Mark’s gospel (Mk 8, 27-35) describes a journey that Jesus and his disciples made from the town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee– an area predominantly Jewish– to the villages of Caesarea Phillipi, about 25 miles to the north.
The town of Caesarea Phillipi and its surroundings stood at the foot of Mount Hermon where many of the sources of water for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee were located. In Jesus’ time it was also a gentile region where Roman and Greek gods were honored and, as its name indicates, Caesar and Roman power proclaimed.
As he often does, Jesus uses what’s at hand to teach. Here in a center of Roman power he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” His disciples name powerful Jewish figures: John the Baptist, who stood up to King Herod, and Elijah, the fearless prophet who stood up to King Ahab and his notorius wife, Jezebel. Some compared Jesus to them.
However, Peter, speaking for the disciples, goes beyond these Jewish heros. “You are the Christ,” he says, more powerful than the prophets and certainly more powerful than the figures honored at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is the Messiah come to lead Israel to its high place above the nations.
In response, Jesus tells him he is a suffering Messiah, who will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, will suffer death and rise again. The scriptures had announced a Messiah like this: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” (Isaiah 50)
When Peter rejects this description of the Messiah and tells Jesus to abandon it, Jesus calls him “Satan,” someone who thinks like human beings and not like God.
We’re not far from Peter’s thinking, human beings that we are. The mystery of the cross is hard for us to accept, whether we see it in Jesus or in ourselves or in the unfolding events of our time.
We celebrate the triumph of the Cross tomorrow, September 14th.