This week’s readings are here.
A map of Northern Palestine in the time of Jesus is here.
In last week’s gospel, Jesus traveled from Galilee to Tyre. He then traveled north to Sidon, before heading back toward the Sea of Galilee. But he went beyond the Jordan to the region of the Decapolis. He then seems to head north for Bethsaida on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee is mention in Mark 8, before moving further to Caesarea Philippi. While Galilee continues to be the base of his activity, he is moving beyond it in three directions, west, east, and north.
Caesarea Philippi is the location of today’s gospel. A city that was founded by the Herods, it was named in honor of their patron, Caesar Augustus. It was a Roman city, dedicated to the emperor, to Rome’s gods, and to Roman power.
For Jesus to come to this region under the looming shadow of the Roman Imperium, and ask here, “Who do people say that I am?” was to set up a sharp contrast between himself, Rome, and the sort of political Messianism that was dominant among Palestinian Jews of the day.
“Who do people say that I am?” The answers came easily off the disciples’ lips–Elijah, John the Baptist, a prophet. Then Jesus asked those who had been following him for the past months, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter responded with his famous confession, “You are the Messiah.” It’s a word we’ve not seen in Mark since the first verses of the gospel and it’s not at all clear what Peter meant by his confession. Certainly Jesus had not acted in conformity to contemporary messianic expectations. And what comes next further shatters those expectations. Jesus predicts his suffering and death, a statement which Peter contradicts and for which Jesus rebukes him.
Then comes another symbol of Imperial Rome. Jesus tells his followers that if they would be his disciples, they must take up their cross and follow him. The cross was a symbol of Roman power and ruthlessness. The cross was reserved for the worst offenders, for revolutionaries and the like. Crosses loomed on the outskirts of towns and cities to show everyone what the consequences of resisting Rome’s power would be.
The community for whom Mark was writing probably knew all too well what the consequences for following Jesus were: Persecution, execution. They didn’t belong to a group that had access to the corridors of power. Their struggles didn’t have to do with whether they could pray in public. Following Jesus was life or death.
It’s hard for us to imagine, hard for us to conceive of what it might mean to follow Jesus in the ways that Mark understood discipleship. For us, it’s enough to come to church when it’s convenient, to throw a few dollars in the collection plate, to volunteer to help in a food pantry or homeless shelter. But if we confess Jesus to be the Christ, Mark’s challenge should stand before us as a symbol of what discipleship means. To follow Christ means accepting his lordship, following his way to the cross, and rejecting the power and the powers of this world.