Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Gates of Hell

We all know the text.  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....


ErnestO said...

Pastor Peters this kind of "Kingdom Thinking" is going to really make the devil mad - great posting. I pray the Holy Spirit continue his work in you.

J.G.F. said...

Yes!! I've been preaching it for years, though if you ask anyone, they'd probably still give you the former, rather than the latter explanation.... Sometimes people just don't listen :-)

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Well said. Peter made his confession in Caesarea Philippi, a gentile city. In Old Testament times Baal worship was dominant there, later the Greeks declared it the home of Pan the god of the forests. Then the Romans came and built luxurious Temples there. Along the river bank that fed the Jordan there was an entire rock wall filled with idols dedicated to Pan. This confluence of pagan religion the Jews called “the gates of hell.” It is here amid rampant paganism Peter makes his confession.

Janis Williams said...

Here is one advantage of an education in Art. Not the most pragmatic, lucrative, or accepted course of study (especially by many in the church).

If you look (and actually see) the great depictions of Hell's gates in sculpture and painting, it becomes clear they are HELL'S gates, and not the Church's.

Terry Maher said...

If there's anything to it, I hope it has no connexion to Holy Cross Day, which is not about the triumph of the cross but the lifting up of something Emperor Constantine's mom Helena found and, depending on which of the conflicting stories one accepts, decided it was the "true" cross. So her emperor son made the day it was lifted up before the people a feast day. Anything else is later rarionalisation.

If there is something to it, it sounds like a really theologised over Ablaze! call -- let's get out there and tell others about Jesus, claim the world for Christ, etc.

Prevail comes from praevaleo, which literally means to be more powerful before something else. So the gates of hell are not more powerful than the confession on which the church is built. No offensive or defensive manoeuvers on either side are implied.

Kutheran Pastor said...

Well it is the way Lutheran's see Holy Cross Day -- the exaltation, raising up, lifting up of the cross as the triumph of suffering and death that gives us forgiveness and life. I don't know a Lutheran who talks about the history that seems to the only thing you see. If we used the same standard you apply to Holy Cross day we wouldn't have half the holy days on our calendar -- let alone Christmas.

Second it is not the theology of glory which bypasses or ignores the cross but is the theology of the cross since it is the cross which is proclaimed, the suffering and death which is not minimized but heralded as the work of God by which we are saved.

Finally we are not claiming the world for Christ but proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes, without fear of hell's power. What broke the back of sin, death, and the devil is the cross -- the Lord's suffering and death being what the cross is all about.

The point here is that the church is so often seen as frail, weak, cowardly, etc. and unless we do something the cause will be lost. What Pr Peters is saying is that the promise assures us that it is not our work but Christ's work continuing to bring the cross to bear in the very domain of Satan (first the world and then hell itself), which is what we heard int he lessons for St. Michael and All Angels and what we confess in the creed (he descended into hell).

Anonymous said...

OOOOOOpppppps LLLLLL Lutheran Pastor

Terry Maher said...

There are two separate but related matters here, one, the understanding of "the gates of hell shall not prevail", and two, "Holy Cross Day".

I'm sorry if it's incovenient to a nice story, but the fact is this festival day was not instituted to celebrate the things you mention (non of which I oppose) but to celebrate the lifting of what was supposedly the actual cross outside a church built on supposedly the grounds of the sepulchre, which expedition at state expense was seen as a sign of the triumph of the cross over the world.

It celebrates about as big an example of the crossing of the left and right hand kingdoms as there is. The "exaltation" in the feast's full name is not the exaltation we celebrate, and it makes no sense whatsoever to just ignore what we want to ignore to create a pious fiction and reinvent the meaning of the day.

The real cross of Christ and its triumph is not served by tidying up or sweeping under the carpet bogus legends about the "true" cross and the false sense of the triumph of the cross they embody.

As to the gates of hell thing, that's another matter, and whatever the conclusion on that, is unconnected to a latter-day whitewashed "Holy Cross Day".

William Tighe said...

"If there's anything to it, I hope it has no connexion to Holy Cross Day, which is not about the triumph of the cross but the lifting up of something Emperor Constantine's mom Helena found and, depending on which of the conflicting stories one accepts, decided it was the "true" cross. So her emperor son made the day it was lifted up before the people a feast day. Anything else is later rarionalisation."

Nope, that's May 3; September 14 was the date of the restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630 by the Emperor Heraclius after its recovery from the Persians.

Terry Maher said...

Well sorry, but no. "Holy Cross Day", as Lutherans reductively generally call it, was a two day event celebrating not the cross, OR the finding thereof, but the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of the finding of the "true" cross on 13 September 335 and the next day the cross was "exalted" (lifted) outside the church for veneration.

A third of the cross remained in Jerusalem, a third was taken to Rome, and a third was taken to Constantinople. The third that remained in Jerusalem was taken by the Persians in 614, recaptured by the Byzantines in 628, taken first to Constantinople and returned to Jerusalem 21 March 630. Legend has it than when Heraclius tried to return it on horseback, he could not, but when he dismounted, removed his crown, and carried it, it suddenly became light and the gates opened by themselves.

The date of the feast derives entirely from the dedication of the church and the taking outside of the cross, 13-14 September 335.

The discovery of the "true" cross happened nine years earlier, on 3 May 326. That is a separate event, and was celebrated on that day in the Gallican Rite as just that, the Invention (as in finding) of the Cross, or Roodmas. When the Latin rite suppressed the Gallican, both days were retained, 3 May as the Finding, 14 September as the Exaltation. That stood for centuries, and was still the case when I was young.

In 1960, "Pope" John XXIII removed the 3 May Finding from the Roman Calendar and combined it with the 14 September Exaltation as one feast. The Church of England, which has also retained Roodmas, followed suit, and Common Worship in 2000 dropped Roodmas for 14 September.