Two Roads

By Jim Vitale

Two roads lie before you. Which road will you walk?

That’s the question Jesus poses in Mark 8:27-9:1.

The first road leads to Caesarea Philippi, the city that Jesus and his disciples pass in this story. To first-century eyes, Caesarea Philippi would have been a sight to behold. During the early first-century, it was an up-and-coming city. It had recently become the capital of that region of the empire, and so improvements were ongoing. Being an important part of the Roman Empire, there would have been centurions stationed there and important government officials. The city sat nestled at the foot of beautiful Mt. Hermon, which was important for a variety of religions. The city itself was named after Caesar Augustus and he was worshipped there, along with the pagan god Pan. In short, Caesarea Philippi would have been the quintessential depiction of success. When one walked by the city, one would be reminded of the great power of the Roman Empire which stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Peninsula, from Germany to North Africa. The residents of Caesarea Philippi would be important people, the powerful, prosperous, and privileged citizens of the Roman Empire, a cut above the weak, poor, and unprivileged people of Israel.

I think that it is down this road that Peter looks when he makes his blunder. Poor Peter is capable of both great insight and cringe-worthy blockheadedness. In the first half of the story, he earns himself a gold star. Jesus asks the disciples who they think Jesus is and Peter rightly calls Jesus the messiah.

Then Jesus goes into a long and detailed explanation of how, as the messiah, he must be tortured, rejected, murdered, and resurrected. And then Peter, Jesus’ golden boy, puts his foot in it by pulling Jesus aside and chastising him like a child. “You can’t say those things, Jesus. It’s not good.” Peter, who just moments ago identified Jesus as the messiah, now thinks he knows better than the messiah.

There were lots of different ideas out there about who the messiah would be and what the messiah would do and absolutely none of them consisted of torture, abandonment, and execution. Some believed the messiah would bring salvation by overthrowing the Roman Empire as a conquering warrior. Others thought salvation might come from a priest through religious reform. Still others believed a new king could lead the people to salvation through a better and more just rule.

On the one hand, I think Peter must have fallen into one of these camps and so he didn’t know what to do with Jesus’ comments on his future crucifixion. But on the other hand, I think Peter was caught in the spell of Caesarea Philippi. Peter had been following Jesus around, watching him teach and heal and cast out demons. Jesus was becoming something of a celebrity around the Judean countryside. Maybe Peter, standing just outside Jesus’ limelight, hoped he might get a share in that celebrity as well. He looked up into the glory of Caesarea Philippi and wondered if maybe that was his destiny. After all, Jesus is clearly going places. What’s wrong with hoping those places might have power, prosperity, and privilege?

There are a great many preachers out there, many of them on TV, who will tell you that if you faithfully follow God, God will reward you with prosperity beyond your wildest dreams. They tell you that if you stop sinning and start praying, the money will just start rolling in. God wants to bless you, they say, and God will, as long as you live the right way. These preachers are often millionaires themselves, and point to their own success as evidence of God’s divine favor. They believe, or at least they preach, that the end game of the Christian faith is prosperity. There’s actually a name for this way of thinking. It’s called the “prosperity gospel” and it has nothing to do with Jesus.

If the prosperity gospel were true, then the lives of Jesus’ early followers would have ended very differently. Take Peter, for instance. Peter was arguably Jesus’ most devoted follower, but his life did not end in wealth and power. He did not die in a palace. He did not drift away peacefully, surrounded by his children who were set to inherit his vast estate. Peter was crucified upside down. That’s how he died, with the blood that wasn’t pouring from his hands and feet rushing to his head.

The reality is that Jesus makes no promises of prosperity.

In fact, he says the opposite.

While Peter stands with eyes up the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus is looking in the opposite direction, down that other road, to Golgotha. He is not looking to the prosperous life of a Roman citizen, but rather a painful death atop a Roman trash heap, Calvary, that hill where they execute the criminals. Standing in the shadow of prosperity, Jesus declares that his journey will end in utter ruin. And Peter balks. And as much as I like to rag on Peter, we can’t really blame him, right? I mean, which would you choose: a palace or an execution chamber?

In response to Peter’s confusion, Jesus says that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [his] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” What sort of sense does that make? It’s tempting to think that Jesus is only talking about eternal life: People who devote their lives to Jesus might have miserable lives, but at least they’ll go to heaven, whereas people who reject Jesus might have great lives, but they’ll end up in hell. But I think that’s an oversimplification. I think Jesus is getting at something deeper—not just eternal life to come, but this life here and now.

I think Jesus is saying that those who choose the road to Caesarea Philippi may think that they are getting everything they ever wanted (prosperity, power, and privilege) but they will ultimately end up empty. And those who choose the road to Golgotha may have to give up a whole lot of what they wanted, but they will end up full.

Following Jesus means dying to yourself. This is ultimately what I mean when I talk about the road to Golgotha. Few of us will be called to die for our faith like Peter did. But each and every one of us is called upon to die to ourselves for our faith. In order for Peter to follow Jesus, he had to give up his hopes of prosperity, power, and privilege. Because Jesus isn’t interested in those things at all. He’s interested in love, mercy, healing, community, justice, and a relationship with God.

It is natural for us to want to take the road to Caesarea Philippi. We all want the next best thing. We’re driven by the next success or the next big transaction or the next new car or the next new promotion. But I know from experience that once I attain the next new thing, I won’t be content. I won’t be happy. I’ll just move with surprising speed toward the next next new thing. The road to Caesarea Philippi never ends. It just goes on and on with that happiness just out of reach.

But the road to Golgotha does have an end. It ends in death. And then, by God’s good grace, it moves on to resurrection. God, in God’s great love, knows what is truly best for us, and what is truly best for us is a relationship with God. On our own we will ruin ourselves trying to find happiness or contentment or peace. Talk to someone who is recovering from an addiction and they will tell you—there are a whole lot of things you can do to try to fill the God-sized whole in your spirit and every single one of them is toxic. True contentment comes only from a relationship with God. We must die to all those things we think will satisfy us, let them go, and look instead to God. When we follow Jesus, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t claim Jesus as our Lord from the comforts of Caesarea Philippi. That claim can only be made on the road to Golgotha. In order to take a step toward Golgotha, we first have to turn our back on Caesarea Philippi.

So come, take up your cross so that you might lose your life.

We’re going to Golgotha that we might find it again.

Amen.