Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Psalm 124,  Romans 12: 1 – 8, Matthew 16: 13 – 20

I’ve read today’s Gospel passage many many times, and preached on it over the years, noticing the answers that people gave to Jesus’s question about his identity. But until last week I had never explored the significance of this event, with Peter’s astounding insight into the identity of Jesus, in the context of Caesarea Philippi. So I was fascinated to discover that the Gospel event is greatly enriched by an understanding of the context. This should be no surprise to me, as I am always telling people to read the Bible in context – that of the original writers, that of the translators and interpreters, and that of our own lives.

What then do we know about Caesarea Philippi? In Jesus’s day it was a Greek city, named probably in honour of Herod the Great’s son, Philip; and not to be confused with another Caesarea on the coast. Our Caesarea is in the northern most part of ancient Israel, a beautiful mountain area with high rocky cliffs and a deep dark cave from which flowed a strong stream of water, believed by many to be the source of the River Jordan. The combination of mountain, cliff, cave and water made it almost inevitably into a sacred site – and so it was. At various times it was a place dedicated to the worship of Baal – the Canaanite god of fertility, and the worship of Pan, one of the Greek and later Roman pantheon of gods. Some believed that the cave was the entrance to Hades – the place of the dead. The area also features in the Old Testament as a place of apostasy; it is where King Jeroboam set up one of two golden calves, claiming that they, and not God, were the true gods.

It is to this city, with its connections with ancient pagan gods of different times and cultures, a possible entry into the underworld of Greek mythology, a place of apostasy in Jewish history, and a source of fresh water gushing out into a thirsty land, that Jesus leads his disciples. It is here that he poses the question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And the answers come thick and fast – obviously there has been plenty of talk. “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Before we move on to the direct question to Peter and his answer, pause to consider the speculation. There’s another little piece of geography we should notice.

Caesarea Philippi is very close to Mount Hermon – the likely place of the Transfiguration which Matthew mentions in the very next chapter. There Jesus appears alongside two great Old Testament figures – Moses and Elijah. There’s a strong link with Elijah and Jeroboam. It fell to Elijah to challenge the king and people who came after Jeroboam and eventually lead them back to deciding for God and against Baal and the other pagan gods worshipped by Jeroboam and his successors. And of course, as we heard in this morning’s first reading from Exodus, Moses is, from a very early age, associated with water and rescue – albeit a different river to the one flowing out of the cave at Caesarea Philippi.

So there is the setting for Jesus’s question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” to which Peter gives his famous answer “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In the very place where Baal and Pan had been worshipped; in the place which some thought was the entrance to the underworld and the place of the dead, and in the place where a former king of Israel had forsaken God, Peter answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And so it is, influenced perhaps by the cliffs towering behind the city, that Simon, son of Jonah, brother of Andrew, is given a new name: Peter. Peter, the rock on which the church is to be built, and against which the gates of Hades will not prevail. To Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the way into Eternal Life.

The story doesn’t stop there of course. Jesus immediately begins to tell his disciples that he must now go to Jerusalem where he will face arrest, trial and eventual death. Peter, full of his new found self-importance, tries to remonstrate with Jesus and is soundly rebuked. How Jesus’s words must have stung him, humiliated him! “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” And then, six days later, Peter is again privileged to be with Jesus when he goes up the mountain, sees Jesus standing alongside the towering Old Testament personalities of Moses and Elijah, representing all that has gone before, and hearing the voice of God proclaim: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17: 5)

And so to our day and our context. Later this morning, at a great service of celebration, six brand new Christians will be brought to the font to be baptised. Along with their parents and god-parents they will affirm that they turn to Christ, and renounce sin and evil. Others will affirm their baptism in the sacrament of Confirmation, refreshing their baptism commitment to follow Jesus into this world and our day. It will be to them as it is to us, to listen to the Transfigured One, the One who called Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, Mary Magdalene and you and me – to follow him. We too will daily have to continue making the choice of going with the living God, or remaining at the entrance to the place of the dead.

As the country wrestles over the next few weeks as to the nature of marriage and what and how to vote in a referendum that has no power other than moral, your faith and mine will be put to the test – for there is no easy answer. Much will depend on our understanding of what it means to follow the Living One, how we read and interpret the Bible, and how well we are able to enter into genuine debate, with a real desire to use both ears to listen and, perhaps often, keep our mouths shut. I am thankful, in a way, that as a resident alien I do not have a vote. But equally aware that the land of my citizenship has already voted on the issue of same sex marriage and the sky has not fallen.

We live in a complex beautiful world where there are many models of relationships. And we worship as part of the Anglican Church which has a long and proud history of being open to people, of doing the hard work at holding together as family despite differences. We also belong to a church which has very definite views on marriage as that between a man and a woman together for life. Priests and deans are not at liberty to make changes to the formularies of the church while holding a bishop’s licence.

While we don’t physically pass the Peace at this service, when we come to kneel at the altar rail to receive the blessed sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we do so knowing that Jesus died for all people, Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, gay and straight. Long before the rainbow became a symbol for those fighting for marriage equality, it was recognised as a sign of God’s covenant never again to destroy the earth. I am sure that was not the intention behind choosing the rainbow by the LGBTQI advocates, but it remains a good one – a sign of God’s love for the earth, the whole of creation, including every single human being. A tall order for us, but surely not for God.

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. How you answer that may determine how you vote, and how you relate to those with whom you disagree. But know this: God in Christ, welcomes all, knows all, loves all. That is our faith.