The three most important words in real estate are “location, location, location.” Location matters, even in the bible. This is certainly true with today’s gospel reading. The text tells us Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi. Now, this may not mean much to you and me, but it meant a lot to his companions and to the early readers of Matthew’s gospel. Just as we associate car making with Detroit and Mardi Gras with New Orleans, Caesarea Philippi was associated with several particular things.
The city is located about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee and sits at the base of Mt. Hermon. The Book of Enoch says this is the site where fallen angels took humans as wives creating a race known as the nephilim, who are described as being giants. There is a cave on the side of the mountain in Caesarea thought to be bottomless. Its opening is called the Gates of Hades and myth holds the nephilim are consigned to its depths.
For centuries the city and mountain are an important location for the worshippers of Baal. In Hellenistic times, it is renamed Paneas and new temple structures are added for the worship of the Greek god Pan. You may be interested to know Pan had the hindquarters, legs, hooves, and horns of a goat, but the torso and head of a human. He enjoyed his afternoon naps and if interrupted let out a terrifying scream which created a “panic” in those who heard it. By Jesus’ day, the city is expanded to include a large royal palace, and Philip, the region’s ruler, renames it after Caesar and himself.
During the Jewish War from 66-70 AD, the Roman general Vespasian favors Caesarea Philippi as a recreation spot. When he is named Emperor he leaves his son Titus to oversee the siege of Jerusalem and returns to the Caesarea where he reclines in comfort in the palace. After the fall of Jerusalem, the ancient historian Josephus reports Titus and his troops return to Caesarea with Jewish captives and Vespasian has some of them thrown to wild animals.
When Matthew’s original readers learn Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi, they associate all of this background with what they are reading in the text. Jesus is in a place of steeped in Jewish mythology, pagan worship, and Roman imperialism. And it is exactly in the center of this city with its ancient temples and lavish palace Jesus asks his followers who other people think he is. And then he asks them directly, “Who do you say that I am?”
The context matters. It illuminates the question and shapes the answer. Had Jesus been walking through a large field of grain when he asked it, Peter’s response might have been “You are the bread of life.” Had they been sitting around a fire on a star-filled night, Peter might have answered, “You are the light of the world.” But here, in Caesarea Philippi, a center of political power and cultic worship, Peter answers Jesus is superior to both. You are the Messiah – the one sent from God to lead our people. You are the son of the living God – the one to whom all worship belongs.
Location, location, location. I believe Jesus comes to us in every context where we find ourselves and asks, “Who do you say I am?” The context will always shape our response. Let’s say you give your spouse one final kiss before he deploys. Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” You are my strong tower who will keep me safe and those I love safe. Or let’s say you are singing your favorite church hymn with all you have to offer. Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” You are the one who fills my heart with rejoicing. Or let’s say you are sitting by a hospital bed keeping vigil as a loved one nears death. Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” You are my shepherd and I shall not want.
Location, location, location. Let’s say we are walking with Jesus in downtown Charlottesville this morning. Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” You are the Lord who commands us to love God and one another. You are the one who gave his life to expose the forces of hatred, violence, and bigotry. You are the one who calls us to establish justice and righteousness and equality within our borders.
Let’s say this morning we are living in the coastal region of Texas, trying to make sense of the devastation and struggling with the challenge of putting our life and our community back together. Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” You are the one who lifts me up on eagles’ wings and promises I will run and not be weary. I will walk and not be faint.
But we are here at St. Paul’s Church in downtown Suffolk and Jesus asks us, “Who do you say I am?” Our answer is shaped by our context. If we were answering on the morning of our Pilgrimage Sunday, worshipping at each of the five locations over the course of our 375 years as a parish, we might have confessed “You are the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. You have been our help in ages past and our hope for years to come.”
Over the months since then our parish context has continued to evolve, as it always does, and requires our thoughtful discernment to understand who Jesus is for us right now and how we are called to respond. Over the summer we have welcomed several new families into our faith community. We are now in a position to add a new Sunday morning class for upper elementary school children to compliment our nursery, pre-school and early elementary class, and youth class. We are in a position to form a youth group for 5th graders on up. We will begin to have a monthly meeting starting in September and building from there. We are also looking to provide a youth confirmation class beginning this fall.
Who do we at St. Paul’s say Jesus is? Given who we are and where we are, we can answer in many different ways. Given how we have changed this summer, a new response is being added and emphasized. Jesus is our Rabbi who teaches us about life and the faith and helps to form us into good and godly people.
And what about you and your personal location? Given where you are in your own life right now, who do you say Jesus is?