Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. In Caesarea Philippi there was a huge temple of white marble built by King Herod and dedicated to Caesar Augustus, hailing him as a god. You could see the glistening white temple for miles around. Now, imagine the scene. Jesus, a humble man from among the people, giving them hope and encouragement. Around him his followers, very ordinary men, fishermen, tax-collectors, the like. You wonder, was it deliberately here that Jesus asked his followers who they believed in, who they trusted, where they pinned their allegiance. Was it to him or to the glittering powers of the day symbolised by the pagan temple?
It must have seemed that power would be found in the pagan temple, linked to the Roman Empire and the king. But they are no more than a footnote in history. Jesus turned to his weary, footsore band of fellow-pilgrims and said, in effect: choose. It was a huge leap of faith. The ministry of Jesus must have seemed a fragile thing, that could be swept away at any moment. In fact, a year or so later, Herod and Pilate thought that they had managed to do just that.
But Peter sees that Jesus is the Christ. The long-awaited promises of the coming of the Messiah are being fulfilled. Peter and the other disciples, despite their weaknesses, will be rock-like foundations for the Church, on which God can build. Their faith and love must seem so little against the powerful forces of the world. It must feel the same today for the beleaguered Christians of Iraq. When I see the masked faces of gunmen or evil executioners like those who killed James Foley this week, I see people who think that they have power. But then you have to ask yourself, why do they keep their faces covered? If they are so powerful, why hide their identity? It is because, deep down, they are afraid. Indeed, I would go further and say that despite the swashbuckling with guns, they are cowards.
The men with masked faces and Kalashnikovs will learn the hard way that earthly power comes and goes, like that pagan temple. But the City of God goes on eternally. I would also remind them of the words of the one who had so little power that he hung upon a cross:
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
These words come from true strength. These words come from a faith that endures. The men with the masked faces will create nothing. They can only destroy. True strength comes from the faith that creates justice, love and integrity. Only if we have these then we can build under God that which endures