David A. Davis
September 16, 2018
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It is a familiar story in the gospels: Jesus and the disciples at Caesarea Philippi; “Who do you say that I am?” Matthew’s telling of this familiar story includes Jesus Installing Peter as the rock of the church and giving him the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, promising that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. It is a familiar story in the life and teaching of Jesus. So familiar that it is easy to miss Mark’s twist.
When Jesus and the disciples head toward Caesarea Philippi, they are moving on to foreign soil. Maybe not in the sense of boundaries and check points and passport control. Caesarea Philippi was a well-known place of worship far beyond the Jewish tradition. This was a pagan place. This was a place to worship what the bible sometimes refers to as “foreign gods”. This was a place similar to the Areopagus in the Book of Acts where the Apostle Paul once preached: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, not is served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” When Jesus takes the disciples to Caesarea Philippi, he is not taking them to a home game. It was light years from the little, safe, isolated, fishing village, that incubating faith community of Capernaum.
It was somewhere along the way, somewhere where the all the sights and sounds and smells of all that the world has to offer, where it was all just coming into play. It was somewhere near the timeless intersection of the religious and the secular. A place where seemingly every faith group or faith practice had its moment at some point in time. A place where the teaching of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus Christ could be tossed in with all the rest. They were drawing near to what history could describe as a veritable marketplace of all things sacred and holy. Jesus takes them to a place where, in a Charles Dickens kind of way, visions of Christian faith past, present, and future could be pondered in light of humanity’s unceasing longing for a relationship to a higher power.
That is where Jesus asks them what people are saying about him. That’s where he asks them what they would say, what they believe, what they would affirm and attest and proclaim and say about him. “You are the Messiah”, Peter answers in what seems like a firm and unequivocal way. And then, darn it, Jesus tells them not to say anything about him. He doesn’t just tell them, according to Mark, he “sternly ordered them.” And the Christian church has pretty much ever since tried to wrap head and heart around that secret, about why they were not supposed to spread the news of the Messiah, yet. Why there, especially there at Caesarea Philippi, the spiritual hotbed, they couldn’t point to him and announce: “Messiah”.
Because Jesus wasn’t done yet. Because it just wasn’t time yet. He had so much more to teach. Besides, his accusers, his betrayers, his adversaries, his murderers were abundant and aggressive enough so no need to fuel the beast. Why say anything until they could finally understand what Jesus as Messiah really meant? That insight, that revelation, that perspective could never come until after his crucifixion and resurrection. Yes, the good solid theological reasons for the secret are legion. Except for those who take a kind of reverse psychology approach. They try to argue that Jesus told the disciples (and the others that he healed along the way), he told them all not to tell so that they would do the opposite. That of course they would then, go and tell. Other than that attempt, the church has come up with all kinds of good rational for the secret.
When Luke writes about this conversation between Jesus and the disciples there is no mention of location, no mention of Caesarea Philippi. And the secret part, what Jesus tells them not to say anything about? It is less a reference to him being the Messiah and more about his prediction about his own suffering and death. “Jesus said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered ‘The Messiah of God.’ And Luke continues “Jesus sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying ‘the Son of Man must undergo great suffering , and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’” Luke makes it sound like the secret is the suffering.
Which brings us back to Mark and Mark’s twist on a familiar story. After his stern command, in Mark Jesus also begins to teach about how the Son of Man would experience great suffering, be rejected by those religious leaders who had the power, the authority, the tradition on their side, and that he would be killed. After three days he would rise again. The Messiah, the Son of Man, the Savior, Emmanuel, God with us, the Messiah must undergo great suffering, and be killed. But everyone knows, and Peter knows, the suffering and dying was not part of the messianic expectation of the tradition. That’s not part of the victorious, triumphant image of the Messiah. When Peter takes Jesus side to begin to rebuke him, it’s not the “after three days rise again” that was troubling. Resurrection was and is too mysterious for that immediate rebuke. It was the suffering and death. That’s not messianic for Peter, for the disciples, for the faith. That’s not where anybody thought this was going.
And yet, and this is different in Mark, for according to Mark, “Jesus said all this quite openly.” Suffering. Death. Rise again. “Jesus said all this quite openly.” What? Quite openly. What about the secret? For Luke the suffering apparently was the secret. Here Jesus tells it all quite openly. Yes, Jesus goes on to rebuke Peter. And then the teaching on discipleship and taking up your cross which ought to jolt you absolutely every time you read it, you hear it, you remember it. Losing your life in order to save it. Yes, it is part of the familiar story. But Jesus talking about his own suffering, his own death, his own resurrection “quite openly”?
Quite openly. In the Greek of the New Testament the word for “quite openly” can also connote courage, fearlessness, boldness and confidence. That makes sense: Jesus courageously talking of his own death. It could also be used to refer to someone speaking in a straight forward, plain truth kind of way. Sort of the opposite of teaching in parables. Jesus was getting right to the point with the disciples. He wasn’t mincing words. When it came to the reality of his own suffering and death, Jesus spoke “quite openly” to the twelve. Interestingly, the Greek word appears often in the Gospel of John. Like in chapter 11 when Jesus told the disciples plainly that Lazarus was dead. Other times in John the word is used to refer to Jesus speaking or moving about publicly. Or perhaps here in Mark, Jesus spoke quite publicly about his suffering, he death, his rising on the third day. That messianic secret captures the attention of the tradition pretty much forever but Mark’s take on the Lord’s suffering and death is that he spoke about it “quite openly.”
When our group from Nassau Church arrived at Caesarea Philippi a few years back, it was jam-packed crowded. Bus after bus after bus. The historic site is operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. We discovered it was a national holiday in Israel that day so the crowds were even bigger than usual. The site has significance for many faith groups. It is also has so much history. It is a key water source for the Jordan River and for all of the region. So there are beautiful water falls nearby and nice places for stream side picnics. They have small gathering places where groups can sit on benches Tour guides speak of the archaeological finds. Pastors preach sermons to their group on that question from Jesus “Who do you say that I am?” It is quite the happening place. That day we saw Muslim families having picnics with children running around at play. Every now and then you get a whiff of their meal. There were several “Birth Right” tour groups of American Jewish college kids learning first hand of Israel’s geography and history. A group of really big and fit American college students from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was there all with their respective school gear on. It was jam packed alright. Muslim, Jewish, and I’m sure completely secularly minded folks plus the wide spectrum of Christian theology represented.
It was as if all the sights and sounds and smells that the world had to offer were present. A place where seemingly every faith group or faith practice had its moment at some point in time. A place where Jesus teaching, where the gospel of Jesus Christ, could be tossed in with all the rest. And it was there, right there that Jesus spoke publicly, plainly, courageously, Jesus spoke quite openly about his suffering, his death, his rising again. And Peter didn’t get it. The disciples didn’t get. The followers of Jesus didn’t get it then, and pretty much we don’t get it now. Jesus and how he quite openly teaches about his suffer, his death, his rising again. Turns out, it’s easier to keep the secret.
As communities all over are increasingly multi-faith and our children are learning so much from friends who celebrate and worship in different ways, many in the Christian faith lament not just with nostalgia but with fear insisting on some kind of dominating, cling to power, superior, condescending Christ. But Jesus still speaks quite openly about his suffering, his death, his rising. To all the corners of the church were folks make a mountain of an issue on being able to say “merry Christmas” or make their own belief the law of the land or use the term “religious liberty” as a euphemism for Christianity in charge, Jesus still speaks openly about his suffering, his death, his rising. His own power coming through weakness, his victory coming only after death.
To a church were trusted religious leaders maliciously and sinfully and criminally abuse and sexually assault young children and young adults, and to a church where trusted religious leaders violate every norm, expectation, and ounce of integrity when they prey on women and girls, using the pastoral role as a tool for misconduct, abuse, assault and infidelity, while destroying lives and congregations, Jesus just must weep and he still speaks quite openly about power coming only in service, leadership only in true servanthood, and losing your life in order to save it.
In a world that thrives on naming winners and losers, where success is defined by numbers, where power is understood as might and privilege and access, where so much of the wealth is in the hands of so few, where getting ahead by definition means leaving others behind and pushing them down as you go up, Jesus still speaks quite openly about his suffering, his death, his rising again. To all of us who fall into that trap of thinking this life of discipleship is supposed to be easy, comfortable, and convenient, that the Christ we worship is supposed to agree with us all the time rather than challenge us and make us uncomfortable once in a while, Jesus still speaks quite openly of his own cross and of ours. To us who so often find ourselves entrenched in “what is in it for me” understanding of faith, that its all about what I get out of it, that my needs, my concerns, my frustrations, my heart, myself absolutely always comes first, Jesus still speaks quite openly about his suffering, his death, his rising.
It’s a familiar story from the life of Jesus. Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. We’ve kept that messianic secret long enough. It’s easier to keep the secret than to live the life of discipleship, and experience the call to sacrifice, and to become servants first, and to proclaim the foolishness of the cross, the weakness of his power, and to live and breath and have your being amid all the sights and sounds and smells the world has to offer, and yet believe and hear and live for the one who still speaks quite openly.