The Church, rocky though it is, is called to follow Jesus into the darkest places
Liz Stuart, 23 August 2020
Isaiah 51: 1–6; Romans 12: 1–8; Matthew 16: 13–20
I wonder if you’re familiar with the song ‘I won’t back down’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? It’s a sort of anthem for those of us who are insufferably stubborn. It includes the line, ‘You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down’. The gates of hell. Fancy a trip there? No? But that’s where Jesus took his disciples in our gospel reading today.
The setting of the story is extraordinary and deeply significant. Jesus takes his disciples north to the district of Caesarea Philippi. It was not a place on the bucket list of any pious Jew. It was a rocky place crammed with temples to various gods, which were hewn into the rock face. There were three temples honouring Caesar Augustus, who was worshipped as a son of God, and a temple complex dedicated to the god Pan. At the rear of that complex was a yawning cave into which animal sacrifices were thrown, turning the water red. It was believed that this was the entrance to the underworld, the gates of Hades.
Jesus’ disciples must have been so uncomfortable in that context. Away from everything that is familiar, surrounded by alien people with alien practices, Jesus starts asking them questions. He asks them who people say the Son of Man is, and they repeat back what they have heard. And then he asks them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
Now when we are so far out of our comfort zone we either close down, start to fall apart or we come into our own, the lack of familiarity somehow creating space for insight and courageous acts. Simon Peter falls into the latter category: remember how he stepped out of a boat in the middle of a storm to walk towards Jesus? Peter articulates clearly who Jesus is: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Jesus recognises that this is a revelation that Peter has received from his Father, from God, and he says to Peter, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’. There is a play on words here in the Greek between Petros (Peter) and petra (rock).
Remember a few weeks back we heard the story of the sower and about the seed that falls on rocky ground which springs up quickly but because it has no root, when trouble comes it immediately falls away? Peter, the rock, is just like that. Remember the story of the walking on the water? He steps out of the boat showing extraordinary courage and faith, but then he feels the winds battering him and he starts to sink. Soon after making this extraordinarily clear and deep statement of faith, Peter will challenge Jesus’ teaching that he must suffer and die, and ends up being castigated by Jesus as Satan and a stumbling block.
On this rocky ground Jesus builds his Church. Jesus knew exactly what Peter was like. He chooses to build his Church not on perfect ground but rocky ground. We are that rocky ground, collectively capable of deep spiritual insight, astonishing frailty in our faith and humungous misunderstandings and mistakes. And we need to remember that.
Jesus chooses to build his Church not on perfect ground but rocky ground. We are that rocky ground, collectively capable of deep spiritual insight, astonishing frailty in our faith and humungous misunderstandings and mistakes.
The gates of Hades will not prevail against Jesus’ Church. Gates are defence systems – they’re designed to keep people out. The implication is that the Church’s job is to storm Hades. Jesus and his disciples are talking right next to this massive cave that was believed to be the gates to Hades, and Jesus is pointing at it and saying, ‘We’re going in, and we’re leaving no one behind in there’. This is precisely what Jesus does, of course, and his Church, rocky though it is, is called to follow him into uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory, into the deepest and darkest places where people languish in the apparent absence of God. That is where the Church is founded. That is where we are called to be.
Then Jesus promises Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Note that there is not just one key, but keys plural. This suggests more than one door into the kingdom of heaven. Storm hell and open the many doors to heaven; that is the mission of the Church. Finally, Jesus gives Peter authority to bind and to loose. These are rabbinical terms. The rabbis had authority to decide which obligations to enforce – to bind – and which obligations to remove – to loose. The Church’s authority to do such should be held in the context of a deep humility that comes from a recognition of how rocky it is, how rocky we are.
‘Look to the rock from which you are hewn’, Isaiah exhorts us. The rock from which we, the Church, is hewn, is rocky – as rocky as we are. But to rocky people, seed sown on rocky ground, Jesus entrusts his mission to open God’s kingdom to all – even to those farthest away from it, languishing in Hades. The Church is gloriously diverse, made up of people with many different gifts, as St Paul notes. All of those gifts have one purpose: to stand at the gates of hell and to follow our Master, the Son of the living God, in assisting him to save people from darkness and death, transporting them to light and to life. So, let’s pick up the keys, remind ourselves of how rocky we are, walk into unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory and stand ourselves against the gates of hell, where we won’t back down! Amen.