By the Reverend Sally S. Weaver
In the Gospel reading we just heard it says that Jesus and the disciples are near Caesarea Philippi.
So above is a map that shows all of Israel. You can see where Jerusalem is, that’s where Jesus dies and rises from the dead. Jesus is from north of there, from a region called Galilee. Here’s a larger map of that region, which shows you Nazareth where Jesus grew up and the Sea of Galilee. In this story Jesus and the disciples are 25 miles north in the town of Caesarea Philippi. Today the town is called Banias.
This is what it looks like today; I took this picture in 2015 when I was there. So you know that most of the people that Jesus met, talked to, and healed were Jewish, right? Jesus was Jewish; the disciples were Jewish. But Caesarea Philippi was not a Jewish city; it was a pagan city. What that means is that the people who lived there did not worship the God of the Jews. They worshiped a bunch of different gods.
At Caesarea Philippi, there were temples to some of these gods, and particularly to the Greek god Pan. This is a view from the air of what’s left: the ruins as they look today. This is a cave. You can see that there’s water in it, but it doesn’t flow out. But in Jesus’ day, water gushed out of that cave: it poured out from a spring.
The pagan people who worshiped here believed that the cave and the water in it led to the underworld, which is translated in today’s Gospel reading as "hell." So what you’re looking at here is "the gates of hell" referred to in our reading.
The pagans believed that Pan and the other gods retreated into the cave, and down through the gushing water into the underworld in the Winter, causing the earth to dry up and go dormant. When Pan returned in Spring, the earth bloomed and crops grew.
This is also a present-day picture. As you can see there’s no gushing water, but there is a trickle from the spring that causes this water to flow. Anyone want to guess the name of this stream? It’s the Jordan River. This is where the Jordan River starts, right here at Caesarea Philippi.
It seems to me that this location of Caesarea Philippi represents different choices. People could choose the gates of hell, the path through the gushing water into the dark underworld. Or they could choose the stream that becomes the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized and the voice said, “This is my Son…listen to him!”
Now notice this cut-out in the rock.
These niches would have held statues of the various gods. I suspect that this big one held a statue of Pan.
Pan, the god of wild and desolate places, was also the god of shepherds and flocks. Some shepherds chose to worship Pan. Some shepherds were visited by the heavenly host and went to Bethlehem to see the newborn baby Jesus.
Here are two more places in the rock wall for statues to be placed. Now imagine what this place looked like when Jesus and the disciples arrived. There would have been statues of gods all over this rock wall. There would have been people coming and going, offering homage to Pan, the underworld, darkness. Trying, out of fear, to appease gods who are moody, hard to please, and who they believe occasionally act out of revenge.
This is where Jesus stands when he asks the disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Look behind you, Jesus implies, here am I and here are other choices. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” And the word messiah means “Chosen one.” So Peter is saying, “Jesus, you are the one I choose.”
Jesus is a different choice than the gods in the niches. Jesus is a real, live, flesh-and-blood person who knows God intimately. And the God of Jesus can be trusted to love us, care about us, and always want dignity, sufficiency, and well-being for everyone and everything in creation.
As followers of Jesus, we also say that Jesus is the one we choose. But what does that mean? And how do we do that?
I can tell you that we adults don’t always choose Jesus. What I mean by that is that we don’t always trust Jesus with all of our heart and mind and strength. We tend to put various gods in these spots now and then. We turn our attention to money because we want to feel safe and secure. We put our energy into our ability to control, particularly in this time of COVID when we feel helpless over so much. We seek after belonging to the point of sometimes standing silently by as people in our group demean or ignore one another.
Jesus stands in front of these false gods of safety and security, of power and control, of affection and esteem. We proclaim that we are Christians, we are his followers. And Jesus asks us to consider how we are living our lives. Are we loving? Are we compassionate? Are we willing to speak the truth even when it’s difficult to say? Are we willing to hear the truth even when it’s difficult to accept? Do we put the needs of our community above our own individual desires?
Of course, Jesus loves us even when we choose badly. We can always decide to behave differently, ask for forgiveness for any harm we’ve caused, and then make better choices.
Perhaps it’s helpful to remember, when we’re making a choice about how to behave, that Jesus asks us to think about how our actions reflect Jesus’ love for us and for all of creation. Jesus asks us, “By your choices, who do you say that I am?” Amen.
The Reverend Sally S. Weaver is co-priest in charge at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at email@example.com