The Church of the Resurrection
Fr. Chad Jones
We sometimes talk in our Wednesday night Bible study (dinner at 6 and Bible study at 6:45) about how amazing it is that so many of the stories that we hear in the Bible happen within about a 75 miles of each other. Israel just isn’t that big. From the temple mount in Jerusalem it is a five minute drive to Bethlehem, a ten minute drive to Bethany, and a 30 minute drive to the Dead Sea. In fact, if you pay careful attention to your maps as you read through the Old Testament you’ll see something that I think is very interesting. God shows up to visit a nomad named Abraham and promises to make of his descendants a great nation. Now, I’m not going to retell the whole story because I know that you know it already. Eventually, God tests Abraham and tells him to go and offer on the altar the son he had waited on his whole life. So Abraham climbs up to the top of a place called Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac before God stops him.
Now fast forward through the next several hundred years of God promising Abraham’s descendants a land of their own and we will have famines that land us in Egypt. We will flee through the parted Red Sea. We will wonder through the wilderness of Sinai for an entire generation. We will cross the Jordan with Joshua and fight the battle of Jericho to secure a place in the Promised Land. We will spend generations fighting the Philistines and all of those Ite people. We will go through the Judges: Gilead, Deborah, Samson, etc. etc. etc. We will elect a king named Saul who goes more than just a little bit off the deep end and then we will end up with a little Shepherd boy king named David.
David finally secures the borders of the Kingdom of Israel and his son Solomon climbs up on the mountain in the middle of Jerusalem to build a permanent temple to God. And the name of that mountain he climbs to build the temple is? Moriah! After a thousand years we are right back to the place it all started with Abraham outside of his tent. Did you know that? The temple is built on the spot where Abraham and Isaac sacrificed the ram to God in Isaac’s place. Most people think that rock (which is now in the middle of the Dome of the Rock) was the Holy of Holies.
So all of the places that we hear about in the Old Testament are really right there on top of each other. And it is the same in the New Testament. Jesus lived and travelled and taught and healed right there in these same places. Except for in the story that we hear about today.
Jesus takes the disciples up to a place called Caesarea Phillipi, and I had always wondered why. It is a long way from where they were. You have to go up as far north as you can before you get to Syria. All the way through what would have been Samaria. It is extremely mountainous. Beautiful, but not exactly easy walking. It would have taken them days and days to get there. And they would have been exhausted. Why were they going that way? The Bible doesn’t tell us that they had any place to go up there or anyone to see. They go all that way so that Jesus could ask them a question. Why?
Well, I’ll tell you what I learned about this place when I went to Israel in 2014. Herod had three sons. And he gave each of the three of them a part of the Kingdom of Israel to manage. They were all trying to make a name for themselves among the Roman government, so, of course, they were pagans. It wasn’t fashionable to be Jewish. Even their father, Herod, was only pretending to be Jewish. The northern most part was overseen by the son named Phillip. He was the youngest and so he got the part of the kingdom that was least important. But he was also the most ambitious. The only part of this northern part that would’ve been interesting was a little place that Phillip named Caesarea Phillipi. Caesarea to flatter Caesar and Phillipi to remind Caesar who was doing the flattering.
This place is absolutely stunning. You’d think you were in the Smokey’s. It is lush and green and is built along a huge, rock cliff. Out of this cliff flows a thousand little streams; they just spew out of the rock. In the center of the cliff is a cave and a river gushes out of this cave. The pagans believed this was the home of the god pan. Once you’ve seen it, it is easy to believe why the pagans believed than Pan and his wood nymphs and water nymphs lived there. So people came from all over to make offerings here. It was a huge money maker. So as Phillip began to make money he decided that a few more gods needed to make their homes in this rock wall. Over the next 5 years or so he built well over a hundred shrines on the face of this cliff. Many of the ruins can still be seen. There are shrines to Jupiter and Juno and Apollo and the Sacred Nymphs and Pan’s dancing goats and Naiads and Dryads. You name it people would come here to worship – and spend money. Lots of money.
So Jesus packs a bag and heads off to Caesarea Phillipi and takes his disciples with him. They get all the way there and they stand there in front of all the gods of Rome and all the throngs of people worshiping them and Jesus says, so “Who am I?” And Peter shows that he has the guts to have faith in spite of what everybody else in the world is saying and doing all around them. And he says, “You are the Messiah; the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus says, “That! That faith is what my church will be built upon.”
In this sinful, old broken world, it is sometimes easy to believe and it is sometimes difficult. Most of the country believed what we do in the forties and early fifties. There were Episcopalians all over this country, but even those who weren’t Episcopalians were likely some kind of Christian. It had to have been easier then. Today, it is getting more and more difficult with every passing day. Christians in America are being ridiculed and jeered at for what we believe. They think we are gauche and cliché and maybe even not-quite-as-smart. But it is nothing compared to what Christians in the rest of the world are going through right now. Christian persecution is finally getting some attention, but if I am being perfectly honest I have to wonder what in heaven’s name has taken so long.
One million Christians have been massacred in the Sudan in the last twenty years. One million. That isn’t to mention the ones in Nigeria and the Congo and Niger and who knows where else. Christians all over this planet are dying because they believe in the Son of God. Globally, it is getting harder and harder to believe what we believe. More and more it is taking people who have guts. But never, never will it take more guts than on the day that Peter stood in front of all the gods of Rome and said, “You are the Christ! The Son of the Living God!”
How could he do it? How could he possibly have the gall to believe that he and twelve other people had the right answer and everyone else on the planet was on the wrong track? Well he could do that, because one of those twelve people standing at his back was none other than the God who had sung the world into existence.
It is getting harder to be what God has called us to be. We are an ancient brand of Christianity. As catholic Christians we worship differently than so many others today. For those who find God in the Christian traditions that are so very different from ours, I rejoice. But the way we worship is important in the fact that it is different. Because I will stake my last breath on the fact that we are not on the same level with our God. We are not eye-to-eye with him; he is not our pal, he is God Almighty. And being in his presence makes us feel the repentance we are in need of every moment of our lives. This is why Episcopalians worship as we do. It is different. It goes against the fads and the popular trends. It is ancient and mystical and other-worldly, because it reflects the glory of the Ancient of Days who is the God we worship. And it takes guts. More and more every day. But we can do it. We can do it just like Peter did, because the God who sang the world into existence stands right at our side.
And if it hasn’t happened to us already, one day we will be called upon to confess with our lips the Christ who was crucified and rose again. It may be no less difficult for us than it was for Peter as he stood in front of the entire pantheon of paganism. I don’t believe for a second Caesarea Philippi was much scarier than high school in that respect. But we stand upon the rock that was chosen and precious. The rock upon which the Church was founded and the Stone which is Jesus Christ the Righteous. And we confess him as the Messiah, the son of the Living God. Jesus called Peter blessed for having the faith, the understanding and the gumption to say what he believed. Well, may he bless us with that same gumption – the gumption that will bring about the Kingdom of God.