce Jesus from turning away from the cross. Nothing will separate Jesus from his followers except the denial of the cross. What do Christians say when they speak? They should speak about the cross, about God’s love for the world, about losing life to find it, about death being swallowed up by love. James said, “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who were made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” What should we say when we speak? We should speak the cross, the crucified one, and the love of God made perfect not in war, nor in pride, nor in fame, nor in any other measure but the measure of the cross, the divine becoming human so the human can become divine.
To follow Christ means that our whole life—our speech, our deeds, our thoughts—take on a cruciform shape. The cross is not suffering for suffering’s sake, but it is a decisive break with the way the world trains us to look at life. The cross is the moment when the Son of God finishes his humanity—and gives us his divine life. It is the moment when the power of God is revealed to be complete love for creation, love that serves and gives life to God’s creatures.
So many things in our world make promises to us, and all too often those promises come couched in religion. We are so desperate for wholeness in a broken world—so desperate for some kind of recognition, some kind of acknowledgement, some kind of success. And yet, we forget that God recognizes us; God recognizes the image of God, the image God created us to bear. And God recognizes our humanity even in our death, even in the horrible death of state sponsored terror that we call the cross. God’s love reaches that far—so far even to you.
Every love that leads us away from the cross will lead us from love death. The cross leads us through death into everlasting love. I remember the rage of Achilles, the rage that seethed and burned until Achilles could accept death, accepting the glory of war until his life was over and he could settle in Hades. I guess it worked out for him—the muse still sings his name today. But I know that I want a different song, the song of God’s love that swallows death up, the love that has no regard or even respect for wealth and fame and glory. God’s love has no need of these things—what are wealth and fame and glory of war to the one who says, “Let there be light”? I hope my speech and my song will be of the love that sees and acknowledges every single person in this world, and that loses none, but saves them all. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack