I was going to talk about the moment Peter declares Jesus to the Son of God, but I want to give that a little more thought. However, there’s one verse in that story that deserves looking at in a bit more detail.
The story – in response to rumours that have been spreading like wildfire, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is – is he a prophet or a resurrected John the Baptist, or…
“You’re the Messiah! The Son of the living God!” blurts out Peter in Matthew 16. It’s this declaration that cements his role as the leader of the disciples and, ultimately, the foundation stone of the church that would coalesce after that first Easter.
But here’s the key verse, verse 18:
“I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Now, names are important in the Bible, so Jesus calling Simon ‘Peter’ is a big deal – Peter is Greek for ‘rock’, and we’re back to the image of the church’s foundation. But that’s not what I want to look at.
Over the last couple of weeks, Christianity in Britain has found itself in the news again – a ban on prayers before council meetings, homophobia, Richard Dawkins, etc, etc, etc. And there’s a sense in which some people are developing a siege mentality; okay, I get that a lot of press and public comment has been negative towards the church, but Christians in Britain are hardly being rounded up and shot.
(That’s happening in other parts of the world, which is why I’m uncomfortable with describing a few nasty comments from Richard Dawkins as ‘persecution’.)
(And I trust I’ll be forgiven for saying so, but sometimes the church in the west really doesn’t do itself any favours.)
And so stuff like this might take us to verse 18 and give us the warm fuzzies – “Look! Things might suck now, while we’re under attack, but we won’t be overcome! Yay!” That’s how I always used to take it.
Until I heard a sermon that pointed out something glaringly obvious that I had never even considered before, and that completely changed how I look at this verse. I wish I could remember who preached it, and if anyone recognises the insight, please let me know so that I can give due credit.
“The gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Wait, the preacher said, gates aren’t weapons. They’re not offensive, they’re defensive.
The church isn’t the one under siege. Hades is.
The church is the one doing the attacking.
See, the church sometimes has an attitude that everything’s bad and everyone’s evil but us, but it’ll be okay because we’ll go to Heaven when we die and all the bad people, or at least the bad people who do different bad things to the bad things we do, will go burn. It has a persecution complex, which is one thing when you’re Peter and you’re being crucified upside down by the Romans, but that’s not the case in, say, 21st century Britain or America.
Now, some people will read that, see that the church is attacking, and they’ll get twitchy. Because people have been burned by the actions of aggressive churches – the stereotypical example is Westboro Baptist in the States. But I don’t think this verse gives us licence to be the aggressors in any situation, especially not as this isn’t how Jesus acted – the one time he does act particularly aggressively, he’s actually raging against religious hypocrisy and those who drive people away from God. That’s a sobering thought at the best of times.
So when Jesus evokes the metaphor of a siege, he’s telling us something cosmic. He’s saying that Hades, the Kingdom of the Dead, will be broken open. It’s a story of resurrection. It’s a story of life triumphing over death. Put in the context of the rest of the story, it’s effectively saying that Jesus is greater than the powers of this world – corrupt kings, occupying armies and gods of death, and that a decisive victory will be dealt over those forces.
In retrospect, that’s Easter in a nutshell.
It’s also a reason not to live in fear, which is the source of the persecution mentality. Because Christ conquers death with life, despair with hope and hatred with love, we should be freed to follow his example, being his feet and hands in the world. And where death takes hold – in cases of famine, for instance, or disaster, or illness, Christians should be available to provide food, water, clothing… Hope. It’s not so much a war of aggression, it’s more of a prison break, and because I’m Methodist, I’ve now got a song stuck in my head:
“My chains fell off!
My heart was free.
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”