Ever try to read the Bible and think … this makes no sense… it doesn’t apply to me. Well, part of the issue is that we don’t have the same context as the people at the time of Jesus. So Much can be loaded into one phrase that you and I would never understand. For example, if I say 9-11 – we can immediately think of a book-full of history… but somebody 10 years old may not think of anything at all. So how can we understand something from 2000 years ago?
First, in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom… that in itself is super-loaded with meaning, pointing back to the kingdom of David where the prime minister was given ultimate authority over the whole kingdom – 2nd in command to the King himself. We’ll hear an example of the prime minister in the first reading. We could talk all day on that, But that’s not what I want to focus on today… I want to concentrate on Gospel.
Often, we kind of ignore the first line of the Gospel because we don’t understand the context. Today’s starts with “Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi”. So? Is that an important sentence?? Yeah… This is a HUGE deal… so, Fasten your seatbelts for a very-quick history lesson, because there are at least four reasons I’ve come up with why Jesus chose this spot to say what He said… and I won’t even get to them all! Pay close attention to what he asks and what He says to Peter and ask yourself, why Caesarea Philippi?
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”
Blah, blah, blah, right?…. We hear that kind of talk all the time so it sounds normal – or even boring. But those words coming from Peter’s mouth are revolutionary… they could have gotten him killed on the spot. Aside from the fact that he was a Jew and they would stone anybody they thought was blaspheming, the Romans would DEFINITELY have taken that statement as a sign of revolt. What’s the big deal? To understand that, I gotta give you some back-story and explain why Jesus came to THIS spot, Caesarea Philippi, today.
When we went to the Holy Land in February, I was hoping we’d go to Caesarea Philippi –I had wanted to see for myself a couple of geological peculiarities about this place… but our guide said we ‘could’ do that, but we would have to give up an entire day of other things we had planned, because CP is way north – in the middle of nowhere…so we didn’t go.
It’s in the middle of nowhere today, just as it was in Jesus’ day … so why did Jesus go there of all places? I mean, it had to take several days just to walk up there and back, and He supposedly was on his way to Jerusalem, which is in the opposite direction.
Way before the Israelites came to this region, this was a site of pagan worship. When the Greeks conquered the area, CP was called Panias – it was the sight of a pagan temple to the god Pan. It was built into the side of this huge rock or cliff face, and even to this day, there are places where grottos were carved into the rock face. The other geological significance of this place is that it is the headwaters of the Jordan… several springs come from the mountain and converge in this one spot – at the time of Jesus, they emerged from a cave - which carved a deep pit. This pit was immeasurable to the ancient people, so they thought it was bottomless, and it became known as the gate to Hades. Literally, the gate to the netherworld. The priests would throw sacrifices…animals – or children – to satisfy their pagan gods by throwing them into this pit.. and if they sank, the sacrifice was accepted.
Then the Romans came in and the story really gets interesting. If I have my history right, Julius Caesar was the ruler who solidified the Roman Empire. He was a powerful, smart leader and quickly moved to establish Pax Romano – the peace of Rome over a wide area of the known world – including Israel.
Well, when Julius Caesar died, his adopted son Octavian went before the Roman Senate and asked that they declare Julius Caesar to be a god…. As you know, Rome had many gods, so adding one more to the list seemed like a non-issue… besides the fact that Octavian would have taken their heads off if they refused… so they granted his wish and named Julius Caesar a god. Catch that? PEOPLE – flesh and blood – decided who was a god.
Immediately, Octavian went back before the Senate and the people and said - bow down before ME now, because I am the son of god!! Really! Ring any bells in your mind yet? Well, then Octavian edicted that every Roman province must build a temple to the god Julius Caesar and the son of god, Octavian. Herod, the king of Israel knew that if he built that temple in Jerusalem, there would be an uprising, so he looked around Israel and thought – where can I build this that I won’t be lynched? So he chose the most out-of-the-way spot available… Philippi - and renamed the town Caesarea Philippi....
OK take a breath – with all of that background, now let’s take another look at this conversation between Jesus and Peter.
Jesus asks who do people say I AM? – but He quickly drills down to the most important question: who do YOU say that I AM? And Peter boldly confesses that ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Does that still sound like a boring statement? They are standing in front of the temple to honor the son of a dead god, and THIS is where Peter steals the name that Ceasar gave to himself and declares Jesus to be the real son of God… if the Roman’s heard him he would be killed.
This is the moment Peter got his name… before this, he was known as Simon, but Jesus brought him to this dead rock with the temple to a dead god in order to give him a new name: Peter, which means ‘rock’. Jesus says on this rock, I’ll build my church. He’s standing in front of this 1000 foot rock cliff face where many temples have come and gone – and instead saying he’s going to build his church on a different rock – a living rock: Peter.
Jesus had gone way out of his way to take them to CP in order to create the perfect teachable moment… and Peter got the message. Here’s where I want to make my point today… Jesus said – “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. “
How did Peter know Jesus? He spent every day with him for 3 years. He listened to his wisdom. He talked to him about his own thoughts, fears, and desires. He studied Jesus. But with all that Peter did, that was still not enough to reveal to him that Jesus was the Son of God. He couldn’t believe that unless God the Father revealed it to him. You and I cannot believe that Jesus is the Son of God unless the Father reveals that to us.
Do we know that in our hearts? Do we really believe? Would we stand up and boldly say those words if they might get us killed? We all likely have doubts – that’s normal – but we can learn from Peter how to overcome those doubts.
Spend time with Jesus – in prayer – daily – maybe hourly! That sounds impossible, but imagine that Jesus is walking with you every moment of the day and talk to him as if you’re talking to your best friend… because you are. Share with him your thoughts, fears, and desires. Listen in silence for His gentle reply. Spend time with him – in the adoration chapel – study him by reading His words and studying the way He walked in the world. When we come across something in the scripture which doesn’t make sense or seems like it doesn’t really apply to you, it likely means we need to study. Just like learning about Julius Caesar made this reading come alive for me, there is SO much that can be learned if we spend time with the word of God and ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us with understanding and wisdom.
When we spend time with Jesus, we not only learn who Jesus is, but we learn who we are. Like Peter, we receive a new name…. a new identity… a new purpose… and God will use us as a building block in His Church. Only when we know who Jesus is will we know who WE are.
When it’s our time to pass to the netherworld, our lives will stand as a monument to whatever god we serve. I don’t know about y’all, but I wouldn’t really want to be 'just another brick in the wall' of a temple built to a dead god. Instead, Let’s become living stones and rest ourselves on the foundation of Peter… glorifying the LIVING God.