The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen.
In a month’s time, the dean of this Cathedral, Sam Lloyd, is going to be preaching and celebrating the Eucharist at one of the chapels at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. This chapel is called the Church of the Primacy of Peter. The dean will be celebrating the Eucharist for the participants on the National Cathedral’s Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the “highlights” of any pilgrimage is to spend time around the Sea of Galilee and to celebrate the Eucharist in this holy place.
The venue of the Primacy of Peter is quite spectacular. Located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, this eucharistic site is under the control of the Franciscans who are the custodians of the Holy Places in the Holy Land. The Church was originally built in the fourth century by the Byzantines, it then fell into ruins, but it was rebuilt by the Franciscans in 1933. In the building of the 1933 chapel, the Franciscans incorporated parts of the Byzantine church.
There are two events that are remembered at this Chapel at Tabgha, the Primacy of Peter, remembering Peter’s Great Confession and the breakfast feast recorded in John 21 when Jesus prepares a fish and bread breakfast on a charcoal fire. By the way in the 9th century, this Chapel at Tabgha was called “the Church of the Charcoal.”
Just imagine having your church dedicated, by naming it the Church of the Charcoal. However if your parish were built on the site where the Church remembers Jesus preparing a breakfast on a charcoal fire for his disciples, I bet you would name your church, the Church of the Charcoal as well.
The other dedication given to this Church at Tabgha on the shore of the Galilee is the Church of the Primacy of Peter, the venue of today’s Gospel. It is at this place that the Church remembers Simon Peter’s Great Confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and Jesus’ response, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
At this Church at Tabgha there is a wonderful outcropping of rock that provided the Byzantine Church with both the table for the breakfast feast along with that rock symbolizing the rock, the petros, on which the church was to be built.
But just a moment, the Church of the Primacy of Peter is located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The first verse in the Gospel today reads: “Now Jesus came into the District of Caesarea Philippi.” Caesarea Philippi is located some 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is not in the region of Caesarea Philippi. The site associated with the city of Caesarea Philippi is Banias, a place that is remembered for the worship of the Greek god, Pan.
At Banias there are sheer rock cliffs which were an ideal place for Jesus to make his historic announcement, “On this rock I will build my church.” Peter’s declaration, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” challenges the god Pan and his devotees.
So why would the Church remember the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the Sea of Galilee as the venue of today’s Gospel? After all the site is not even in the region of Caesarea Philippi.
The Byzantines were not trying to mislead anyone by establishing the Primacy there. Instead the Byzantines were being absolutely hospitable to the pilgrims. After all Banias would be an additional two day walk for the pilgrims who were visiting holy places around the Sea of Galilee. As a result the Byzantine Church made it as convenient as possible for the pilgrims to remember the different significant events in our Lord’s life.
While it only takes an hour to drive to Banias today in a tour bus, even today very few pilgrims go that extra hour in both directions to visit the site. So the Byzantine Church provided what we would today call “radical hospitality” as the church remembers the Primacy of Peter as a pilgrimage site for this great confession. There is a wonderful axiom in the Holy Land: holy places move!
Today we will look at Banias and reflect on the Confession at that site. What is interesting about the confession of Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is that this event takes place in Caesarea Philippi which is located on the eastern side of the River Jordan.
Earlier this month [August 3] we reflected from this pulpit on what it meant in the scripture to be on the other side of the river, or outside the land of ancient Israel. It is outside of the land, in Gentile land, that Jesus hears Peter’s confession. It is outside the land that Jesus tells Peter that it is on this rock that he will build his Church.
What is so incredible for me about Peter’s Great Confession and Jesus’ establishment of the church is that both events take place “outside of the land” at a Greek pagan religious site, home of the Greek god Pan. Jesus left the Jewish territory in which he lived in Nazareth and Capernaum and he went into the Gentile, non believing Jewish, world. Jesus went into the unknown. Jesus left his “comfort zone” to establish his church, his community of believers.
This text challenges each of us. How comfortable it is for all of us to minister in our comfort zones. It is easy to minister, to reach out to those who we love and care for and to those who love and care for us. But, Jesus challenges us today to go to the other side of the river, which is not in our comfort zone. Jesus challenges us to get to know those who are totally different than we are, even those who are possibly worshiping in the sanctuary of Pan. Jesus challenges us to dialogue, to have conversation, to get to know those who come from different cultures and traditions than from which we come.
For when we do, we will experience another face of Jesus&30151;a face that is authentic and as real as our own.
Let me conclude by telling a true story. In January, 1999, the Anglican Communion’s Compass Rose Society made a pastoral visit to Kaduna, a city in northern Nigeria that has experienced religious tensions between Christians and Muslims for over thirty years. We have all seen, on our televisions, the Muslim militia and Christian militia fighting each other on the streets of Kano and Kaduna.
In Kaduna the Anglican Church has an absolutely outstanding bishop in the person of Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon. Bishop Josiah introduced the Compass Rose Society to James, today an Assembly of God pastor who had lost his hand to Muslim militants back in 1992. The rhetoric the Compass Rose Society members heard that day was pretty gruesome.
You cannot imagine my surprise and amazement when I attended a meeting last January at Notre Dame and I saw at that conference a DVD entitled “The Imam and the Pastor.” In that documentary was James, the Assembly of God pastor, and Ashafa, the Imam. These two religious leaders had both served in their respective militias, and although neither trusted each other, they agreed in May, 1995, to work together.
James decided to take the risk because in his heart he remembered the commandment “Thou shall not kill”, and Ashafa’s holy book, the Quran, taught him that it is better to turn the evil wound into that which is good. In order to be a true embodiment of the prophet Mohammed, a Muslim must forgive the persecutor.
Both holy books call for forgiveness. Could the gulf between revenge and reconciliation be resolved? At first it was not easy, barriers like religious extremism and economic disparity had to be overcome, but as the two religious leaders got to know each other, a trust relationship grew.
Both leaders recognized at the root of their religious tradition was not violence, but peace.
James and Asahfa have a lot to teach us. They have a lot to teach us about how we live here in this nation, how we relate to others in the global community, and how we relate to those of other faith traditions. How willing are we to do what James and Asahfa have done? To step fully into the life and world of another so different from us that we feel spiritually, emotionally, and perhaps physically uneasy?
There are vast differences and endless diversity in God’s family. But the Gospel calls us to community and peaceful engagement. The Kingdom of God repeatedly encourages us to reach out to our neighbor in the name of peace, even if we experience fear in doing so. James and Ashafa call us to the hard work of reconciliation, reconciliation with people with whom we have little or no contact. Those who make us fearful. Those who might even chop off our hand. This is how the Kingdom of God challenges us to live. It is no wonder that stepping outside our comfort zone is so frightening. But in doing so, we are entering fully into lives through which God makes manifest God’s boundless and radical love for all of God’s family.
“But, who do you say that I am?”
In the Name of God. Amen.