A sermon offered at St. Mark’s in Leominster on September 16. Gospel text is Mark 8:27-38.
Everyone knows by now that our Presiding Bishop, the “Royal Wedding preacher,” Michael Curry, is coming to our great diocese for an Episcopal revival on Sunday October 21st. The gospel writers don’t use the word “revival” but I think that was what it was when Jesus preached and fed the 5000. And there was a time when Jesus was not preaching a revival but he himself was in need of a revival. I think that time was the Gospel passage we had last week and I think what happened there impacts what happens in today’s gospel story.
Remember last week Jesus went to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Jesus wanted some down time. And if you read the first seven chapters of Mark’s Gospel you would know why. Jesus goes from Nazareth to Capernaum, then north, then south, across the Sea of Galilee several times. Over a dozen different locations are mentioned. Jesus is on the move. And remember they didn’t have Uber™ in those days. Jesus is walking. His pace matches the frenetic pace of Mark’s gospel – the gospel that has the word “immediately” 56 times in 16 short chapters.
Jesus has to stop and slow down. Amazing things can happen when we stop and slow down. This summer I walked 120 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain with my son Geoff.
It is a pilgrimage with a deep spiritual tradition. Thousands and thousands of people from all over the world come to Spain to take part in it. It was a tremendous experience for my son and me. The first few days we were not rushing, just walking at our normal pace. My son is 6 foot three and we both have long legs. That meant going at our normal pace we were passing everyone. And, staying with the custom, we would say “Buen Camino” to each pilgrim that we passed. But not much more. In the last few days Geoff developed a sore knee. It wasn’t enough to stop us but it did mean we had to walk more slowly. And because we did, we walked alongside other pilgrims and got to hear their fascinating stories. We met people from Korea, Ireland, New Zealand, and England. That only happened because we slowed down.
Jesus is tired. He is in need of a revival. And because he slows down a Syrophoenician woman gets to see him. Her daughter has a demon and she is hoping Jesus will cure her. Remember this woman is not from Israel and Jesus thinks his mission is only to Israel. When she makes her request, Jesus says something very unlike Jesus. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Ouch! Jesus needs reviving.
The Canaanite / Syrophonoecian woman with the dog who eats the crumbs Artist: @ReverendAlly.org/art
She answers, Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. At that exact moment Jesus is revived. He realizes his mission is not restricted to Israel but is to the whole world. He cures her daughter. And his mission is expanded and revitalized.
For those of you surprised that Jesus learned something new, I invite you to check out Luke’s gospel where we are told three times Jesus grew in age, wisdom and understanding. Jesus, fully divine and fully human, had truths to learn.
Now we are ready for today’s gospel and the new place in Jesus’ journey. He arrives in Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was not always called that. It used to be Naphtali and it was the location of great deeds performed by Kings David and Solomon. It was a holy city for the people of Israel. But when the Roman army took over Israel for the Roman Empire, they renamed it. Caesarea means, “Caesar’s town.” Philippi was the name of a Roman Tetrarch. The Romans are really putting it in the face of the Jewish people.
Jesus arrives with a large following. At this point Jesus is at the height of his popularity. We know this because not long ago he had a revival with the 5000 people. He has so many followers now that he no longer knows them personally. He has to ask his disciples. Who do people say I am? And many are thinking he is the one who will drive the Romans out.
That’s the scene. Jesus with his great following is in a place where people are looking for a revolution. Would he lead them against the Empire? Jesus had proclaimed a different kingdom – one of healing, forgiveness, compassion and hope. But I think at this moment he is tempted with a worldly kingdom. Here’s why. Earlier in his ministry Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan. The temptations were about seizing earthly power for himself. Jesus rejected Satan that day but Luke’s gospel tells us Satan left him to return at an opportune time. The battle was not over. Satan was coming back. This is the moment of his return. It does not make sense for Jesus to be so furious at Peter to say, Get behind me, Satan to Peter. He is not calling Peter “Satan.” He actually sees Satan, tempting him once again with the power of this world. At that moment Jesus could have given in and become just another leader written about in history books. Instead Jesus chooses a true revolution – a revolution that changes hearts. A revolution that is still going on as we attempt to change the world through compassion and grace.
And there is another dimension to Caesarea Philippi. The Romans who settled there built temples to their gods. Temples in which sacrifices were performed.
Ruin of the Temple of Pan at Caesarea Philippi
The temple here was to Pan. To Pan, the Romans sacrificed pigs – and threw the remains into the lake, thereby defiling that so that the Jewish people could not drink it. You can understand why the Jewish people wanted the Romans out. When the Romans did that they were following a theology that had existed for thousands of years. Sacrifice animals, sometimes even children, to God so that God might be appeased. “Here God. Take this. And leave me alone. You are a terrible God. Stay out of the life of my family.” In the city of the Temple of Pan, Jesus, consistent with the prophets of Israel, reverses this practice and this theology. We no longer sacrifice to appease God. Jesus, the Son of God, now sacrifices for us. This means we no longer push God away. We now invite God into our lives. We can now ask God to be with us. Jesus changes the world by completing changing the way we relate to God and one another. This is a commitment to a new heaven and a new earth.
I’ll end with a quote that I am praying every day in this time of our revival. It is a quote from a man named Cyprian who lived around the year 100 in Rome. He wrote to a friend and said,
“The world can be a mean and cruel place. But here in Rome there is a small group of people who care about each other. They give whatever it takes to help each other in need. And they are very happy living this way. They call themselves Christian. I think I will join them and try this way for a while.”