Based on Mt. 16:13-20,
with reference to Romans 12:1-8 and Isaiah 51:1-6.
“Location, location, location.” You know the phrase. That real estate agent slogan counts for everything when it comes to what gives value to a home. I don’t speak only of the monetary value. When we seek a place, we want it to be in decent shape, for sure. But we also prize its access to schools, culture, stores. And the value is counted differently at various stages of our lives. When we’re younger or perhaps have had enough of the homogeneity of suburbia, we like the excitement of high-density life in the city. We’ll gladly trade away car costs so to afford the higher expense of a downtown. If a growing family, we look for the neighborhood with the right school district and a quieter noise level. If we’re older, looking toward our last chapter, we’ll move near our children and grandchildren. We’ll gladly trade the business of our work lives for the loving demands of school plays, concerts, and snuggling or wrestling with the kids and the dog. We’re also very glad that that is not a 24/7 matter obligation.
“Location, location, location,” has its trade-offs, too. The so-called right location may come with rules as to whether you can park your 1970 diesel-powered Houston art-car style RV in a publicly visible space or store old tires in your front yard alongside a chicken coop. Maybe the perfect house is next to a place just described. Or the area is red-lined; with financing for whites only, such as happened across the country when suburbia actually was invented, not unlike planned neighborhoods where everybody looks like everybody and golf cart slots are marked out on mega-church parking lots.
Location is an ageless question that repeatedly interrogates our allegiances in our different ages.
So Jesus today, and Matthew about Jesus in a particular way, employs the motif of location to interrogate their audience’s allegiances. The location and the interrogation both are indeed crucial, not only in the compelling story primarily between Jesus and Peter. It is no accident that this story, first shared by Mark, is in the exact center of Mark’s gospel; and it is fairly much so, too, here in Matthew. All leads to it and all flows from it.
The actual real estate of which we speak, Caesarea Philippi, is one that a number of us from CTK can see easily in our minds’ eyes. We were there last fall and the impression made on us was deep. CP is a very significant, and beautiful, place, near the northern border today of Israel, at the base of Mt. Hermon. It is a place of wonderful shade trees in a venue of red rock and caves, with a great spring and many pools that is one of the main sources of the Jordan River. Its location in the so-called biblical times was important as an economic center, being near the juncture of main trade routes. The economy loomed large in importance at this location.
In Jesus’ day Caesarea Philippi was the administrative center for Phillip the tetrarch, son of Herod, and so bore much political significance as a place meant for privileged politicians who collaborated gladly with Rome. In Matthew’s day, some 40-50 years later, it still served, too, as an outpost for Roman regiments. Matthew’s own audience/congregation would have recognized it as the place where a reviled Roman commander was stationed with his soldiers, the very commander who oversaw the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Political collusion, oppression and military empire loomed large in importance at this location.
But not only economy and empire. So also Caesarea Philippi was “party central” with a patina of religion. was famous as a multi-religious resort dedicated to the god Pan; you know, that pipe-playing goat boy always ready with wine to inspire debauchery. It was a favorite place for soldiers and civvies to vacay, not unlike Tijuana for sailors today (let those with ears to hear, hear). It was a smaller “more bucolic” Sin City where the pools were packed, where what one does there doesn’t stay there. It was, in fact, a 24/7 party in a (wait for it) Pan-Demic (Hey, how could I not go there?)!
So what was Jesus doing at Caesarea Philippi, of all places, with the disciples? Did they enjoy hot tubs and wine and keep it at that? We gotta wonder. That’s like asking, do churches have conventions in Las Vegas? Well, actually, yes. Integrity there is assumed…and tested. Truth is, the location of Caesarea Philisn’t about what Jesus and the disciples did in their off-time. For Jesus, this was still about Christian formation! That is, a Christian can enjoy fullness of life with integrity. One can drink wine without the rest of Pan’s peddled package, just as in theory a sailor can drink whisky without getting into a fight. The point is that there in that mid-east Roman-times fusion of Wall Street/Camp Pendleton/and Hedonism II, all blessed by pagan altars. There is where and repeatedly Jesus asked what “the people”—the unreflective masses–think of him and who do the individual disciples think he is. It is the allegiance question regularly asked of the people of God, asked throughout the changing locations of our lives. The question is sharply defined further by this particular well-known location. But the “known” character of this location also is insidious, because this location serves also as the metaphor for any location at any time where its values are advertised constantly as replacements for or even equivalencies to what it means to belong to the God of Jesus Christ. “The Market,” “Gods and Country,” “Live (really) Freely or Die,” “Caesar is Messiah”: all these hat worthy slogans, all these fake faiths have always vied for status as human-being’s primary location. They always try to usurp where God claims human-being for God’s own; where God pleads for us to so see and respond with joy’s liberation; where faithful disciples answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
What is your location now? Jesus regularly is asking the question, so that you or I are not so lazy and sloppy in our thinking as just to go with the crowd, “the people,” as if “the people” are some sort of authority with their bandwagon error of logic that is as invalid as saying “Eat at Duane’s because 1000 flies can’t be wrong.” That is the lie of powers and principalities like colluding tetrarchs and military destroyers of holy places try to put onto “the peoples’” tongues. Their outright intent is to stupefy faith with a spiritual Pan-demic in so-called religious terms of Q-Anon-like foolishness. But attentive disciples of all bandwidths discern better. Even Peter, whom commentators have often described as “dumb as a box of rocks,” is commended as rock-solid by Jesus for his faithful and clear discernment.
Our locations might be lonely. Yes. I know. And I worry. Loneliness makes us vulnerable to so much. So our location today, too, means that we reach out to break down those invisible walls that we may not see as dangers to ourselves. Loneliness is not healed by going to Caesarea Philippi without confessing Christ. It is healed by hearing, however, through each other, as with through Peter and all the disciples who came to know the revelation of God through their own very personal lives, taught and consoled and guided continually into hope by the master, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and Messiah, still at it, teaching and consoling and hope-infusing today, still asking, repeatedly, as not according to the crowd, but to ask “what do you say?” What is your allegiance?
When our hearts and minds are opened like the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, we see we are not alone. We see that we are given to ourselves in and with and through each other, which is above all to say that we are located in the Body of Christ with Christ himself, secured so forever. Our Christian life is communal; we do not take our salvation into our own hands, thank God. We see rightly then and are reminded then that we are people hewn from the quarry of God, that the faith we sometimes do not see in ourselves is solid rock, carved from and on the rock who is the Son of God, who is for us even mystically through one another as church.
We have ways like here at this Houston location, to continue reminding and shaping and even polishing the solid rock of faith, even during this time of relative sequester. Opportunities abound for faith formation and learning for all ages. New classes will be online beyond the wonderful stuff of Friday Bible Study and Sunday forums, and Godly Play for children. Houses churches thrive online in friendship and spiritual conversation. We’ll add more this fall and all we do will be available to anybody across the nation or even globe. That’s how we are strengthening as the Body of Christ in and from Houston these days. And we will be stretching soon to do more in worship and prayer, especially with recognized sacramentality, in our so-called virtual expression. Whatever the mode, whatever the location, you see, what we intend to say and do on the waves of the Holy Spirit is about the location of Jesus the Christ: for you wherever and however you are. Per Jurgen Moltmann, “Where Jesus is, there is life. There is abundant life, vigorous life, loved life, and eternal life. There is life-before-death.” I would not want to be located any other rock than him.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX August 23, 2020