In the Name...
A man was in a store when a young woman came up to him and said, “I’m glad to see you, Mr. Smith. You’re the father of one of my children.” The man looked horrified until the woman said, “I’m Miss Baxter. Your son is in my first-grade class.”
In our Gospel today Jesus asks his disciples to report who people think he is and there are great differences in what they have to say. To set the scene, Jesus and the Twelve had just completed a highly successful preaching and miracle tour in Galilee. Great crowds had gathered; great healings had been performed. And having experienced the adoration and adulation, Jesus did what one might expect a celebrity to do under these circumstances - he took a little vacation.
That's true. Caesarea Philippi was a resort town in the lush mountains north of Galilee in the Province of Ituria. The population was Gentile, not Jewish. It was the site of a big temple to the Greek god Pan - an identification recalled in its modern name of Banyas – and had a reputation for loose morals. So in this rather unlikely setting he asked his closest followers the question which goes to the heart of the Christian faith. Who am I?
Well, the disciples said, people think you could be John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet. John the Baptist. The Gospels only hint, but, we know from other sources that in his time he was much better known than Jesus and had a name and following the like of which Billy Graham enjoyed. His highly visible profile and preaching had shaken the government and even the Sanhedrin had sent a fact-finding mission to determine if John was the Messiah. So if people thought that Jesus was John that was quite a compliment.
To call him Elijah was also high praise. Elijah, who had spent his life fighting idolatry and false religion, who had defied the powerful king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, was regarded as the greatest prophet of Israel, on a par with Moses the Law-Giver, and the fact that he didn't die, but, was assumed into heaven by chariots of fire had made him a mystical figure in Jewish theology. It was taught that he would someday return to earth and even today, in the Jewish Passover ceremony, a place is set at the table for Elijah should he drop in.
But, at the least, at the very least, people considered Jesus a prophet and, since there hadn't been one of those in Israel for the past 400 years, that was still very special. Clearly, Jesus had made quite an impact even if people thought he was someone other than who he was.
So he asked the disciples, "And who do you say that I am?". One can just imagine the awkward pause at this point. The disciples shifting glances at each other. What should they say? James and John were his cousins. They'd known him from childhood. Most of the others had only known him a few months. All of them had seen the amazing works, heard the gracious words, and been privy to the most profound thoughts. Dare any of them articulate what this all meant? The hesitant indecision was probably too much for Peter and so he blurted out, with his customary candour, "The Messiah of God". The Messiah of God.
It's noteworthy that after Peter declared his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus immediately goes on to talk about taking up the cross - words which at the time must have mystified the disciples. The Messiah was supposed to be a victorious revolutionary conqueror who would save the people and rout their enemies. But, Jesus told them that there would be betrayal, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He laid it out as plainly as he could, and what did the disciples do? They gave him an argument.
They were aghast and so Peter, acting as spokesman, took Jesus aside and told him that this wasn't the way to be a Messiah. People wanted Jesus to be a victorious king with a big palace in downtown Jerusalem and a chauffeur-driven chariot. Well, it doesn't actually use those words, but that's the general idea.
You see, the disciples couldn't accept what Jesus was saying about the need to become, as Isaiah prophesized, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, oppressed, afflicted. A man rejected and despised in a world which esteems success and stardom. No, Jesus was definitely on the wrong track here and Peter would set him straight. But, Jesus slapped Peter down by raising his voice so all of them could hear him as he uttered that fierce rebuke, "Get behind me Satan. You are on the side of men and not God". Or, in other words, don’t push me. Your value system is all wrong. Victory and success are not always the same thing.
History shows that often the greatest victory comes after the greatest hardship. When rallying Italians to his revolutionary cause, Garibaldi asserted, "I promise you hardship, suffering, and death. But, if you love Italy, follow me." And Winston Churchill, when calling upon Britons to resist the Nazi threat said he could only promise them "blood, sweat, and tears." The common thread is that only a cause worth dying for is a cause worth living for. What a contrast to the gospel, so often presented in television mega-churches, of unlimited wealth and comfort if you only believe. In what, one wonders.
No, it is clear that the victory which Jesus represented was not something that was going to be achieved by being what the world calls “successful.” Indeed, by every human standard, Jesus was a total failure. His first sermon started a riot and he had to leave town. He made miracles, but, people grumbled because they were the wrong kind. At his trials he failed to convince the Chief Priests and Roman leaders of who he was.
And yet, the last words spoken about Jesus in his life were not spoken by a friend or a disciple, or by a Pharisee or a scribe, they were spoken by a soldier, a man who had fought in battles and knew first-hand the price of victory. Peter had only said, “You are the Messiah.” The centurion said, "Truly, this man was the Son of God." Perhaps it takes a soldier to know a soldier and to identify his rank.
A final thought about Caesarea Philippi. Why did Jesus choose this heathen place as the background for the revelation of his divine and messianic being? Well, in addition to the ancient temple of Pan, the city also boasted a brand new temple built by Herod the Great. Herod was an Arab who had usurped the Jewish throne with Roman support so, to appease the Jews, he rebuilt their holy Temple in Jerusalem. But, to assure the Romans of his loyalty, he also built a temple in Caesarea Philippi to honour the emperors who had been declared gods. Herod was nothing if not ecumenical, or economical, one should say, in his loyalties.
This, then, was the perfect setting for Jesus to challenge the two main powers of this world. The power of liberal paganism, immorality, as represented by Pan, and the power of conservative paganism, worship of the state, as represented by the emperors. These tensions aren't just ancient history. Each of these paganisms pulls at us daily in our society, and only if we are clear about who we follow can we bear the cross and resist them.
Reflecting on the first three centuries of Christian history with its record of persecutions, of tortures, and of martyrs whose example in bearing the cross inspired others, the historian Will Durant wrote, "Caesar and Christ met in the arena. And Christ won." Caesar and Christ met in the arena. And Christ won.
So, who do we say, who do we believe, that he is? A great deal hangs on the answer.
In the Name...