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St Peter's Day, 30 June, 2013
The Rt Rev'd John Parkes AM,
Bishop of Wangaratta.

In 2011 I had the great privilege of serving as chaplain to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a transformative experience — as it has been for countless pilgrims. It doesn't over-egg the pudding to say that my reading of the scriptures was refreshed and expanded by exploring, to use that wonderful German descriptor, their 'sitz im leben' or life setting. Memories come flooding back; for example the harsh and barren cliffs towards the Dead Sea with their rough caves that housed the Qumran Community. Not as I had previously imagined some transposed European monastic setting with cloisters and cells. But it offered a new perspective on Jesus terse observation, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' Or to stand on the edge of the Sea of Galilee the topography of which has scarcely changed over two millennia and conjure in my mind's eye pictures of Peter and the others fishing.

While we were staying in the North, we travelled to the Golan Heights, into the foothills of Mount Hermon. This area is close to the border with Syria. It was captured by Israel in the Six Day War of June, 1967. And here lies the village of Banias. At its heart is a vast cave from the base of which springs the easternmost source of the river Jordan fed by the snow melt from the top of Hermon. Originally the water rose in the cave itself, but earthquake activity has altered the flow. The water is pure and clear; shoals of fish can be seen clearly. The surrounding landscape is fertile and beautiful.

Apparently known as Ba'al Hermon and Ba'al Gad in the Old Testament period, this site later was named Panias after the Greek god Pan who was worshiped here by the Seleucids who had gained control under Antiochus III. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C., sacrifices were cast into the cave as offerings to the god Pan. Pan, the half-man half-goat, god of fright (it's from here we get our word "panic"). He is often depicted playing the flute.

Adjacent to the sacred cave is a rocky escarpment with a series of hewn niches. We know that statues of the deity were placed in these niches because they are depicted on the coins of the city. One niche housed a sculpture of Echo, the mountain nymph and Pan's consort. Another niche housed a statue of Pan's father, Hermes, son of nymph Maia. This city known as Panias has been corrupted in the Arabic language to its modern name of Banias.

In 20 BCE, Caesar Augustus gave Paneas to King Herod who erected there a temple of white marble to his patron. The city was built only later by his son Herod Philip, who named it Caesarea in honour of Augustus. To differentiate it from Caesarea Maritima, it became known as Caesarea Philippi.

And it was here that the encounter between Jesus and his disciples told in today's Gospel took place. "Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?'" For the casual reader with no geographical context, this sounds no different than "Jesus took the disciples down the road to the neighbouring village". But they have just been in Bethsaida; which means that Jesus decided to take his disciples on a 32+ mile round trip to Caesarea Philippi, the only recorded trip Jesus took to that region or anywhere remotely like it. Why? Why on earth?

Amongst orthodox Jews in the first century, Caesarea Philippi was a reviled place. Today's equivalent in Australian terms might be Kings Cross in Sydney, or Soho in London or Sin City, Las Vegas in the States. The worship of Pan, which involved bizarre sexual practices, and the temple to the God Caesar were anathema to the faithful. Yet it was here that Jesus brought his disciples — into the district of Caesarea Philippi. Of course, we don't know for sure where they were standing in the Caesarea Philippi region, but the context of Jesus' statement gives us an idea that they may have been standing within sight of the Rock of the Gods.

When Simon Peter answered Jesus' question, 'Who do you say that I am?', 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,' Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.'

Is it too fanciful to assume that Jesus and the disciples were standing within sight of the Rock of the Gods? So what — you might ask. What's all this got to do with us? Let's reflect for a moment on how the church has understood this encounter and these texts.

The Catholic tradition has taken Jesus' pronouncement in Matthew 16:18 to mean that Jesus was declaring that the church was to be built on the authority of Peter and the other disciples. It is true that they led the early church, so this would be a possible interpretation.

The Protestant tradition has taken Jesus declaration here to say that His church was to be built upon the confession recognizing Him as the Messiah and the Son of the living God. This is a valid interpretation, as well, and is a practice supported by other scriptures.

Ray VanderLaan and other Hebrew contextual scholars suggest a third interpretation which may be just as — if not more — powerful as the others, based on the context. Why would Jesus choose this place, the filthiest (morally) place within walking distance of his earthly region of ministry?

Might it be possible that he took his disciples to the most degenerate place possible to say to them "THIS is where I want you to build my church. I want you to go out into the repugnantly degenerate places, where God is not even known. I want you to go out to places that make Caesarea Philippi look tame, and THAT is where I want you to build my church." Because that is exactly what they did. They went to places in Asia Minor and the ends of the earth, where "gods" were worshipped in unspeakably awful manners and where Christians would be horribly persecuted, and they gave their lives doing EXACTLY what they were told to do by their Rabbi.[1]

If there is any merit at all in this reading of the scripture, does it not offer a timely word of encouragement to us in our context? For we too live in a world of foreign gods. Foremost among them is the god of the economy. In the important recent book What Money Can't Buy,[2] the Harvard philosopher Michael J Sandel explores the encroachment of market values into every aspect of life. Everything, he argues, is for sale. He says that 'the most fateful change that unfolded during the last three decades was...the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong.' He identifies and analyses the shift from our being a market economy to a market society. 'A market economy' he says, 'is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human behaviour. It's a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.'

In this context it becomes harder and harder to make moral decisions. In a chilling observation, economists Levitt and Dubner explain that economics simply does not traffic in morality. 'Morality represents the way we would like the world to work, and economics represents how it actually works.'

The second foreign god is the god of self. There was a series of TV ads for insurance running a little while ago. The catch cry was, 'for the most important person in the world — You.' Our world has become increasingly individualistic and narcissistic. Self obsession is seen everywhere. The notion of the common good, the subordination of self for the good of others is increasingly unfashionable.

The third foreign god is the god of sexualisation. Sex sells. But sex also corrupts. I am particularly appalled at the sexualisation of children — kiddie beauty parades where pre-pubescent mostly girls ape the worst of modern sexual culture.

There are plenty of other foreign gods we could identify. You will no doubt have your own list. And this represents for us the context in which we seek to answer for ourselves the question that Jesus asks of every disciple in every time and place. 'But you! Who do you say that I am.'

In August you are holding a very important event. It is essential that our tradition recovers its sense of mission. We have spent too long painfully and exactly analysing the nature and content of our own navels. Evangelical Catholicism, or Catholic Evangelism is not just an interesting topic for reflection. It is an invitation to recover the very essence and identity of our mission. Who do we Anglo-Catholics say Jesus is in our context — and how do we proclaim and live out our answer to that question in our sitz im leben.

For I think that this is very clear. The foreign gods of our age do not answer the deep spiritual yearning which is at the heart of the human condition. Blessed Augustine famously wrote in the Confessions, 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.'

Our mission is to speak into that deep spiritual yearning, to identify and challenge those false gods which claim power over the lives of people and yet rob them of their peace, and to live out the Gospel we proclaim.

When Christ asks us 'Who do you say that I am?', can we answer with Peter 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,' and in the power of that confession be faithful disciples. So that we too can be in our own way and in our own time small parts of the rock on which the church is built. For Christ's sake.


Notes:

[1] www.fishingtheabyss.com/archives/44

[2] Michael J Sandel What Money Can't Buy — The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)


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