I’ve mentioned before that geography is important to the gospel writers. Each of them uses geographical details in slightly different ways, but paying attention to where events are said to take place, paying attention to Jesus’ itinerary, helps elucidate larger themes in the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus.
In today’s gospel reading we are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. He’s been traveling a great deal in these chapters. A couple of weeks ago, he was in Galilee, and as we saw, he and his disciples crossed over the Sea of Galilee. Then, last week, in the reading from chapter 15, Jesus went from there far to the northwest, to the region of Tyre and Sidon, along the Mediterranean coast. After that, Matthew tells us, he returned to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Now, he and his disciples are in or near Caesarea Philippi. That’s far to the north on the border of the province of Syria, in a region controlled by Philipp, Herod the Great’s son. Caesarea was a city that Augustus had given to Herod and Herod had rebuilt. There was a marble temple to the gods. When Philipp succeeded his father, he continued the building spree and renamed the city Caesarea Philippi, in honor of his imperial patron and himself. Like all such cities in the Roman Empire, it was a projection of Roman power and culture. It was both symbol of that power and a central node of power.
It was here that Jesus asked these two questions—“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Those of us who are familiar with the story, familiar with the Christian tradition, know a little bit of how this story has been interpreted in the history of Christianity. It is a founding text for notions of papal supremacy, and the power of the institutional church. “On this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” As you probably know, one of the most common symbols of the papacy are the papal tiara above two crossed keys.
But I’m not interested in that tradition of interpretation. Rather, I want to focus on the power and significance of those two questions, and I want to imagine, if you can, Jesus asking those questions today, on Madison’s Capitol Square, or perhaps on Allied Drive, or in the halls of the US Capitol, or the White House, or in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, or today, on the flooded streets of Houston. Jesus asked his questions in the shadow of empire, with the presence of Roman military and cultural power dominating the landscape and no doubt the minds and lives of the residents.
Who do people say that I am?
That’s the easy question to answer. The disciples had no problem offering answers—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. What answers would you give to that question today?
“Who do you say that I am?”
That’s the hard one and I can imagine the disciples looking away, looking down at their sandals, trying to avoid Jesus’ searching gaze. Awkward silence, until Peter blurted his response,, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And I can see the other disciples rolling their eyes as Peter responded, thinking to themselves, “There he goes again. Why doesn’t he just shut up?”
But Peter’s answer was not because he had studied harder than the other disciples, that he had memorized everything Jesus had said. Peter’s answer came not from himself but from God. And even he didn’t know what his answer meant. A few verses later, after protesting in response to Jesus’ prediction of his arrest, execution, and resurrection, Jesus would call Peter, “Satan.” And as we know, Peter would deny Jesus at the moment it mattered most.
Still, now, he made the confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
We live in perilous times for Christianity. It’s not just the rise in the numbers of those who claim no religious affiliation. There’s the close identification of evangelical Christianity with right-wing political views, the conflation of American Christianity with American nationalism and of course, white supremacy and racism.
I’ve been following a hashtag on twitter #emptythepews, that offers a space for people to share their stories of how they have been hurt by Christianity. While the overwhelming number of stories are told by former evangelical Protestants, there are plenty of ex-Catholics, and I even read a few stories from people who grew up in the Episcopal Church. For me it’s a heartbreaking experience to read of the lingering pain caused by Christians, caused by congregations and pastors, caused by doctrinal and moral rigidity, and hypocrisy.
We might even think that the questions Jesus asks here are primarily doctrinal—about his nature and identity with God. You might have thought, as I gave you silence a few minutes, “Now what does the Nicene Creed say?”
You might think that Jesus wants an answer full of doctrinal statements. But I don’t think that’s the case. Jesus asked the question of his closest friends and companions, people who had walked with him across Galilee, to the Mediterranean, and now to the far north. They had listened to him, even when they didn’t always understand what he meant; they had seen him heal the sick, cast out demons, feed thousands. They had stuck with him even after they heard of John the Baptist’s death, and begun to imagine that a similar fate might await their leader as well.
They might not have been able to say the words—even Peter needed God’s help to say them, but deep inside, I think they probably were sensing something of who Jesus was, because they were getting to know him.
I don’t think the point is that we get the answer right. After all, Peter didn’t really understand what the words he was saying meant. I think the point is the conversation—hearing Jesus’ questions, taking them seriously, wrestling with them, and in that response, opening ourselves to him and to his love.
Our American culture, American Christianity, have named Jesus but I don’t think those of us who experience and know Jesus in ways different than that, who see in him someone who welcomes the stranger, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, loves his enemy, can simply argue for an alternative definition, blurt out a different response to the question. We have to show in our lives, and in our community who Jesus is.
When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” he does not want an answer in word or doctrine. He is asking us to speak from our hearts; he is asking to see us put our answer into action, not words.
Who do you say that I am? That may be the most urgent question facing us today in the midst of all of our political turmoil. Can we confess, and express a Jesus who offers hope to those in despair, who breaks down the barriers that divide us, who loves everyone, without exception, and whose love casts out our fear?