2023-08-27 Pentecost 13
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
My kids always loathe when I start a story with “Back in my day…” but, back in my day, there were 3 cable TV shows that you could set your watch by. The Flintstones at lunchtime, Wheel of Fortune at 5PM and Jeopardy! at 5:30PM. You had Fred, Pat and Alex, everyday, rain or shine. This was the unwavering Television liturgy as it were. As a kid I preferred Wheel of Fortune with its sparkling wheel of fun and amazing prizes. But then as I aged, and became full of useless knowledge, I started to like Jeopardy more. I found that I could answer the questions right along with the contestants, even getting some answers correct that they got wrong! I felt so learned!
We kind of have a little bit of Jeopardy going on today in the Gospel reading: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”“ “I’ll take ‘Who is the Son of Man?’ for $2000, Alex!” There was lots of discussion swirling around about this very question. Some people were thinking that Jesus would be the new King to replace Caesar and kick out the Romans. After all, He did some serious Messiah level stuff in feeding the 5000 by the Sea of Galilee. He taught the crowds in wild and wacky parables far outside the pay grade of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. He ticked off the Religious establishment pretty much daily, with healing people on the sabbath and even talking to an adulterous woman at the well. And don’t forget last Sunday when he healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter.
But today we see Jesus stopping off at Caesarea Philippi. This was pretty much a no-go-zone for Jewish families. This place was as pagan as it gets. The vibe of the place was impressive. A flowing spring, right out of a rock with lush gardens. A veritable oasis in the desert. But there was also a pagan shrine and monument there, dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Why would Jesus take the disciples here of all places? It’d be like taking a group of pre-schoolers through a street full of meth addicts!
The people that came to the pagan shrine believed that their fertility gods took a vacation to the underworld during the winter but then returned in the spring time. They saw this spring and cave with water as gifts from their pagan gods, providing the much needed water for life. But it was also seen as the means of travel for the gods, a literal “Highway to Hell,” to quote AC/DC! So every spring, pagan pilgrims would make their way to this place, this shrine and engage in gross sexual interactions in a plea for fertility.
You can imagine what is rolling through the disciples’ heads. They knew about all the wild, wacky and sinful stuff that went down at this place. Why would Jesus bring them there? At the temple of Pan, the veritable threshold of hell, Jesus leans in and asks the boys the question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” It’s a fairly weird question, out of the blue. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” they answered. The recent gallop poll had all these answers and more! But then Jesus takes the question a step further. He asks: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter gives the correct confirmation answer that echoes throughout the ages: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Ding Ding Ding! Right on the money, big Pete! You answered just right on the Double Jeopardy round! But remember the context. Remember where they were. That palace of Pan was lined with prostitutes with the carnival in full swing! The full perverted flight list of Jeffery Epstein elites were standing right there at the entrance to the cave. And Jesus replies to Peter, saying that he is richly blessed by our Heavenly Father for giving this answer: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
We miss the nifty word play in Greek here too. Peter, Petros and his confession is the rock petra on which our Lord Jesus will build His church. St. Paul echoes this in Ephesians 2:20 “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” The church is built on our Lord Jesus Himself. And standing on the cornerstone are the bedrock of the disciples, that unlikely gaggle of tax collectors & fishermen, a rag-tag group of men who left everything to follow Jesus.
The cornerstone of Christ is our salvation stone that Peter confesses. And where he confesses it is of utmost importance. Right in the face of false-god idolatry, sick and twisted adultery, and even the very gates of hell, which Jesus says shall not prevail against His church. No matter what whacko clown-world stuff is thrown at us, the church is built on Christ and Peter’s rock solid confession. Christ the crucified Son of the living God is risen from the dead! This message alone is what brings healing, life and salvation. This God alone is who blesses us with every spiritual blessing. False gods and stupid worldly ideas end in nothing but disaster and brokenness.
But notice the key point that Jesus makes: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Often we think about the world and satan attacking the church, but this verse tells us the exact opposite. The church should be attacking the gates of hell and smashing the doors down, not cowering in the corner! The church is not a country club, a civic center or a self-help group. Instead we are the baptized body of Christ, proclaiming the message of forgiveness, life and victory to a lost and dead world. And, as Donna Fargo says, you can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine!
Last week we were camping in Sylvan Lake, Alberta. While walking down the beach, you come across a ligthouse - one of the only inland lighthouses between the West coast and Lake Winnipeg. It’s modelled after the iconic lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. And when you think about lighthouses, they really only have one job: shine. They shine the light and bring ships to safety through the peril of fog and rocks. And the church has often taken up this same mantel. In fact, outside of Geneva, Switzerland there is a church with a centuries old tradition. Despite the advent of electricity and LED lights, everyone who comes to service there brings a light from home. And this isn’t just for Christmas Eve, Holy Saturday or special events - it’s for every service. The sanctuary is dark and then slowly becomes light as the Christians gather together in God’s House, bringing the light to hang on the church’s walls. If someone skips church, the congregation says “We missed your light on Sunday.” It’s a great reminder for us to ask “whose light are we missing?” and maybe give a phone call or stop by.
We keep in mind our Lord’s words about light: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The gates of hell will not prevail against it. The light shines brightest and best together in community. Armed with the knowledge of who Jesus is and what He has done for us, shine. Isaiah spells it out: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. 3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:1-3). Amen!