Mark seems not to care about an accurate travel itinerary for Jesus and his followers. Last week we learned of Jesus going from Israel into the Gentile northwest, then walked hundreds of miles to the gentile southeast corner of the Galilee by going further north to Sidon. Today we learn that Jesus is back up north, this time more to the northeast near Mt. Hermon, at a place called Caesarea Philippi. This would have been quite the detour again for Jesus, as if his route mimicked the path of a hummingbird. Of course, Mark was not plotting a tour as might Rick Steves. But like good real estate brokers, Mark knew that location was everything; location, location, location. It matters for Mark that Jesus first visited politicized Gentiles who were hostile to the Jews. It matters that Jesus cared for Gentiles in the Decapolis who were more concerned about survival than old prejudices. Now, it matters that in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his homies are among resort goers and tourist support staff. Location is everything.
So what about this Caesarea Philippi? There at the base of beautiful snow-capped Mt. Hermon, amid gorgeous red stone and greening forests and gurgling streams of the freshest water, was the resort built in honor of Caesar and dedicated to the god Pan; that mischievous satyr who played the flute and made wine flow in a way a Jethro Tull concert never could. How interesting that Jesus goes there! This was a place where military folk had the best leaves, where what happened at Caesarea Philippi didn’t necessarily stay at Caesarea Philippi, because the partiers had all the resources and kinds of convictions not to care. So, yes, location matters. For Jesus to show up here is a meeting of God and man at Club Med. If God meets humanity at Club Med, God meets us anywhere.
And anywhere God poses to us a singular question meant for our own well-being. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks. The answers are roundabout, like answers students give when they haven’t read the assignment. Then Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” Location-location-location again, going to the heart of the matter. Peter first answers rightly. “You are the messiah.”
Jesus then teaches them that “messiah” doesn’t mean what they think it means. Being Messiah has nothing to do with consorting with the typical human power structures. Indeed, the Messiah’s way will lead to his own suffering and death at the hands of the power brokers who presume to set the terms by which people should live. But Jesus’ way will not be the usual death-dealing way. Messiah power will not be about taking religious-political control. The Messiah way will not be about turning a blind eye to the injustice of the pretenders’ ways either, which is precisely what will lead to his rejection, suffering, and execution. Peter and the rest are shocked. They had believed their Messiah would turn the tables in their favor again and even install them into cabinet posts. It was to be their turn to drain the swamp that other fake promiser-swamp-drainers only enlarged.
It should not surprise that Peter responded as he did. He had typical if wrong conceptions of godhood. So do we. Like how student evaluations of teachers say more about the student than they do about the teacher, Peter said more about himself and us than he realized, substituting typical human selfish thinking for what is genuine holiness. We so often construe wrongly who Jesus is, and therefore what God is about. I remember a friend-for-a-while who was high up in a previous presidential administration. He was known for his far right religious fundamentalist views, but I found a path to be a friend with him anyway. When I asked him once how he understood God, his answer said it all. “My god,” he said, was “a warrior god.” My friend’s name wasn’t Peter, but it could have been. That conversation recalled for me how famous descriptions of Jesus in popular books over the last 100 years strangely describe Jesus to look just like the authors themselves.
Peter can only respond as an heir of millennia of human conventions that turned divine values inside out. How utterly alien, how utterly snowflakish selfless love looks to us when we’re convinced that civilization itself cannot survive without Ayn Randian cruelty. Yet, at the same time we yearn for release from our captivity to fear of life going further south. We wish we really could let go of ourselves so to embrace the liberation of suffering love. So, of course, when Peter so protests, Jesus is “direct.” “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, looking at all the assembled and literally meaning, get behind me all of you who oppose God’s ways (That is the meaning of “ha satan;” it was first a general term of those who oppose God before it became a proper noun.).
Location, location, location! Don’t stand in Christ’s way. Get behind him. But that’s not punishment. It is Jesus’ way to release us from our fear. Get behind him; let him lead instead. He has the ultimate answers to the ultimate questions, and we do not have to pretend control of the ultimate things anymore. We don’t have to be like God. We don’t have to even define God. Let God be God. Let Jesus lead. Let him be Messiah. We do not need to eat that apple. Jesus demands that his followers let him lead instead. And to take up our own crosses for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the gospel.
Ah, is this last line the one that really crawls into and turns our souls inside out? Not only must we give up some control, but carry our cross too? Like redefining and co-opting God through the ages, we’ve messed up this phrase, too. To bear your cross does not mean that we should take our inevitable sufferings quietly with a stiff upper lip; most certainly it does not mean to accept abuse. To bear the cross is to accept the price set by those who oppose God against God’s followers. To bear the cross means to stand up for what is right—the way of love—when God’s enemies, who often are dressed as God’s friends, abuse others so to enlarge themselves. For Jesus, to bear the cross was to go the way toward his execution, and with his divine defiance of their self-righteousness he opened the way of health and wholeness—salvation—to all of us. In that, Jesus showed us that there is no shame, there is no defamation, there is no dishonor, but only the authentic self-satisfaction and integrity and joy of eternal life begun now by together following him on his path. To carry the cross is hard. But like the love of parents for their children, the love takes you through the hard tasks without much care for your own suffering. You just do it, from love. Lovers of God who have their location right just follow and just do what must be done.
For Jesus to tell the opposers to get behind him was a gift of relocation and new vocation. “Y’all get behind me,” he said, together, with and for each other. Following his lead, that’s where we learn better to do right, to love God and each other. This is gospel. This is good news. To bear the cross is about vocation wherever your location. To bear the cross is not merely to pray grace publicly at Club Med. To bear the cross there and everywhere is to bear another’s burdens and to allow them to carry yours, even when ungodly authorities rule otherwise. And it is, at all times to confess and celebrate that the cross on our brows identifies us, us of all people, as those who carry the Messiah’s selfless love, the world’s only hope.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston September 16, 2018