The following is a reflection on Matthew 16:13-20, the Gospel lesson for August 21, 2011, according to the Revised Common Lectionary. On this site there is also a reflection on the Old Testament lesson for the same day.
Peter could have proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, in many, many places. The choices were practically limitless. He could have done it in the Temple, on a mountaintop, or on a boat by the sea.
Jesus had, inexplicably taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. What a strange place for a Jewish rabbi to take his students…
At one time, the town was called Banias, and Herod Philip changed it’s name to honor the Caesar…and while he was at it, himself too. It was the global cultic center of Pan worship. Remember Pan? The goat god? It was believed that he was born in a nearby, creepy looking cave, called…the Gates of Hell.
It is said that Pan worship was highly “orgiastic” in nature…and such orgiastic rituals are said to have involved…the goats…
This is a place where Jesus brought his disciples.
It’s interesting to reflect on Jesus’ choice of itinerary. I think the all-too-common understanding of Christianity in general, is that it’s meant to be “safe.” “Clean.” “Tidy.” Smiles, and clean-language, and freshly laundered and starched white shirts. I mean, aren’t Christians supposed to have our own music, movies, books, clothing lines, and even our own version of Guitar Hero?
But, when Jesus walked the earth he took the disciples to Caesarea Philippi.
I think he wanted them to experience it. I think he wanted them to know what the mission field is like. I think he wanted them to know that not everyone spent all day long in the Temple arguing about the finer points of the Book of Deuteronomy.
And, then again, I think Jesus’ motivation was about more than “experience.”
After Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus tells Peter that he is the “Rock” upon which his church will be built. AND, that “the Gates of Hell” won’t prevail against the church.
A few years back I read Organic Church, by Neil Cole, and in that book Cole has an interesting insight into this passage.
Jesus says that the Gates of Hell won’t prevail against the church built on the Rock. It’s an interesting image, those gates. Sure, there’s the cave looming over Jesus’ shoulder…but there might be more to what Jesus is saying here.
Gates are used in military strategy. But, gates aren’t offensive weapons. No one ever won a battle by breaking out a great gate.
Gates are defensive in nature…So, when Jesus talks about his church struggling with the forces of evil, Jesus just assumes that the church will be on the offensive. He assumes that Hell will be counting on their gate, in defensive position. And when it does, that gate will not prevail.
In the pagan darkness of that strange place, Peter is able to see the Light in the Darkness. It’s there that he’s able to see the Messiah, the one who came to save the world from sin, death, and darkness, in ways that he wasn’t able to see him at the Temple, or the mountaintop, or by the Sea of Galilee.
It’s there, in that awkward place for a field trip, and far, far away from hermetically sealed and bleached cleanness – that Jesus, the Christ, is finally recognized and proclaimed.
But, it’s also in Caesarea Philippi that we are given a stark battle strategy, where we’re put on the offensive. We’re the ones who are supposed to be going out into the darkness and boldly, offensively, planting the standard of Light, Love, and the Victory of God.
The forces of wickedness and evil should tremble when we approach. When they try and starve our brothers and sisters in Haiti and Kenya, we boldly come with food. When they try and enslave our young sisters in south Asia and eastern Europe, we come and set them free. When they try and put machine guns and machetes in the hands of our young brothers, we come with Peace. When they come with Malaria, we come with nets. When they come with addiction and depression, we bring hope and comfort.
When evil comes with the dark, we bring light. When they come with despair, we bring hope. When they cower behind the gates of death we tear them down with the Resurrection of our Lord.
Because the Light always shines in the darkness. And the darkness does not overcome it.
It will not prevail.