Standing on a Rock above the Gates of Hell

Transcribed from the sermon preached August 24, 2014

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20


In our Gospel Passage this morning, Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi. On our last trip to Israel we visited there. It was super helpful for me to see it to understand the geography of the whole of Palestine. We normally think of Israel as a dry desert, so it has always been hard for me to understand why it was called, the land of milk and honey. But this time we visited in the spring and traveled to the Golan Heights, at the base of Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is a 9,100 ft mountain which today has a ski resort. There are two passes which lead to Damascus in Syria and to Lebanon. These passes are extremely important militarily and every dominant empire for the last 3,000 years has controlled them. More importantly, the watershed of Mt. Hermon feeds the agricultural economic base for all three cities: Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem.

The mouth of the Jordan is fed by three springs, the largest of which is at Caesarea, Philippi. The spring is up on the hills at the base of Mt Hermon, right in the middle of the two passes. In the 3rd century BCE the Greeks built a temple in dedication for the god Pan. Pan was a Greek god of shepherds, hunters, music and desolate places. Half goat half man, Pan would lure nymphs and capture and violate virgins in the wilderness. Thus Pan’s noises in mountains and grottos would inspire panic. In worship of Pan they would sacrifice animals and throw them into the deep pit from which the spring came. No doubt people were thrown in there too. Also, there would have been many temple prostitutes and bestiality. So you can imagine orgies of sex and rivers of blood at the deep cave that must have seemed like the gates of hell.

Now Matthew writes after the Jewish war in 70. Josephus says that Titus marched the Roman armies over the pass and rested at Caesarea Philippi for 20 days. He held games in honor of his brother’s birthday, in which Jews who wouldn’t give up and worship Caesar as Lord were forced to fight each other in gladiatorial combat or be fed to wild beasts, or burned. Josephus reports that 2,000 were killed in 20 days there while Titus rested his army. (Josephus Wars 7.2.1)

So this massacre is fresh in the minds of the audience of the gospels; people being burned, fed to wild beasts, raped, forced to kill others in order to stay alive. All of this at the giant rock at the temple of Pan, with the bottomless pit like the gates of hell.

So Jesus is there with his disciples. And he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” So Jesus says, you are “Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” On this rock Jesus is going to build a community of love rather than hate or indifference to suffering of others, a community of self-sacrifice rather than murder and debauchery, a community that worships the God of compassion and harmony rather than a horned goat-man that threatens women and causes panic.

In the Gospel of Mark this narrative at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus is identified as the Messiah and Jesus says that he will suffer. And he says, “Those who would save their life will lose it and whosoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel will save it.”

Justin, one of the great theologians of the early Church, went to Rome about 140 AD as a young man and attended the gladiator games in honor of imperial birthdays. Justin was blown away by the courage of a group of illiterate peasants who refused to fight or run, but stood bravely to face their death.

You see Justin had believed like many that one needed the wealth and freedom from earthly labors in order to pursue wisdom and peace. He was pursuing stoic self-realization through knowledge and had studied under great philosophers. He also studied cosmology, mathematics and music. After his day watching the bravery and peace of the uneducated peasants in the arena, Justin met an old man who was a member of this group. He tried to impress him with all his knowledge and pursuit of philosophy, but instead of being impressed the man challenged him. “Will the human mind ever see God through its own capacity,” he asked? The old man told him that he would need to be cleansed from his sins and receive the Holy Spirit. “This is what those peasants in the arena had: peace through Jesus Christ.”

(Fiorenza, Revelation)

For much of my life I listened to those Biblical stories of pursuit of power, of racial and religious prejudice, brutality and violence, amazed that it once was so, and grateful that we had graduated to civilized life. But as we listen to the news, of the ISIS fighters beheading people, of girls being kidnapped for forced prostitution/ temporary marriage, of indiscriminant rocket fire and bombings and ethnic cleansing, of drug lords executing and ravaging in Central America, we must sadly admit that the gates of Hell are still open.

A few of us at St. John’s have spent the last couple of weeks listening to firsthand accounts from children and families at the border. Drug gangs give people the option of paying extortion, joining the gang to run drugs and kill, or be killed. And those who choose to murder to have a job and stay alive become good at it; they get to a spot where their soul is so far gone that violation and murder is easy, all part of a day’s work. I don’t think there is anything unique about the killers. History is too full of evidence that each of us is capable of sin and evil. We can be transformed to where cheating and lying and torture are easy.

Today in our own country there are those who fear brown and black skinned children will become more numerous and powerful than them; take over political power and overturn the system of prejudice and discrimination. Children and families are fleeing for their lives, crossing the river with babies in baskets to hide from the murderers, coming to the United States in hope of refuge and sanctuary. And people who claim they are pro-life join militias and stand with guns to turn them around or throw them in prison. So our prisons are full and the drug lords run rampant.

Meanwhile the wealthy and educated pursue self-realization on their own, thinking earthly life is a hindrance to enlightenment. There is a lot of talk about earth and nature, but it has little to do with the earthy life of the poor. There is a lot of debate today about whether or not there is a God. Some people are saying that science is a threat, that the knowledge we have gained about nature and the universe has eliminated the need for God. Educated folk wonder and doubt.

But the real question is not can we believe in a God in the face of science, but can we believe in a God in the face ongoing poverty and prejudice? Can we believe in God, when out of fear, the task masters shoot unarmed kids and throw huge numbers in prison for petty crime, when terrified mothers give their babies away to escape by river? Can we believe in the Messiah while standing on a rock above the gates of hell?

We may look at ourselves, with our challenges, our own sin and weakness, and not want to think more highly that we ought. We have got to work on ourselves for God’s sake. Maybe we are a police officer who has made a mistake or two, or a petty thief, or a banker or a boss or a minister, who has made a mistake or two, or we are on our third marriage, or we are not married, and we are short on work and short on education. Every day there is more knowledge we need just to survive, and we scramble to get our kids to all of the things that will make them a successful person, science projects and music lessons and soccer or baseball practice. We have iphones and computers to buy and learn; the car needs a tune-up. Then there is cooking and laundry and dust on the bookshelf. We have fish to catch and the waters can get stormy, and it is all we can do to bail out our own boat. God just doesn’t seem that important. Is church even an efficient use of our time? But what does it profit if we gain the whole world and lose our soul? Let us be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

Take a look at Peter who has no time for anything but fishing: the guy who tries faith for a bit and then sinks, the guy who when Jesus says he must suffer says, I forbid it Lord. And Jesus reprimands him saying, “Get behind me Satan.” This is the same Peter who calls Jesus Lord and then denies him three times, who falls asleep in the garden while on watch, who whips out his sword when Jesus is arrested and Jesus has to slap him back again. It is this Peter who says, “You are the Messiah.” And to whom Jesus replies, “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” It is Peter who sees that God’s grace through Christ is for all people, even the Romans.

The message of the Gospel is that if we confess our sins and repent, we will receive forgiveness, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit. We come to Church to allow God to give us a Holy Spirit orientation, a Holy Spirit lifestyle. The message of the Gospel is that if we only seek to help ourselves, we will lose ourselves. If we reach out and help others, if we present ourselves as living sacrifices, God will make us holy and acceptable; God will transform us and renew us. And together, with gifts that differ according to the grace which God has given us, we form a community, the body of Christ, and together there is hope that surpasses understanding. We will find our own souls being transformed. Let us grow up among the empire and not turn those children back to their death, but instead proclaim, “God says, let my people go.” There is evil in the world, but we are not going to panic. No, Let us stand on the rock above the gates of hell and proclaim, Jesus, you are the Messiah. The God of Love is my Lord.