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What Is Spiritual Formation Anyway?

Matthew 16.13-20

Near the headwaters of the Jordan River stands a place with a fascinating spiritual history.

There once stood there an ancient cultic center dedicated to the god Baal. A complex faith and religion, the worship of Baal was often connected to the earth and its sustaining power. Therefore, the headwaters of the mighty Jordan River was a perfect place to celebrate and worship the Earth in the name of the god Baal. It became the center of the Cult of Nature.

Eventually, the Greeks came to the site, and believed it to be a powerful symbol of their god Pan. They re-named it Paneas after the god, and developed a new temple to worship their god of virility and sexuality. In a cave on the site, priests conducted annual festivals in which they engaged in ritualistic acts symbolizing their power and masculinity. Before long, it became the center of the Cult of Virility.

Eventually, this area of Palestine was the middle of the battleground for world powers, and Egypt and Greece battled for control of the region. The Battle of Paneas was a decisive victory for the Greeks, routing the Egyptians and reestablishing Greek power in the region. The same site now became the center of the Cult of War.

Eventually, the Greeks gave way to the Romans and the governor of the region was a man named Phillip. Phillip rebuilt a large and grand city, and made it his capital. He named it Caesarea, after his emperor Caesar. But in order to distinguish it from other cities, it needed more, and so Caesarea Philippi was born. A symbol of his hubris, it became the center of the Cult of Self.

Eventually, the emperor Vespasian saw it as a beautiful place to rest, and so he made it his vacation spot. He brought his troops to the city, and held a festival in which various competitions and games were held, much like the ancient Olympic games. Thus, it became a center of the Cult of Diversion.

Eventually, the emperor Titus returned to the spot as a vacation spot, but his idea of diversion was much darker. Instead of simple competitions, he would use the arenas to throw Jews to wild animals and watch them be killed. It became, then, a center of the Cult of Violence.

One place. One site. A Crossroads of these various cults. In this one place, we see a multitude of symbols of the things that the world offers us to worship…that the world offers us to guide us, direct us, teach us, spiritually form us.

It is in this site, this very place, that this conversation took place:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

In this site in which the question of purpose, of worship, of priority in the world had been asked and answered a thousand times over, Jesus now asked it with clarity and purpose. It was not an accident that Jesus asked that question on the site of the place of so many various Messiahs, so many various Saviors, so many various cults that would seek to receive our worship. Jesus brought his disciples here to make a point. To force them to answer for themselves what is it that they worship, what is it that they follow, what is it that they allow to form them.

And they did.
Or at least Peter did.

He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah — the Son of the living God.’

Peter got it. Peter understood who this person was. He understood at the Crossroads of the Cults where they stood, there was only one Messiah. There was only was Savior. There was only one God. And he was standing in front of them in the flesh. Peter’s confirmation did not come lightly. It was from deep within.

Remember what Simon Peter’s life would have looked like since he was a boy. He would have been trained as a boy to memorize the Torah and learn the ways of the rabbis, the teachers. At some point, the teachers would begin to “pick teams” from the best and the brightest of the boys. They would pick out who had the right stuff to be a scholar, who had the right aptitude, the right personality. They would go to one of the boys and say “follow me.” And they would. Literally. Follow them around wherever they went. They would learn from their teaching, but also from their lifestyle, their modeling, their behavior, their actions. They would become scholars in training by learning from the Master. It was Yose ben Yoezar who once said of the wise teachers, “powder thyself in the dust of their feet, and drink their words with eagerness.” In other words, follow so closely behind them, emulating them, learning from them, that you get the dust from their feet all over you. Learn from the Master by following. And the best and the brightest were chosen to do just that. Drop what you are doing and follow me.

Meanwhile, at some point in his training, the teachers looked at Simon Peter and said, “Simon, you are a wonderful boy. Now go catch some fish. Become a fisherman like your father.” None of the rabbis chose him to be their disciple. None of them thought he had the right stuff to be a scholar. None of them thought that he would have the aptitude to follow them on their journey of life, learning from the Master, taking him wherever they went. None of them had looked at Peter and said, “Yes. You. Come follow me.”

Until Jesus showed up. And he did exactly that. Jesus saw in Simon Peter the right stuff to be his disciple. To learn the ways that he would show him. To guide him in the life that he would lead.

And he did. He followed so closely behind Jesus that he powdered himself with the dust of his feet. He followed so closely behind that he jumped into the water with him when Jesus walked on top. He followed so closely behind that when Jesus asked “who is it that you say I am?” he knew exactly what to say. You are the Messiah. The Christ. The Son of the Living God.

His answer came from following.

And he was the only one to speak up. The guy that often said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing or put his foot in his mouth and had the other disciples rolling their eyes. So what did Jesus say to him this time? “Anyone else have an answer? Anyone? Did I see a hand over there? Bartholomew? James?”

No! He doesn’t say that. Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to the goofy fisherman!
And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven 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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’

Jesus does three things (at least) in this paragraph.

The first thing he does is give the goofy fisherman a new name. A new identity: Peter. Rock. Now, we all know a ton of people named Peter, and we even have an actor (of sorts) called The Rock. But this was the first time on record that someone was named the Rock. It just wasn’t common. So, Jesus is giving Simon Peter a new name and a new identity. A new purpose. A new nature.

The second thing he does is give Simon Peter special authority the primary teacher of this new movement. Peter! The fisherman! Jesus says on you will I build my church. Jesus is giving him his teaching certificate: proclaiming his role as master teacher in the new movement. The language that Jesus uses about binding and loosing is teaching language. It was language used for teachers to explain the power that they had in their words. And Jesus is proclaiming that this power is now Peter’s! He says that Peter the follower has now become Peter the teacher.

Finally, the last thing that Jesus does is give similar authority to the church as a whole. Peter is the chief, but he is really deputizing all of the disciples into this role as teachers. Just like they followed him so closely that they were powdered with the dust of his feet, now their job is to go out and call the next group of disciples, to invite them to follow, to invite them to live in this Kingdom way, just as Jesus has shown them to do. In the same way that Jesus has given Peter a new name and a new identity, he does the same for all the disciples. Here at the Crossroads of the Cults, he gives them the same teaching certificate. Their job is to teach, to form, to lead the next generation of followers. To spread the dust of their feet to the next Christ-followers. And they did. They spread it to the next generation, who spread it to the next generation, who spread it to the next generation, who eventually spread it to us.

Now, a clarification. When I use the word cults, there is a danger. Because some of these things are good and central to who we are. As a matter of fact, next week, we will talk some about the holistic nature of spiritual formation. Following Jesus has implications for our psychological selves, for our diversion and our time, for our sexuality and bodies, for our relationship with nature, and for what we have to say about violence and war and power. But they can become cults if we begin to worship them. Follow them. Allow them to form us.

Peter’s confession clarified who was Messiah, who was Savior, who was to be followed and who should form us. And it is the question that we must ask ourselves again and again. Who are we following?

This is the question of the day:  How are we formed? What is spiritual formation anyway?

I like Jeff Savage’s definition of spiritual formation that is in your bulletin:

Spiritual formation in the Christian tradition is the process of being formed in the image of Christ as we submit to the work of the Spirit in the midst of life through intentional engagement in spiritual practices and accountable community.

We can unpack that a little bit over the coming weeks, but the part that I want to pay closest attention to is the fact that we are being formed in the image of Christ. We are following in his footsteps. We are being powdered by the dust of his feet. That is how we are to live!

We lead by following.
We teach by following.
We form by following.
Spiritual formation is about following…in the image of Christ and the work of the Spirit.

Just like Peter…
We are given a new name and new identity as we, too are being formed.
We are given the power and authority through the Spirit to teach and form and follow.
And we are given community, aware that our authority is shared together as we each answer for ourselves, “who do you say that I am?”

This morning, may we leave this place covered with a little more Jesus dust. May we drink the words of the Master with eagerness. And may we share the work of the Spirit in our words and our actions and our love and our grace.

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