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"Jesus takes His Disciples on Two Field Trips"

A Sermon base upon Matthew 16:13-24 &17:1-9

When I was at Thunder Bay Junior High, Mrs. McWhirter took our journalism class on a field trip to Fletcher Paper Company. We saw the whole process: from the grinding of wood-pulp to the curdling mash in huge vats, the subsequent drying and pressing process, to the final rolling-out of huge rolls of newspaper stock, hundreds of pounds per spool. In other parts of the factory, heavier grades of paper stock were being bleached, or dyed… rolled out and then cut into reams of paper. When I came home from the Army (several years later), I discovered that the Fletcher Paper Company had closed its doors for good, just like the sawmills had done that had stood along those same riverbanks in by-gone years. I was a bit sad. Not only was a good “job-producing” factory gone; so was the place where I had first fallen in love with paper-products (my books & files).

Teachers used to take their students on occasional “field trips” in order to have them see things from a new perspective -- perhaps a bit more “hands-on” (like to a dairy farm, or to the Shipwreck Museum), or to put matters into a deeper “context” than classroom discussions.

I believe that is what Jesus was doing when he took his disciples on the “field trips” described by Matthew in the two texts that Tom Grubaugh read for us this morning. First, he took them to the district of Caesarea Philippi, at the base of Mount Hermon, 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee; and then he took three of them to Mount Tabor (the Mount of Transfiguration) about 20 miles southwest of the lake.

Now, Jesus could have asked his disciples the question “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” anywhere. And most likely the answers they came up with would have been the same: “Some say you are John the Baptist; others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

You see, the similarity between John the Baptist’s very popular repentance “movement” and the “ministry” that Jesus had initiated among the Baptist’s followers down at the Jordan River (Matthew 3:13-17), was apparent to all. Even King Herod was haunted by the thought that Jesus was actually John the Baptist “brought back to life” (Matthew 14:1-2); and that’s why these powers were at work in him! The sad news of John the Baptist’s beheading by King Herod had only recently been told to Jesus and his disciples. Perhaps people were expecting some kind of retaliation from Jesus’ followers.

And the speculation that Jesus was a re-incarnation of Elijah – the great Hebrew Prophet who was expected to return to earth in preparation for the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah – fit nicely into the Passover Seder tradition of families’ setting a place at the table for Elijah, the forerunner of the “Messiah” (God’s anointed one).

The debate as to whether Jesus was actually Elijah or Jeremiah, or another of the prophets, highlights the fact that the crowds (the multitudes) saw in Jesus’ ministry one who spoke the word of God, acted it out in demonstrable ways, & challenged the powers-that-be. This is what John the Baptist had been doing; it is what the great Old Testament prophets had done, and it is what Jesus was also doing.

As I said, Jesus could have asked his disciples that question anywhere. And most likely the answers would have been the same. So, why did he take them 20 miles north (a two- or three-day journey by foot) to Caesarea Philippi ?-- a city of the Roman Empire, designed by King Herod Philip to serve as his Capitol in the province of Syria.

Brian McLaren, in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”[1] (Chapter 25, page 116) says: The city was built beside a dramatic cliff face. A famous spring emerged from the base of the cliff. [We know it today as one of the two headwater sources of the Jordan River.]

Before Roman occupation, the spring had been known as “Panias”, because it was a center for worship of the Greek god “Pan”. Worshipers carved elaborate niches, still visible today, into the cliff face. There they placed statues of Pan and other Greek gods.

Having twice led tours of the Holy Land, “Banias” (as it is now called) is one of my favorite places. It is like a mountain-side resort, with the river’s headwaters forming several spring-fed pools. With all the water, the shade trees are big & cool; a good place to picnic. The pathways between the pools are overgrown, so if you climb up to see the caves and niches along the cliff-face, you have to watch your step. (!) (My doctoral advisor, and dear friend, the Rev. Dr. Mary Ellen Kilsby tripped, and slipped into a pool, scraping her leg on the edge. I’m sure her memories of that place were not as sedate as mine.)

Surrounded by statues of competing Greek gods -- niches for worshiping a whole variety “pagan” gods -- this field trip location was a perfect place for Jesus to ask his disciples about where they thought that he fit into that pantheon of alternative divinities.

Brian McLaren goes on to point out that Panias also had a reputation as the site of a devastating military defeat. It was here, at the base of Mt. Hermon (not far from Damascus), that invading armies affiliated with Alexander the Great took the whole region of Syria to be part of the Greek Empire (about 300 years before Jesus).

Eventually the Roman Empire replaced the Greeks, and they were the ones who appointed King Herod to be the regional ruler.

When Herod the Great died (about the same time that Jesus was born), his four sons were each given control of one quarter of the Jewish realm. Son Herod Antipas was given control of the Galilee, and he is the one who had recently cut off John the Baptist’s head! His brother, Herod Philip, had been given control of the “Golan Heights” and the region around Panias. When Philip founded a new Roman-style city to serve as his center of governance and culture, he named it “Caesarea Philippi” – first, to honor Caesar, the Roman Emperor – and then, with the second name, to honor himself! The city was, says Brian McLaren, “in effect, King Philip’s Caesar-ville.”[2]

McLaren imagines that to enter “Caesar-ville” with Jesus and his followers, would be like a Rabbi taking his class on a field-trip to Auschwitz, or a Japanese leader to Hiroshima, a Native American leader to Wounded Knee, or a Palestinian class to the Israeli wall of separation in the occupied West Bank.

“There, in the shadow of the cliff face with its idols set into their finely carved niches -- in the presence of all these terrible associations -- [writes Brian McLaren] Jesus asks his disciples a carefully crafted question: Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

We can imagine that an awkward silence might follow this rather … self-conscious question. But soon the answers flow. “Some say you are John the Baptist, raised from the dead! Others say Elijah; still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

[Then] Jesus sharpens the question: “What about you? (!) Who do you say that I am?” Another silence, and then Peter, a leader among them, speaks: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

It may sound like Peter is making a theological claim with these words. But [Brian McLaren writes] in this setting, they’re as much a political statement as a theological one. “Christ” is the Greek term for the Hebrew word “Messiah” -- “the one anointed as liberating king.”

Of course, to say “liberating king” anywhere in the Roman Empire is dangerous (!) -- even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the title “Christ” (or “Messiah”), Peter is saying, “You are the liberator promised by God long ago; the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar!”

Similarly, to call Jesus the “son of the living God” takes on an incandescent glow in this setting [says McLaren]. After all, Caesars liked to call themselves “sons of the gods” -- ever since the Roman Senate had voted to make Julius Caesar “divine” shortly after his assassination. (For the record, our Senate does not have the power: to vote a chief executive into divine status, as much as some of them might want it!)

For that matter, Alexander the Great, some 300 years earlier -- the very same general who had subjected the region to “Greek rule” when he won the decisive battle there at Panias – was said to have had the Greek Hero half-god “Hercules” as his father! Alexander the Great -- who was 18 when he began his conquests, and only 33 when he died -- was the first-ever Greek who was called “Son of God”

Brian McLaren points out that Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God” asserts that the Caesars’ false, idolatrous claim to be divine is now “trumped” by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true & living God. The Greek [gods] and Roman gods in their little niches in the cliff-face may be called upon to support the dominating rule of the Kings and Caesars; but the true and living God stands behind the liberating authority of Jesus.

“Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah; for flesh & blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” And Jesus goes on to speak in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. Neither the “powers of death” nor “the gates of hell” will prevail against their joint project. (!)

Surely [writes McLaren] this Caesar-ville “field trip” has raised the disciples’ hopes and expectations about Jesus to sky-high levels!

But Jesus quickly brings them back down to Earth. “He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” (Matthew 16:20) They are not to use that royal title when speaking about him! So, apparently, Peter got the “right” answer… but Jesus immediately says that is not what his followers should be saying about him!

There -- in the “politically-charged” setting of one of Caesar’s capitol cities -- Jesus knows that claiming him to be “God’s Anointed Messiah, the long-awaited Savior/liberator King”… to say that Jesus is a “Son of God” like Alexander the Great, or Caesar Augustus... would do more harm to their movement than it would be of any help.

Furthermore, Jesus says he will travel south to Jerusalem… and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes… and be killed… and on the third day, be raised.” (Matthew 16:21) Peter responds just as we would have, with shock and denial: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22)

Do you feel Peter’s confusion? Jesus has just said that Peter “gets it” -- (right?) -- that Jesus is indeed the “Christ”… the liberating king, the revolutionary leader… anointed and authorized by the Living God to set oppressed people free. (!) And if that’s true [McLaren writes], then the one thing Jesus cannot do is be defeated. (!) He must conquer and capture, not be conquered and captured. (!) He must … kill his enemies, not be killed by them. (!) So Peter corrects Jesus: “Stop talking this nonsense! This could never happen to you!”

At that moment, Jesus turns to Peter in one of the most dramatic cases of “whiplash” ever recorded in literature anywhere. “Get behind me, Satan!” says Jesus. “You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Matthew 16:23)

It’s a stunning reversal [says Brian McLaren][1]. Jesus has just identified Peter as the blessed recipient of divine revelation. Now he identifies Peter as a mouthpiece of the dark side. Jesus had just named Peter as a foundational leader in a movement that will defeat the gates of hell; now he claims that Peter is working with the devil!

Do you feel the agony of this moment?

Like most of his countrymen, Peter [believes] that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime… and all who collaborate with it. (!) But Jesus says “no.” That way of thinking is “human” -- Satanic [in fact] -- the very opposite of God’s ways.

Brian McLaren points out that since the beginning, Jesus has taught that the non-violent will inherit the Earth. Violence cannot defeat violence. Hate cannot defeat hate. Fear cannot defeat fear. … God’s way is different![2]

This first field trip had shocked the disciples. They return from Caesarea Philippi much less certain than they were about what Jesus’ mission was going to be. They are not to call him the Messiah, not say that he is a Son of God? (!) Jesus points them (instead) toward his coming suffering in Jerusalem; his potential assassination!

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus decides to take three of his leading disciples with him on another “field trip” shortly thereafter. It was only six days later that Jesus headed down to Mount Tabor to consult with two of the greatest characters of Old Testament history: Moses, the Liberator of slaves & Law-giver, and Elijah, the Prophet!

Moses is connected with Mt. Sinai, where he got the 10 Command-ments; Elijah with Mt. Carmel, where he defeated the priests of Baal.

If Jesus had gone to either of those two famous mountains, he would have gotten only half of the advice he was seeking; either from the Law’s perspective (from Moses) or from the Prophets’ perspective (from Elijah). He could have taken the three disciples to Mount Zion, of course, if he wanted King David or King Solomon’s advice; or to Mount Scopus, where Herod’s Temple stood in Jeru-salem, if he wanted the Priestly perspective on what he was doing.

Jesus chose Mount Tabor for this meeting – a singular hill that rises from the Valley of Jezreel, not far from the border between Galilee & Samaria. The hill looks like a bump within the Plain of Esdraelon: no other mountain or hill anywhere nearby. The Hebrew word “taboor” means “belly-button. It was like an “outie” (not an “innie”). Local tradition held that this site was where Earth’s umbilical cord was removed! Mt. Tabor was, in effect, the center of the world.

Brian McLaren says of this second “field trip” that they went to the top of a mountain. There they had a vision of Jesus, shining in glory, conversing with two of the greatest leaders in Jewish history. Again, Peter was bold to speak up, offering to make three shrines to the three great men [perhaps much like they had seen the shrines in the alcoves & niches dedicated to other gods at Caesarea Philippi].

McLaren says that Peter was “elevating” Jesus to the same elite level as the great Liberator/Law-giver Moses and the great Prophet Elijah. (!) This time, God’s own voice rebuked Peter, as if to say, “Moses and Elijah were fine for their time, but my Beloved Son Jesus is on another level entirely… revealing my true heart in a unique and unprecedented way. Listen to him!”

Moses the Law-giver and Elijah the Prophet, great as they were, differed from Jesus in one important way: they had both engaged in violence … in God’s name. (!) … But Jesus, in God’s name, would receive violence. This truly was unprecedented in Jewish thought: to undergo violence without retaliation.

And that was why, as they came down the mountain, Jesus once again spoke of suffering, death, and resurrection.

Brian McLaren concludes his chapter by saying that, in many ways, we are all like Peter. We speak with great insight one minute… and we make complete fools of ourselves the next. We are “clueless” about how many of our pious and popular assumptions are actually illusions. (!) We don’t know how little we know, and we have no idea how many of our ideas are wrong. (!) Like Peter, we may use the right words to describe Jesus – words like Messiah (the Christ), Son of the Living God – but we still don’t understand his heart, his wisdom, or his way.

But that’s OK. Peter was still learning, and so are we. After all, life with Jesus is one big “field trip” that we're taking together. So, let's keep walking.


[1] Ibid., page 118

[2] Ibid, page 119

[1] McLaren, Brian D., “We Make the Road by Walking”, New York: Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group, 2014

[2] Ibid., page 117

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