Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Bored on the internet? May I suggest Google Search Suggestions, a fun way to pass the hours.

Here’s how it works: Go to and enter a partial question or phrase, and let Google do the rest. Some examples:

I typed in “Canada is...” and got “Canada is how old? (everyone knows that one: 148), “Canada is a corporation” (some parties treat us like one), and “Canada is in which country?” (insert comment here about the teaching of geography in US schools).

Then I tried “Canadians are...” and got only one result: “Canadians are weird.” Seems a tad unfair, but maybe true. Trying others I got “Americans are...rude” then “the French are...rude” and “the British are...coming!” You should have seen that one coming!

Since we’re in church, I tried “the United Church of Canada is...” and got the following: “the United Church of Canada is...dying” (sadly, that was the first result), then “the United Church of Canada and Israel” (obviously something the internet is thinking about) and then a couple of random results where Google tuned it into a question with “is the United Church of Canada Christian?” and “is the United Church of Canada a cult?” (ouch)

All of this, of course, was prompted by Mark 8.29, when Jesus asks “but who do you say that I am?” So I asked Google but typing “Jesus Christ is...” and got “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” followed by “Jesus Christ is Risen Today lyrics.” A lot of us church secretaries use the internet to do our work. The final two results are closer to what I expected: “Jesus Christ is the Way” (cool!) and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (which is a quote from Hebrews 13).

Never satisfied to leave a good thing, I tried “Jesus is...” and found “Jesus is a friend of mine” (lovely) “Jesus is the answer” (true), “Jesus is Lord” (preach it, Google!) and finally “Jesus is just alright with me,” proving that hippies have found a place on the internet.

“But who do you say that I am?”

The exchange begins with a conversation on the road: Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus does the ancient equivalent of googling himself and asks “who do people say I am?”

“Some say John the Baptist,” they begin, “others say Elijah, and still others say you are one of the prophets.” And then he makes it personal: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter hardly misses a beat: “You are the messiah” (Matthew adds: “the Son of the Living God”). Then Jesus warns them not to tell anyone.

What follows is a precise description of Jesus’ passion, a very famous rebuke (“get behind me, Satan”) and a collection of sayings that our version of the Bible summarizes as “The Way of the Cross.” Pick up your cross and follow me; whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it; what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? These ‘collected sayings’ give us a concise summary of the self-sacrifice Jesus commends to us, and a summary of what we was willing do on our behalf. And all of it begins with “and who do you say that I am?”

So we have been listening in to a revealing conversation, but what about the context? What prompted the question in the first place? One theory is the setting: Jesus and his disciples are nearing Caesarea Philippi, named for Caesar Augustus and for Herod’s son Philip, who ruled in the area in the time of Jesus. Caesar Augustus also enjoyed the title “son of god,” something that might have been on their minds as they neared the town.

Another theory is also based on the setting, as Caesarea Philippi was renowned for her temple to the god Pan. You have no doubt seen images of Pan: half-goat, half-man, often pictured with his flute, worshipped in antiquity as the god of the wild, shepherds, their flocks, goats (naturally), wooded places, and the theatre. He is also associated with sexuality, owing—I expect—to the pan flute and CD collections sold on TV.

So, beyond the whole son-of-god problem, we have Jesus and his disciples entering an area consumed by themes (except sexuality) that belong to Jesus: the Good Shepherd, leading his flock, separating the sheep from the goats, even overcoming the wild in the temptation narrative. I’m not suggesting that Jesus was somehow threatened by titles and god-like associations, only that the setting prompted him to test the way in which he was being perceived.

And this, of course, remains an ongoing question, as each generation must answer the same question “and who do you say that I am?” To find the answer, we might first turn to a theologian—the late Marcus Borg—who provides a snapshot of the Jesus who walked with the disciples that day:

He was a peasant, which tells us about his social class. Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic, but world-affirming, with a zest for life.

There was a social-political passion to him. Like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, if you will, for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, he was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that reported of St. Francis or the Dalai Lama.

And I suggest that, as a figure of history, he was an ambiguous figure. You could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric, or that he was a dangerous threat, or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.

It’s a remarkable snapshot, one that begs for a summary, perhaps the very summary that Peter provides when he says “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And seeing, as they could, the complete outline of the poetic, world-affirming, liberation-seeking, mystical-healer God they loved, they couldn’t help but draw their conclusions about the nature and identity of Jesus.

And this work doesn’t end. You may recall I shared the famous tweet from from comedian John Fugelsang, a quote that quickly began to appear on placards and t-shirts: He said, “Obama is not a brown-skinned, anti-war socialist who gives away free healthcare. You're thinking of Jesus.” Another fine summary, one that brings us full circle. The activities remain the same: they are simply given new names. Again, each generation will the question “and who do you say that I am?” somewhat differently, based on changing need, and changing circumstances.

Ironic, then, that the final part of the context of this passage is Jesus entering Syria. Caesarea Philippi, still accessible to pilgrims when I visited in 1992, is located in the Golan Heights, and was a popular place for its Roman ruins and as one of the sources of the River Jordan. It’s largely off the beaten path these days, with the Syrian civil war being fought in the vicinity and increased tension that comes when the side that controls the Syrian side of the border keeps changing.

As Jesus prepares to enter Syria, then, it is hard not to ponder what he would make of the current refugee crisis, and how he would have us respond. He might first remind us that he was a refugee, fleeing the evil Herod and traveling to Egypt at the beginning of the Gospels. He might describe the Israelites in the desert, wandering forty years in search of their promised land. He might call to mind the exile, the experiences of being strangers in a strange land, weeping by the rivers of Babylon, singing the songs of Zion.

And then, in a moment of complete candor, he might describe that moment on the cross, when he felt utterly forsaken, and the moment that followed when he (and God) forgave us because we didn’t know what were doing.

And then he might say to Canada and her leaders “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” All of you (with one notable exception) came to this land for a better life, many fleeing persecution and war. What do you forfeit when you deny the same to others?

May God in Jesus continue to speak to every age and every people, and may we find the Risen Christ in everyone we meet, and everyone we seek to help. Amen.


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