Caeserea Phillipi: In Jesus’ day, it was a bustling city – the administrative center for Herod the Tetrarch. It was also heavily influenced by Alexander the Great – who brought his Greek culture with him. Today, the city is gone, the people are all dead of course, and there is some architectural rubble and a tourist site.
There’s also a few striking caves. They were long ago carved into squarish openings for purposes of pagan worship. This was a temple dedicated to the god “Pan”. One very large, and many smaller niches were carved out to display the statues of Pan and other pagan gods and goddesses. It was probably all pretty striking in its day.
Jesus takes his disciples to this region, perhaps even standing in front of that large temple, and asks them, “Who do men say that I am?” And it’s no accident he does that with the pagan gods as his backdrop.
“Who do men say that I am?” The answers are numerous, almost as numerous as the niches and statues of pagan gods. John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, one of the prophets… The options about Jesus are almost as many as the menu of pagan gods to worship.
Our backdrop today is just as bad, just as pagan, maybe worse. There’s a menu of choices out there when it comes to religion. But there are rules to the game. You have to choose for yourself whatever your personal spirituality is about. You worship who you want when you want how you want (or don’t worship at all). But the main thing is, you choose.
And the other main thing is – don’t be a true Christian. Don’t talk about Jesus, specifically. Don’t talk about his birth. Certainly don’t talk about his death and resurrection. Don’t say what he says – that he, Jesus, is the only way to heaven. Don’t repeat his offensive gospel. And don’t, whatever you do, don’t say that Jesus is the only true God, the Son of the Living God!
But that’s what Peter did. He stood there looking at Jesus against all these statues and places of worship and false, pagan, inanimate idol gods. And when prompted, it came to him. “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Peter made the good confession. He said about Jesus what God had already said about him, at his baptism. “This is my Son”. He said about Jesus what was the reality from eternity. He said about Jesus what set Jesus apart from all these gods of stone and wood. Jesus is the Son of the Living God. He’s different. He’s for real. He’s alive!
Peter is blessed. Not so much because he got it right, but because he was given this knowledge, this confession, this faith – by God. Like all good things when it comes to God, it was a gift. Even though Peter was a sinner. Even though in 2 minutes Peter would be telling Jesus to forget about all that crazy crucifixion talk. Even though Peter, and the other disciples, and you and I sin and sin and sin again. Still the Living God gives us blessings through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Oh we’re all pagan enough. We don’t live in Caeserea Phillipi, but we all have little niches carved out for the gods of our life. We give a place to sinful thoughts of pride and greed, a platform for sinful words of gossip and deception and anger, and a grand stand for our actual deeds of evil – and our failures to do good. Every time you depart from God’s law and do what seems best to you at the time, you might as well bow down at the altar to Pan or Zeus or Baal.
Or more truthfully, you make yourself to be god. You take the throne, set the rules, call the shots. That’s what sinners have wanted to do since Eden – be like God. But you’re not God. And trying to be him only leads to death.
But the word of God, the true word of the Living God, calls us away from all of that death. He calls us to repent, to turn, and live. He sets before us Jesus. And Jesus is the Son of the Living God.
He does the Living God’s business and brings life to the dead people. He wins that life by dying and rising to life again. He becomes the source of life for all who believe in him. Because he lives, and will never die, we live, and will never die. The Son of the Living God, and he makes us children of God and gives us a share in his eternal life.
And Jesus builds his church. Not hewn out of rock, or converted from a cave. He builds it by baptism and teaching, living stone by living stone, disciple by disciple. He, of course, is the chief cornerstone.
And to his church, he gives the keys to Heaven, the keys which unlock its gates. The authority to forgive sins in his name. The gates of Hell shudder at the thought, for they can never prevail against the church built on Christ.
Maybe in a couple thousand years some archaeologist will dig up the ruins of our civilization. And maybe they’ll ponder our strange culture and unusual religious practices (or lack thereof). But long after the religions of man are gone, the Son of the Living God will be alive.
And long after this building crumbles, and Grace Lutheran Church is but a memory, if that, still… The People of God will still be confessing Jesus, the Son of the Living God. And his true church will remain, and will still be unlocking heaven for poor sinners like you and me.
Until that day he has appointed, when all will be changed, and all the fallen temples of our flesh are raised to stand for judgment. But even then, in Christ, we will live – forever. Hell will not prevail. Death will be no more. For Jesus is alive, the Son of the Living God, and his blood covers your sins forever.
This message from Tom Chryst is brought to you by Pastor Ken Taglauer at Grace Lutheran Church, Mountain View, Arkansas.