Borders are very strange things. On the one hand, borders are often arbitrary and in some ways imagined. Borders don’t really exist on land. But on the other hand, borders have a huge influence on the way we live and how we understand ourselves. If you fly over the border of Syria and Turkey, you can trace an outline of the border by looking at the refugee camps, over one million people tracing the border. Even here in the U.S. it’s the same. We have slave diaries full of stories of slaves who tried to cross the Ohio River so they couldn’t be sold back into slavery. Somewhere in crossing this river, this river which flows in a completely arbitrary way, your identity changes from slave to free. Borders are imagined, but they have very real consequences.

Caesarea Philippi was one of these border places. To get there you have to go up to the north end of the Sea of Galilee and then go another twenty-five miles up the Jordan River. Jesus spent most of his life in areas that were predominantly Jewish. Caesarea Philippi was not. If Caesarea Philippi was known for anything it was for being the site of a temple dedicated to this pagan god named Pan. It had a few Jews, but not many. It was a space on the border. Between what Jesus and the disciples knew,
what they were familiar with, and what they didn’t.

As they were walking on the shore, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" Now you could read that question and think that this is a setup. That Jesus has some answer he’s after. But doesn’t that question make sense? It’s always at the borders, always on the edge of the unknown that we start to wonder who we are.

Maybe you’ve had that experience before. You travel to another city or another country and you realize how much of your identity, of your sense of self, are a product of what’s around you at home. Or maybe you’re with a new group of people and they make you think about yourself differently. Or you lose someone close to you and then you have to figure out how to rebuild your sense of self. Those questions of identity always come up on the borders, on the thin line between the familiar and the foreign.

The disciples answered Jesus, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Those aren’t bad answers. Jesus knew John the Baptist well. And Jesus is certainly like a prophet in a lot of ways. But think about what those answers have
in common. People think that Jesus is pointing to something else. Prophets are people who guide us towards someone else. Signs that point us towards somewhere else. Towards how things could be.

And then Jesus said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" If you were a disciple, you have to be thinking this is the last question you want Jesus to be asking. You’re unclear why you had to go to Caesarea Philippi in the first place and now you have to answer this question? It’s easy to talk about what other people think. Other people can think you’re John the Baptist or Elijah. That’s fine. I didn’t say it. I’m just the messenger. But that’s not the question Jesus asks. The question Jesus asks is Who do you all say that I am?

Simon Peter answers, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answers him, "Blessed are you! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Notice that Simon is blessed right now. He’s not blessed at the end of his life. This blessing isn’t something that’s coming later. It’s right now. And Jesus says that he’s blessed not because of something he did but because something has been revealed to him by the Father. Blessed
because of something God has done for him. Simon is blessed because he sees Christ in his life. He sees Jesus not just as someone who points to some other thing. Some way to get to something else. No, he sees Jesus as the thing itself.

Jesus also tells Peter that he is the rock he will build his church on. And then promises him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, so that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Christ gives Peter, the disciples, and all of us the courage, the power, and the authority to forgive. Now, forgiveness is hard. And there are always questions about when it is too soon to forgive. And that cliché “forget and forgive” seems terribly inadequate to address the complexity of our lives, of our relationships, and of our world. Which is exactly why every week in this service, we pray those words as part of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for that same blessing that Peter received. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Another way of saying that is saying, “Loosen our sins, as we loosen the sins of those who have sinned against us.”

We pray that we might be able to forgive
because it is in forgiveness that Christ is made present to us. By giving Peter the keys, this power to forgive sins, Jesus gives us the power to forgive as God forgives. Not a temporary forgiveness. Not an imitation of God’s forgiveness. Not as something that points to some future forgiveness. But as the thing itself. It is in forgiveness that we see Christ in those around us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the real presence of God in our lives right now.

Maybe when you were a kid somebody told you that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. What Jesus gives us in today’s gospel is something much more. Jesus tells us that we can treat others not as we’ve been treated by them but as we’ve been treated by God. God in Christ who loved us anyway. God gives us the ability to forgive others as we have first been forgiven by God.

Tomorrow, we’ll be celebrating Marin Luther King Day. Pastor King once said that “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” But it doesn’t bend by itself. It bends under the weight of loosened sins. It bends under the weight of the keys.

Today, Jesus takes us to the very edge of what
we know. To Caesarea Philippi. To those places and people in our lives that make us ask, “Who am I?” No matter who other people say that you are, Jesus’s answer for you today is that you are forgiven. And that the forgiveness that this world so full of borders needs, the forgiveness that bends the arc of the universe, is present in you.

Thanks be to God.

Joseph Schattauer Paillé
The Vicar