The gates of Hell (2)

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Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: Jerry Stratton /, via Wikimedia Commons


Hell’s gate

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Watching for the Morning of August 27, 2017

Year A

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

Sunday brings us to Peter’s confession when Jesus asks the question “But who do you say that I am?” It is the passage that contains the remarkable declaration: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

It is a play on the name ‘Peter’ (in Greek, ‘petros’) and ‘rock’ (in Greek, ‘petra’), but the words of Jesus have been swallowed up by arguments about the form of the church as an institution in the world rather than as a community of student/disciples comprising a beachhead of God’s reign in the world.

So we argue about precisely what is ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus builds. Is it Peter’s faith, his confession, his show of allegiance, his person or his office? But the punch line is not that Jesus is building a ‘church’ (the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ refers to an association of people) but that the gates of ‘hell’ (literally ‘hades’, the realm of the dead) cannot hold against this motley crew who hold the ‘keys of the kingdom’.

I have always heard that phrase about the gates of hell used in a way that suggests the church is the community under siege, that Satan is set to attack and destroy whatever is good. A wise, elderly black woman in a particularly poor section of Detroit warned us young, bright, optimistic (and white) pastors that the devil would try to destroy whatever goodness we tried to accomplish in the city. And we did eventually learn to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But this is not what Jesus is saying. In this metaphor, it is the realm of the dead that is under attack, that is on the defensive, that is encircled by hostile armies determined to force it to give up its victims.

People worry about the fabled “War on Christmas” – and while churches are facing many obstacles in our modern world, Jesus is declaring that it is death that is under assault by those who have been given the “keys of the kingdom.” We hold in our hands the keys to the storehouses of heaven. We hold in our hands the authority to dispense the gifts of God. We have been given the privilege of serving as God’s agents. Grace and mercy and healing and life are ours to dispense. The realm of shadows cannot defend itself against the kingdom of light.

We live in a time of such dispiritedness. So many feel helpless against the evils of the world. Hate and violence seem to be on the rise. Ruthless greed seems ascendant. Ignorance flourishes. Love, mercy, compassion, generosity seem frail responses to the virulent infections to the human spirit. But here is Jesus, with a simple word to a ragtag band from Galilee of all places – they have the keys to set people free and nothing death might do can stop it.

Love wins.

And so this Sunday we will hear the prophet proclaim God’s message: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” And we will join with the ancient community that sang: “ The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” And Paul will remind us that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ,” and urge us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” – not one that is burned upon the altar but one that lives in and from the fire of God’s love. Finally, we will hear the promise that death’s dark realm cannot defend itself against the followers of Jesus who have at their disposal the boundless generosity of God. It’s what gives this image of Peter such a crazy little smile.

The Prayer for August 27, 2017

Eternal Father,
creator and redeemer of the world,
who shatters every bar and chain that binds;
grant us faith to see and courage to confess Jesus as your beloved Son,
and to be faithful stewards of your grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 27, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6
“A teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.”
In the years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rises to declare that the relationship of God and this people is not at an end. From Abraham and Sarah God brought forth a great nation, so God’s purpose in Israel to bring God’s law to the nations shall not fail.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” – a song of praise at God’s deliverance, extolling the certainty of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Paul’s begins the third portion of his letter, exhorting the community to faithfulness in their life together as a people gathered by the grace of God.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
“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.” – Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God, and the disciples receive the promise and commission to serve as God’s agents in the world.

Image: By Jean-noël Lafargue (Own work (Own photography)) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons.