(Eric Kayayan)

Text verses: 13-16:  When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  “But what about you?” he asked.  “Who do you say I am”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”


THEME:  In the pluralistic world of today, our confession remains the same as that of Peter, two thousand years ago:  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.


“The twenty-first century will be religious or will not be”:  these words, pronounced y Andre Malraux, a French cultural philosopher from last century, are considered by many to be prophetic.  Still, such a pronouncement does not satisfy us.  Does it mean that the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries have not been religious?  Does it mean that Western secularized societies are not religious?  Actually, everything tends to prove the contrary.  Our epoch has been filled with the great pagan and even demonic liturgies of the Nazi regime, of the Communist celebrations.  Today, among many other religions, the cult of the media with its class of clerics and great priests, is there to remind us that we live in a highly religious society:  think for instance of the power which the TV news channel, CNN, exercises on people’s minds.  In France , the eight o’clock news bulletin on television is sometimes referred to as “the 8 o’clock great mass”.  In a seemingly highly secularized world, a vocabulary full of metaphors and analogies referring to traditional Christianity, flourishes in magazines, in public speeches and paper articles.  One speaks of the “catechism” of political parties.  International sport events, like the Soccer World Cup, gather millions, even billions of people in a kind of universal communion around a circular object, not the host of the mass this time, but a round ball.  We even regularly hear that some sport teams have been “crucified” by others.  In the meantime, angels have become a favorite topic for books and movies.  Are they right, those who complain that our time has lost “the sense of the sacred”?

On universities campuses, student life displays its own rites, liturgies, hymns and communal celebrations, often no less pagan than the ones I have described to you.  We also witness the deep religious character of nationalisms of all kinds:  all are supposed to express the essence of a given community, its deepest feelings, loyalties, values.  Therefore, the pronouncement should not be:  “The twenty first century will be religious or will not be”, because we know it will be just as religious as any other epoch of human history.  Mankind always proved to be a religious being, simply because God created him a religious being: a being in search of communion with God, His Creator.  But whether mankind finds the object of his search, and directs his heart and mind to God, His Creator, is the point we should make when talking about religion.  Therefore, our question should rather be:  What will be the religion of the pluralistic world of the twenty first century?  Tomorrow, like today, the religious market will be open to everyone:  you can shop around, mix elements of the Buddhist tradition to what you consider to be the best of Christianity; you can become a proselyte of the Sufi teaching and at the same time worship American Indian traditional beliefs, you can call upon the New-Age movement, and so on… 

But as we read again the confession of Peter in Matthew chapter 16, we become suddenly confronted with that kind of claim which totally excludes religious pluralism:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”.  Should our own confession be the same, two thousands years after that of Peter?  Should we hold to this single and exclusive creed while surrounded by an atmosphere of religious pluralism?  If it were only the voices of modern pagans that called us to relativize our confession, we Christians would respond appropriately and in unity; but we have to witness several schools of theologians who want to make us doubt of our own confession, and relativize it as well.  However, to the most crucial question ever asked to us “but you, who do you say I am?” our answer will be a resounding “Yes!  You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.  Why such an answer?  By pure conservatism?  By lack of imagination?  Because we refuse to see the new and wonderful religious opportunities offered to us and seemingly much more attuned to our time?  No.  Simply because except for Jesus-Christ there is nothing new under the sun;  religious pluralism itself is a very old phenomenon.  In the Roman empire , it was as widespread and common as it is today!

1. The religious situation at Caesarea Philippi.

Congregation of our Lord Jesus-Christ, it is not indifferent to ask ourselves where Jesus asked his disciples the question about His own identity:  he did it in the region of Caesarea Philippi, north of that Galilea of the Gentiles about which the prophet Isaiah had spoken, some seven hundred years earlier:  remember the words of the prophet, in the beginning of chapter 9:  The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned”.  Actually, in Jesus’ time, few places displayed more cults, religions or superstitions than Caesarea Philippi.  The surroundings were scattered with temples dedicated to the Syrian God Baal.  But there was more in that region than Syrian gods.  The Jordan river starts there, and this river would remind any Jew about the religion of Israel .  What is more, a cave situated in the mountain was supposed to be the birthplace of the god Pan, the god of nature.  Caesarea was so much identified with the god Pan that it was originally called Paneas.  Today, it is still named Baniyas.  And then, there was the great temple of white marble erected by Herod the Great and dedicated to Caesar.  Later, the third son of Herod, Philip, enriched and adorned this temple and changed the name of Paneas into that of Caesarea, the city of Caesar, and he added to it his own name:  Philip.  So it is in this highly pluralist world, where all kinds of gods were worshipped, even Caesar himself, that an obscure travelling rabbi, followed by twelve young men, his disciples, asks them a question about his identity.  I say “obscure” because surely, people talked about him, they surely were amazed by what they had seen him doing, but still, there was a lot of confusion about his identity.  He was famous, but only locally, not internationally, like Caesar.  And he was obscure, because his fame did not bring any clear consensus about whom he really was.  Did Jesus try to reassure himself, by asking this question to his disciples?  Is it may be that, rejected on the one hand by the religious leaders of his own people, mixed up on the other hand by the presence of so many competing religions, Jesus needed to have his own ministry boosted by some enthusiastic supporters?  Did he need to gain a renewed confidence in his shaky religious leadership?  Or perhaps, being overtaken by the events around his person, did he need to find out who he was?  Nothing of the sort.  As dramatic as the situation may sound, Jesus knew very well who he was.  But he was expecting the right answer in the middle of many wrong answers, because by chosing the twelve, he had a plan:  the plan of the edification of His Church.  And for that Church to be edified, the right foundation had to be laid:  the confession of His Person as God’s anointed One:  the Christ, the Messiah, the King.  A king not like the anointed kings in the Old Testament, but the very Son of the living God.  That is the declaration which Jesus expected, a few kilometers away from the magnificent temple of marble erected to the glory of Caesar.  What a cheek to expect such a confession in that very place!  What a challenge to the autority of Caesar.  And by whom?  By this obscure rabbi who was not even yet fifty years old…

Brothers and sisters, imagine a moment the silence of the disciples, after the crucial question was asked to them.  Typical of the religious pluralism reigning around Caesarea Philippi, many different answers had been given about the identity of Jesus.  The disciples knew all of them.  They were probably quite proud to be identified with someone of whom people spoke so highly.  And after all, did it really matter which answer was the right one?  Wasn’t it good enough for Jesus to be identified with the reincarnation of one of the prophets?  Wasn’t it enough honour for him to be identified with the greatest of the prophets, Elijah himself, the one who was taken into heaven by God?  Still today, traditional Jews, when celebrating the Passover, keep a seat open for Elijah, because if Elijah comes and seats there, then the coming of the long awaited Messiah is near…  Yes, after all, all these answers were deeply religious, why not being contented with them?  And finally, who could ever give the expected answer?  As usual, Jesus, while referring to himself, had been speaking of “the Son of Man”.  Why not simply answering:  “You are the Son of Man”, because you always speak of yourself as “the Son of Man”?

But you see, when Jesus speaks, His Spirit is at work.  If He expects the confession of His divine Sonship, that confession will come, whether in Caesarea Philippi or anywhere else.  And it might have taken a while for Peter to speak these words, he might have uttered them hesitantly, from the midst of an embarrassed silence caused by an embarrassing question.  But the Holy Spirit lead him to speak them.  For we know, brothers and sisters, that no one can say “Jesus is Lord”, except by the Holy Spirit.  And neither Peter, nor any of the other disciples, nor anyone of us could ever confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, if the Spirit of God did not enlighten our darkened minds and hearts and did not open our mouth for this confession.  Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven”.  Does this sound like the reaction of a relieved religious leader, pleased to hear that his disciples still follow him?  Does this sound like the reaction of someone who eventually discovers in the words of supportive friends who he really is?  We do not hear any relieved silence after Peter’s answer:  rather, we hear the Master at work, exposing to his disciples what his course of action is and will be:  the edification of His Church.  And this course of action is expressed so powerfully, with such a divine assurance that nothing or no one will be able to destroy or even delay its accomplishment:  And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Only God Himself could speak in that way.  And Jesus said these things to Peter precisely because Peter had been enabled by the Spirit to confess Him as God:  YOU ARE (“su ei”) the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.  This “YOU ARE ” is nothing else than the echo of Yahweh’s declaration in Exodus 3, verse 14:  “I AM WHO I AM”.  Calvin, commenting on these words, writes:  The confession is short, but it embraces all that is contained in our salvation; for the designation Christ, or Anointed, includes both an everlasting Kingdom and an everlasting Priesthood, to reconcile us to God, and, by expiating our sins through his sacrifice, to obtain for us a perfect righteousness, and, having received us under his protection, to uphold and supply and enrich us with every description of blessings.”

2.  Our confession of Christ remains firm.

So we are brought back to our initial question:  why do we uphold this confession in the middle of our present religious turmoil?  Why do we maintain it when all kinds of voices tell us to abandon it?  We do so because we have heard a voice which is not any voice; we have seen a Lord who is not any lord.  For, Paul writes, even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus-Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:5-6).  Religious pluralism is nothing new, brothers and sisters.  It was the share of millions of people in the Roman empire during the first century, when Jesus came:  people were attracted by all kinds of new religions coming from the East.  But remember: it is in the middle of a multiplicity of religious trends that Jesus claimed for Him, and for Him alone, the divine Sonship, the Lordship that nullified all other cults or religions.  Yes, our confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” is an exclusive one.  Therefore we shall not let ourselves be destabilized by rumours of novelty, because no novelty will ever match the coming of the very Son of God in a flesh similar to ours.  For if we allowed ourselves to be destabilised in our confession, “we would be tossed back and forth by the waves, and be blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephes. 4:14).  That, unfortunately, is the share not only of unbelievers, but of many people within the Church, even theologians listening to seductive voices.  Among many other seductive voices today, that of the Dalaï-Lama, coming from the East, tries to gently cover the voice of Christ.  And the effect of this voice, and of many other deceptive voices, is to bring Jesus back into the category of the “great prophets”, like Elijah, Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  In such a way, Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah is denied, His Lordship is rejected.  Let him be another great religious leader, because the world needs such leaders, and the world needs lots of religion and religious-minded people”:  that is more or less how is expressed the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming today.  Their need for religion is like a need for thirst, and not for thirst-quenching water.  The more they exasperate the thirst of desperately thirsty people, the happier they are.


But our confession stands like on a rock:  the same Spirit of the Father who revealed to Peter the true identity of Jesus, will continue to reveal it to otherwise darkened minds and hearts.  On that rock, on that unshakable foundation, a building is edified, and to those who form this building, the keys of the kingdom of heaven have been given.  More than ever, our confession will have to be heard in the middle of modern paganism, local and international.  Our confession will have to be heard clearly and loudly in the world, because billions of thirsting men and women and children await the quenching water that He alone can give.  John the evangelist reports how, “on the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him”.  “Whoever believes in me…”  Today the same crucial, vital, eternally vital question is posed to us: “But what about you, who do you say I am?”  Two thousands years after Peter, our answer remains the same:  You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.