Mark 8: 27-38
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 16th September 2012
Every text has a context. Every text is surrounded by a context. Every text is embedded in a larger setting. To know something about the context, the surrounded terrain, the setting helps us to open up a text. There’s much to know about these couple of verses in Mark’s gospel, the theological center of his narrative. There’s much that can be said and has been said about this text. But what needs to be lifted up, at least initially and exclusively for us here today, is the significance of this verse, “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi….”
Why is this significant? Because Jesus intentionally takes them there to preach to the villages of this area. But what we need to know and what the text fails to state explicitly is that Caesarea Philippi was a Gentile region. Jesus leads the disciples away from the safe, “clean,” respectable Galilee, a Jewish region, and crosses into Gentile territory, an area named for Philip, the son of Herod the Great. After the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, the Roman Empire was determined to undermine and divide the power that would come to Herod’s heir. So the Romans split the territory up into four kingdoms. This region was very Gentile. The main city, Banias, the location of the imperial palace, was a kind of pagan Las Vegas of the Roman world. There were avenues after avenues of temples to all the Roman and Greek gods. You could go there and hang out with your favorite god. There is a huge cave there that, tradition has it, claimed to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan, the god of the underworld, hence the name of the city, Banias. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the temple ruins. I’ve stood at the entrance to the cave. They’re very impressive.
That’s where Jesus takes them and invites them to preach the good news of God’s kingdom. But why there? Why into this most Gentile, this most pagan of places?
There’s something else we need to know that only now are scholars discovering. Archeologists have long known that there was a temple to Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) in Banias. This particular kind of temple is known as an Augusteum – temple to Augustus. I’ve seen the sign in Banias that states somewhere nearby stood the Augusteum to Augustus. But the sign is incorrect because in 1999, archeologists from Macalaster College, a Presbyterian-related college in St. Paul, MN, stumbled upon an enormous find on a hill in a field several miles from Banias. What they found was the foundation of what would have been an enormous temple, made of marble that was shipped from as far away as Turkey. The exterior was probably painted gold to reflect the hot sun. This was the Augusteum, built by Herod the Great (74/73 – 4 BC), to honor Caesar Augustus – a temple for the worship of Caesar’s divinity. Remember, Augustus was not his last name or his proper name, it was one of his many titles. Augustus, meaning the illustrious one, refers to the fact the emperor was a practitioner of the augurs, he was a skilled priest, he was a religious authority, as well as a political authority. The Roman Senate declared him Augustus in 27 BC. He was also considered divine, worthy to be worship. One of his other titles was Imperator Caesar divi filius: Commander Caesar son of the deified one, or, simply, son of God.
Now this Augusteum was situated along the main road that ran from the Galilee north into Caesarea Philippi. Every one traveling on that road would have seen the temple. Everyone on that road would have been conscious of the presence of the emperor reflected in the temple. And when Mark’s gospel reads, “Jesus went with his disciples to villages of Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” somewhere along their way they would have walked right past the Augusteum.
|Foundation of the temple in Omrit (Augusteum)|
Was it at that point, somewhere along the way, on the way, blinded by the light reflecting from the temple that Jesus posed two of the most significant questions of his ministry? I like to think so. It’s clear that the power and authority of the Roman Empire is never, ever far from anything that goes on in the New Testament. There’s always a Roman soldier lurking somewhere close by. It’s in that context, the wider context of the power of empire where many, including his fellow Jews who served the emperor, which Jesus wants to know from them, “Who do the people say that I am?”
So they give a report, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
Then he moves closer to home, “But who do you say that I am?” Now, Jesus is getting personal. He wants to know their answer because a lot is riding on the answer.
What would you say if posed the question? Who is Jesus? What would you say? Who is Jesus to you?
It’s quite extraordinary, really, given what we know about Jesus’ society and practices that he even posed such a question. In Jesus’ age one’s sense of self was clearly defined by the collective, by one’s community or tribe or social setting. Your belief, your traditions, your ethics, the way you understood the cosmos and your purpose in life were pretty much determined by where you were born, by your context. And there was very little room for change. You were stuck where you were born. No upward mobility. No leaving home to venture out on your own. No sense of individuality apart from your family. The Roman understanding of the household was operative in Jesus’ world; the household was ruled by a pater (father), the Roman pater familias defined the structure of the family. The father was the owner of the family estate. The family members were considered property. One’s welfare was contingent upon being part of a larger social environment.
So that when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” such a question wouldn’t have been all that unusual. You would have been considered what everyone else thinks, you would have been concerned about the perspective of others. You wouldn’t want to be different from the crowd, blending in was important. The disciples respond. But did you notice that Jesus doesn’t really care what the crowd thinks. He’s not concerned about their group-think. Jesus doesn’t affirm or deny their claims.
Jesus, ever the teacher, brings it closer to home. The question that really matters is this: what do you think? Who do you say that I am? Not the crowd, not the community, not the religious elders. You – who do you say that I am? That’s what Jesus wants to know. That’s what Jesus wants them to talk about, reflect upon, wrestle with, and then answer and answer and answer.
That’s why I think Jesus takes them away from “home.” He takes them out of their comfort zone. They must have been freaked out by a place like Banias. He takes them away from the nosy religious leaders. He takes them to a place where nobody knows them. This foreign, Gentile, “unclean” place becomes a safe place for them to really say what’s on their minds, to say who Jesus is to them. And they don’t have to say what others expect them to say. They can speak from their heart. They can be real. Honest. Authentic.
And that’s what Jesus wants from all his disciples as we step out on our way. So much rides on how this question is answered. The answer reflects our level of commitment to him. How we answer this question shapes every step of our lives. It determines the journey, the direction we take, how we see the world and ourselves within it, how we live and relate to others, how we make decisions, what we buy or how we vote for or how much we pledge. So much is riding on this question.
This morning in adult education we talked at length about evangelism – the dreaded E-word for Presbyterians, what it is and what it isn’t. What we have here in this text directly shapes our approach to this word. Evangelism, first of all, is a terrible word; it’s not an –ism, an ideology. What we are called to be is evangelical – in the New Testament, biblical sense of this word, which means someone who shares God’s good news, which is Jesus Christ. Being evangelical means that we share the good news of what Jesus has shown us, taught us, revealed to us about God’s grace and justice and love. That’s what we share. Our ability to share is directly related to our ability to answer who Jesus is to us. If Jesus is not God’s good news for you, then it’s not worth sharing. But if he’s God’s good news, then that’s worth sharing, right? That’s worth talking about, right? That’s worth shouting from the roof tops, right? And yet we’re reluctant to share our faith, or talk about it, and none of us are shouting from the Church House roof, including me.
I think a lot of our reluctance is found in our not wanting to look like a religious fool or a fanatic or zealot or Jesus freak. We worry too much about what people might think of us. Some feel uncomfortable talking about their faith because they don’t want to end up in a position of having to defend what they believe; they don’t want to get in an argument. Why does it have to be an argument or debate? We have lost the ability to talk about our faith. Unfortunately, then, one’s faith is reduced to one’s opinion that one holds privately, without an opportunity to engage with the wider society. There are far too many Christians out there who do a poor job of representing Jesus and giving the rest of us a bad name that we don’t want the stigma of being identified as a Jesus follower. But maybe we need to take on the stigma, be different, step out, share our faith.
I came across a cartoon that captures this sentiment. Two men are standing on a street corner waiting for a bus. One man is in a suit and carrying a brief case. The other man is wearing a black t-shirt that reads in large white letters, “LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS.” The man in the suit gives him a weird, querulous look. The man in the t-shirt says to him, “It guarantees me a seat all to myself.”
For the past two weeks I’ve been talking about call and journey, vocation and the Christian way. The call and the journey, the vocation and the way matter little without a sense of how we would answer this question – and answer it. There isn’t one answer and the answer can change and evolve on the way. But we have to answer it. You don’t have to write a theological treatise. Make it simple. What’s your elevator speech? What would you say if someone asked you in an elevator, who do you say Jesus is? Who do you say Jesus is?
When you reach the ground floor and the door opens, whatever you say will shape you, whether consciously or unconsciously, as you go on your way.
 Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “…the greatest degree of authenticity is possible only if we avoid identifying with what others think of us.” Aldo Carotenuto (1933-2005), To Love, To Betray, trans. Joan Tambureno (Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 1996), 26.