Location! Location! Location! It’s not just the key to real estate; it’s often the key to the gospel of Mark. “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.” If Mark bothered to tell us where they were going, it must have something to do with what they did or said on the way there.
The gospels mention two different areas known by this name, one on the western coast of Judea, on the Mediterranean Sea, and this one, which is inland. It is northeast of Galilee, which is north of Jerusalem, so it’s quite a ways away from the Temple and the center of the Jewish faith. In fact, it’s getting to be about as far away from the center of the Jewish population as a Jewish person would probably want to get in Roman occupied Palestine. It’s also the farthest north Jesus ever goes during his ministry.
The region was important religiously to the Syrians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Temples and idols of Syrian gods dotted the landscape. The Greeks believed it to be the birthplace of Pan, and named the area Panias. The Romans gave it its biblical name, Caesarea Philippi. Having been given the region by Caesar Augustus 20 years before the birth of Christ, Herod the Great built a great temple of white marble to honor the godhead of Caesar. The city itself was built later by his son Herod Philip. Hence the name, Caesarea Philippi.
Needless to say, Jesus and his disciples were crossing some very important boundaries as they made their way on the road to Caesarea Philippit. They were moving toward a place where worship of Caesar and worship of Pan was far more common and acceptable than worship of God, whom they knew as Yahweh, God whom they declared was the ONLY God. Walking on road in an area littered with the temples of the Syrian gods, a place where the Greek gods looked down, a place where the white marble splendor of the home of Caesar-worship dominated the landscape, they were crossing the boundary into a culture that was foreign, possibly hostile, and definitely not receptive to their beliefs.
Their trip was taking them into a multi-cultural pressure cooker. There was likely anxiety about where they were going and how different they would be. They would soon be in the minority, always a stressful place to be. They would soon need to figure out who they were going to act, talk, believe, and behave in the middle of a completely different culture. So on the way, Jesus begins to prepare them for what they will experience with a couple of questions. It always helps to discern your way through the future with a reminder of your beliefs that define you.
“Who do the people say that I am?” Jesus asked his followers. The reports sounds like a biblical all-star line-up to us – John the Baptist, the prophet Elijah, others of the prophets Israel honors. They were all strong men. Remembered men. Men who made a difference, but also, lest we forget, they were men who were known for disrupting the culture. Visionary men with visions that challenged the establishment, criticizing the status quo, as visions often do. They were men who were not necessarily honored by the culture where they ministered, and in fact, John the Baptist was so DIShonored his head showed up on a silver platter. A biblical all-star list, yes, but at the same time not a list you necessarily hope to be on for safety’s sake.
This is probably not a problem we’d have so much. People don’t really see Jesus as THAT controversial of a person anymore. Maybe we’ve gotten to the opposite end of the spectrum even. If people are even thinking of Jesus, they don’t see him as much of ANYTHING – a good teacher, maybe, a wise sage, a spiritual man at best. But a political danger, a world disrupter, a threat to ANYTHING? Probably not. And whether it’s the chicken or the egg, more and more people don’t see his followers as having much impact or relevancy either.
The culture that surrounds us, Jesus’ followers, those on the road with him, is dismissive at best, hostile at worst to the message we hope to proclaim. Do unto others has turned into do what’s best for me. The rugged self-sufficient individual is worshiped more than the selfless servant of others. Our public opinion poll about Jesus may turn up very different responses today than it did years ago, but as we are walking around in a culture as foreign to our faith as the disciples in Caesarea Philippi, the follow-up question would have to be the same.
If this what the world think of Jesus, if they even THINK of Jesus, a teacher, a guru, or a speaker of generic universal wisdom, if this is what the competing and dominant culture says about him, then he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?
It’s what he asked the disciples. That’s what the people think of me, but what do YOU think? Who do YOU say that I am? As they are making their way into a foreign land. As they are moving deeper and deeper into a very different culture. As they are becoming even more of a minority than they have already been. As they are making plans for their ministry when they get to this new location, the important question for Jesus comes, “Who do you say that I am?”
It’s the question we have to ask ourselves periodically, too. It’s a question we have to ask as we find ourselves living and working in a culture that is competing with our faith. It’s a question we have to ask when we face challenges in our lives.
“Who is Jesus?” when I’m out of work and running out of money?
“Who is Jesus?” when relationships are disintegrating?
“Who is Jesus?” when I don’t know how to be the person I’m becoming?
It’s the question we have to ask when we face challenges in our society.
“Who is Jesus?” when we can’t speak to each other respectfully?
“Who is Jesus?” when wars take the lives of the world’s sons and daughters?
“Who is Jesus?” when some live with luxurious abundance and others live in poverty?
It’s a question we have to ask when we stand at the threshold of a new day as a church.
“Who is Jesus?” when we are blessedly surrounded by children?
“Who is Jesus?” when we’re wondering how to serve our community?
“Who is Jesus?” when we are discerning our mission and calling in the world?
Who is Jesus? Who do we say that he is?
Always the first to raise his hand, Peter spoke up with the perfect answer, straight from the textbook, “You are the Messiah,” but knowingly Jesus told him to keep what he declared quiet. The words from Peter’s lips sounded just right, but Jesus knew he’d have to teach the meditations of their hearts about what his sort of Messiah would be. Peter and the others were expecting a conquerer who will free Israel from its captors, a king who will rule from David’s throne, a priest who will bless the people as he ushers in a peaceful and PROSPEROUS era. So, Jesus’ idea about great suffering and rejection, killing and rising again, that wasn’t what Peter was talking about. So, Peter rebukes Jesus for getting it all wrong, and Jesus rebukes him right back.
This question, “Who do you say that I am?” and its answers, matter. This question, “Who do say that I am?” and our responses make a difference. If we expect to be the followers of the Messiah, a king who is touched by no sadness nor suffering, we’re going to be rudely awakened when see him in pain. If we expect to be the followers of the Messiah, a wise teacher widely respected, we’re going to be shocked when we see him rejected and ignored. If we expect to be the followers of the Messiah, a heralded, lauded, and honored leader, we’re going to be crushed when we witness his death on a humiliating cross.
Followers of the kind of Messiah the disciples expect, followers of the kind of Messiah we sometimes secretly wish for, don’t have to worry about losing jobs, because they are always the boss. Followers of the kind of the kind of Messiah the disciples expect don’t have to be worried about being spit at or mocked, because they when they walk by people stop to watch with respect, when they stand up to speak people stop to listen. Followers of that kind of Messiah don’t have to wait in line, or share what they have, or worry that there won’t be enough or it won’t be good enough, because they are always first and people always bring the best to them. Followers of that kind of Messiah never have to worry that a street or a plane or a trip to the city will be unsafe, because the strength and the might and the reputation of their Messiah will protect them.
If, however, we hear and believe in the kind of Messiah Jesus says he is, if we see the kind of Messiah Jesus has shown us he is, then the way we follow him will be completely different. We won’t expect to be treated like we’re on the side of the good guy. We won’t anticipate the seat of honor in every public forum. We won’t count on the world catering to our every desire. We won’t put our needs, our desires, our cravings before those of others. We won’t be exempt from helping our neighbor or the stranger on the street before we help ourselves. We won’t expect the world to understand our call to show love and mercy without boundaries, justice without retribution.
Because the Messiah that Jesus is in the world, is not the kind of Messiah the world expects. And therefore the followers of Jesus, those who walk on the road with him into a culture that stands against him, are called to followed him in these unexpected ways. We are called to leave our lives behind to live cross-culturally, in a way completely different from the culture around us. We are called to live in the culture of the cross, in a culture of sacrifice and sometimes even suffering, in a culture of selflessness and compassion for others, in a culture of gospel mercy. We are called to bring a culture of love, a culture of forgiveness, a culture of compassion, a culture of mercy, the culture of the cross to the relationships we are in, the community where we live, and the world we serve.
The way we live as Jesus’ followers should show exactly what we believe about who he is, because knowing who we are following gives us the map for the way forward on the road in a different culture. Knowing who we are following gives us the rules for the cross culture. We are called to pick up things, ideals, beliefs and priorities that feel cumbersome, awkward to carry, maybe just maybe even humiliating before the world. We will need use our time in ways that honors God. We will need to treat those who hurt us in a way that brings dignity to our relationship. We will need to budget and spend our money in a way that pleases the Messiah.
As a church we will need to set priorities for our future and organize our mission in a way that may feel heavy and uncertain at first. We could be called to give up the programs we’ve held onto, give up our pre-conceived ideas, our cravings, our comforts, the things we hold onto too tightly in order to take up a new and life-giving vision. We will need to look at what we are being called to be and do NOW, not just what we’ve always done in the past.
Who do you say that he is? Ask yourself. Ask each other, because the answer matters. The answer tells us who and how we will follow. Is he a teacher, a prophet, a peacemaker, the Messiah? Who do we say that he is and how will the world know our answer?