Challenges of Caesarea-Philippi

Preached on 13 September 2015 at St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, Tacoma, WA
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B

I love to travel.  This past April, my husband and I went to Italy.  We started in Milan – the banking capital of Italy.  They say that for every church in Rome, there is a bank in Milan.  One morning, we went to see one of its more famous sculptures.  It’s a modern sculpture and it stands in front of the Stock Exchange in the middle of the financial district of the city.  Everywhere you look there is a bank, housed in a large, imposing, almost cathedral-looking building.

As I understand it, the people were invited to submit designs for a piece of public art. And right there in front of the Stock Exchange is the sculpture that won the contest.  It was originally intended to be temporary, but because of its popularity, it has become a permanent installation.  It was designed by someone in the Italian equivalent of our Occupy Wall Street movement and it depicts a hand – with three of the fingers missing.  Its orientation makes it clear that the 1% is flipping off the 99% to put it in American terms.

Just a short walk away is the Duomo, the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Nativity, the second largest church in Italy, the 5th largest in the world.  It is magnificent and beautiful inside and out.  Across from the Duomo are the buildings of the fascist regime.  You can see the balconies from which Mussolini addressed the nation.

There are symbols of power and domination everywhere you look.  Most of them, architecturally, are designed to make one feel small, powerless, inconsequential.

We ended our trip in Rome with St. Peter’s Basilica inside the fortress of the Vatican walls, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.  Nearly everywhere we went along the way had remnants of Rome.  Even after 1,500 years or more of decay, they are still imposing.

A year earlier, we travelled to New York City and Washington, D.C.  Here too, we were surrounded by symbols and structures of power: Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, skyscrapers, the cathedrals of business, so to speak, turning the streets into dark canyons, and Times Square bright as midday even at midnight, lit by huge walls of animated billboards – the Collossus of our time, I guess.

In Washington, we found spacious, marbled buildings with domes and statues and Greek columns.  It was designed to look and feel like Rome.  It is beautiful and the city seems to pulsate with power.  You can feel it in the air.

Now, turn your attention to Caesarea-Philippi.  In the far northeastern corner of Galilee, it is at what was once the edge of Israel at the height of its power.  In Jesus’ time, it is very decidedly a Roman city; the seat of worship of the emperor and the Greek god, Pan.

While Jesus and the disciples are talking, they are surrounded by buildings and symbols of power and dominance – of the many competing gods, so to speak, each demanding tribute, obedience, worship.

It is here, not in the intimacy of a boat on the lake; not in the relative safety of Jerusalem or even Nazareth or Capernaum but out on the edge, in the shadow of imperial propaganda, where their answer could mean their life, that Jesus asks the disciples, “but who do you say that I am?”  Surrounded by images of a plethora of gods, Jesus is asking them, who or maybe which is God?  To whom will you give your worship and allegiance?

And Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah.”  Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for; the one to restore Israel and overthrow their Roman oppressors, he must be thinking.

But Jesus is not the type of messiah that Peter is expecting.  Jesus responds with what messiah-ship looks like: suffering, rejection by religious leaders, execution, and rising again.  Peter can’t accept it and says so.  Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan,” reminiscent of the Temptations in the desert.  “You are thinking of human things, not divine things.”

He calls the crowd over and describes discipleship.  It doesn’t sound very appealing. Denying yourself, taking up your cross, losing your life for his sake in order to save it.

There in Caesarea-Philippi, in the shadow of Roman power, taking up your cross can mean only one thing – death.  The Romans crucify political dissidents.  This is not the outcome they expected.

Today’s reading is something of a turning point in Mark’s gospel.  It’s right in the middle of the book – and the journey. Jesus has been traveling around Galilee teaching, healing, casting out demons, feeding multitudes – twice, in fact.  He has been discerning his mission.  Now they have reached the outer edge of the region.  The next event, six days later, will be the Transfiguration. That’s when Jesus goes up a mountain with his three closest disciples and there, before their eyes, Jesus is transfigured – his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah show up and talk with him and a voice from heaven declares, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”  When they come down again, they set their course for Jerusalem and the Passion.

Mark’s gospel challenges us.  The author packs so much in just a short space, it’s hard to know where to begin.  What part of the story catches your attention or your heart?  What brings you up short?  What questions might you ask yourself?

Maybe it’s the location that catches your attention – Caesarea-Philippi.  Where are the Caesarea-Philippi’s of my world?  Which powers are competing to dominate my life, demanding tribute in the form of my attention, my energy, my time, my resources?

Who do I say Jesus is – especially in the Caesarea-Philippi’s of my life?  A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how our lives reflect our theology.  Who does my life say Jesus is?

Peter couldn’t accept that the Messiah would suffer and die. Jesus said he was focused not on divine things but on human things. How are human knowledge and expectation in tension with the aims of God?  Or getting more personal, what are my expectations of God?  Do we still hope for a god to sweep in and fix all the evil in the world?

What would it mean for me to take up my cross and follow Jesus? Or do I hope that Jesus’ words only applied in Roman times?

Mark wrote in challenging times when tension and unrest were building between Israel and Rome, before the Siege of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple.  His gospel was challenging then and it is challenging even now.  It’s gritty and real and makes us uncomfortable.

And yet, and yet… 2,000 years of Christianity has shown us that what Jesus says is true.  The way of the cross, following Jesus truly is the way of Life.