I thought I might start posting thoughts for some short talks (such as at the weekly midweek communion), as a way of my getting my head around what I am going to say, but also for anyone interested in digging deeper than the talks themselves might allow.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’
They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter [Peter, in Greek, means rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Jesus has become well known in Galilee. Everywhere he goes, crowds follow, and everyone has an opinion about him. From time to time, we see Jesus take his disciples out of the glare of the spotlight, off to some quiet place beyond the circles where they were known, so they could get their heads around all that was going on.
Caesarea Philippi was beyond the boundary of Galilee, but this wasn’t one of those getting-away-from-it-all times. Caesarea Philippi was the sort of place where today celebrities would go to be seen partying hard, not to recover. It was the sort of place every good Jewish mother warned her sons about, and worried they might go to. It was the sort of place no good Jewish boy would go to (except in their imagination). And the disciples must have figured out before they got there where Jesus was taking them. Can you imagine the hushed conversations going on behind his back as they followed him on the road? If news got out, people would be scandalised.
Caesarea Philippi was a shrine to the Roman emperor, who was worshipped as a living deity, saviour of the peoples of the empire, the son of the gods in human form. My view is that Jesus already knew that his Father had revealed his true identity to Simon, and that he deliberately took his disciples to this place, where the same claim was made of someone else, to underline what Simon had understood in big, thick marker pen.
Caesarea Philippi was pretty new, the latest thing, built to make the statement, ‘We’re all good citizens of the empire round here.’ But it was built right next door to the site of a much older shrine, to the Greek party-animal god Pan. At Pan’s shrine, everything and anything went – the wilder and more debauched the better. At the heart of the shrine complex was a large cave, known as the Gate of Hades – not the front entrance, you understand – that was somewhere in Greece – but the back door...And here, at the very gate of hell, Jesus declares that the gates of death will not stand against his church.
Jesus isn’t pussy-footing around. This is – quietly, deliberately, without making a scene – very confrontational. In a place where God’s followers wouldn’t go, he makes a stand.
So, where are the places we are told we ought not to go to, by sincere respectable people who fear that we will be corrupted by the sort of people to be found there?
Where are the places where people are idolised – the idols of sport, or entertainment, or intellect? Where are the places of extreme excess? What are the statements made in our society that we are supposed to sign up to – and be seen to sign up to, in order to enjoy good favour? Where are the places we are disapproving of, perhaps secretly curious about, but too afraid to step foot inside?
Where are the no-go areas? Because they are the very place where the church is supposed to be...