He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
– Mark 8:29
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
– W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Perhaps the most beautiful question Jesus ever asked his disciples is found at the very center of the Gospel of Mark. In ancient Jewish literature, the key to a story’s meaning is often found in the middle of the story rather than the end, as is often the case in Western storytelling. This emphasis on the center is most obvious in Jewish “chiastic” poetry, often found in the Psalms; the very center of the poem gives the main point. For the Jewish storyteller, each story has a “sacred center” that contains its unique treasure of meaning.
The Gospel of Mark contains sixteen chapters, so if we follow the notion of the “sacred center” with our lectionary text this week, something really important might be found around Chapter 8. There we find Jesus in Caesarea Philippi. What is so special about this place, and why does Jesus choose it to ask such a beautiful and important question of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
If you look at a map of the time, it will show Caesarea Philippi to be at the extreme northern border of Jesus’s ministry, and as far as we know, he never ventured further away from Jerusalem than this point. Perhaps there are some questions that can only be asked in certain places? Why didn’t Jesus save this riveting question for Jerusalem, the sacred center of an entire culture? Perhaps because a place like Jerusalem would have elicited a different answer. There, an entire history and culture would have weighed in, making it an unfair place for the disciples to consider the full possibilities of Jesus’s identity. It seems that Jesus knew that his disciples needed to be removed from that context in order to even consider anything other than prevailing viewpoints, unexamined assumptions, and accepted norms.
This is a core principle of the vision trips that Street Psalms hosts around the world. It is this journey to “Caesarea Philippi” for groups from far away places that provide the same kind of space that Jesus gave his disciples before posing his all-important question to them. Perhaps we today, like the disciples 2,000 years ago, simply cannot consider certain questions amid the sacred centers of our personal upbringing or respective denominational camps because those places tend to answer the questions for us. The question of “Who do you say that I am?” sounds very different when asked in a cemetery overlooking 3,000 people working in a garbage dump to scratch out a meager existence than it does from the comfort of a Sunday School classroom.
Jesus saves his highest and holiest question for a place on the northernmost edge of his ministry, furthest away from all that is most sacred to his disciples. In the same way, God takes us through circumstances far “north” of our sacred centers of understanding and experience to pose what may be the most vital questions. God holds in reserve the highest and holiest questions for remote and sometimes dark places at the edge of our own cultural, physical, theological, emotional, and spiritual maps.
Not only in this text, but also in our personal lives and in the dynamics of our communities, we can see the severe mercy of God de-centering and re-centering. When things fall apart – when centers we cherish as sacred and secure “cannot hold,” to use Yeats’s poetic image – there is invariably the possibility for new and life-giving sight.
What does the place of “Caesarea Philippi” represent for you this week? Where is the northernmost place that God has taken (or is taking) you, and how do you answer the question in Mark 8 differently because of where you have been or are going? How has your personal journey opened your eyes to a deeper encounter of who Jesus is?
Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke
Adapted by Joel Van Dyke, Director of Urban Training Collaborative, from Geography of Grace
Featured photo: View from the cemetery overlooking the largest dump in Latin America (Stephanie Dunlap, Street Psalms)