12th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Scott E. Schul
It was a spectacularly beautiful day as I stood there at the very edge of the Gates of Hades. Now there’s something you don’t often hear in a sermon! But it’s true. The sky was bright blue and the temperature was an unseasonably warm 60 degrees, an absolutely picture perfect day for late January in Israel, about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
You see, the setting where our Gospel reading takes place greatly informs how we understand the breadth and depth of what happened there. We believe that this particular dialogue between Jesus and Peter took place right where I and my tour group were standing, in northern Israel, in a place even today known as Caesarea Philippi. The region got its name from Philip the Tetrarch, who ruled that portion of Palestine. He was one of the sons of Herod the Great, and rebuilt and renamed this ancient city in tribute both to himself, and to his overseer, the Roman Emperor.
Immediately we can begin to grasp why this setting was so provocative and so theologically significant. Caesarea Philippi was a center of the imperial cult – a place where emperors were glorified and worshiped as gods. And yet it was here that Jesus warmly affirmed Peter’s confession and proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the very Son of the living God – titles the Emperor himself claimed. Make no mistake: this is Jesus at his most audacious. There, defiantly standing at a hub of imperial power, we see the carpenter’s son from Nazareth boldly proclaim that a new kingdom is coming, one based on mercy and not might; a kingdom devoted to peace and not persecution. Jesus left no doubt that it is he, and not the Emperor, who is worthy of worship.
But there’s something even more remarkable going on here too. You see, before this area became Caesarea Philippi, it was known as Paneas, and was dedicated to and named after the pagan god Pan. The center of Pan’s cult was a huge stone cave atop a series of natural springs. That cave had become a pagan altar known as – you guessed it – the Gates of Hades.
According to my tour guide in Israel, here’s how it functioned. Disciples of Pan would hurl animals into the cave as a sacrifice to feed Pan as he rose up from the dominion of the dead. If the underground springs subsequently ran red with blood, it meant that Pan was still hungry and wanted more flesh. Only when they ceased seeing blood did they stop the sacrifice, which to them meant that Pan was satiated and would reward the entire village with fertility.
And so as Jesus stood there before this unholy shrine to the pagan god of the dead, Jesus made his boldest claim yet, that he – Jesus – was the master of all things – even death itself – and that not even the Gates of Hades would prevail against him, his Church, or his followers. This is the very assurance we endeavor to proclaim from this pulpit every week and especially at funerals. Nothing has ultimate power over Jesus and nothing – not even death itself – can separate us from his love. That’s the astonishing promise Jesus proclaimed that day before the Gates of Hades. It’s a timeless message of hope that we need to hear over and over again.
As I mentioned, my day in Israel before the Gates of Hades was a beautiful one, but it didn’t start out quite so well. In fact, it was preceded by one of the lowest points on our pilgrimage, a moment that highlighted how human sin continues to conquer, divide, and demoralize us.
It all happened just a few hours earlier, in a place called Tabgha, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Tradition has it that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples there, cooked a meal of fish for them on the shore, and three times restored and renewed the spirit of Peter, who on the eve of the crucifixion had denied Jesus three times. Our tour group of pastors was excited because at this sacred site we were going to worship and celebrate Holy Communion together. But our enthusiasm was dashed when the site’s custodians, members of a religious order, suddenly withdrew our permission to worship at that site.
The problem they had with us was that one of our tour group, Rev. Jessica Crist, Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA, was going to preside at communion. Evidently this was a big problem for the custodians, who do not believe that women should be ordained. Not only did they refuse us permission to worship, but they also asked our tour guides to direct Bishop Crist to remove her stole because, in their words, her wearing that stole “offended this site.”
Frankly, I don’t think the grass, sand, and rocks cared very much. God bless Bishop Crist – she kept right on wearing that stole and didn’t give them the satisfaction of thinking that they had gotten under her skin. But they had gotten under my skin. I was angry that they had treated our friend and Bishop with such disrespect. It was a stark reminder that holy ground alone won’t create holy hearts.
And so the communion service we had planned to celebrate along the shore of the Sea of Galilee moved to a very different setting. 25 miles northward, our little group of pilgrims gathered under a tree, with a simple stone for an altar. And with Bishop Crist presiding – stole and all – we joyfully celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the shadow of the Gates of Hades, confident that because of Jesus Christ, there is no earthly power or force of evil that can ultimately prevail against Jesus and his Church.
Now, let’s make this personal. What are the symbolic Gates of Hades that loom over us, attempt to intimidate us, and seek to frighten and control us here in our nation, our community, and our congregation?
Columnist David Brooks recently wrote that, “we’re living in an age of anxiety…Anxiety is not so much a fear of a specific thing but a fear of everything, an unnamable dread about the future. People will do anything to escape it.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the same thing in fewer words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
When we are anxious about our future – when we are gripped by fear – the “better angels of our nature” give way and we are easily controlled and manipulated by the forces of evil. We look for easy answers to relieve the unrelenting pressure we feel. We look for someone to blame. And so we sacrificially hurl one another into our own Gates of Hades as we give-in to divisive evils like arrogance, greed, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and xenophobia. And when we burn ourselves out hating others, we then direct our hatred inward, and sink into despair, loneliness, addictions, and hopelessness, as we become convinced that we are worthless and utterly and completely unlovable, even by God.
But in the light of Jesus Christ, we can see the bitter fruits of these fears and anxieties for what they really are: human constructs that have no ultimate and lasting power over us. Our Messiah Jesus Christ has claimed, cleansed, and liberated us from the forces of evil and death itself. He comes to you today with the assurance that there is hope, your future is secure, you matter, and you are loved. Friends, we really can live like the liberated people we are, and we can treat people with the same grace that Jesus uses to bless us. Why? Because we do not have to be afraid. In the light of Jesus, we can see everything and everyone in a new and holy way. In the light of Jesus, we can even see the Gates of Hades for what it really is – just an old pile of rocks. Thanks be to God! Amen.