“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” St. Mark 8:38
A few years ago, Pastor Allison and I led a mission trip to Washington DC for teenagers from our two churches. We were aiming to help these rural kids understand what urban poverty is really like, and to support a number of ministries that were working among the poor in the city. It was an amazing experience for all of us, and together we lived on a food stamp budget, visited and prayed with the homeless, chopped vegetables at the DC Central Kitchen, and helped serve meals at a shelter. Our Bible studies each day focused on different parts of the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s revolutionary song of praise, which we prayed together each evening.
We also gave the teens an assignment, to memorize the Magnificat over the course of our time, so that its message could form their spiritual lives. One beautiful evening of the trip, we were walking up 14th Street, on our way back to our dorm from a concert on the steps of the Capitol. Unprompted, a few of our girls joined hands, and started to recite the Magnificat together as they walked down the street. “He has put down the mighty from their seats, and has lifted up the lowly,” they chanted. “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” We were just past the Willard Hotel, about a block from the White House, and on the sidewalks, filled with tourists from every part of the world, all eyes turned to the girls. Now they may have just been trying to learn the lines, but knowing those particular girls well, I think there was something more to it.
It’s one thing to hear those words, sweetly sung by a choir through a wreath of incense in a beautiful church. It’s another thing to hear them at the heart of the world’s most powerful city, against the backdrop of the offices of topflight lobbying firms, with secret service agents subtly making their rounds through the crowd. There was something subversive to it, this joyful announcement of God’s eternal kingdom in such a place. If people really understood them, without our free speech laws, I wondered, would the girls have been silenced? When Reginald Heber was sent off to serve as the first Anglican bishop of Calcutta in 1823, the East India Company allowed him in on condition that the Magnificat not be used in the Cathedral’s liturgies. It was just a bit too dangerous for public use.
That scene on 14th Street was so poignant, at least for me, because it brought ultimate questions to the forefront. Who holds the real power over the nations of the earth? Whose justice will ultimately prevail? Whom, above all, do you serve?
In these ways, that scene not far from here is much like the scene described in our Gospel, when Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and asked them “Who do you say that I am?” The location is deeply important. First, Caesarea Philippi was in far Northern Palestine, in a mostly Gentile area. The city also had an important past. Caesarea’s ancient name was Panias, and legend had it that the god pan was born in a grotto at the heart of the city. Pan was the king of the nymphs and fairies, a fertility god worshiped all over the ancient world. Half-man, half-goat, he was associated with intoxication, sexual license and the carefree life of the shepherd. A few decades before Jesus and his disciples made their visit, the nominally Jewish local king, Herod Philip, had rebuilt the city and renamed for Caesar Augustus, acclaimed as a demigod, the founder of the Roman Empire. The city was crowded with pagan temples, and its highest hill was capped by a marble shrine to Caesar, trimmed in gold. This is a city that represents both debauchery and iron-fisted power, a kind of cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang.
Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, and maybe he gestures at the panorama behind Him. There are alternatives, you see. The scene is perhaps most reminiscent of that moment in St. Matthew’s Gospel when Satan tempts Jesus by taking him up to a high hill and showing him all the kingdoms of the world. Whom do you choose? What will you worship? How will you live?
It’s interesting that these very Jewish disciples give Jesus very Jewish answers to his question. Some say you are John the Baptist, they note, others Elijah. And even Peter’s answer is rooted deeply in Israel’s hope. “You are the Messiah,” he says, the deliverer promised by the ancient prophets. You have come to restore God’s people, he means, and to forgive their sins. Of course, Peter has spoken the truth. And for now, that is enough. Jesus orders to tell no one what they have perceived.
But in time, when Jesus is fully revealed through His death and resurrection, these same disciples will be sent to speak of Him openly. At the end of this Gospel, He commissions them to preach the word about Him “to every creature.” They will go back to places like Caesarea, among those who openly worship other gods. They will speak subversive things in His name, and their words will open the door to sincere faith in some and to unremitting hostility in others.
If you would be my disciple, He goes on to say, if you have truly believed and commit yourself to my way, you must take up your cross and follow after me. If you bear witness to me, He means, if you speak the truth and stand fast, you will suffer as I will suffer. And of course, they all did suffer, and mostly in public places where all eyes were turned toward them. James, the first of them to die, was thrown from the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem—talk about death in a symbolic place. Peter, rebuked this day at Caesarea, would be crucified at the heart of Rome itself, upside down on the Vatican Hill.
Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” can only be answered with inner conviction. It demands serious thought, and a heartfelt commitment. But we deceive ourselves if we think the religion of Christ is essentially a private matter, relevant only to our opinions and emotions. Jesus must be confessed, the cross must be taken up. And confessions and crosses are intensely public things.
We answer His question, “Who do you say that I am?” here, week by week, when we acclaim Him as the true God, the long-promised Messiah. “For you alone are the Holy One,” we say in the Gloria, “you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high.” “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,” answers the Creed. Our common worship is so important because it centers us in what is truly lasting and significant. It reminds that the Triune God alone deserves our fullest love and most obedient service.
And true worship then leads us directly to discipleship. If Jesus is only a remarkable teacher or a distant hero, it sufficient to admire Him. But if he is the promised Messiah, God’s only Son, our final judge, then He must be obeyed. Those who are ashamed of me in this generation,” He warns us, “of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father.” We show our shame of Christ when we hide our commitment to Him, when we shrink back from the challenge of His way. When we just keep our heads down and politely demur, we are actually turning away from him, forsaking His Cross, the faithful disciples’ burden.
I know that it’s not easy here. One you told me this week that I had moved to the “world’s capital of worldliness.” Another of you said a few weeks ago that he didn’t think I could bless his workplace, but I might want to think about performing an exorcism from out in the parking lot. I know he was joking, but not entirely. Many of you live in a world dominated by false gods, the Pans and Caesars of our times. And that precisely is where Christ asks you “Who do you say that I am?” “Will you take up the Cross?” In the way that power is used around you, in the way people talk about the vulnerable and the weak, in the face of pressure to bend the truth, are you confessing Christ? Are you taking up the cross when money calls the shots, when sex is used as a tool and a weapon, when angry outbursts are used as a negotiating technique?
Know that when you must speak out and bear scorn for it, you do not stand alone. Think back to those teenagers walking up Fourteenth Street chanting the Magnificat—they were hand in hand. You are but one small part of that “company of all faithful people,” sustained by Christ’s risen power, united in prayer, nourished by His Body and Blood. A hundred thousand martyrs have trod the path before you and the journey ends in glory. He who asks the question gives the strength to make the faithful answer. “Who do you say that I am?”