Jesus sweeps the corridors of power – Proper 16A

Matthew 16
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 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. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

I loved visiting America in the 1990’s. It was such a beautifully naive and robust life. Impenetrably defended, and financially dominant it was a halcyon time. I have also just remembered in the midst of my reverie that Triazolam (called halcyon) is a sleeping pill! America from where I sit at the bottom of the continent of Africa, seems to have been rudely awakened despite the halcyon. There are no impenetrable defences, there is no such thing as financial security, (it’s an oxymoron), there also seems to be no Presidential messiah. Y
Yet back in the 1990’s my dear American friends were so proud to show me their Capitol. I was confused at first, as I was miles from Washington, until I realised that every state seems to have one. Beautiful architecture strong and robust. White marble abounding. A manifestation in stone of the brave and the free spirit of that great nation. Those beautiful Capitol buildings and of course the unequalled one on the hill in Washington are modern day equivalents of the Caesarea Phillipi where Jesus is located in this Sunday’s gospel.

Caesarea Phillipi was an ancient site further developed by the Greeks and eventually annexed in 20BC to the Kingdom of Herod the Great when the Greeks crumbled. Associated with the God of desolate places, Pan Herod set about about beautifying the place known mainly for its copious spring which bubbled through the limestone and fed the Huela marshes. Herod built a temple of white marble also in 20BC. Later, Phillip the Tetrarch (trans Big Deal Guy) built his administrative capital there. Nice temple, good water. Politician that he was he also named the place Caesarea to honour Caesar. The bible refers to the place as Caesarea Phillippi to distinguish it from Casarea Maritima on the coast. There was more than one politician and more than one Capitol! Get the picture?

Jesus is here in a Capitol. You may picture anyone: the British Houses of Parliament, the Kremlin, South Africa’s Union Buildings, it doesn’t really matter. Here in the shadow of political might and majestic military confidence he asks his disciples, “So guys, what do folks say about me?” A flustering groups of tourist/disciples bluster the names of prophets and law givers. It’s a bit like an early approval rating report. “Uh, Elijah? Mmmm, Moses?…” Jesus turns up the heat, “But who do you say that I am?
I would love to know why he asked that question, in that place, at that time? There in the shadow of Imperial power and prestige, there with the Greek god Pan in central focus, there with the mysterious desert spring, there he asks for an opinion from his disciples.

Peter replies, “You are the redeemer, the Son of the living God” Not the Emperor Caesar, Not the God Pan. You are the rock that brings living water. You are the fountain of life.

Jesus then affirms Peter, before he silences all of the disciples and commits them to the mysterious messianic secret, “Don’t tell anyone…YET!”

In that affirmation the simple Jewish Rabbi from backwater Nazareth, overshadowed by the capitals of the Capitol, competing with foreign gods, dares to suggest that he is going to build something himself. Not a temple or a palace made of stone but a building made of flesh and spirit. Not an Imperial regime to dominate and enslave with brutish power and law. (Mmmm we seem get confused about that one now and gain) Rather Jesus is going to build a church an ecclesia, a gathering of citizens called by a herald to discuss the matters of a Free State.

A risky endeavour in the shadow of such power. An even riskier dream when one considers the quality of the “rock” that Jesus had to work with. Peter was definitely not white marble, he was far more like crumbly clay. But Jesus can work with less than perfect materials. He did it with Peter and the other ten, except of course resplendently righteous and granite Judas.

Jesus has been working with crumbly clay Christians since the beginning. It’s a simple low key project. It doesn’t make it into the news, and the television stations that purport to represent it don’t seem to really understand the plan.
But here’s the thing, Caesarea Phillipi lies in ruins, Pan is all but forgotten, the waters no longer flow freely from the limestone spring, yet Jesus the water of life, and his flawed and fractured stones continue to be the ecclesia gathering of God! Now there is something to marvel at.

Go and engrave that on the steps of the Capitol!

Liberating a shadow legion

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

It is a tricky task when reading scripture not to force too much modern symbolism out of nor into the reading which, it must be acknowledged, comes to us across a twenty century cultural and historical divide. So having paid my dues to decency, that is exactly what I am going to do with this passage simply because it begs to be read at all its rich levels of meaning.

I am intrigued by the context of this miracle. Jesus has crossed over the lake of Galilee, and has entered the wilderness area of the decapolis (ten cities). We should not be surprised that Jesus has crossed over. He is the consummate, “fence jumper” isn’t he? Put a label, a prejudice, a social barricade before Jesus and before long he will, “cross over”. It is thus not surprising that in this wilderness area of the Trans-Jordan, Jesus encounters demons. This wilderness was after all the place where the scapegoats had for centuries been driven with their shadow burden of Israel’s sin. This wilderness was the place of Israel’s projections. Similar perhaps to how the continent of Africa has been scapegoated with all the shadow material of the Euro-American high priests placed on its people’s dark skinned shoulders?

Jesus goes to the repository of shadow material.

The fact that Jesus encounters a naked, demoniac (psychotic?) is not surprising. What is surprising is that the fence jumping Jewish Rabbi is not averse to an encounter with this frightened and frightening person. All the rules of culture and religion dictated that it would be best to ignore and avoid a person like this.

The demoniac on the other hand comes to Jesus and knows who he is. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” He also is reluctant for an encounter with Jesus. “I beg you, do not torment me” Here is a person robbed of dignity. Exposed and shamed, symbolised by his nakedness and excluded by reference to his location in the tombs.

Jesus’ response is to inquire as to the man’s real identity. By asking his name, Leslie Weatherhead suggests, Jesus is asking a question equivalent in the day to a therapist asking in our day, “How did it all begin? What power is it that is over you“. The insight that emerges in the narrative suggests that Jesus might have spent a long time in this conversation drawing closer and closer to this rejected and abused human being to get him to a place of trust where he could share his story (his name) with Jesus. Weatherhead goes on to speculate that perhaps the reference to the name “Legion” may be a pointer to the fact that the man was naming atrocities committed by the Roman Legionaires who controlled the Decapolis.

Whatever the illness of the man, Jesus sets him free and liberates him from the abysmal energies at work in his life. No wonder that the man deeply desires to stay with his divine therapist from then on, and how skilful of Jesus not to encourage that dependence but to set the restored man free to be himself, and not a slavish dependent disciple? I wonder if, in our ministry as churches, we are as generously skilful?

I suppose I really should stop here, with this psychological interpretation that would be acceptable to us as preachers, and our congregations. I really should stop, but there is a question haunting me in the right outfield of my mind. I have to notice it.

The question is, “In what form is this Demoniac representative of people haunted by legions of hurtful and abusive experiences from the Church?”  Is the church the demoniser?

If it is true that the demoniac symbolises the demonised members of society who have been stripped of their identity and clothing and who are living in the tombs, then it must be equally true that Jesus wants to encounter those very people and bring them back to healing and community.

Space and time does not permit me to begin naming the thousand and one members in this legion of abuse and shaming commanded and executed by the church. Let me begin the current  list and leave you to complete it.

Racism and slavery, sexism and patriarchy, homophobia, paedophilia,… The legion of fear based “tactics of exclusion” that has many living in the tombs having forgotten their identity as children of God to the extent that they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Hear the good news, “Jesus is a fence jumper!”

He will go to the shadow wildernesses created by our fears and projections and liberate our scapegoated sisters and brothers from their abysmal exclusion. Having done this he will command us to continue this work in his name.

After all, was the heyday of the church not when we dwelt in the catacombs ourselves?

The Biggest Temptation of All

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,  where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”  Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”  Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,   for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’   and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”   Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

One of the greatest challenges I have to deal with daily, as a White, Western-thinking, Euro-African who now represents only nine percent of the demographics of South Africa; is that I don’t know what to do.

It’s not that I “don’t know what to do“. As a Western trained person I have a ton of ideas in every minute of exactly how the world should be! The world my way! The problem is that I arrogantly assume that my solution is the best, most logical and most obvious to any other rational human being. The frustration and anger that follows when no-one else agrees with me, nor implements my ideas, is proof that I have fallen prey to the Biggest Temptation the Wilderness held out to Jesus and holds out to anyone with ego, energy and ideas. The temptation of the quick fix

It is difficult to wait with a problem when your mind and skills base tell you that you know exactly what to do. Add to your competence a resource of divine power, and we begin to see what the temptations of Jesus were really about.

Food

Overflowing with compassion at the suffering of the people that he had grown up with, Jesus wanted more than anything to see the hungry fed. Stones to bread was a simple solution. It was a quick fix. In Africa we are constantly confounded by how a well meaning air-drop of tons of food to starving people on this continent, can issue in cartels of connivance and control as food becomes another weapon to be used by the power mongers with the assault rifles. How can the well intended dropping of food be so abused to increase the suffering of the starving who can now see the bags of food they still have no access to?

Favours

In a world lost and hungry for meaning Jesus knew that he had a secret that could change lives forever. Would it be so bad to enter a coalition with another spiritual super-power, for the good it could bring? Surely together they could do more than when divided?

South Africa really liked the idea of trading with China, and still does. How embarrassing when that alliance meant the South African Government had to refuse a visa to the Dalai Llama who was invited to the country by the Buddhist community here. Quick fix coalitions can have counterproductive consequences.

Fantasy

Who doesn’t love a thrill? Entertainment is a massive global industry. It is fuelled by our need for illusions that will be the quick fix to the agony of reality we face daily.

Travel through any informal settlement in this country and you will see television antennae sticking out from the simplest of shacks. Everyone needs to be entertained.

Of course the media can do a power of good to expose and to educate. That is why every oppressive regime will demand total control of the media. In South Africa we have had experience of that in our dark history.

But fantasy and entertainment can also have devastating effects. What is a young man, with no education and no employment , to do when he sees on the television that to be a real man, he has to drive a German car, wear a Swiss named watch, and wear the shoes that it seems everyone in New York is wearing?

How does that young man become what he is told by the media to become if he has an illegal fire arm and a head full of crack-cocaine. What does he do when he knows where the people live who have what he has to have? If you don’t know the answer, read your next daily newspaper, it will tell the story of young men like the one I have described.

It is very difficult not to fall for the quick fix.

Food, Favours and Fantasy are powerful temptations, that have seduced even the church for centuries. They still do.

So what did Jesus know that made it possible for him to survive?

Based on his answers in this passage he seems to have understood that:

  • Food is not the only supporter of meaningful life.
  • That Faithfulness is more important than favours.
  • Living a fantasy is the ultimate deception for the soul/ego.

The journey through Lent each year offers us the opportunity of cutting through the veils of deception that so easily wind around us.

  • We fast, becoming aware of our obsessions with food.
  • We seek solitude with God, examining our dependence on networks of favour and power that often supplant our trust in God.
  • We simplify, our use of media and entertainment and come to live our God given realities in gratitude without constantly testing God to make things different from the way they are.

And through these forty days we pray to see that the quick fix for ourselves and others, is the biggest temptation of all.