At Caesarea Philippi, the Lord is with His disciples. He asks who they [the people} say that He is. Peter speaks the bold confession. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" Then the Lord confers upon Peter and His Church the power of the keys to Heaven: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of the hall shall not prevail against it.”
What intrigues me about this text is how often we get the whole image wrong. The Church becomes the city whose gates are being charged. The Church becomes the sturdy and strong fortress that repels the raiders and is defended by the almighty power of God. Now to be sure, this is the promise of the Lord -- the Church will endure against all her enemies -- but the whole image here is wrong. The gates of the Church are not being attacked. The Church is attacking the gates of hell and hell's gates cannot prevail against the onslaught of the the people of God armed with the might of His Word (the Word of mercy that forgives sins).
If we expand this a little, the whole image gets messed up in the minds of God's people by the way we have traditionally seen these words. The city's weakest point are the gates, the place of entrance. The walls and their defenses are strong but the gate is the most vulnerable point of the city. The image here is not of God's city being attacked and repelling the attackers but the the city of the devil being attacked by the warriors of God. His Church is the mighty army that does not attack from behind or from the side but head on. At the very gates of hell, the Church of Christ marches in with all the power of the Lord God almighty on her side. Truly "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Let's unpack it even more. The city belongs and the attackers have entered onto the property of the city and its rulers. The image here is of the world, claimed by the devil from the Fall. He presumes to tempt the Son of God and bring Him down but Jesus will not be overcome. The devil lays claim to the earth and all its inhabitants and flaunts his claim before the Lord (the story of Job). The intruder is God and His people. He comes into the very domain of sin, death, and the devil to overcome His enemies and ours. He mounts the battle with His very flesh and blood. He is nailed to the cross and while the devil snickers in delight, He has won the battle. All that is left to the Church is to charge the gates with His victory song.
In addition, this works well with Jesus words of warning to His disciples of the treatment they will find, the suffering they will endure, the persecution they will face, and even the rejection they will meet. The Church is in but not of the world and yet the Church barges into the domain once claimed by sin, death, and the devil with the Word of the Cross and it breaks the doors of the enemy.
I will have to admit that this is an evolving awareness within me and it represents a little break with the way this text was explained to me in Sunday school and preached to me over the years (and even with the way I preached this text from my early years as a Pastor). Truly it represents and even fuller measure of the confidence and boldness the Spirit gives to us (and the way it transformed a fearful and reluctant band of disciples into the stormtroopers of Pentecost Sunday.
This is even more comforting than the image of a refuge fortress repelling attackers. We are those who dare to stand before hell's gates with the good news of the cross. Truly it parallels the idea of Holy Cross Day, in which the very instrument of seeming defeat becomes the agent of Christ's triumph. Perhaps we can think of the cross as a battering ram against sin, death, and the devil, against a people captive to darkness, and against a world marked and claimed by the enemy, but retaken by God in Christ. Truly the image shifts our understanding of the Church as weak and vulnerable but kept by God from ultimate harm to a people endowed with the power of the Gospel through which God acts....