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.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
It was a really incredible thing – a big cliff face, looming straight up from the grassy area below, the rocks as red as anything you’d see in Sedona. At the very bottom of the cliff was a large cave opening. Inside the cave, there was a large natural spring that bubbled up and poured out of the mouth of the cave, and flowed down through the valley. In ancient times, it was the site of a temple to a pagan Canaanite god. Then the Greeks, who never missed a chance to make a bold architectural statement, rededicated the place to their god Pan, and they built an impressive temple directly over the mouth of the cave, and the water ran through the temple and flowed out the front, down a spillway built for it. Later, additional shrines and niches dedicated to other Greek and Roman gods were added to the cliff face and the grounds around the temple, making the place a major pilgrimage site for followers of any number of different deities. The fact that it was just a stunningly beautiful place only added to the number of people who visited there.
That was the state of things in the ancient town of Banias, which had been renamed Caesarea Philippi by the Roman occupiers, when Jesus and his disciples visited the place and enjoyed its natural beauty and the water flowing out and giving life to the valley below. It was in the midst of people all around them, arriving to pay their respects to the various gods, and all the religious cross-talk that any crowd like that was bound to have, that Jesus asked that question, “Who do the people say that *I* am?” And the disciples tell him, and then Jesus asking “Who do *you* say that I am?” And Peter gives his answer, the first time in the gospels anyone professes that Jesus is the messiah.
You’d think that this would be a bigger thing, something getting more supernatural attention. We get angels appearing in the sky and singing at the Nativity; we got clouds rolling back, the Holy Spirit descending, and the very voice of God voicing approval when Jesus was baptized. But now, when Peter makes this big, world-changing profession… nothing. If Monty Python had made a movie of this, you could imagine all the disciples pausing and looking up at the sky, waiting for at least some glorious, dramatic background music, something, anything. But instead, all they heard was the water flowing on past them and down into the valley.
And then they heard the most amazing thing – Jesus actually telling them *not* to tell anyone about it. Then he goes on, laying out in very plain terms that he’s going to suffer, and even be killed, by the religious and civil powers because his message – the actual good news from God that he’d been sent to proclaim – was a threat to both of them. And then, in the worst promotion and growth strategy in the history of marketing, Jesus invites them all to come along and suffer and die along with him.
When the disciples naturally balk at the idea, Peter especially, Jesus doubled down on what he’s said. It’s nice enough to profess that he’s the messiah, but by itself, that isn’t enough. If he’s the messiah, then so what? If he’s the messiah, that has to have real-life consequences. If he’s the messiah, then the way they lived needed to reflect that, consistently. And thinking only in human terms would ultimately be disastrous for them, an exercise in futility.
What sense does it make, he asked them, if you gained the whole world, if you gain it by throwing away God’s truth? If you compromise on the things that are really important to God, just to gain what you think is important in the here and now? And what does that make of your profession that Jesus really is the messiah?
Jesus criticized Peter for thinking in human terms. But how could Peter, or how could we, really think in any other terms; we are human beings after all. We do live in this very imperfect, very human world, governed by very imperfect, very human ways. Everything in our life is tempered by that reality. In fact, as a theological sidebar, that’s what John Calvin meant when he talked about “total depravity” – not that everything we do is bad; rather, that everything we do, no matter how noble, still has some element of human self-interest embedded within it.
This conflict within us is unavoidable. Still, Jesus tells us we need to resist that most common of human shortcomings. To not fall victim to giving in, to selling out God’s good news, in order to get, or to maintain, something we want in this life. Jesus’ words here are a stark warning to us even when we’re pursuing some good end goal, to very seriously ask if the end really does justify the means.
Not falling victim to that can be hard. Really hard. Jesus spoke to those disciples as they stood there next to the flowing waters, and across time he speaks to us, telling us to trust in the goodness and wisdom of the God who we encounter in the waters of our baptism, and to trust that this God can and will work within us, and help us to think less and less in human terms, and more and more in the ways of the one who was first called messiah on that fateful day in Caesarea Philippi.
Thanks be to God.