February 15, 2015
Near the end of his ministry, Jesus took his disciples on a field trip, north into Roman territory to the city of Caesarea Philippi, a city that had been conquered many times, was once dedicated to the Greek god Pan, but had been rebuilt by Herod Philip and renamed to honor Caesar—and Philip. It was a center of Roman rule in the region. In the cliff next to the city, niches had been carved over the centuries to hold idols, from the early worship of the Baals, to the Greek gods, and finally the Roman gods. The worshipers of all these idols had at one time conquered and ruled the people of Israel. It was there that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
So they told him what they had heard: John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Now for the tough question, “But who do you say that I am?” Can you imagine the silence? Finally Peter says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Brian McLaren writes:
It may sound like Peter is making a theological claim with these words. But in this setting, they’re as much a political statement as a theological one. Christ is the Greek translation for the Hebrew term Messiah, which means “the one anointed as liberating king.” To say “liberating king” anywhere in the Roman empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, “You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.”
Do you hear the dangerous expectations in Peter’s declaration? McLaren continues:
Similarly, son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars call themselves “sons of the gods,” but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and living God. The Greek and Roman gods in their little niches in the cliff face may be called on to support the dominating rule of the Caesars. But the true and living God stands behind the liberating authority of Jesus.
Jesus blessed Peter for his insightful statement, declaring that, “On this rock I will build my church.” It is unclear whether the rock upon which the Church would be built meant Peter himself or the Christological confession, or both. But Jesus added that the powers of Hades, “authority structures or control centers of evil,” could not prevail against Christ’s Church. It must have been a heady moment for Peter, especially standing in a power center of the Roman Empire.
Realizing the political implications of Peter’s profession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus moved quickly to disabuse his disciples of any notion of violent uprising or revolution. Jesus’ ministry was based on healing and restoring God’s community of the beloved. Violence and controlling power have to place in God’s Kingdom. Jesus identified with the suffering servant that Isaiah promised. He understood himself to be a prince of peace and not a prince of war or violence. And so he revealed to his disciples what he expected to happen to him. He knew that what was being said of him put him in the crosshairs of the religious leaders and the Roman authorities. He expected to be killed, but he also expected that opposition to God’s Kingdom by “authority structures or control centers of evil” would not prevail against God’s love.
Peter jumped immediately to Jesus’ defense. Nothing was going to happen to Jesus on Peter’s watch. But I think Jesus heard in Peter’s anxiety, his own fear of what was likely and his own desire to avoid death—to fight back or flee. And as he did when he was tempted in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry to pursue a path of political and economic power, he pushed that temptation behind him: “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The temptation to live into the hopes for a liberating Messiah must have been staggering. But liberation through violence was only another form of slavery. Jesus would not engage in violence. He found his power only in God’s love. If it was true for Jesus, it was true for his disciples and any who would follow him. Their love would have to be stronger than the power of violence that would seek to destroy them. To be fully alive, their love would have to be stronger than the fear of death.
Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James and John on another field trip. This time they went up a mountain to pray. They had a mountaintop experience of revelation, the whole of the law and the prophets represented in Moses and Elijah, coming together in Jesus. They would have stayed there worshiping forever. They even heard the voice of God claiming Jesus as God’s beloved son with an admonition to listen to Jesus! Exclamation point! The disciples fell to the ground in fear, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. They had beheld the glory of God and it should not make them afraid. They wanted to stay and worship, but Jesus led them back down to mountain to engage once again with the world. There is a quote on the cover of your bulletin this morning from Steve Garnaas-Holmes:
The glory of God is not splendor; it's compassion. As Jesus opens his heart to the brokenness of the world, God's compassion shines in him. The glory of God does not belong to the powerful. It showers down on us when God's heart pours out in compassion on our suffering. And it shines from us when we reach out and touch the hurting. Compassion is the glory that lights our way.
To remain in God’s glory, to dwell within the law and the prophets as Jesus did, we have to practice compassion above all other disciplines.
Jesus still takes disciples on field trips. Pay attention to those places and events that take you out of your normal routine. Whether you travel across the world or stand in line at the grocery store, Jesus can surprise you if you pay attention. Who has power in this moment? And who does not? Who do we say that Jesus is? Where can God be found in this situation? Who is “king” here? When we look at the “authority structures or control centers of evil” today, do we believe that that they cannot prevail against greater violence, or against God’s compassion? Which has more power now? Which has more power ultimately? What blesses and gives life? What tempts you to seek power through violence, verbal or physical? Is there an alternative? How can you enter the glory of God’s compassion? How does worship prepare you for the ministry to which God calls you?
Like Peter, sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong. We are on a journey with Jesus and he is teaching us all along the way, revealing God’s heart in unexpected moments. Listen to him!