"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."
It begins innocently enough. "Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi..." Just another town in the Middle East, right? We're not from that region of the world, so it doesn't mean anything to us. That's how I used to feel. But then I read something by Pastor Rob Bell that changed my perspective.
Caesarea Philippi was the home of the 'goat god,' Pan (yah, the one with the flute!). And one of the geographic anomalies about the areas was that it housed a big cliff of rocks, with a giant crack in it. Followers of Pan believed that the spirits from Hell would come and go through that crack. In fact, it gained the nickname, "The Gates of Hell." (Always a great name to ensure it's popularity as a tourist attraction!)
Worshippers of Pan built a temple next to that giant crack in the rock. During the festivals to Pan, followers (amongst other things) engaged in sexual acts with goats, as a sign of their devotion. Thus, Caesarea Philippii had quite a reputation, as you can imagine! Few good Jews would even venture into the outskirts of the city because of that reputation. Then along comes Jesus and his disciples.
Many of us know the story of Simon... getting renamed "Peter" by Jesus. "The Rock" (long before Duane Johnson was alive!). Jesus told Peter that he'd be the rock on which he would build his church (Mt. 16:18)... and even "the gates of Hell" could not prevail against it. I'd always thought that was just a cool promise that good triumphs over evil, in general.
I was thinking that it would be like Jesus today taking a group of followers to the Playboy Mansion (and not to picket/protest either!). Can you imagine what those followers would be thinking when Jesus said, "Hey, let's go over to the Playboy Mansion... I want to show you folks something." And then he gathers the group around the infamous "grotto" area at the pool... and says something like, "My Father's mansion has many rooms - there's a place for everyone!" Then he renames one of he disciples "Hugh" (or something). "Hugh, you'll be the one to reach out to those on the fringes of society."
Jesus was (is!) very contemporary! He's not worried aobut "social conventions" on what others think. He's called by God to share the life-giving gift of the Kingdom of God. Available to al! Even the ones the rest of us have written off as sinners beyond grace (with our without bunny ears!).