Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Mark 8:27-33.

If you live in Texas, there is no other town quite like Austin. It literally lives “deep in the heart of Texas.” It sits on the edge of the Texas Hill Country. It is naturally beautiful and that beauty only gets better as you head further west. It is the governmental capital of Texas. The economy is strong. It is Austin.

In Jesus’ day, people could say the same things about Caesarea Philippi. It was both an imperial city, a seat of Roman power, and a religious site, with a long history dedicated to the Greek god, Pan. Sitting at the foot of Mount Hermon, the primary source of fresh water in Israel, the headwaters of the River Jordan, it was a very special place. It still is.

That’s where Jesus led his disciples to before asking his million dollar questions. “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?”

As a pastor, I have long learned to be very suspicious when anyone begins a comment with the words, “A lot of people are saying…” Invariably, that needs to be translated into “I am saying…” with the added rhetorical trick of amplifying my own opinion by suggesting it is shared by others. Like that other person in the parking lot who agreed with them…to be polite.

I don’t think that is what Jesus is doing here. There is nothing in the gospels that suggest that Jesus’ intentions were to build a personality cult around himself. Unlike Philip, the local Roman ruler, who built a city in honor of Caesar…and included his own name in its name. And unlike the earlier Greeks, who dedicated the cave out of which the waters from Mount Hermon gushed forth, to the Greek god, Pan. The first question Jesus poses is not a poll or a popularity contest. It is actually a reflection of peoples’ expectations of Jesus.

Was he a fiery populist like John? A miracle worker like Elijah? A social reformer like the prophets? Just who did people expect Jesus to be?

But more importantly, who did his closest followers, his closest friends, understand him to be?

Peter impulsively blurts, “You are the Messiah.” You are the embodiment of God’s promises to Israel. You are the one. The chosen one. Peter has no idea what that means but he has his hopes.

So Jesus tells him. He will suffer. He will be rejected. He will be murdered. He will rise from the dead.

It makes no sense. It seems ludicrous, pointless. You can see the wheels spinning in the minds of the disciples, “Then what is the point of following you? What am I going to get out of this?” Peter takes Jesus aside and maybe asks: “Are you nuts or something?”

Jesus literally puts Peter in his place. Get behind me! Jesus immediately senses that the direction of Peter’s thinking takes him away from the path he wants to walk through life. It will never be about “What do I get out of this?” or “What do I want?” It will only be, and it only remains, “What does following God’s will toward justice and righteousness in the world, always rooted in love, look like?” and “Am I willing to pay the price to doing my part in making that happen?”

Let us pray: Thank you Lord for your courage and love in paving the path for us. Thank you for encouraging us on the journey. Forgive us for the distractions of our self-centeredness and fear and free us to follow willingly. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

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