Grace Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2020, Pentecost 12A (livestream)
The Confession of Caesarea Philippi
Like many of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospel of Matthew, this story has a parallel in the gospel of Mark – or actually a predecessor, since it seems extremely certain that Mark’s gospel was written well before Matthew’s. In most cases the accounts are largely the same, but sometimes there are slight differences between the two, and sometimes those differences in wording or phrasing can be quite substantial in how the story gets read. This is one of those stories.
While Mark’s gospel describes the conversation recorded here as happening while Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Caesarea Philippi, Matthew records it as happening after they had arrived there – when they “came into the district of Caesarea Philippi” is how the NRSV renders it. For Mark, language of being “on the way” is frequent enough that it suggests an easy metaphor; the journey from one place to another becomes a representation of the journey of discipleship, the journey of following Jesus. For Matthew to place the discussion in Caesarea Philippi itself, similarly, comes freighted with meaning in a different way, having to do with the nature and history of that location itself.
The earliest history of this location seems to have been as what southerners might call a “stop in the road,” a location with a nearby spring for travelers on an important trade route between the port city of Tyre and the inland city of Damascus. The conquest of the region by Alexander the Great’s armies and the resulting “Hellenization” of the region added a new level of significance to that spring; it was quickly appropriated as a shrine to the Greek god Pan and the location given the name Paneas.
The subsequent occupation of the area by Rome added one more bit of significance. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, the local Roman puppet ruler Herod the Great (yes, both of those names are familiar from the Nativity story in Luke’s gospel) built a grand temple at the location in honor of his patron, the emperor (and perhaps also to overshadow the older Greek shrine). His son Philip expanded upon his father’s work, building a full-fledged city there. Thus the location became Caesarea Philippi – a city of Caesar belonging to Philip.
So this wasn’t just some anonymous town for Jesus and the disciples to stop for a rest. For Jesus to ask “who do you say that I am?” and for Peter to answer “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” in this particular city of all places carried a weight of the words themselves – which are weighty and powerful enough, to be sure! But it’s one thing simply to say that “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God“, and another thing to do so in a location carrying the marks of three of the greatest obstacles to the human understanding of God:
- Empire – as the seat of political power in the area, Caesarea was as much the emblem of Rome as any city in Palestine.
- Idolatry – both the shrine to Caesar and the older shrine to Pan make the location an excellent stand-in for a whole host of “idols” seeking to detract from God – and remember, any religion can lapse into idolatry…and finally,
- Money – don’t forget that ancient history as a center on a trade route.
Given Matthew’s penchant for making everything in his gospel have some level of extra significance, it’s hard to believe he didn’t give extra emphasis to this conversation happening in this city. To claim Jesus, inevitably, is to reject these other claims on us.
On such an occasion it would be easy for someone like Peter to get a little puffed up and full of himself. Jesus’s words in response to Peter’s statement would go a long way towards getting Peter all puffed up, at least at first glance. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Jesus says, and you can imagine Peter all flush-cheeked and waiting for Jesus to lay it on thick. But what comes next changes course a bit: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Nice job, Rocky, but you didn’t come up with that all by yourself.
It’s a bit of humility we can all stand to take to heart. Even the ability to understand just a little bit, to catch just a flash of a moment of insight into what God is doing with us or in us or among us; even that is a gift of God, ministered by the Holy Spirit. This discourse from Jesus that follows, a part of the story not found in Mark’s version, becomes a necessary moment of instruction about our role in Jesus’s work in the world.
Peter made the good confession, yes. Literally across the centuries since then, Christians have sought to give words to the call of God upon the church, to put down, in that moment and in that place, what God was doing amongst them and how God was leading them. Many of those statements are found in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. Some of those confessions even reflect the place where they were written down – the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of Belhar, for example. In many ways Peter’s “Confession of Caesarea Philippi” is the forerunner of all of these, and Jesus’s disclaimer to Peter – “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” – had better be true of any such statement that comes along, or it’s really not worth the trouble of writing it down. In the midst of all the idols the world offers for our adoration, it is the Spirit that gives us the answer, “Jesus is Lord.”
Verses 18 and 19 have frankly become lightning rods for disagreement within the larger scope of Christianity. For example, the statement of Jesus about “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” becomes a sticking point depending on what you decide about “this rock“; does it refer to Peter himself, an interpretation significant in Catholic thought and understanding of Peter as the forerunner of the papacy? Or does “this rock” refer to Peter’s declaration, a more widely held Protestant interpretation? All of what follows, about the authority represented in the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and things being bound or loosed on earth, gets hung up in this particular thicket. And the final verse of this reading, one that is carried over from Mark wrapping up all of Matthew’s added material, makes less sense here than in Mark’s gospel, in which the so-called “Messianic secret” is a consistent theme. But perhaps it’s better to address that verse in next week’s message.
At any rate, the idols of Caesarea Philippi – empire, money, and even “religion” itself – still contend against the faith of those who would seek to follow Christ. And if we take nothing else away from this account of Peter’s confession, we must take this: we do not resist those temptations on our own, reliant on nothing but our brains or our heart or our emotional commitment or anything like that. We resist those idols because God gives, as God gave to Peter, the words to say and hear and do in order to follow faithfully and to live as Christ would have us live in a world that would rather us not.
For the good confession, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #321, The Church’s One Foundation; #—, Let Kings and Prophets Yield Their Name