Grace Lutheran Church Chancel Choir, Tallahassee,
“Built On A Rock the Church Shall Stand” Oct. 30, 2011.

P. The Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew the 16th Chapter.
C. Glory to you, O Lord.
At a climactic point in Jesus’ ministry, God reveals to Peter that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son
of the living God,” and Jesus responds with the promise of a church that will overcome the very
gates of Hades.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do
people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others
Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you
say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not
revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I
will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys
of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
P. The gospel of the Lord.
C. Praise to you, O Christ.

Sunday’s lectionary reading (for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost) was deep, one of the foundational texts of the Christian religion. Not only that, but it gave me a new way of thinking about the keys of the kingdom, one that goes deeper than the cartoons of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates with a big keychain.

“Not like the keys to heaven, to keep people out,” suggested our pastor (at 21:40 in this video of Sunday’s service). “More like the keys to the car.”

That one I’ll have to think about (and I suspect I’ll have fun doing it)!

The hymn for the day was one that’s meant a lot to me, too. “Built on a Rock,” with words by Danish poet N.F.S. Grundtvig (translated by Carl Døving of my grandfather Ellertsen’s old Norwegian Lutheran Synod), sung to the haunting Norwegian folk tune KIRKEN DEN ER ET GAMMELT HUS (the church is an ancient house) in D minor collected in the 1840s by Ludvig Lindeman:

Built on the Rock, the church shall stand
even when steeples are falling;
Christ builds His church in ev’ry land;
bells still are chiming and calling …

God’s temple may be “high in the heav’ns,” according to Grundtvig’s hymn, but God resides in each of us by declaration of faith:

Yet He who dwells in heav’n above
chooses to live with us in love,
making our body His temple.

Or, to bend the metaphor a little, God chooses to give us the keys to the car.

So I decided even before the service was over, this would be a good one to journal about. I’ve been following a general outline for lectio divina suggested by Fr. James Martin SJ, that suggests we read, meditate (or think), pray and act on a passage from scripture. So in preparation for the exercise, I started reading up on the passage.

And what I found out sent me off in a totally new direction. Following Fr. Martin’s rubric, it went like this:

Read. I was already familiar with the story. Jesus asks his disciples who do people say he is. John the Baptist, they reply. Or Elijah, Jeremiah or another prophet. And who do they say he is. They hem and haw, and St. Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the living son of God.” So Jesus, showing a weakness for puns I have to admire, replies, you are Peter and on this rock (petra) I will build my assembly, or church. With that, Jesus gives him the keys to the kingdom.

I knew about Peter’s confession of faith, as it is called, but what I didn’t realize was that he and Jesus had this conversation at (or on the road leading up to) a pagan shrine to the Greek god Pan and a temple dedicated to the Roman emperor. I’m not sure it changes my interpretation of the story, but it certainly gives me more to think about. Perhaps especially at a time when so many steeples appear to be falling.

Think. Peter’s confession, I learned as I read up on it, takes place at Caesarea Philippi shortly before Jesus and the disciples will go the last time to Jerusalem.

They’re about 25 miles north of the sea of Galilee, where the Roman tetrarch Herod Philip, son of Herod the Great, set up his administrative headquarters next to a Roman temple his father dedicated to Tiberius Caesar, the son of Caesar Augustus, and a Graeco-Roman shrine to Pan, the patron of pagan herdsmen and hunters. It stood at the base of a rock cliff above a cavern where a tributary of the Jordan River flowed out of a grotto.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic closed Israel to tourism, according to Israeli tour guide Gil Zohar, it “was a site where Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews would come to revile the vestiges of paganism.” And, he says in a travel piece on the Religion Unplugged website, there was plenty there for them to revile. Before Greek civilization reached the hills north of Galilee, the area had been a center of Ba’al worship, and sacrifices were offered there. Zohar says fertility rites dedicated to the goat-god Pan were practiced there.

“Caesarea Philippi was infamous for its ritual sex, and Jews would have avoided any exposure to the debauched erotic spectacles put on there,” he says. “It was a city of people eagerly knocking on the doors of hell. Thus Jesus challenged his followers to storm the gates of Hades.”

Other accounts are more restrained than Zohar’s, and I suspect they are more true to Syrophoenician history, although the Israeli park service has a sign up at the site suggesting animal sacrifices.

Andrea Berlin, who reported on an archaeological dig at the site, suggests that ritual activity at Caesarea Philippi was most likely to involve the dedication of food offerings to Pan as a god of hunting and rural life in general. “The preparation and consumption of food and drink at the sanctuary might be characterized as ‘ritual dining,’ but it could also be interpreted, more informally, as picnicking,” she adds in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

After the Romans set up their nearby administrative center, according to Berlin, “the sanctuary was transformed from a rural to an urban cult, its prestige and reputation connected to that of the new capital city.” But offering food to the gods or “giving the token offering of a lamp to either Augustus or Pan” seem to have been the primary activities at the shrine.

Whatever the pagan practices may have been at Caesarea Philippi, the Franciscans who serve as official custodians of the Holy Land (Custodia Terræ Sanctæ) suggest that Jesus chose to announce the establishment of the church there for good reason.

“The Lord Jesus wished that his identity as Messiah would not be misunderstood and wanted to know how the people and the pagans identified him,” says Fr. Giuseppe Gaffurini OFM, Curator of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre . He explains:

That is, it would have been an open Church, with an open identity of Jesus and an identity of Peter and of the Church itself, very open. These two themes, the divinity of Christ and the primacy of Peter, are today the terms of discussion of ecumenical dialogue between Christian confessions and interreligious dialogue with other religious confessions, ready to recognize in Jesus a prophet, a messiah, but certainly not his divinity “.

Most fascinating of all, perhaps, John Francis Wilson of Pepperdine University suggests the story of Jesus’ and Peter’s exchange in Caesarea Philippi may reflect a very early oral tradition, “a collection of Jesus-traditions belonging to the apocalyptic Jewish-Christian community centered in the region of Caesarea Philippi” that was incorporated into the gospel of St. Matthew.

“During and following the revolt [of 66-70 CE],” Wilson suggests, “other communities of Jesus people, displaced by the war, fled from southern Galilee and later from Judea, into the region of Caesarea Philippi, bringing their own contributions to the growing Synoptic [gospel] tradition.” He also posits the stories of the Transfiguration, with Jesus appearing on a mountain with Moses and Elijah, belong to that early oral tradition.

I haven’t made up my mind about any of this, and I want to reread Wilson’s article in detail. It’s in a journal published by the Westar Institute, which publishes research by the Jesus Seminar, and anything that brings me closer to the historical Jesus is something I want to follow up on.

In the meantime, I can see how Jewish fishermen who followed Jesus up from Galilee would have been uncomfortable with Caesarea Philippi. Seeing a temple dedicated to the Roman emperor right next to a pagan grotto of the goat-god Pan must have been a double whammy. But after reading up on it, I’ve decided the setting has more to do with Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven than anything else.

And I very much like Fr. Gaffurini’s idea of an “open church and an open identity” of Jesus and St. Peter.

A lot more there to think about.

Pray. At this stage of my spiritual journey, I’m most comfortable with a Jesuit exercise called Ignatian contemplation (after St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the order). Again, I rely on Fr. Martin, who says in an America magazine interview it’s simply “using your imagination to place yourself in a scene from Scripture, or with Jesus.”

When I try Ignatian contemplation on the story of the confession of St. Peter, I imagine myself as a follower of Jesus. Not a disciple, but younger, what in our culture today we would call a teenager. Perhaps a nephew of Peter or Andrew from Bethsaida, close enough to the action to observe it but not close enough to get my name in the gospels.

So as we set off from Bethsaida headed north, I’m tagging along. It’s a nice day in the late winter or early spring, green shoots beginning to show along the roadside as we climb into the foothills. When we get up to Caesarea Philippi, I love the hills and the cool air. We have a lot of distance to cover, a day’s journey by foot, and we’re walking along pretty steadily. So we don’t have much time for conversation along the way. When we get up to Caesarea Philippi, we stop and take it all in. The big white temple to Augustus next to cliff, and a cluster of smaller buildings below. It’s bigger than Bethsaida and Capernaum, but frankly I’m not impressed. We have some fancy temples in Bethsaida, but as far as I’m concerned the Romans waste too much money on them.

While we’re standing there at the outskirts of town, I notice Jesus engaging Uncle Peter in conversation. I edge closer, and I hear him telling Jesus that people take him for John the Baptist or Elijah. So Jesus asks, so who do you say I am, and Peter says he’s the Messiah.

I think we’ve all figured that, and Peter, as usual, blurts it out. That’s going to get him in trouble someday, if he doesn’t watch out.

This is getting interesting, so I edge up closer to hear Jesus say Peter’s a rock and on this rock he’s gonna build his church, or assembly, or whatever it is. He’s kind of pointing over to the rocky cliff above that Roman temple, and making sure we all know he’s talking about Peter. He’s the rock, and on this rock, not that one over there, we’re going to build the church. Whatever a church is.

Well, that’s obvious. We’re Jews. We’re not going to be building any Roman temples. But whatever it is we’re gonna build, it’s going to be grand …

And so it goes … but there’s something missing here.

Act. I can’t get those Syrophoenician herdsmen who left potsherds behind for Andrea Berlin’s archaeologists out of my mind. Even if there were pagans committing unspeakable acts with goats to ensure fertility, as tour guides like Gil Zohar suggest, there’s something altogether lovely about the idea of local villagers picnicking next to a source of the Jordan River and dedicating food offerings to a pagan god of hunting and fertility. Besides, according to Thomas Sakoulas of SUNY Oneonta, at least in Greece the “usual offerings to Pan were milk and honey in shepherds’ bowls.” Something deep within me wants to honor their beliefs.

In fact, something deep within me tells me I am called by my own faith to honor them. Krister Stendahl, a various times in his career a theologian, the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm and dean of Harvard Divinity School, once proclaimed three “rules of religious understanding.” They are:

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

I’ve never been sure exactly what Stendahl meant by “holy envy.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, who wrote a book with that title, took as good a stab at it as any in an excerpt published in Christian Century — suggesting “the Golden Rule includes honoring the neighbor’s religion as they would have the neighbor honor theirs”). Whatever else it means, I know it means I can’t put myself in the mindset of a Galilean fisherman of the first century CE without stifling an ecumenical impulse that’s important to me.

So what would happen if I stepped into a DeLorean, like a character in Back to the Future, and took myself back to first-century Caesarea Philippi with my 21st-century sensibilities intact?

Would I encounter the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith?

I suspect I’d encounter both.

And I suspect they’d lead me somewhere not far distant from Fr. Gaffurini of the Custodia Terræ Sanctæ, when he speaks of “an open Church, with an open identity of Jesus and an identity of Peter and of the Church itself, very open.”

[Rev. Aug. 27, 2020]

Works Cited

Andrea Berlin, “The Archaeology of Ritual: The Sanctuary of Pan at Banias/Caesarea Philippi,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 315 (August 1999),

Custodia Terræ Sanctæ, “The ancient Caesarea Philippi, the place in which Jesus entrusted Peter with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven,” Christian Media Center, Sept. 10, 2018,-the-place-in-which-jesus-entrusted-peter-with-the-keys-to-the-kingdom-of-heaven.

Thomas Sakoulas, “Pan (or Panas),”,

Barbara Brown Taylor, “My Holy Envy of Other Faith Traditions,” Christian Century, March 7, 2019

John Francis Wilson, “Paneas/Caesarea Philippi and the World of the Gospels,” Forum, third series, 3, no. 1 (Spring 2014), 7-26.

Gil Zohar. “Golan Heights Grotto Revered By Christians And Druze, Reviled As Pagan Site By Jews,” Religion Unplugged, July 31, 2020

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