Sermon text: Matthew 16: 13-20
Israel is full of wonderful sites. One of the most intriguing is in the far north, called Banias, and it is the location for this week’s Gospel lesson at Caesarea Philippi. At Banias there is a 100-foot wall of rock that rises from the earth. It is 500 feet across. There are several alcoves that have been hewn out of the rocks, remnants of old pagan shrines. On the left is a huge gash in the rock, a grotto, and a spring pours out from it. This is one of the headwaters of the Jordan River.
In 1867 Mark Twain visited the site. He wrote: “Scattered every where, in the paths and in the woods, are Corinthian capitals, broken porphyry pillars, and little fragments of sculpture; and up yonder in the precipice where the fountain gushes out, are well-worn Greek inscriptions over niches in the rock where in ancient times the Greeks, and after them the Romans, worshipped the sylvan god Pan.”
In Jesus’ day those ruins and fragments of sculpture were intact. The most prominent temple was dedicated to the god Pan. The temple was situated in front of the large cave and it was believed the Greek god Pan lived there, in the Gate to Hades. It was a location that symbolized passage to the underworld. It symbolized death. Good Jews didn’t travel here in the same way that a person on a diet doesn’t enter a bakery or candy store. But there they are, Jesus and his disciples, at this pagan hotspot.
Jesus turns to his disciples and starts asking questions. “Who do people say that I am?” He knows the disciples have been rubbing elbows with the people in the crowds as he’s taught in the towns and performed miracles. Surely they were in on the gossip. They knew the popular theories of who people claimed Jesus was. “Some say John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the many prophets of Israel. There’s been so many, it’s hard to keep track. But they say you’re one of them Jesus.”
“But who do you say that I am?”
Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph and Mary. That was the answer the disciples would be expected to give by their culture. But the twelve have been talking during their travels and Simon Peter steps forth to speak for the group. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Bingo! Peter nails it! The disciples are on the right track. The Holy Spirit has revealed this to them.
Now Jesus is going to make a very bold and game changing statement: “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.”
Jesus is a master at setting the stage and making his point. Just enjoy the contrast of the whole situation. Here they are, before a place believed to be the Gate to Hell, the pathway to Sheol, and the Son of the Living God stands before his disciples.
Think of the promise that Jesus makes about those gates! The power of Hades, the power of death, will not be able to overpower the church, which is built on faith in the Son of the Living God.
Jesus is saying that the imprisoning powers of death will not be able to shackle the church. The people of God will live. Death will be unable to swallow up this new community that Jesus is building. It cannot be destroyed.
The Son of the Living God makes this promise and later will add power to these words. Jesus will die on the cross, but the resurrection makes death a feckless threat. If we are the Body of Christ, then death cannot swallow us in the same way that death could not hold Christ. Instead, the church’s mission as those who know the liberating power of God is to push back against the Gates of Hell, to provide more space for the living.
Sometimes it feels like the gated community of death is growing. That death’s acreage is increasing, not just with tombstones and graves, but with circumstances and needs. Too many people live in the shadow of this gate to hell. Too many of our siblings are being swallowed up, they feel like they are staring into the abyss.
Right now, where is death prevailing? Where can the church push back against the Gate to Hades? How can the church swallow up death?
We are six months into life with COVID-19 in the US, six months of restrictions and life being turned on its head. One of the side effects has been isolation, which can certainly be a death. As I touch base with our members I hear the weighty struggle many are having with isolation, especially our members who are already homebound or those who being extra cautious because they are high risk.
Even though the term is Social Distancing, I believe it is incorrectly named. We are asked to keep some physical distance, but there are ways for us to stay socially connected. And for many who are isolated it feels like the Gates of Hades has swallowed them whole.
As the church we serve the Son of the Living God, and we have all the tools needed to connect. I implore you to think of those you normally connect with in church but have not seen because of the pandemic. Think also of our homebound members. Think of how isolation drove you crazy and push back against the Gates of Hell. Find a way to safely connect and check in. Help restore community. Reach out. Trust me, this will make a huge impact. People are longing for connection.
As the pandemic continues the economic burden remains. It grows. People remain camped out near the Gates of Hell who are struggling to eat, to outfit their children for school, and to pay their medical and housing bills. I know because aid calls to the church are increasing. In many ways these problems are beyond the church, but I ask you, as the Body of Christ, to push back against the gates by supporting our local agencies and charities that provide for those in tough situations. The need is always there and it is growing.
The last way that I see the Gates of Hades encroaching on us is through our civil discord, our polarization, and our death of public debate. There’s a cornucopia of wedge issues used to drive us apart. I would like us to remember that before we are pro or anti any issue, before we advocate or deny any social justice topic, before we don Trump or Biden campaign gear, before any of that we are the church. All of those other identities are secondary.
Believe it or not, we are a diverse church when it comes to our opinions. We are not homogenous in our thoughts, especially in politics or pandemic response, but we are the Body of Christ, called together to push against death. The death I see is the death of conversation, the death of trust that we can talk about controversial issues and still count ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ in the end.
Two weeks ago I had a great political conversation with one of our members. It was honest and civil even though we disagreed on nearly every topic that was discussed. But it was refreshing, because we trusted each other as fellow members of the church. That identity rooted us.
Push back against the gates. Talk about what matters with respect and civility. We are connected by something that goes beyond differing viewpoints.
When Jesus makes a promise my ears perk up, and the promise of today’s gospel is amazing. The Gate of Hades will not prevail, death will not conquer. Our God is the Living God and we are the church of the Living God. Take a stand against the abyss. Bring hope to those in its shadow. Continue to liberate people from the imprisoning forces of death just as Christ has freed you. For the Gate of Hell is no match for the God given blessings of life. AMEN