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"Talking Life in the Land of the Dead" - 12th Sunday after Pentecost - August 23, 2020

I. Misquoting Irenaeus

Today, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, is the feast day of St. Irenaeus. A Greek bishop, theologian, and martyr – who is believed to have heard John the Evangelist teach. And there is this quote from Irenaeus that you may have heard or seen before…it goes like this:

“The glory of God is a human fully alive.”

It’s often quoted by spiritual authors and conference leaders. If you were to do a quick Google image search you’d see it written across the page in a cool font with an accompanying photo of someone rock climbing, or swimming in the ocean, or jumping in the middle of a field (like you do), or standing at the top of a mountain or sea side at sunset with arms raised in a V. The glory of God is a human fully alive. Now, if you’re a mountain climber, or deep-sea diver, or if you just happen to be a person who occasionally enjoys running and jumping in some random field – more power to you. The risk, the adventure, the deep plunge or ascent into some pocket of creation is good and holy…it reminds me of another quote from the film Chariots of Fire, when Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell says, “I know God made for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.” So…sure, we can feel some sacred connection and pleasure in those things. But when we see that Irenaeus quote along side those manufactured images I think what it can give us is this idea that the glory of God is discovered in our being adrenaline junkies, or that “aliveness” – that “full life” looks something like that...

Which is all well and good, but what if you’re a parent trying to raise kids, work a full-time job, and navigate a monthly budget with your spouse? What does “aliveness” look like then? What if you’re a person with physical or financial limitations and you can’t afford to find God in the middle of your personal Patagonia commercial? What does a “full life” look like then?

Well the good news is…we’ve misquoted old Irenaeus and missed what he was writing about those centuries ago. But before we revisit that, we need to walk with the disciples through Caesarea Philippi – because it might show us what “aliveness” and a “full life” looks like.

II. A Walk-through Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi, it’s curious that Matthew makes mention of this specific location. Because while the disciples were walking with Jesus through Caesarea Philippi they would have been taking in some interesting sites. First, there were the remnants of these ancient carved structures carved out of the limestone bedrock, weathered by time and partly covered by wild vegetation but the roughly hewn image was still visible…Baal – fertility god of the Canaanites; next were these dilapidating temples – constructed by Alexander the Great in his Hellenistic conquest in honor of the Greek god Pan – the god of wild and desolate places; and as they made their way through this town a little more they came in contact with these shrines – in honor of Caesar, inscribed on the shrine was Divi Filius (son of god – because the Romans believed Caesar to be just that), and last they heard a river running alongside them – but not just any river, this river was fed by an underground spring believed by the Greeks to be the gateway to Hades and by the Romans the entrance to the land of the dead.

III. “Quiz time” for the disciples

And it is here…in this place where Jesus stops walking, turns around, and asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?”

They all pause, scratch their heads, bit of an awkward silence and a few of them mutter, “Well some say you are John the Baptists and some think Elijah and others that you are Jeremiah…” Which isn’t bad, in fact at the time it was high praise…to be considered the return of a revered prophet. But then…Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

Well if it was awkwardly silent before, this is even worse. No one knows what to say…no one wants to say the wrong thing but most likely no one necessarily understood the question. If it were me in this situation, I would have been the guy that was like, “I think I saw a gas station with a bathroom back there…I’ll catch up with yall in a bit.” But then…then Peter speaks. But this isn’t quick tempered Peter, this isn’t foot in the mouth Peter, or impetuous Peter. No, something awakens inside Peter and he sees something the others can’t yet; and Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

IV. Peter’s Confession/Irenaeus Revisited

Can you see it? Do you see what’s happening…?

They are standing amidst the rubble of ancient idols, next to the ruins of pagan temples, in the shadow of shrines ascribing god-like status to a tyrant, and by a river of death and it is in that place where Peter looks at Jesus and says “Oh…I know who you are…You are the Messiah, the Son of the LIVING God.” THE LIVING GOD.

Which is so strange because since he was a little boy, Peter was taught that the Messiah would be someone strong, fierce, someone who would wield the sword against all of Israel’s enemies, re-establish Israel’s position of power in the world – in other words he’d look like a Canaanite warlord, he’d look like Alexander the Great, he’d look like Caesar…not look like Jesus, not look like an iterant rabbi, who spends his time with lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and drunkards – dancing at weddings, telling stories, allowing women and children into his inner circle and inviting people to love God with all their heart, mind, and soul and their neighbor as themselves…

That’s not the Messiah Peter was taught about.

You see I think Peter, in that moment standing in the shadow of false gods and in the ruins of temples constructed by men who tried to conquer the world now long dead saw in Jesus LIFE, in Jesus he didn’t see a man trying to conquer the world through power but transform the world through love. I believe he saw in Jesus, for the first time, the heart of God and it made Peter come ALIVE. He saw it…and speaking of seeing…

You know what old St. Irenaeus really wrote all those years ago….?

For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of the human being consists in beholding God…for the glory of the human being is God.

“…the life of the human being consists in beholding God…”

Peter beheld God in Jesus and he came alive. And you know why Jesus has the gall to stand by this river – the gateway to Hades – and say in response, what I’m doing not even the “gates of Hades will prevail against it…” meaning not even death can defeat it, you know why Jesus has the gall to do that?

Because just as Peter beheld God in the life of Jesus and it made him come alive…people will behold Jesus in the life of Peter, and they’ll come alive.

Where do you behold God in your life right now? We may not live in Caesarea Philippi, but we have no shortage of images that distract us, temples and shrines of human making, whether they be figurative or literal, that vie for our attention and devotion. So, where do you behold God? Because wherever and however that happens, I believe that is where we encounter Jesus, that is where we join Peter in his confession and say, “Oh I know who you are Jesus…YOU.ARE.LIFE.” And just as Peter beheld God in the life of Jesus and people beheld Jesus in the life of Peter – people will behold Jesus in our lives too. Yes, even in our messy, imperfect, complicated lives – they ‘ll see it. They will behold.

And that, my friends, is a human being fully alive.


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