If ever there was a contentious political platform, Sunday builds one.
If you are spending any of your screen time watching the two national political conventions, you are being rewarded with lots of partisan speeches about the goals and priorities of each party. For whom or what will they fight? Where will they invest our country’s capital? Who will they put in front of the camera? Who are their enemies? How far will they go to either attain or hold the Resolute Desk? Which party platform aligns with your personal priorities? But on Sunday, we won’t be talking about the platforms of the dueling political parties, each seeking our vote in the fall. We will be talking about the political platform on which Jesus stands in Matthew 16.
Here’s how the story starts: “Now, when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi . . .”
Ever heard of it? A region called Caesarea Philippi? I have. I’ve been there. Caesarea Philippi sits about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. It has a storied political and religious past. First established as a monument to the god Pan, it became a magnet for worship of a multiplicity of pagan gods. To this day, you can see niches carved into rock that once protected statues of local deities. It also served as a summer home for wealthy Roman generals (think Lake Geneva for the Joint Chiefs of Staff) who, on occasion, entertained themselves there on cool summer nights by having political rivals or prisoners publicly murdered for sport. And then there’s the name: “Caesarea” for Caesar Augustus and “Philippi” for Emperor Philipp. (Wouldn’t you love to name a town after yourself? And, no, Postville, Iowa, is not my hometown.)
Think of it. As Sunday’s gospel opens, Jesus commands a political platform erected on ground saturated with pagan worship, political intrigue, royal hubris, military violence and innocent blood. And we thought our political fights were rough.
It is from that complicated political/military/religious platform that Jesus asks his disciples to claim their allegiance. First he asks, “Who do the people say that I am?” and second, “Who do YOU say that I am.” In other words, “Here, on this contested piece of real estate, who will you worship? Who will you trust?”
He might ask us the same. Who do we worship? Who do we trust? And how might our understanding of who he is impact the way we live, the way we vote?
Long ago, we lost the ability to differentiate “political” from “partisan.” Those of us who are faithful to scripture cannot help but be “political” because Jesus was. Preachers struggle during election seasons like this because no matter what we say, someone will accuse us of using our platform for partisan purposes. I once, in a previous parish, said the word “president” in a sermon, and was lambasted at the door for foisting my political views from the pulpit. I once was accused of rewriting scripture for my own purposes when reading the Magnificat, “The powerful will be dethroned and the lowly will be lifted.” (Luke 1.52) “Socialism! The Bible doesn’t say that!” I was informed. Take it up with the Virgin.
The AAUW (American Association of University Women) draws the distinction this way: Political work can be characterized by shared values, working toward a common goal, and an end result that is best for the community as a whole. Partisan activities have a firm adherence to a party, faction, or person.
Jesus was not “partisan,” but he was shamelessly “political.” He was all about creating community, protecting the vulnerable, using resources for good. It was his highly political nature that got him in trouble with the authorities who wanted him to take sides, to align, to salute, to be partisan. Authorities, both religious and political, wanted him to adopt their platforms—a particular way of worshipping, of teaching, of living. But Jesus would not. And for shamelessly advocating and advancing God’s greater good, he was assassinated by both religious and political enemies.
These are exciting, fraught days in our common life. We both hope and fear in equal measure. We assess the political winds, hoping they will blow our country and communities toward health and peace and purpose. Whom do we worship? Who do we trust? Where does our allegiance lie?
I invite you to join me for remote worship on Sunday, where Jesus will climb the platform at Caesarea Philippi and preach.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post