Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
16 September 2018
In today’s gospel reading we reach the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel.
I am not counting words, but describing the turning point in Mark’s overall story.
More on that shortly, but first and very briefly, let’s talk about the location of this episode.
Mark sets this story right up in the far north corner of ancient Palestine.
Today we call the place Banias and 200 years before the time of Jesus it was known as Paneas, which gives us a clue to the significance of this piece of real estate.
We are on the southern slopes of Mt Hermon, the highest peak in the Lebanese mountains. From a spring near the base of Mt Hermon flows a sparkling clean and extremely chilly stream, that will eventually become the Jordan River.
Mt Hermon appears often in the Old Testament, as it was believed to be the address of the gods. It was the local equivalent of Mt Olympus in Greece.
This is sacred turf and a large cave not far from the Hermon Stream was believed to be the entrance to the underworld. A temple to the Greek god, Pan, had been here for centuries prior to the time of Jesus. Hence it ancient and modern names: Paneas or Banias.
Herod the Great realised the political significance of this holy place, and erected a temple to Augustus at the entrance to the great cave. The Augusteum appears on coins minted by Herod’s son and partial successor, Philip. Philip went one better than Herod, renaming the site Caesarea Philippi, which means ‘the city Philip built for Caesar’!
In the time of Jesus this was the capital of the small kingdom ruled by Philip.
Perhaps even more importantly for Mark, this was also the seat of the surviving Jewish government led by King Agrippa II after the disaster of the Jewish-Roman War that saw Jerusalem captured and the temple destroyed. This is the same King Agrippa who appears in the Acts of the Apostles and meets St Paul.
Today when we take students and pilgrims to the site, we walk through the remains of Agrippa’s palace. Even after 2,000 years you can see the quality of the building and sense that no cost was spared.
The main street of ancient Caesarea Philippi directs people to the Augusteum in front of the Cave of Pan and the foot of Mt Hermon, the home of the gods.
This is a holy place.
This is a place of power.
The story so far
Up until this point in the Gospel, Jesus has been active in the north of the country: across Galilee, around the lake and even as far as the coastal areas near Tyre and Sidon. From this point onwards Jesus begins his journey south to Jerusalem, a journey from which he never returns.
Mark has been choosing the episodes to include in his story like an artist selecting colours and textures for a painting.
A lot of the time Mark makes Jesus seem like Moses 2.0.
At other times Mark makes Jesus look like Elijah 2.0.
It seems as if the ancient Bible stories are coming to life in front of their eyes!
Some people like what they see, and Jesus is attracting huge crowds everywhere that he goes. Other people are confused and hostile. Especially the leaders and the religious experts: the Pharisees and the Scribes.
Now comes the turning point in the story.
Jesus heads north with his closest followers and takes them to the villages around the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi.
They are in dangerous territory. The rich and powerful who live here destroy people like Jesus. Mark chooses his setting well. Jesus does not go inside the city that represents the highest levels of Jewish political power and the place of its ongoing compromise with the Roman Empire.
Jesus is an outsider to that world and he stays outside the city with its pagan gods.
But in that location, close to all the symbols of divine and human power, he asks his closest followers what they think of him.
Can he bring down this empire that seems so powerful and pervasive?
And how will he do it?
By force, or by seeming to be a victim of the system he has come to destroy?
No wonder Peter could not understand.
To be a disciple
How does someone follow a person like Jesus?
The answer may surprise, but it is highly relevant this morning as we baptise Lilly and as we welcome other children who are beginning their journey to the Eucharist.
Jesus does not ask people to sign up to a creed.
Jesus does not ask them to go through some ritual or make a pilgrimage.
Jesus does not ask them to hand over money for the church to use.
All of those things the church has done, but none of those things were done by Jesus.
He simply said: Come and follow me; do what I am doing, go where I am going.
The secret is how we choose to spend our lives.
Not looking after ourselves, but seeking to make the world a better place, a place more like God wants it to be.
Lilly starts that journey today.
Those of us who come to the Table of Jesus seek food for the same journey.
Make us like you, Jesus!