Last week, Jesus was in the territory of Tyre and Sidon. Those cities were originally Phoenician, on the coast of the Mediterranean, north of Judea and northeast of Galilee, Jesus’ homeland. It was not only foreign territory; its inhabitants were not religiously Jewish. Now, he inland from the coast to Caesarea Philippi. It’s still a good distance north of Galilee. More importantly, it was a significant religious and political site.
In Caesarea, there was a sanctuary to the Greek God Pan. A spring inside a cave was one of the sources of the Jordan River. As is so often the case, the site had been a religious shrine for centuries. In fact before being renamed Caesarea in honor of the Emperor, its name was Panion, in honor of the Greek god. Caesarea’s history was bound up both with the Roman Empire and with their clients in the region, Herod and his family. In Jesus’ day, the territory was controlled by Philipp, Herod the Great’s son. Caesarea was a city that Augustus had given to Herod and Herod had rebuilt. 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. Troops headquartered there were responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, events that would have been in the living memory of the first readers of Matthew’s gospel.
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 on the streets of all the cities where protests are ongoing, or in ICUs all over the country where medical workers are caring for COVID victims.
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.”
The culture in which we live is dominated by religious imagery. We see appeals to Christian faith on bumper stickers and at political conventions. We see the cynical use of symbols of Christianity to win and consolidate power, to divide and conquer, to marginalize and disempower, to amass wealth and influence.
And we see the consequences of such cynical use of Christianity, in the alienation of so many from the teachings of Jesus and from churches, in the desperate search for meaning and connection in secular activities, in the rise of conspiracy theories.
What are the temples of idolatry in our culture? Where are the images and symbols of empire? What entities demand our allegiance and worship?
Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
It’s easy to confess with our lips that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but to live our lives as expression of that confession is much, much harder. To commit ourselves to Christ apart from all the cultural trappings and imperial idolatry that has accrued to his image in this nation, to turn our backs on the temples of wealth, privilege, white supremacy, and American exceptionalism is another matter entirely.
From here, from Caesarea Philippi, Jesus would begin his long journey to Jerusalem, a journey that would end in his crucifixion, a victim of imperial violence.
In this world of violence and oppression, anger, hatred, and fear, it’s easy to lose sight of who Jesus is and what he means. It’s easy to remake him into an idol that reflects our desires and values, our greed and desire for power and influence. It’s easy to lose sight of the cross that stands at the end of his journey.
But if we want to confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we must open ourselves to be transformed into his image and likeness, to be shaped by the cross on which he died, and by the love for which he died. To confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is to invite him to enter our lives, grow more deeply into holiness, and when we stumble and falter on that journey, to ask forgiveness and to be reconciled by his love. May we find the strength to confess his name and the joy of growing more deeply in relationship with him.