Peter's Correct Answer, a sermon by The Rev. Fred Kinsey
But who do you say that I am? Jesus asks his disciples. Peter spoke up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And with that, Peter has given the correct answer!
Though, as a side note, Peter will go from model student this week, to flunking out in next week’s gospel. From ‘blessed,’ to cursed, in a very short time!
Jesus has taken the twelve to the northern most city of Israel, to a pagan town, where Jews don’t usually visit, much less live. Caesarea Philippi was so named to honor Caesar, or King, Augustus, and Philip, who was a son of Herod the Great, and its appointed ruler. Philip’s region bordered Galilee, just to the south, and the territory east from the Jordan River.
Before Philip, it was just a nice Roman resort town, known mostly for its shrine to the Greek god Pan, the herdsman. Yes, that one! The half-goat, half-man, god. The god who had horns and a tail. The god of nature – god of the woods. He is often depicted in art with a flute. Thus, Pan’s flute! Sort of reminds me of David who was a shepherd and played the flute. Pan was thought to be very strong, though unlike the ruddy David, not very attractive. “The story of [Pan’s] birth says that his mother was so distressed by his unusual appearance that she ran away…” (<ahref="https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/gods/pan/">Pan: https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net</a> - Greek Gods & Goddesses, February 7, 2017)
The town, originally called Paneas, was at the base of beautiful Mt. Hermon, and springs from the mountain snow run-off bubbled up creating a tributary that fed the Jordan River. The spring that created the headwaters, came from a grotto in the rocky hillside of Paneas, and that was where the marble image of Pan was displayed. Other gods were also there to be worshipped, as was the Roman practice. Not a very useful place for Jews to feel safe to gather.
When Philip received this gift, willed from his father, and agreed to by Augustus, he decided Paneas would be an excellent location for his regional headquarters, and he made the city into a thriving Roman stronghold, rivaled only in Palestine by Caesarea Maritima, the Roman port city his father built on the Mediterranean coast to connect the eastern end of the empire with Rome itself, which in Jesus’ lifetime, became Pontius Pilate’s headquarters. Caesarea Philippi became more the resort area, and Philip’s domicile. Sort of a cross between Springfield, Illinois and Mar-A-Lago, I imagine.
Not many resources have been devoted to uncovering the ruins at Caesarea Philippi yet, and when I visited in 2005, all you can really see is the Grotto, the tributary flowing out, and some square pools of water diverted from the spring, where the statues of other gods perhaps stood, a public gathering place.
Mark and Matthew have very similar accounts of Jesus and the disciples arriving here. They both recount how Jesus pointedly circles his closest followers in the middle of this pantheon of gods, to ask them about his identity and purpose. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus self-identifies as, Son of Man, more than with any other title, an ambiguous, and mostly unassuming title. It means both, a generic man without a home, and also, as the prophet Daniel predicted, One who comes with power to judge, and gather, at the end of the age.
The disciples have heard many titles for Jesus being bandied about. Some of the more prominent ones are, John the Baptist, who Herod Antipas has beheaded in Jerusalem, and then thinks he sees John’s ghost in Jesus, at his trial. Others thought John the Baptist was a return of the prophet Elijah, the greatest prophet of northern Israel, in a time of famine during a string of corrupt and unfaithful kings. Some say Jesus is Jeremiah, the prophet who unfailingly told the truth God called him to proclaim, even when his own people rejected him. Each of these certainly captured a portion of who Jesus was. But were not totally revealing, as to his true identity.
Jesus acknowledges that these are many of the guesses he’s heard too. So, digging a little deeper, he redirects the question to his closest followers. “But who do you say that I am?” And that’s when Peter pipes up. Peter is often the spokesman of the 12, outgoing and unafraid, like he was the day he asked to walk on the water, and come out from the boat, to meet Jesus!
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” says Peter, the rock. To call him Messiah, or anointed one, is to acknowledge that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the peoples hopes for their redemption. He’s the expectation of the anointed leader, who will be like David, maybe a little bit of Moses, a national hope that was never more anticipated in the life of Israel’s people. The Messiah was expected to usher in a new age of glory for Israel, and the whole world.
And to call Jesus, God’s Son, was to echo his baptism, in which the voice of God names Jesus, his beloved Child. In contrast to the statues all around them, Peter identifies Jesus as a living God, and the long-awaited Savior.
“Blessed are you, [Peter],” says Jesus. Human knowledge hasn’t revealed this to you. Only Yahweh, our One God, One LORD, could have informed this answer that you have given.
Hopefully Philip, or any of his minions, weren’t in earshot, at that moment, as Peter uncontrollably blurts out this, anti-empire message! Yet, that is the point. Jesus has brought them to the heart of Roman power, in northern Palestine, there amongst the statues of their lifeless gods, to pre-announce to the world, and pantomime the post-resurrection good news, who the real Messiah and Son of God is!
It was anti-empire and risky because, Caesar Augustus claimed this status for himself: A Son of the god’s; and bringer of Pax Humana, peace, to the whole world. But Jesus calls BS on this - as the high school kids from Parkland, FL say. Jesus brings and announces God’s justice and peace, and the promise of Jubilee. Emperor Augustus – as Jesus will make clear when he arrives in Jerusalem – brought uncompromising subjugation, slavery, and tyranny of religious choice. And, for a few, sure, those famous good roads and aqueducts. But even as we see today – anyone in power claiming to be chosen, and kingly, especially in a democracy – is not Jesus the Christ.
Peter, when he blurted out, ‘you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,’ gave the correct answer. But it’s not about passing a written or oral test. This is about giving allegiance! It raises the question: Who do you trust?
Audrey West has said: “In what, or in whom, will the followers of Jesus place their trust [at Caesarea Philippi]? Will it be in the privileges deriving from access to opportunity and wealth? In the worship of a prevailing culture’s latest idols? In allegiance to the dominant power of earthly rulers? Or will they trust, instead, in the One whose life, death, and resurrection reveal the mercy and justice of the living God?”
If we agree with Peter, and want to give our allegiance to the anointed One of the living God, how might we help each other, to see and know, God at work in the world? How might we as the church, model the truth of Peter’s confession to all the others we know and love? What kinds of “experiences of Jesus” have we had, that we want share?
Apparently, Philip and his loyal elites were not around to hear Peter’s confession, because right after that, Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” A secret for now, at least. His time had not yet come.
But the cat is out of the bag for his disciples. All they have left to do, is decide if they believe, and if they will follow.
The odds against them, look grim. But in the end, they know too much. The evidence is overwhelming. They realize there is no other choice.
We choose life. We choose the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who is transforming us and renewing our world.