Transcribed from the sermon preached August 27, 2017
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Matthew 16:13-20, Romans 12:1-8
Have you ever had the experience, probably as a young person, of cruising along with your friends, and all of a sudden someone panics, starts to run, and everyone else starts running too. And now since everyone is running, you must be running from something, so you keep on running. Then eventually someone asks what are we running from? And nobody seems to know.
Panic comes as a part of our fight or flight animal nature. We may, as anxious individuals panic, and we may be a part of a group that panics. There may be panic over real or imagined threats. Evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton asserts that in herd panic each individual member reduces the danger to itself by moving as close as possible to the center of the fleeing group. Thus the herd appears as a unit in moving together, but its function emerges from the uncoordinated behavior of self-serving individuals. You don’t have to be faster than the lion; you just have to be faster than the guy next to you. For humans there is panic by groups together in a physical space, and there is panic of feeling, sentiment or even ideological panic.
Apparently there is an average of 200 deaths a year at Mecca due to panicking stampedes. There are stock market panics, the Y2K panic. Remember the beanie baby Christmas shopping mobs? Now there are fidget spinners. There may be panic over perceived threats from other groups or races of people. Our tendency toward fight or flight panic is easily and often manipulated by politicians and propaganda. When times get tough in society, the herd mentality will lead us toward the center, to squeeze our way into the center and leave others out on the margins. The marginalized get eaten. The marginalized are sacrificed.
The word panic derives from the Greek god Pan, a half human half goat, creature, often depicted with horns, the hind legs of a goat and an erect phallus. Pan was thought to roam around forests, hills and caves, sneak out from the bushes and chase nymphs, and try to grab them by the … whatever, to ravage them. This threat and his angry voice caused women, travelers and animal herds to panic. Pan was a god who caused chaos and mayhem, in other words, pandemonium.
Paneas, or Caesarea Philippi is on the northern border of Israel, on the southwestern slope of Mount Hermon. It is a strategic military and commerce pass through the mountains between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. So every empire in power for thousands of years took over the town, stationed military, and established their temple.
There is a temple here to the Greek god Pan. The temple was built around a deep spring which is the primary source of the Jordan River. Josephus, the Jewish Historian in his book The Jewish War wrote that when Augustus won the territory in 20 BCE, he gave Paneas to King Herod who erected a temple and added statues in honor of Caesar. Josephus describes the spring like this: “At this spot a mountain rears its summit to an immense height aloft; at the base of the cliff is an opening into an overgrown cavern; within this, plunging down to an immeasurable depth, is a yawning chasm, enclosing a volume of still water, the bottom of which no sounding-line has been found long enough to reach.” In 2 B.C. Herod the Great’s son, Philip, named it Caesarea in honor of Augustus, and, to differentiate it from Caesarea Maritima, it became known as Caesarea Philippi.
Now even before the temple to Pan, there was a temple here to the Canaanite god Baal. Baal was the god of commerce, seafarers, money and fertility who spoke with thunder. Sacrifices were offered here at this bottomless pit to the realm of the dead, known in Greek as Hades.
So here the disciples sit, at a key military, trade and agricultural cross point, at a place where gods of money, power, and sex are worshipped, and it is here Jesus asks the disciples, “who do you say that I am?”
John Ortberg makes an important observation that the disciples had been following Jesus for a while, and they had had many conversations about ethics and how to live life; they had talked about the kingdom, God, faith, the law. They heard parables and stories. They heard him preach Good News to the poor and liberation to the oppressed. And they experienced more than talk. They had been with him when he healed the sick, welcomed outcasts and strangers and fed the hungry, but they had not had a conversation about his identity. “At the beginning of their relationship, Jesus did not say, ‘Believe the right things about me, and then you can be my disciples.’ What he said is, ‘Follow me.’
“In other words, Ortberg imagines Jesus saying, “If you choose to follow me, eventually you will come to know me. If you do not choose to follow me, if you choose not to, it doesn’t really matter what you say you believe about me.” http://menlo.church/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Jesus-On-Location_Illumination_John-Ortberg.pdf
Too often in the Church we have been taught that being Christian means we say and believe the right words. We think that if we repeat Peter’s words, “You are the Christ, the living Son of God,” then we are in, we are Christian; that is our ticket to heaven.
But that is not the way Jesus starts a relationship with us. He says follow him, and live the life and if we do so, along the way we will come to discover the depth of his identity, his relationship with God, our relationship with God with and through him. It is the journey, the relationship from which faith and doctrine come, not the other way around.
So the disciples are at this big rock with a spring in a bottomless hole, the gates of Hades, where so many people confess their belief and offer sacrifices to Baal, the god of the underworld, Pan, and the Roman emperor Caesar, and it is here that Jesus asks them who they think he is.
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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.”
This proclamation from the rock over and above the temple of Baal, Pan and Caesar? Over the temple to commerce, sex, power and death is a defiant proclamation, but it is not a panicky one. It is rock solid.
We can be the Church; we can follow Jesus into the most idolatrous of places and still retain our independence of mind and faith. Where the emperor demands to be worshipped as a god, when panic tempts us to cast others into the sacrificial pit to appease the gods, we can stand strong in the knowledge we have gained along the way with Jesus, knowing, by the grace of God, he
is the Messiah, the son of God.
Paul calls the church to teamwork. Now this is group behavior, but it is not a group easily driven by panic or uniformity or conformity of the world. Rather each individual retains their uniqueness, their unique calling, and therefore contributes to the functioning of the community, the body. So we are not looking to go it alone and dominate and grab whatever we can, nor are we to just go along and blend in with the irrational panic prone crowd, but we are to work as a team.
Slow and steady. It seems like there are new things to panic about on a weekly basis. It is very tempting to rush to judgment, to think we need to respond to every affront, to accuse everyone with a different opinion of being the worst of our fears. Let us trust God will guide us along the way, just as She has until now. Let us trust the witness of our own journey, trust that Christ is Lord not only inside this Church, but let us proclaim Christ is the Messiah before the statues that oppressive emperors make in their own honor, and even before the gates of Hell. Slow and steady with our team of people gifted for different purposes; there is nothing new about disciples of Jesus going out to places of power, nothing new about our welcoming the stranger rather than scapegoating and marginalizing, nothing new about resisting racism, nothing new about retaining enough humility to listen to others different from ourselves, nothing new about resisting fight or flight instinct to sacrificially give of our time and talent to work for justice and peace.
With this living relationship as our guide, we may present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what the will of God— what is is good and acceptable and perfect.
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.