Jesus leads his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a regional commerce center of the Roman Empire, located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
The city was built at the base of Mount Hermon, the northern border of Israel at the time, and from Mount Hermon flows a large spring feeding the Jordan River.
The spring emerges from a large cave which became the center of pagan worship, especially of the god Pan – the pagan god of the wild as well as shepherds and their flocks.
The city also had Roman political significance. Herod the Great named it after his patron, Julius Caesar, who regarded himself as a god.
And Herod’s son, Philip, added the Philippi to bring attention to himself and his power and control over the region.
So it is as Caesarea Philippi, where the Roman empire and the pagan gods competed for people’s attention and loyalty – that Jesus asks his disciples his profound question:
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
In response, they give him their Gallup Poll findings - each one identifying him with a dead prophet of the past: John the Baptist (who had recently been killed by Herod), Elijah, Jeremiah, or perhaps some other prophet.
But Jesus is more interested in their opinion, rather than the opinion of the crowds – after all, they had been with him for awhile by now.
So he asks them: but who do you say that I am.
And Simon Peter blurts out the correct answer, identifying Jesus as the Christ, which quite literally means “the anointed one” or the Messiah.
In other words Peter is asserting that they cannot depend on the pagan gods to save them. Nor will Caesar or any of his regional allies save them. When Simon Peter identifies Jesus as the anointed one – he is saying he knows that it is only Christ who can save them.
Jesus points out that Peter who we know so well – the one who almost drown because of his lack of faith, the one Jesus will call Satan in next Sunday’s Gospel –
that old foot in the mouth Peter could never have figured this out all by himself – Jesus knows that his heavenly Father has placed this answer in Peter’s heart.
And so like when Popes are elected, men and women religious profess their vows, or even when the young Church is Confirmed – when a major turning point in life occurs – it’s time for a new name - and Jesus calls Peter “the rock. The Rock upon which his Church will be built.”
And he gives Petrus, or Peter, or the Rock – the keys to the kingdom which Peter will use for the good of the Church.
Those keys will open the gates to eternity. The way to eternity will not be through the cave at the base of Mount Hermon filled with images of pagan gods –
it will not be through the might of the Roman empire and its legions of soldiers – but it will be through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This past Monday, the Church celebrated the feast day of the patron of our Catholic High School across the street – St. Pius X.
Unlike Shebna, the master of the palace in the first reading – who used the keys to the king’s palace for his own good – St. Pius X used the keys of his papacy for the good of the Church wanting to “restore all things in Christ.”
He wanted the prince of peace to reign – especially as he saw building hostilities in Europe.
Saint Pius shied away from many of the royal trappings of the papacy – often complaining to his friends about how those in the Vatican fussed over him and dressed him up with finery.
Today, we ask for his intercession, as we see building hostilities among people even in our own country and Church – much less throughout the world – and as we answer the same question of Jesus – addressed to each one of us:
Who do you say that I am?
Like the disciples gathered at Caesarea Philippi – we also live with forces competing for our allegiance.
The false gods of today are perhaps more subtle than the pagan gods.
The gods that tempt us might be wealth, or fame, or glamor, or pleasure. All of these make us an empty promise of happiness or success.
But gathering here at Mass is a first step of acknowledging we don’t follow after those other gods – but our allegiance, our loyalty is with Christ our Savior.
Saying that in here, with the comfort of being surrounded by our friends and family in faith – is one thing — leaving here and actually living this allegiance is something else.
No, we also have to live our faith – to show others by our actions that love is stronger than hate.
That putting ourselves last is the way to become first.
And that dying to ourselves will give us a share in the rising of Jesus Christ.
We proclaim by our words AND our actions that we remain members of the Body of Christ, the Catholic Church and this parish – because we trust the promise that the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against us.
Moments in time...