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It’s good to pay attention to the places Jesus goes to in Mark’s Gospel, because places throw light on what Jesus says and does. In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, (Mark 8, 27-38) Jesus and his disciples leave the region around the Sea of Galilee– where most of his ministry took place – and travel to the villages of Caesarea Philippi about 25 miles to the north. They’re on their way to Jerusalem.
Caesarea Philippi and its surroundings were at the foot of Mount Hermon where the water sources for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee were located. Water was a key resource in Palestine then as now. Controlling the water meant controlling everything. At that time the Romans were in control. Names tell us that: Caesarea-Caesar, the Roman Emperor. Philippi-Philip, son of Herod the Great, who was Caesar’s ally in that part of Palestine.
This was Roman territory; rich shrines to Roman and Greek gods were everywhere reminding everybody.
As he does often in Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses what’s at hand to teach. Here in this place of Roman power he asks, “Who do people say that I am?”
John the Baptist, who stood up to King Herod: Elijah, the fearless prophet who stood up to King Ahab and his notorius wife, Jezebel, the disciples say
Peter, speaking for them all says: ““You are the Christ.” You are more powerful than the prophets, more powerful than those honored here at Caesarea Philippi. You are the Messiah come to lead Israel to its high place above the nations.
But then Jesus tells Peter he is a Messiah who will suffer, who will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, who will suffer death and rise again. He’s a Messiah who seems, not powerful, but powerless.
Peter doesn’t like that. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “ Turning around, and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan, you are someone who thinks like human beings and not like God.
Thinking like human beings, not like God. What does that mean? Jesus goes on to say says it’s thinking we’re powerful and we’re not, aiming for power that we can never hold on to. It means denying the cross in one’s life. It’s not only Peter Jesus accuses of thinking like human beings and not like God, it’s his disciples and all of us.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus says.
The cross, so difficult to understand and accept! Each of us has to take up our cross, if we wish to follow Jesus. Each of us has a cross to take up. We may not like it, but it’s the cross that’s personally mine. It could be sickness, disappointment, rejection, maybe it’s simply day after day getting nowhere. It could be the cross that comes from the times and circumstances we live in. We may not like that either. We would like to go back to another time, or go forward to a better time. But the cross is where we are.
When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, it becomes his cross too. He promises that. He helps us carry it. He bears the burden of it. With him at our side, we don’t die; he raises us up.
The journey that Jesus took with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi in Mark’s Gospel was a journey to prepare them for what awaited them further, in Jerusalem. Peter and the others didn’t understand him; neither do we. The journey we make with Jesus ends, not with a hold on human power, but holding on to the power of God, which is given to us through Jesus Christ, our Lord.