Preached on 3 September 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A
Borderlands. Caesarea-Philippi is in the borderlands. It’s about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Geo-politically it is at the very edge of the land of Israel, about as far away as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel. It’s a Roman city, named for the Caesar, of course, and Philip who is one of the sons of Herod the Great who died in 4 BCE. After Herod’s death, the governorship passed to his sons and the whole area was divided among them. Philip was the tetrarch of that district.
In the borderlands, people from different cultures and customs come into contact with each other. They discover other ways of well, everything. It is a place to encounter the Other.
Borderlands are often a crossroads, where trade routes come together. This city is particularly beautiful, lush and green with an abundance of water. There is a large waterfall and it is the major source of the Jordan River.
Caesarea-Philippi was also a spiritual borderland. It had long been a holy site for the many religions that had gone before. It was particularly known for the Cave of Pan, the god of fear, with its bottomless pool of still water into which people would throw their offerings. There were temples and shrines to a variety of pagan deities – Canaanite, Greek, Roman. Tradition says it is where the Israelite king, Jeroboam led the people astray to worship Baal.
It is here, in Caesarea-Philippi, about as far away as they can get from Jerusalem and the Temple, the center of holiness and worship, in the middle of numerous other religious sites, that God shows up and reveals, through Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. It is here, that Jesus first tells them what it will mean; that he will be crucified.
It is here, in the borderlands, at the crossroads, that Jesus sets before them a choice. If any of you want to be my disciples, you must renounce yourselves and take up your cross and follow me.
Six days later, he takes Peter, James, and John, and they go up Mt. Hebron, just up the road – another holy place. There, he is transfigured before their eyes and they hear the voice of God, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.”
When they come back down the mountain, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem in earnest. In the borderlands, at the crossroads, Jesus commits to this road.
The pertinent choice Jesus presents to the disciples, though is this. If anyone wants to be my follower, let them renounce themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Clearly, this is metaphorical. At this point, Jesus is not suggesting that the disciples each find a cross to carry. So, what does it mean to take up their cross – and particularly we might wonder what it could mean for us today who might want to follow Jesus?
It could be interpreted as prophecy, that Jesus is saying that the disciples will also be crucified, or in some way lose their lives.
Often it is thought to mean that we are to patiently endure whatever suffering life hands us, whether random life events like misfortune and chronic disease or suffering caused by human choices, like abuse. I don’t think Jesus means suffering for its own sake, though, because he goes on to say that those who lose their life for Jesus sake will find it.
For Jesus, crucifixion was the inevitable result of his commitment to his ministry – his teaching, his healing, and his challenge of those in power. It is the result of his proclamation of the kingdom of God – that there is a different, more life-giving way to be in the world, to be in relationship with God and our neighbor.
The cross shows us the profound love of God. It is a symbol of our sins forgiven. It is a sign of resurrection. But it is so much more.
Perhaps for Jesus, taking up his cross was embracing and committing to all of the work he came to do. “Loving his own, he loved them to the end,” John, the Evangelist, writes. Taking up the cross – the instrument of execution for those who challenge Rome, the symbol of imperial power that crushes the people – Jesus refused to accommodate a kingdom that is in opposition to the kingdom of God. You see, there is so much more to the cross than Jesus’ death.
What is your cross? What is it that Jesus invites you to embrace and commit your life to? It can be a life’s work, yes, but really, we don’t have to look far. Living the way of the cross is a whole series of those choices. If we miss one, there will always be another.
Here’s an example. There’s a meme making the rounds on the internet that says, “when this is over, we ought to erect a statue of a regular dude with a bass boat.”
Yeah, a regular dude in a bass boat rescuing his neighbors and taking them to safety. That bass boat is his cross. It’s the work God gives him to do right now. Living the way of the cross truly is the way of life.
God meets us in the borderlands of our lives, at the crossroads, shows us a cross or two or three, and offers us a choice.
“Will you take up your cross and follow Jesus?”