St Mark’s, West Frankfort
St Mark’s, West Frankfort
In January of 2009 I had the privilege of being part of a tour of the Holy Land. One of the places we went to was Caesarea Philippi, to location of the narrative from Matthew’s gospel that we just heard read. It’s a beautiful area—wooded, mountainous, in the area now known as the Golan Heights, where Israel and Syria and Lebanon all come together. There’s an ancient Roman temple there, a temple to the God Pan, set into the rocky side of a mountain—you can still walk among the ruins—and at the time when Jesus and his disciples were there, the temple was in all of its glory.
So, try and imagine that scene. Picture Jesus turning his back, both literally and symbolically, to the Temple of Pan and posing his question: “Who do you say that I am?” The implied subtext of his question, given the setting, is, “Who or what are you willing to turn your back on in order to follow me?”
Now ask yourself this: If Jesus were to walk visibly in our world, where would he position himself?
Would he stand with his back to the local bank, which invites us to define ourselves by our material wealth, and say, “Will you follow me and walk away from all the things that you think you possess but which, in fact, possess you?”
Would he stand at the mall, with his back to the main entrance, and in front of the retailers who invite us to define ourselves by the status we get from whoever designed our clothes, by what brand names and logos appear on our shoes or our T-shirts, and say, “Will you follow me, and find your peace in me, rather than in what others think of you?”
Would Jesus stand with his back to the school or college campus, which tempts us to define ourselves by our educational achievement, and say, “Will you follow me, and find your self-esteem in my esteem for you, rather than in the diplomas and credentials you can hang on your wall?”
Would he stand in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, which tempts us to define ourselves by our American citizenship, and say, “Will you follow me, and discover that your true citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, and that your true brothers and sisters are those who share your baptism, not your nationality?”
Would Jesus stand in front of each of our homes, which we think of as our castles, and which express and define our identity, and say, “Will you follow me, and see that your true home is a place you’ve never yet even seen?”
Peter gives the right answer, of course: “You are the Christ”—the Messiah, God’s anointed one—“the Son of the living God.” But it’s the Apostle Paul, writing some decades later to the Christians in the city of Rome, who tells us explicitly how to live out our confession of faith in Christ:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.In other words, following Jesus, being a Christian, is not merely we do with our brains, reciting the creed and really meaning it, not crossing our fingers. And it’s not merely something we do with our hearts either—feeling all warm and loving toward him and wanting to listen to Christian music on the radio all day. No, being a disciple of Jesus also means doing things with our bodies—behaving in certain ways and not others, saying certain things and not others, intentionally cultivating certain good habits and unlearning certain bad ones.
And why? Listen to St Paul as he continues:
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.You see, it’s all about transformation—being ourselves transformed, transformed from the attitudes and values of this world—false attitudes and false values that tempt us to look for all the right things in all the wrong places—into reflections of the holiness—the wholeness—of God revealed in the face of Jesus. This transformation begins with the renewal of our minds, Paul tells us, and works its way through our hearts and into our wills and finally expresses itself in our actions. Jesus stands with his back turned to the false gods and false attitudes of that age and invites us to engage the process of transformation by turning our backs to the false gods and false attitudes of this age. We begin right here, right now, by presenting our bodies at this altar, where we offer a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.