Isaiah 5:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-39
Today’s Gospel is set in a place that was fairly famous in the ancient world. Or perhaps infamous, in some eyes.
It’s ancient name was Paneas, named after the god Pan. Pan was worshipped there for centuries before King Herod the Great built a temple to the god there, and dedicated it to the Emperor Augustus. Herod would actually build three temples in Paneus. One of Herod’s sons, Philip the Tetrarch, founded a new city there that became his capital. He named it Caesarea in honor of Augustus, and it was called Caesarea Phillipi – basically “Philip’s Caesarea”– to distinguish it from the other Caesarea, over on the Mediterranean coast (Caesarea Maritima). There’s a spring there that is the source of the Jordan River. There was also a cave at the temple of Pan that was supposed to lead to the underworld. It was even sometimes called “The Gates of Hell.”
So here is the scene. Jesus and his disciples are on the outskirts of Caesarea. I like to picture him on a hill overlooking the city, possibly looking down on the temple of Pan, which sat at the base of a mountain, thinking about what and who that temple was dedicated to. And he asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”
Now, the disciples had kept up on the popular gossip. They’d been keeping an eye on Facebook and Twitter, glancing at the tabloids in the checkout line at the grocery store. “Some people say you’re John come back from the dead.” “I saw an article in the Enquirer that said you’re Elijah, or one of the other prophets.”
And Jesus accepts this without comment. He’s probably heard this stuff before. But then he says to them “All right, then. Who do you say I am?”
I can actually picture a couple of the disciples looking down, kind of shuffling their feet, the way you do when you’ve been asked an embarrassing question and don’t really want to answer. Maybe a couple believe one of the stories they’ve heard.
But Peter jumps right in and answers “You are the Messiah.” That’s pretty definite. We’re not sure exactly what Peter considered the Messiah to be —opinions at the time varies as to what he would be like, if he showed up at all — but Peter was sure Jesus was the one. And Peter was usually pretty enthusiastic about things like this.
Mark the Evangelist always seems like he’s in a hurry to get to the next event, so he gives you the short version of Peter’s affirmation. The scene is over, and Mark moves on. But in Luke, Peter is a little more forceful.
“You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
“Christ,” or “Christos” is just the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah,” so there’s not really any difference there. But calling someone the son of God was treading on dangerous ground. “Son of God” was a name reserved for the Emperor, at this time Tiberius. Calling someone the son of God was probably also a good way to get yourself hauled up before the Jewish authorities. These are words that it was not wise to use where anyone in power could hear you.
Virtually in sight of Caesarea Philippi, this monument to pagan religion and imperial power, Peter is ascribing that level of power – or greater — to Jesus. That’s pretty revolutionary. It’s an amazing thing to say.
But the gospel reading doesn’t stop there, and I’m glad. The folks that created our lectionary could have ended on a high note. But they let the story continue to Jesus telling the disciples that he’s going to have to die.
Now Peter takes a different tack. I can picture him pulling Jesus aside and demanding to know just what he was thinking, talking like that. As my Dad the Baptist preacher used to call him, “Good old wishy-washy Peter,” the guy who just risked an accusation of treason in claiming that Jesus was the son of God, actually tells the person he claims is the Messiah what he should or should not say.
And Jesus puts Peter right in his place, calling him “Satan,” which actually just means “adversary.” Imagine how Peter must have felt after that.
Jesus, in effect, tells Peter “Get out of my way.”
You see, while Peter said he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had his own ideas about what that meant, and how things should play out. He may have believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but evidently he didn’t believe that Jesus knew what he was doing. A dying Messiah just wasn’t in Peter’s world view.
Jesus had other ideas on how messiahship worked. And by taking Jesus to task for talking about what he had to do, Peter was getting in his way. Remember back when Jesus was in the wilderness, and Satan came to him and tempted him with things that would divert him from his mission? In this passage, Peter is taking Satan’s place and tempting Jesus not to go through with his plan. And Jesus calls him on it.
So…I ask the question that preachers always seem to ask when preaching on this story from any of the gospels in which it appears: Who do we say that he is?
And if the answer is the same as Peter’s: he is the Messiah, the son of the living God, then I have ask the next question: do we really believe that? Because if we do, if we sincerely believe that Jesus is the son of the living God, why don’t we act like it more?
Why don’t we put aside other petty allegiances – allegiances to the powers of this world — and treat him like the Lord of Lords that we claim to believe he is? Why do we continually put other “lords” before him? We may say, “Well, religion should stay out of these other areas.” I have some bad news for those who say that. Allegiance to Christ should affect how we behave in every area of our lives.
Do we have the courage to stand in centers of power and say “My God is bigger than you?” Do we have the courage to stand up to our friends? To the people we associate with because we may agree with them about some political issue? To people who may have temporal authority over us?
Why do we, like Peter, constantly let our preconceived notions of just what we think Jesus should be override our obedience to what he said? Our obedience to what he told us to do. Our obedience to what he still says to us when he speaks to us in the silence of our hearts? When we see chances for the Holy Spirit to work in our church and in the world, do we come up with objections? Do we bring up reasons why that’s just not a good idea? Or do we trust that Christ and the Holy Spirit will make God’s work prosper through us?
Why do our agendas constantly get in the way of HIS agenda? How often does Christ have to tell us to get out of his way?
If we truly, truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God, then his agenda – the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven and the remaking of the world in God’s image – must always be ours. If it is not, then Jesus will constantly be telling us, “Get out of my way.”