I like how William Barclay begins his discussion on the first three verses of our Gospel reading this morning-- “Here we have the story of another withdrawal which Jesus made. The end was coming very near and Jesus needed all the time alone with his disciples that he could gain.”
Maybe I like it because I made the same observation last week when Jesus took his disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon---ha!
After healing the daughter of that Canaanite woman, we notice that Jesus returned to Galilee where he healed many, feed 4,000 more people with a few loaves and fish, and warned his disciples about the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus now takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. As Barclay notes, it was another long trip, maybe 25 miles. Time was running out and he was about to begin his turn towards Jerusalem where he must accomplish the work God has sent him to do. Was there anyone who truly knew who he was?
Barclay notes that Caesarea Philippi was likely one of the most diverse religious regions as Jesus arrives. Once a center of the Syrian Baal worship, nearly 14 temples may have been present as Jesus and the disciples entered Caesarea Philippi. Furthermore, the city itself was once named for the Greek god of nature, Pan, who had many followers clamoring to spend time at a great cavern found near the town, thought to be the birthplace of Pan. Interestingly, the cavern and spring found there was also thought to be the headwaters of the Jordan river and so carried spiritual significance with Jews in the area as a sacred place. Then of course, since this was a Roman province, Caesarea Philippi was also home to a huge temple of white marble built to honor the godhead of Caesar.
A poor carpenter from nowhere Nazareth, homeless, meek, ridiculed more and more by his own people walks into this place with his closest followers. Does anyone know who he is?
This is the question Matthew begins to answer in chapter one, but really seems to focus on in chapters 11-16. John’s disciples visit Jesus and ask, “are you the one to come…?” From that point through our text today Jesus is answering the question—hear and see—the answer is yes! Signs and wonders and teaching flow in abundance as he leads his disciples. Who is Jesus?
Now entering this place, surrounded with images of false gods, he turns to his own disciples and asks plainly, “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” Who do people say I am? The disciples fill him in on all the theories people have come up with as they try to answer that question for themselves. Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets of old, some say John the Baptist. It seems everyone is thinking that Jesus is a forerunner to the Messiah, not actually the Messiah. Maybe that was too much for them to comprehend, or maybe they weren’t ready for that yet, or maybe they didn’t want the Messiah to arrive yet. There were many reasons but then the question comes to them, directly to the disciples, as they stand there in that idol filled place, “who do you say I am?”
Does anyone understand? Does anyone know who Jesus truly is?
The answer is, no. No one understands, and no one seeks God. Remember the words St. Paul writes in Romans chapter three?
So how is it that Peter makes the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? Jesus tells us the answer. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Our Father in heaven made this confession of Peter possible, revealing to him this great mystery, that God has come in the flesh to once-for-all redeem all things, and that long awaited Messiah, the Christ, is Jesus of Nazareth.
There is more to reveal to Peter, but for you and me, it has been accomplished. To you the mysteries of this question have been fully revealed, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and to know him is everlasting life as our Collect for the day stated. He is the only begotten Son of God whose body was broken, and blood was poured out for the forgiveness of my sin and yours. You and I are here because this good news was spoken to us and the Spirit of the God enlivened within you, just as with Peter and the disciples, faith to believe it.
We live in a time and place much like Caesarea Philippi. A place with many so called “gods” and an endless variety of false religions. People who call themselves spiritual seek after the same things we seek after. Peace, rest, a hopeful future, life. They desire forgiveness. Their shame burdensome. Sadly, to find these things they so deeply need they exchange the Living God with dead gods of their own making. Sometimes these “gods” entice us as well. Don’t they? Much like Solomon we know the promises of the Living God only to turn aside chasing after the desire of our own hearts.
The difference is you hear, you see, and your heart turns in repentance and faith toward the one who comes to seek and to save the lost, to restore what has been corrupted and to rescue those in need. You believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God! And by believing you have life. Blessed are you, my brothers, and sisters in Christ, for the Father has revealed this glorious truth to you. His face has shone upon you, his way of salvation has been made known to you. (Ps 67)
Be glad and sing for joy!