The Word This Weekend – September 16, 2018
“City of Stone”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
This busy Autumn Season continues, and this weekend our parish begins its Sunday Children’s Ministries, along with a new Adult study series. This weekend’s gospel text is drawn from Mark, but it has parallels elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly in Matthew’s gospel account. In that version is a quote from Christ that has inspired devotion and debate ever since: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
One of the chief blessings for me in traveling in the Holy Land has been the realization that the land is a key element in understanding the Gospel story. St. Jerome, writing from Jerusalem, famously wrote that the Holy Land is the “Fifth Gospel,” the territorial story that makes the other four evangelists’ testimony come clear. And this insight is never more important than when we are trying to understand this section of the Jesus story.
As we’ve seen over the past few weeks of tracing the gospel narrative, Jesus has been on the move, across both Jewish and Gentile regions in this northern part of Roman Palestine and Syria. Both Mark and Matthew chart this geographic movement. We have seen the Lord dragging his unnerved and discomforted disciples through gentile-dominated regions bordering north and west of the safe environs around the Sea of Galilee.
We’ve witnessed him miraculously feeding an immense crowd on a Galilean hillside. Then he’s at the seaside district of Tyre and Sidon, healing a child and teaching about the equal dignity of religious insiders and outsiders. Next, still more healings, feedings and teachings flow from journeys around the ten pagan cities east of the Sea of Galilee (called the “Decapolis”). Oh, how tired the feet of this band of travelers must have been, and how confused those Galilean disciples must have been as to why their Rabbi has been darting all over enemy territory, west to east and south to north. What in the world is the Teacher up to?
And now, Jesus’ road trip takes a new and unexpected turn, as he now leads them to the foot of Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan River, and the most august of the Roman cities to the east of the northern Jewish territories: Caesarea Philippi. This Roman city, named to honor both the Emperor and the Tetrarch Philip, was a center of Roman civic life and pagan worship. Caesarea Philippi was literally a “City of Stone,” with many of its official and cultic buildings and temples hewn from the Cliffside of the city. It was also a place said to have a literal “gateway to Hades,” a cave opening that would lead to the fabled Place of the Dead. In other words, Caesarea was the last place good Jews would want to go, no matter the purpose. So why go there? Why go there, Jesus?
“City of Stone.” That is the setting of this episode, and Matthew’s Gospel is unique among the three Synoptic gospels in expanding the story’s meaning. Take another look, with some pivotal Greek words expanded and explained:
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Historically, the Roman Catholic branch of the faith has seen in these words a prophecy of the Papacy itself – as is noted in the papal symbol of keys and tiara seen on the right. Protestants have tended to minimize this symbolism, and have stressed the difference between the designation of Simon as “Peter” (literally, Petros, or Rock) and “this rock” (literally, petra, or rocky foundation) as the foundation stone of the confession “You are the Christ/Messiah!” as that which founds and grounds the church that will embrace the grace of the Risen Christ in witness and service ever since.
But there’s another meaning here, far beyond the ecumenical debates about the place of a Petrine Papacy or a Pauline proclamation of the Word, and it is found in the very nature and construction of Caesarea itself. In fact, for me, it finally answers the question as to why Jesus makes the disciples trudge all the way to the foot of Mount Hermon, and to the precincts of this “City of Stone” in the first place.
Do you see it? Standing in this City of Stone, a place where a gate to Hades was said to be, Jesus makes an eternal connection, in word and in example, as to the strength and center of his mission of love on earth. The saving message of God’s reign, centered in Christ, will be the foundation stone of the disciples’ words and work, and even the securely locked gates of death will bend and break before this word of liberating and saving grace. For Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – for all humankind – the redemptive work of Christ the Son of God will break every barrier down, forever!
And, like the nonplussed disciples of old, our community of companions will stand here as well, and receive the same triumphant promise this Sunday. We stand upon the same petra as they did, and champion the same death-defeating and Hades-smashing message they were called to embrace and express to the ends of the earth. As Mark’s version picks up the story:
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
So there you have it. We stand in a City of Stone, and as a City of Stone as well – a holy city built on the foundational rock of Christ’s love and Christ’s mission. Through our schools and ministries, and through a thousand individual and corporate expressions of kindness, welcome and self-giving love, we plant the Lord’s life-changing Cross in our hearts and at the center of our work. We lift high the cross for all to see, and welcome every seeking soul to rest in its shade and cleave to its liberation, and rededicate our lives and fortunes to the transforming love that breaks the chains of death and grants the gift of life and love to all flesh. In Him, the Rock of our salvation, we become the living stones that build the Holy City of faith in this place and for this time. For we were baptized and redeemed for just such a time as this: to be the City of Stone in which the God of love can live and move and change lives in our South Bay community, and to the ends of the earth.
So, see you this weekend, as Christ communities around the globe gather around the treasures of Water, Word and Table, hearing and heeding the call of the Christ who leads us into settings and conversations as yet undreamed and unknown, to share the transforming Good News of the cross. May we dare to dream of a stronger witness, a deeper fellowship, and a gentler and more just community, both within our faith community, and through its precious calling to make Christ’s appeal to a broken, divided and hope-starved world.
With You in God’s Good Work,