SERMON: September 16, 2018 – Mark 8: 27-38
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
North of the Sea of Galilee is a beautiful nature preserve, going once more by its ancient name of Banias (or in some dialects, “Panias”). In the days of Jesus, however, it had a different name: Caesarea Philippi.
Two weeks ago, we heard that place name as we read the 42nd Psalm – a Psalm in which the author laments being stranded amidst the natural beauty of this distant place, when all he wanted in life is to be back in the city of Jerusalem, worshipping at the Temple. Today we visit Caesarea Philippi once more, as we consider one of the most important questions Jesus will ever ask a disciple.
As many of you know, Shannon and I were blessed this spring to spend two weeks in the land of the Holy One, walking the footsteps of Jesus. One of the things I brought home from that pilgrimage is a new attentiveness to WHERE a Biblical story takes place. Place names which I previously thought were just throw-away details, are often key to understanding what was said and done in that place.
Such a place, is Caesarea Philippi.
The first thing one notices here, is how beautiful it is. Not far from the heights of Mount Hermon, one finds here the highest waterfall in the land, and the headwaters of the Jordan River.
But something else has travelled along with the beauty. As detailed by this sign, this is one of those “thin places” in the world, where the natural sense of awe and wonder attracted worshippers of all types. No fewer that seven religious sites were here, at least five of which would have been present in some form in the days of Jesus. In some cases, you can still see the footings of these buildings and in other cases, the evidence is based more on ancient writings and artifacts found on site.
- First and foremost was the grotto of the god Pan, from whom the name Banias/Panias is derived. The English word “panic” also comes from Pan’s name, for Pan was the half-man, half-goat god of fright. Wherever there were big, loud natural features, like caverns and roaring waters, followers of Pan would set up a shrine to try to appease this god and keep things nice and safe.
- There was a series of niches hewn into the rock face, containing sculptures of Pan’s consort, Echo, and his father, Hermes. While people worshipping Pan did the ancient equivalent of coming and lighting a candle, there is some suggestion that devotees of his companions Echo and Hermes would cross the line into human sacrifice.
- At the court of the goddess Nemesis, violent events like wrestling, boxing, gladiator battles, and throwing prisoners to the lions, were considered part of sacred practice.
- There was a large temple of Augustus, an attempt by good old King Herod to curry favour with Rome by building a grand temple to worship the Roman Emperor.
- And there was a temple of Zeus, king of the Gods and god of justice, whose worship looks a bit more orderly and purposeful that some of the surrounding shrines.
In his PhD dissertation, historian Judd Burton adds that there would also have been places for Jewish worshippers, and Roman versions of the Greek gods would have been worshipped here. Of note, Dr. Burton speaks of worship of the goddess Roma, whose followers enjoyed games, music, drama, and athletic events, in addition to the bloodthirsty events enjoyed by the worshipers of Nemesis.
As I stood at Caesarea Philippi and imagined all these temples and such side by side, a modern-day parallel came clear, and it had nothing to do with religion as we would understand it. This place, 2000 years ago, was a religious theme park! This wasn’t like going to Jerusalem, this was like going to Anaheim or Orlando or Vegas. This was a big, busy, loud, garish place, lively and cruel, local goat herders side by side with Roman centurions. I have no idea if there were T-shirts declaring, “what happens in Banias, stays in Banias” but archeological work does continue!
And this was the place, that Jesus stood, and pointed at the misguided temple of Augustus and the brutality honouring Nemesis and the fear-based devotion to Pan and his courtesans, and asked his disciples this question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Just ponder that for a moment with me. Surrounded by the sights and sounds of waterfalls and gladiators and sacrifices and trinket-selling hucksters, Jesus asks “do you put your trust in these things, or in me?” The question “who do you say that I am?” wasn’t a random question without context; Jesus stood in front of everything else that people considered to be worthy of worship, presented them with an embodied, focused, profoundly different option, and basically said, “choose.”
Before going further, I need to underline how careful we need to be when trying to superimpose religious life today, with religious life 2000 years ago. Since the beginning of my Ministry, I have understood it to be in an interfaith framework, which I value greatly. Living in Calgary for 18 years the city kept getting more cross-cultural and more religiously diverse, and in my experience it was the best thing to ever happen to that city. At the school where I worked for a dozen years, fully one-third of the families were of other faith traditions, and I was honoured to go into classrooms to talk about Christmas and Easter knowing that a Hindu parent would be talking about Diwali; and here in Canmore I am slowly learning the sacred stories of our Indigenous neighbours. In a North American context where every concept of God gets relegated to the margins, respectful engagement with people who seek the presence of the Divine, even in ways very different from ours, brings a spiritual richness. As stated by the United Church of Canada’s website, “believing that God is creatively and redemptively at work in the religious life of all humanity, [our Church] has long been involved in interfaith dialogue and action to build respectful mutual relationships… to love [all] our neighbours…in today’s pluralistic world.”
No, when I imagine a 2018 version of this scene where Jesus stood at Caesarea Philippi, I don’t see him pitting one religion against another. I do see him standing amidst people of faith, challenging us to examine that our devotion aligns with the intentions of a welcoming, loving God, and if it doesn’t align, further challenging us to smarten up. But even more than that, I see Jesus standing amidst all those other things that claim our time and devotion, and urging us to re-invite a sense of holiness into our lives; in essence, standing between me and those things that actually win the competition for my time and attention, challenging me to do a personal audit which asks the searching question, “what are the other things in my life that take the place that God should have?”
That’s a discussion for each of us to have with Christ. For some of us, something clearly unworthy or destructive is playing way too big a role in our lives and the task Jesus gives is to invite God into the process, and to build the necessary supports to break free and stay free. That is extremely hard work, but at least the task is obvious.
But what happens when the thing that has really claimed our heart, which keeps us from God, is not a bad thing? Putting energy into one’s family life, for example, is definitely a commendable thing, but if the focus never broadens out to engage the needs of others in the way that Jesus always urges us to do, things can get unhealthy in a hurry. And here in Canmore, it was well put by one of my Ministry colleagues: people are drawn to this place by the beauty of God’s creation, and to fully celebrate that gift is a wonderful thing. But that great gift also creates the biggest challenge of being in Ministry out here: for no matter how good the Sunday experience, no matter how strong your friendships are at Church, it’s really hard to stand side-by-side with an outstanding ski run with fresh powder, and even pretend to compete. And in the Canadian context, where religious life of any sort is perceived as so totally un-cool, there’s not going to be much peer pressure suggesting that getting together with others in the name and presence of Christ, whether that’s Sunday morning worship or Wednesday night Evensong or in one of our ongoing Ministries, is a better option doing than something up the mountain.
In all of these instances, I imagine the Jesus of Caesarea Philippi in our midst, asking, “what would a healthy life look like, that still explicitly rested on me, and my brave, active, transformative love”. Maybe that kind of life is already unfolding for you and if so, I am so grateful for those blessings. But it could be, that such a life is still some ways away, and the gracious presence of Christ could bring it closer. With Christ, are there simple changes in priority, or more complex behavioural changes that could happen? Have you been sitting on an idea that we could try here at Church to really connect the good news of Jesus Christ with your life and the life of the Canmore community? Or if you’re visiting today from elsewhere and sense a spiritual disconnect back home, what kinds of gracious assistance is Jesus offering you in finding that connection again?
While the story of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi had some pretty confrontational elements – like the rebuke of Peter – the question Jesus asks has a huge element of invitation to it.
- “Who do you say that I am?” assumes relationship. It means, “Who can we be, together?”
- “Who do you say that I am?” honours our inner spiritual wisdom, which yearns to be at one with the holy but just needs the right support.
- And “Who do you say that I am?” is not a one-and-done question. In the same way that Christ’s presence will continue to grow in April’s life and in Jace’s life as they move from infancy to childhood to adolescence, Christ’s question to us gets asked many times. When the Holy One asks you, “where are we in this relationship?” – any honest answer opens the discussion, and the truly wonderful thing is, the one asking will never stop being in relationship with us, no matter what our answer might be at that point in time.
Standing in a place of natural beauty, standing amidst the personal and spiritual choices available to us, standing within to our lives no matter what that life looks like at that moment, Jesus asks us to find a “fit” for his eternal, universal love and is many steps ahead of us in making that happen – we just have to recognize it. In our gathered life as a congregation, in our friendships and our family units, in the quiet space of our hearts that we share with the Divine, I pray that our unfolding answers to Christ’s questions will draw us closer to our Lord, and shape our lives with love. Amen.
Burton, Judd H. Religion, Society, and Sacred Space at Banias: A Religious History of Banias/Caesarea Philippi, 21 BC-AD 1635. (PhD dissertation). Lubbock, Texas, © 2010, Judd H. Burton. Accessed at https://biblewalks.com/Files/BURTON-DISSERTATION.pdf
Land of the Bible. http://www.land-of-the-bible.com/node/350
Theoi: Zeus. http://www.theoi.com/Cult/ZeusCult.html
United Church of Canada. https://www.united-church.ca/community-faith/welcome-united-church-canada/interfaith-relations
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.