If you’ve been following along, you know that these blog posts have all centered on the sermon series “The Dirt Under His Nails” at Tri-State Fellowship. Following the message “How far is Heaven?,” we’ve looked at the way culture has a longing for “home.”
One of the ways people look for that sense of grounding, or “home” is to connect with the spiritual side of things. And indeed, when we looked at the scene in Luke 11:18-20 on Sunday, we found Jesus standing in the middle of a place that was full of rival religious traditions.
We know from the parallel texts that Jesus and His disciples were standing in a place known as Caeserea Philippi. It contained one of the largest natural springs to feed the Jordan River, which made the whole region a very lush, beautiful place – you’d almost confuse it for a tropical vacation spot.
Though many gods were worshipped there (included variations of Ba’al in the Old Testament period), the site was best known for the worship of the Greek god “Pan.”
The spring emerged from the large cave which became the center of pagan worship. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C., sacrifices were cast into the cave as offerings to the god Pan. Pan was the half-man, half-goat god of fear or fright (where we get the word “panic”). He is often depicted playing the flute.
Sacrifices were made to Pan, dating back roughly to the third century B.C. The caves surrounding the lush region featured various “sacred niches” in which sacrifices were made, and many sculptures of Pan and his family were found.
And this was the setting in which Jesus turned to His disciples and asked: “Who do men say that I am?” They stood not far from a tropical paradise, a place dominated by many rival religions. Suddenly, what the disciples thought about Jesus really mattered. Ultimately, what Jesus was most concerned with was not public opinion, but personal confession: “Who do you say that I am?”
21st CENTURY SACRED NICHES
Today’s world features many of its own “sacred niches.” We live in a world of many different religious expressions. We call it “pluralism.” Positively, this means that we can celebrate the freedom for various ideas to be expressed. Negatively, however, we must concede that this reflects a culture that says: “I reserve absolute authority to decide what I believe is true.”
But Jesus does not let us do this. In this passage, Jesus wants priority not only over other religions, not only over the way we view other religions, but over our views toward Him personally.
This was something that the early church had to wrestle with, especially as so many of its own members were being tortured and ripped apart by lions as a form of public spectacle. What would possess so many to give their lives in this manner were it not true? If all religions are superficially different yet fundamentally equal, why not take a simpler path, one that does not lead to the humiliation and agony of Christ’s cross?
When we speak of the way God communicates, we use the word “revelation.” You most likely recognize the root word “reveal” in this word. One of the ways that God reveals Himself is through nature: creation itself testifies to the presence of a Creator.
For some in the early church, such as the apostle Paul, the testimony of this so-called “natural revelation” was sufficient to give man responsibility toward his Creator. Which ultimately meant that it was sufficient to condemn, but never to bring life.
But later we meet a man named Justin Martyr, a name he earned posthumously in the mid-second century. Justin was a well-educated man. In reading John’s account that Jesus was the logos, or “Word” of God, Justin came to believe in Jesus. Justin believed that the logos of God, embodied in Jesus, was the same as the logos, or wisdom, of secular philosophy.
Which meant something different for Justin: contrary to some other writers of his day, Justin believed that man could not be saved through the testimony of nature but the revealed person of Christ. And because Jesus was intimately connected to – nay, the embodiment of – logos and reason, anyone who lives according to reason (he listed Socrates as an example) was considered a Christian. For Justin, Jesus is Jesus is “the Word of whom all humanity has a share, and those who live according to the Logos are therefore Christians..” (Justin Martyr, Apologia, I.xlvi. 1-3)
THE PATH OF BEAUTY
Justin was a brilliant man, whose focus on Jesus was admirable, though ultimately falls slightly short. Yes, people come to saving faith in Jesus, but not merely through ideas about Him or through the principles of reason itself. Justin presupposed a relationship based exclusively on rationality and participation in God’s gift of logic.
In recent years, the Pope has suggested that the via veritatis (“path of truth”) might be found in the via pulchritudinous (“path of beauty”). That is, beauty leads us to truth.
This isn’t exactly new. Jewish writings outside the record of the Bible hint at the possibility of learning God’s character through the testimony of beauty (Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-9). Though such writings aren’t part of what the church affirmed to be God’s actual voice, they do reveal that many Jewish scholars believed that beauty draws man’s gaze heavenward.
But what about Jesus?
Isaiah’s prophecies, which ultimately point toward Jesus, tell us that Jesus “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). He worked as some sort of carpenter – could you tell whose furniture had been crafted by the Savior of the world, or was it all just sort of ordinary?
I’m really not quite sure.
But the beauty of Jesus was not in outward appearance any more than in His internal wisdom. The beauty found in Jesus was the fact that He offered a way of grace.
Jesus asks each of us to stand with Him in Caeserea Philippi. Jesus asks us to survey the spectrum of religious thought. And finally, Jesus asks us to come to grips with what we believe about Him. Every religious system – then and now – asks us to earn our place before God. The beauty of Christianity is that it’s the only faith system where God comes down to us.
THE LONGING FOR UNITY
In his excellent book, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, Leslie Newbigin suggests that within humanity is a “longing for unity:”
“[U]nity offers the promise of peace. The problem is that we want unity on our terms, and it is our rival programs for unity which tear us apart. As Augustine said, all wars are fought for the sake of peace. …It is not easy to resist the contemporary tide of thinking and feeling which seems to sweep us irresistibly in the direction of an acceptance of religious pluralism, and away from any confident affirmation of the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ …There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim …When the answer is ‘We want the unity of humankind so that we may be saved from disaster,’ the answer must be, ‘We also want that unity, and therefore seek the truth by which alone humankind can become one.’ That truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience; it is certainly not to be found by repeating abstract nouns like justice and love; it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The truth is personal, concrete, historical.” (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 159-61, 168-70)
All that to say that Jesus’ message is deeply personal. The religious terms and symbols that compose the Christian faith are hardly meaningless; they lead us to a deeper, truer understanding of who Jesus was, is, and shall be.
Which means that each of us has to ask the question of who we say that Jesus is – not only for our own sakes, but also for the sake of the world.