I’d like to invite you this morning to come along with me to an obscure place that marked the northern-most point in Jesus’ journey through the countryside of ancient Israel.
And then I’d like to invite you to consider the question that Jesus posed to his closest followers and the challenge that he laid out for them.
Here’s an early warning. I’m going to ask you to do more than consider that question from Jesus – “who do you say that I am?” I’m going to ask you to offer some answers. So think about what you might say.
But first, the journey.
In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus starts out at the Jordan River east of Jericho, where a man named John baptizes him. There’s no birth story in Mark’s account. We start right out with Jesus as an adult. And after his baptism, Jesus goes into the harsh wilderness around Jericho for 40 days to prepare himself for what’s ahead and to define his identity for himself.
When he emerges from the wilderness, he heads to Galilee in northern Israel, his home base for much of his public life. When he gets there, according to Mark, he says, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust the good news!”
Jesus works out of Capernaum, gathering followers, tangling with evil spirits who possess people, healing people who are ill and telling stories – we call them parables – to begin to explain what God’s kingdom is like.
Eventually, he goes back to the town where he grew up – Nazareth, 20 miles west of Capernaum – but it does not go well there for him as people who think they know him and his family dismiss him as a fraud.
So he’s back out to the villages around Galilee, teaching and healing, feeding the hungry and starting to confront the religious authorities who came up from Jerusalem to check out this latest phenomenon in the countryside of northern Israel.
Jesus eventually heads west, hiking 35 miles to Tyre and Sidon along the Mediterranean Coast in what is now Lebanon. People from this region had come to Galilee to hear him, suggesting his reputation had spread out beyond his home turf. And so he went to their territory – Gentile territory, crossing those ethnic and religious boundaries that so often limit people.
After a while he came back to Galilee, back to the home base. He fed the hungry again, then traveled across the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida, where he helped a blind man see once again.
That’s where today’s Gospel story begins: “Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi.”
That’s about 20 miles north of Bethsaida. It’s in Israeli territory today, but lodged in the contested land between Lebanon and Syria. Think of it as a symbol of both conflict and promise.
This area had many temples for the worship of Baal, the ancient god of the Phoenicians and other peoples in that region. Baal was a god of fertility and storms. The area has the cave where in Greek mythology the god Pan was born – a god of nature, fields, forests, mountains, flocks and shepherds.
One of the sources of the water for the Jordan River – the river where Jesus was baptized – is here. And so, too, was the white marble temple built by King Herod the Great to honor the divinity of Caesar, the Roman Emperor.
Mark set this story of a Jesus in a powerful place, then, a place where there was the beauty of nature, the origins of a baptismal river, a history of gods from multiple traditions. It may have been a place where someone could break into song, singing like the Psalm writer we heard from today, “The heavens are telling the glory of God…and all creation is singing his song.”
It was in that setting that Jesus quizzed his closest followers. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked them.
Oh, that’s easy. Not much challenge in that question. They had heard the comments from the crowds.
Some said he was John the Baptist, perhaps not realizing that John had been executed but having heard about his preaching farther to the south.
Some said he was Elijah, that great Jewish prophet who had been taken up into heaven and who was expected to return some day. Or perhaps he was some other prophet making an appearance among them.
Jesus clearly had caught the fascination of the crowds. But now, the tough question to the dedicated group of followers walking the roads with him: “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
I think a lot of what we do here at Memorial UCC, a lot of what Christians throughout time and across space have done, is to try to answer that question.
Who do you say that Jesus is? And what does that mean for your life?
I warned you this moment was coming.
Imagine you are standing there at Caesarea Philippi, the Jordan River flowing out of a cave, the white marble temple to Caesar off in the distance. Or imagine you are sitting here on a Sunday morning. Who do you say that Jesus is?
(If you are reading this on the web, you can email thoughts to Pastor Phil here.)
Part of the challenge of being a follower of Jesus is working on that answer throughout our lives.
In Mark’s telling of the story, it was Peter, the most outspoken of Jesus’ followers, who offered the answer: “You are the Christ.” And what does that mean?
The short version is “the anointed one.” Somebody God has chosen through whom to reveal that divine kingdom. For First Century Jews, it evoked the image of the long-awaited Messiah, the leader who would bring about God’s kingdom. It is a term filled with glory and power.
Peter must have felt pretty good about having nailed the answer. But Jesus was not quite done with this conversation. Jesus then begins to teach Peter and his followers – that would include us – what being the anointed one, the Christ, is all about. Less power, less glory.
In the translation we have today, Jesus says “the Human One must suffer many things.” In other translations, it says “the Son of Man.” There are interesting linguistic debates around this, but the meaning varies with how Jesus uses the term – sometimes referring simply to himself as a human being, sometimes referring to humanity as a whole with the Human One representing the ideal.
Thus, when Jesus says “the Human One must suffer,” he is not only talking about himself, as becomes clear as this conversation with his followers go on. The Human One will suffer, face rejection from those in power, be killed…and then after three days rise from the dead.
Peter, the prize pupil only a few minutes ago, grabs Jesus to tell him this is all wrong. And Jesus turned to look at him. Just imagine Jesus fixing Peter in his gaze. And Jesus tells Peter that he is the one who has it all wrong: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
Maybe it’s easier to say who Jesus is than to accept what it is Jesus does – and what he asks us to do.
Say no to yourself.
Take up a cross.
Gaining the whole world will cost you your life.
Be willing to lose your life, knowing that the good news – God’s Kingdom – will be there for you.
I’m not going to ask you to spell out in public this morning how you do those things. But I am going to ask you to think about those things as we enter into another program year at Memorial.
In the months ahead, we’re going to have a variety of opportunities to think about who Jesus is for us and how we live out his life and message.
We’ll have a series of Wednesday evening sessions starting at the beginning of October exploring the way Paul defined Jesus in his letters to the early Christians.
Stan Corwin will be leading a monthly series of Friday night movie discussions about how we are called to care for this earth that proclaims God’s handiwork.
Johanna Draper-Carlson will keep exploring the theology embedded within the Doctor Who series.
Our book group is exploring racial issues, our Wednesday morning scripture group probes our readings for the upcoming Sunday, Carl Pfeifer has a group that meets one morning a month to discuss faith and life.
All of those things can help us define who Jesus is for us. They can give us ideas on what we need to do. But ultimately, what we do comes down to individual decisions.
But here’s the thing. Even when each of us makes those decisions, we are not alone. We are here in a community that respects a diversity of beliefs and a diversity of actions. We share this space on Sunday mornings to nourish our own spirits, but also to carry one another along.
As Jesus said to his followers one time, where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them. So Jesus is in this very room along with the rest of us.
The story of his life, the understanding he gives us of God’s love, his presence that transcends time and space is a big part of what holds us together.