I think you need to know where this Gospel takes place if you want to interpret it..
It used to be called Baal Gad, a place of worship to the Canaanite god of good fortune. Then Alexander the Great conquered the area and the site became known as Paneas, and a temple was built to Pan, the Greek god of wilderness and shepherds and their flocks.
The Romans took the area in the first century BCE, and King Herod built a temple to the emperor there. His son, Phillip, about 15 years before today’s story, would go ahead and name the city after the emperor.
There were a couple of towns called Caesarea in the area, so the Bible calls this one Caesarea Philippi to distinguish it from the other one, which is on the Mediterranean Sea. Towns called Caesarea are named after the emperor, Caesar. Of course it was not the locals who named it after the emperor. It was the Roman officials. “Look what I’ve done, sir! There was this town, and now it is named after you!”
The people of this place saw a lot of nations come in and mark it as theirs by making it a focal point of their religion. The temples would have been prominently in view. Here stand the monuments of the layers of empire that have ruled over the people of Israel.
So, you see, this was not just another town that Jesus and his disciples had walked into. It was a place where the concept of power, both secular and sacred, was being publically negotiated and demonstrated. Around the time Jesus would have been there, coins with the emperor’s face on them were minted to commemorate his legacy as demonstrated in the city.
Once they have arrived, Jesus asks the disciples a pretty loaded question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” You could imagine him looking at the Greek temple, the Roman temple, maybe seeing a coin and filing it away as a symbol he could refer to later, and thinking that this is a good time to talk about power and authority.
As it turned out, there were lots of ideas about who the Son of Man is. The people of Israel, having lived as a conquered people for centuries, were actively looking for one who might be their champion. But Jesus knew that. He wasn’t really interested in the answer, so much as in the contrast between what the people are saying and what his disciples are saying.
Simon Peter tells him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Here, amidst the temples, in a town named for the emperor, Simon Peter names Jesus as the messiah, the long awaited one whose authority transcends that of any emperor.
Jesus praises him, and makes it clear that this truth has not been revealed to Peter by humans, but by God. He calls him Peter, from the Greek Petros, for “rock,” and promises to build the church upon him. Indeed, we trace the authority in our church back to this connection through Peter.
But let’s stay in this moment, in Caesarea Philippi, with the temples and the coins and the motley travelling party where Jesus has just been declared the Messiah. It is not so different than the 21st century. We are residents of the global empire of our time, and we are in a cultural moment where the way we publically mark our history and our values is very much under dispute.
What is the focus on our statues and monuments if not a debate about how we tell the story of our place?
Our coins and bills have faces on them, and several of those men owned slaves. They also made essential contributions to the founding of our country. They will not fit into a simple portrayal. The Romans were proud of their emperor and their empire, but to the Israelites, the temple and the town were reminders that their oppressor was much more powerful than them.
The point of this Gospel’s naming of Jesus’ authority in Caesarea Philippi is not that he intends to compete with the emperor for secular authority. He didn’t. He was killed by the empire.
Ironically, it was a Roman emperor who later gave Christianity a public legitimacy that changed its history in ways good and bad. The kingdom of God emerges right here in the world, in the midst of all our tangled relationality. The kingdom of God comes to us in the middle of this, but it does not come to endorse this. Marble monuments stand for centuries and eventually crumble, but the frail humans gathered near them were opening up a space for something eternal and beautiful to come forth.
That is what we do here at the Episcopal Center. We follow in the footsteps of this gathering in Caesarea, opening ourselves up to the movements of a God whose loves puts everything else in the world into perspective. There are layers of authority on this campus. Political, economic, cultural. And God’s love transcends every one of them. We are the same church whose cornerstone was layed on Peter’s shoulders that day. That church has also built a lot of monuments on other people’s land, and we are not uncritical of that.
This doesn’t mean we do not participate in the structures that envelop us. We do. Or that we are above all of this. We are not. We are in it and of it, but we can hear the calling of something more than this, something that runs against the grain of the world and yet also unleashes a remarkable love within it.
At the Episcopal Center, we know that our outward actions reflect our inward spirit. We know that our faith, our commitment to this way of living and this vision of transformation, is what grounds us and enables us to see with clarity. There is a peace in this place, in this life, in placing ourself in God’s hands.
We center ourselves in that peace, and we help each other to find it. This community cares about one another in a way that is not an act. It is a genuine love, and it is a gift beyond measure.
We seek to share that peace. We work to help others know God’s love, and to make our world more equitable. We help feed people, we help rebuild after storms, and we help to reveal the structures in our world that treat some as more worthwhile than others.
We believe that love is love, and that God loves each person as they were created. We believe the world has not learned to honor that truth. We will never pray for you to be anyone other than who you are.
This is not passive work. Despite the cultural embrace that Christianity has had over the centuries, to stand for the sacred value of each person is still countercultural. To set aside the pursuit of power and money in order to cultivate an inward peace is still, in the mainstream, rather foolish. Jesus told his disciples to keep quiet about his being the messiah. It was a dangerous position that could cut short his ministry. Blessedly, it is less dangerous today, and we will not keep quiet. The practices of our life together can center you and help you move through your time at Duke aware of a beauty and love that many people totally overlook.
Here at the Episcopal Center, Peter’s quiet declaration that day that Jesus is the messiah remains at the center of our life. His teachings and his example are our foundation. We follow them in moments of silence and in moments of holding the world accountable. We follow them when we agree and when our views differ. We follow them because they speak to the deepest truths woven into our creation. We follow them together.