Proper 16A 2005 Matthew 16:13-20
In case you might not have noticed, there is an election coming up next year. The three major highways we have here, US 360,
and Virginia Routes 3 and 200 seem lined with signs announcing the names of the candidates and the offices for which they
are running: Tim Kaine for Governor; Jerry Kilgore for Governor. These signs jar upon our consciousness, telling us what
each man wants to be, what he wants to become.
But who are they really? We know the titles they have: one is the lieutenant governor, the other is the attorney general,
of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The really interesting question is this: who do they say that they are. In a political
election year, the answer to that often seems like a moveable feast. Candidates reinvent themselves – that is, the
message changes – depending on the charges and countercharges hurled from speakers platforms, newspaper interviews,
and press conferences.
But most of all candidates show a willingness to let us tell them who they are. Hardly a week goes by without the announcement
of the results pf some new poll or the other that influence the way candidates present themselves, how they tell us who they
are. For political junkies, these are exciting times and passions can run high. Others just wish the campaign season would
just go away, or at least be severely shortened. And some of us are never certain about who the candidates really are. The
road signs only tell us what they want to be.
Let’s shift to another roadside. It’s a dusty dirt road in the hills above and East of the Jordan Rift. It is
Gentile country, away from the Jewish Aramaic speaking part of ancient Palestine to the west. It is near the town of Caesarea
Philippi, a name reeking of the Roman imperium and the earlier Greek diaspora.
Jesus and his disciples came to Caesarea Philippi after they were forced to flee from Galilee. In Galilee Herod Antipas
wanted to have Jesus killed, and it was no longer safe for him there. It was while he and his disciples were trudging down
the roads of the district of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus came to realize that his earthly ministry in Galilee was over and
that it was time to move on to Jerusalem.
Why Caesarea Philippi? Probably because it was a foreign country where Jesus and his people were not known. Furthermore,
here he was relatively safe, out of the reach of Antipas. Jesus also wanted to have some quiet, private, quality time to spend
with his disciples before they traveled onto Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was also relatively close to Capernaum, where Jesus
lived as a young adult, a walk on foot of approximately two days.
It was as they were making their way to safety that Jesus performed some extraordinary miracles. There were two feeding
miracles, the five thousand and the four thousand. There was the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman. And finally
Jesus walking on the water. These supernatural events, these divine acts of immense, even unlimited power had his disciples
mumbling to themselves: “Who is this Jesus whom we thought we knew?”
That’s our question even today. We look at his miracles and explain them away, seeking any way we can to deny that
they actually happened, that they actually were miracles, that they actually were manifestations of Jesus divinity. When
we seek all the alternate, more commonplace, indeed, more comforting – shall we say even safer – interpretations
of these miracles, we have trouble with Jesus question to his disciples and to us: “Who do YOU say that I am?”
So, there they are, the thirteen of them, Jesus and the Twelve, on the road again. It was an ordinary day. The weather
was nice, had been nice for the past several days. And now late in the second day of this part of their journey on foot –
nowhere is it written down that the adult Jesus went anywhere except by foot but for the one time he rode a donkey into Jerusalem.
And now they are just entering the district of Caesarea Philippi.
One of the three sources for the Jordan River is located in Caesarea Philippi, the Hermon Springs. Just above these springs
was a pagan Roman temple which was tere during the first century. Located just to the northeast of the temple is a deep cave
known as the Cave of Pan. The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, speaking of the Cave of Pan, wrote that `hard by the
foundations of Jordan...there is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at
its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains
a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when anybody lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath
the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it.'"
This cave was known as the entrance to the underworld or the abode of the dead in pagan belief. The cave was also known
as the Gates of Hades during the first century. It was probably near to here that Jesus started asking these questions of
his disciples. (1)
When they get there, Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" We don’t know why he started
asking such questions. He might have been testing the disciples. Or he might simply have wanted to know what his disciples
had heard the people were saying about him in the crowds that had followed him about Galilee.
Most of the disciples don’t get it right. Like many people since they missed the essential significance of the miracles
to which they themselves had been eyewitnesses. Perhaps they, too, influenced by the rationalistic Greek culture that was
spotted throughout Palestine and which heavily influenced their Roman overlords, sought to rationalize the fact of the miraculous
away. They answer with “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
We don’t know whether Jesus was frustrated or even impatient with these off the mark answers. But we do know that
he pursued his question He asked them, “But who do YOU say that I am?”
You can almost imagine the world standing in utter still silence, the sun halting in the sky, the whole of creation halting
in place, still, listening, waiting to hear the answer. It was a moment out of time, beyond time, this moment when the universe
waited to hear the answer, the answer for which it had been waiting through all time and eternity, waiting and hoping from
the very beginning of all that was and is and is to be.
We can imagine the disciples frozen in place until the answer came. And in his answer, Peter, Saint Peter who represents
so much of what is both good and ill in all humanity, good old Saint Peter redeems himself for all time when he speaks the
answer: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
You can imagine the thunder of that answer shaking the mountain, roaring across the skies, shaking the whole of Creation with
its rightness and its power. At last. At last the Messiah has come. And the sun moves again across the sky and the stars
dance with joy as they did the night Jesus was born. At last. At last it has been said. At last.
About those who ever since have denied the significance of that answer, who would, as the current Jesus Seminar, make Jesus
less than he is, C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity had this to say:
“I am here trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m
ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing
we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.
He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil
of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You
can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and
God. But let us not come with any of that patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that
open to us. Nor did he intend to.” (2)
The question – and the answer – still face us in this Twenty-First Century: “But who do YOU say that I
am?” And the whole creation waits, listening for our answer.
1. Charles Page, II, Dean of the Jerusalem Center, in Sermons Illustrations for 21 Aqugust 2004 and from Charles R. Page,
II, and Carl A. Volz, The Land and the Book: An Introduction to the World of the Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993, pp.
107-108, as cited in Ibid.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, MacMillan, 1943, p. 55-56, with thanks to Paul Janke, as quoted in eSermons Illustrations
for August 21, 2005.