13th September 2015 - Hugh Perry
Proverbs 1: 20-33
Maurice Andrew makes the point about our reading from the first chapter of Proverbs that Wisdom is personified as a women. He then adds that Judith McKinlay sees this woman as a strong confrontational woman who invites people in public to listen to her in the same way as the prophets do and she pours out her spirit on redeemed Israel. In verse 22 Wisdom is presented as a traditional Wisdom teacher, so she is strikingly associated with authoritative figures. The effect of the personification, Andrew writes, is to make Wisdom something that can be given and is not merely the object of human achievement. That requires some reflection because in our context we often find it difficult to accept the concept of an existing sense in life that we have not worked for ourselves.
The first section we are about to read from Mark is titled in Hooker’s translation ‘The Disciples Eyes Are Opened.’ It follows on from the feeding of the five thousand, a sign that nobody sees and then Jesus heals a blind man so at least the blind can see. Now the disciples are going to see. Hooker notes that this paragraph has long been regarded as a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. From this point on the journey is to the cross and the teaching is mainly to the disciples about the meaning of Jesus’ mission and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Marcus Borg makes the point that the understanding of what a Messiah would be like was fluid in first-century Judaism with different groups having different expectations. However all who longed for a Messiah agreed on two features: 1. he would be anointed by the Spirit of God and 2. he would be the decisive figure of Israel’s history. The Messiah would be more than just another prophet. Peter’s confession means you are the one we have been waiting for. It is therefore understandable that Peter is confused when Jesus talks about his suffering and death because if God is on our side, who can be against us, how can Jesus suffer when he is doing what God ordained.
Caesarea Philippi is a location that honours Roman might so it asks questions about Jesus’ relationship to power. How do we stop the process whereby Jesus ends up becoming the chaplain to such powers? What is real gain for our community, for us as individuals? What is real gain for God? In such a relationship.
What has now become a long time ago Rev Dr Paul Trebilco got me to write an essay on the topic ‘Caesarea Philippi is a watershed in Mark’s Gospel’.
In the essay I recalled an even longer time ago when I was tramping in the Tararua Range. It was raining as it usually does and we were walking on a broad area of relatively flat swampy tussock on the top of the ranges and it occurred to me that some of the rain would ooze down forming small streams that would flow into the Horowhenua-Manawatu plain and out to the Tasman sea. Other raindrops with encouragements from the Mangahao dam would become the Mangahao River that would wind its way through the Northern Wairarapa to eventually join the Manawatu River. That river in turn would find its way through the Manawatu George, meander through the Manawatu, and out to the Tasman Sea at Foxton Beach. From that watershed the destination was the same but each journey would be different. Such meandering, accumulating and unexpected changing of direction may well be a commentary on the development of the Christian Faith.
However the point I made in my essay was that the group of sodden trampers I was part of, more than half a century ago, were making their way across a watershed where the incessant rain could go one way or the other and that was where Jesus and the disciples were on the road to Caesarea Philippi. This was the point where Jesus and his disciples face the choice of military messiah-ship or suffering servant.
Peter grasped the idea that Jesus’ agenda was political as much as it was religious. He therefore could not understand when Jesus talked about his suffering and death. Surely if God is on our side no one can be against us. Therefore how could Jesus suffer when he was doing what God ordained? It is our question as much as it was the disciple’s question.
Caesarea Philippi was a location that honoured Roman might and so the use of that location in the narrative opens the reader’s mind to thinking about power.
The watershed moment of Caesarea Philippi asks questions about our expectations of a messiah, the way Peter might have seen Jesus as a messiah and how the Church has imagined the Risen Christ.
Is Christ the patron of kings and emperors or is it the monarch who sponsors faith and uses the church as an arm of government? The news last week reminded us that one of the Queen’s titles, that she has held longer than anyone else, is defender of the faith. That was certainly an undisputed title for Elisabeth the first and in her reign and that of her sister Mary the ‘faith’ was defended with brutal force.
That image of power also asks us if it is legitimate to ban books in the name Jesus and the saccharin coated patriarchal family.
Or does following Christ involve risking difficult choices and allowing even our children to make decisions about the realities of the human experience. Is the Risen Christ the healer of the fearful who keeps us from all pain or the God who suffers with us?
How do we do we stop the Risen Christ becoming spiritualised into irrelevance, the Jesus in the sky who finds us parking spaces? How do we stop the process whereby Jesus ends up becoming the chaplain to those who have power through politics or wealth?
It seems there are watershed moments in every step along our faith journey as we find ourselves standing with Peter as what we feel is a well formed religious understanding is challenged by the suffering Christ.
Bill Loader asks two very significant questions that are helpful in the direction our choices may take from each watershed moment we face. What is the real gain for our community and for us as individuals if we follow the suffering Christ from the watershed of Caesarea Philippi? What is real gain for God in the choices we make?
In answering those questions we need to reflect on Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession. Jesus first asks who people say that he is and the response shows a reflection on the heroes of their faith history.
When they say John the Baptist they are seeing Jesus as continuing the movement began with John which may well be the way Jesus’ mission began. Others see Jesus fitting the mould of the Elijah or one of the prophets. The reference to Elijah may mean that they see Jesus as the fore-runner of the Messiah. However it is more likely that Mark is reminding us that, through allusion, he identified John the Baptist with Elijah which identified John as the one who prepares the way for the Messiah. Identifying Jesus as one of the prophets is placing him as an important figure in their religious tradition. We make similar statements in identifying new people coming into public view. We compare sports people with others in the same code and we can even define someone who speaks out against injustice and takes action to create social change as prophetic.
However one the main decision point in the dialogue is when Peter, on behalf of the disciples, identifies Jesus as messiah. At that point the disciples and the reader are confronted with deciding what that tile means.
Whatever our ideas about a messiah might be Jesus speaks ‘quite openly’ (Mark 8:32) to the disciples and through Mark’s Gospel to us. The risen Christ is not a messiah who solves the world’s problems for us. In proclaiming a world that could be described as ‘God’s realm’ Jesus took risks and by the time of this meeting on the road to Caesarea Philippi Jesus obviously believed his life was in danger. Rather than go into hiding Jesus chose to continue his journey of confronting the disempowering authority and transformation of the marginalised.
In recognising the risk of such a mission Jesus was anxious to establish a succession plan. Jesus wanted to make sure those who would continue his mission would understand both the mission and the risks. The discipleship journey in Mark’s Gospel is the road to the cross and that is something that Jesus wanted his disciples to understand and we also need to understand.
Peter’s vision of a messiah, and indeed most people’s vision of a messiah, is a super hero who fights evil on our behalf and of course seeks out parking spaces for us. But Christ and Superman are not the same just as fighting evil is not the same as doing good.
I noticed a headline last week that proclaimed, ‘14 years after 9/11, the war on terror is accomplishing everything bin Laden hoped it would.’ That headline draws our attention to the fact that those personified by the cartoon superhero ‘Captain America’ rushed into the world to confront evil with extreme force. In so doing they succeeded in destabilising the Middle East and may yet succeed in establishing a fanatical totalitarian regime that destabilises the whole world.
John Cleese who describes himself as British writer, actor and tall person puts a satirical slant on our increasingly unstable world of violence unstable governments and the biggest wave of refuges since world war two. ‘The recent situation in Syria has driven England to raise its security level from ‘miffed’ to peeved and it might even rise to ‘A bit cross’, a level that hasn’t been used since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out’.
That action could not be described as doing good and certainly has not advanced the divine realm.
The idea of a superhero, military messiah, is not going to bring about the transformation Jesus envisaged. Furthermore, in answer to Bill Loader’s question, a superhero is not in the best interest of our community or us and certainly fails to gain anything for God in terms of transformed lives and a more human humanity.
However just like the rain that fell on that soggy tableland I crossed as a teenager the Jesus message can take alternative paths to reach the same destination. But at that watershed moment on the road to Caesarea Philippi Jesus moves from his mission to the community to teaching his disciples what it means to carry on the mission of Christ on his behalf and that focuses both the direction and the destination of the discipleship choice.
The irony of Mark’s gospel is that Jesus’ mission ended in a cruel death and his disciples failed to understand what it meant for Jesus to be the messiah. Yet from that failure grew one of the world’s great religions that for all its failings transformed the world and is still transforming humanity.
We are constantly faced with choices in our understanding of Christ and the opportunities the Spirit presents to us to be Christ in our world. However if the Christ within us is to be in the best interest of us as individuals, the best interest of our community and gain anything for God then we must take notice of this watershed moment in Mark’s Gospel.
We must form our vision of Christ, and our response to Christ, from Jesus’ teaching to his disciples on the road to Caesarea Philippi.
Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p.372.
 Morna Hooker The Gospel according to St Mark (London: A&C Black, 1991), p.203.
 Marcus Borg The Gospel of Mark (Harrisburg-New York: Morehouse Publishing ,2009)pp.73,74