"Who do you say that I am?" It is a question that Jesus put to His disciples this past weekend which leads to Peter's wonderful confession. But it is also a question which He puts to each and every one of us who calls Him Lord and Savior. "Who do you say that I am?" So often, we "modern" Christians listen to the voices and testimony of the world and believe that we have not right to claim that our Truth is correct. At the old St. Catherine-St. Mark Episcopal Day School (now Rivermont Collegiate), I was approached a couple weeks ago by another parent of a differing faith and reminded that the world (and naturally the old Episcopal School) does not accept Christian claims to know the Truth. And, as the France's Time Magazine letters to the editors this week reminded us, such opposition to the Gospel is not limited to our own community. As our Gospel lesson pointed out this week, though, such claims by the world are not "modern" at all. These pluralistic claims to truth existed as much in Jesus' day as they do our own. In fact, Pilate is reported to have asked Jesus during his examination "What is truth?" This post-modern understanding is not a new discovery or evidence of humanity's progress, as many would like to claim. Nor is it any more of a challenge to the proclamation of the Gospel message than it was in Jesus' day.
"Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks the question in the town of Caesarea Philippi. To us, the town has no special theological significance. It is just a small town north of the Sea of Galilee located in the Golan Heights that has been renamed Banias. It is simply another collection of ancient temples and houses which only an archaeologist might find fascinating. Yet, the location of the question speaks to the world's claims about multiple truths and its criticisms of Christianity's claim to exclusive revelation. Caesarea Philippi had been refurbished and rededicated by King Herod Philip to honor Caesar. The location had a special significance. Caesarea Philippi was built on an enormous rock in the shadow of Mt. Hebron. Mt. Hebron was significant in antiquity because it was believed to be the birthplace of the god, Pan.
Pan was significant to the cultures of the Ancient Near East as he was viewed as being the god of shepherds, the god of fertility, the god of lust, the god of the hunt, the god of music, and the father of a number of other members of the ANE pantheon. A number of temples existed in this town, and King Herod Philip had refurbished the town and added a temple to Caesar to cull favor with the Roman Emperor. One can easily imagine this setting. Beautiful marble edifices erected to Pan and his offspring, a magnificent temple erected to the honor of Caesar, the great mountain in the background, and this sheer rock upon which it all had been built. And Jesus chooses this location to ask of His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"
And, lest we think that to be the only geographical significance, another birth occurs in this wondrous town. The headwaters of the river Jordan are located at this town. The same Jordan through which God had led His people into the promised land originates in this place where Jesus questions His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" It was an amazing location to ask such a question.
It is often easy for us who have been raised in a somewhat Christian culture to forget that such was not always the case. We face a world which claims that all faiths lead to God or that whatever "feeds" us must be valued by everyone. And we Christians tend to accept that complaint that we should not expect others to accept the exclusive claims of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as a somehow civilized notion. Yet our story from Matthew reminds us that such has ever been the case. The world has always testified against its rightful King. The world has always argued that pluralism is somehow better or more important than the Christian Mission. In the midst of these magnificent buildings and an area with an amazing history, Jesus asks His disciples "Who do you say that I am?" And it is in this unlikely of all locations that Peter confesses Jesus to be the King, the Messiah, the Christ! In the face of overwhelming testimony, Peter is given the grace-filled insight to see that Jesus is the rightful King, the magnificent prophet, and the ultimate priest who has come to restore God's Kingdom. In the face of "small t truths" Peter confesses the Truth. And millions of faithful disciples have followed in Peter's footsteps ever since.
Though the world has often fought against the claims of Jesus, uncounted numbers of people have given up their lives for the sake of His Truth. And, as the Church has gathered for nearly two millenia to make its alleluias at their graves or to celebrate the pledge He has given to each of us in His Word and Sacrament, we are called to continue to proclaim the answer to His question, "Who do you say that I am?" It might seem a simple question. It might seem a hard question. It certainly is a question each of us must answer like Peter if we are not to repudiate the claims of our Lord. When He puts that question to each of us, either through the mouths of others or in our hearts, each of us is required to give Him an answer. "Who do you say that I am?" For us to deny Him and who He is, particularly in the face of such claims of plural truths, is simply to prolong the agony of the dying around us. Our Lord has promised us and all who believe in Him eternal life. And, unlike all these other gods and powers and principalities, He is the only one who can keep His promises. Why would we ever want to hide our faith in Him when confronted by others? Why would we, those who have heard and accepted His Great Commission to go forth into the world baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ever want others to miss the love and freedom which He has offered to all? "Who do you say that I am?" Your fiends, your neighbors, your family, your strangers, and even creation waits to hear your answer. Who do you say that He is?