The Scripture text was Matthew 16:13-20
On the small has-been farm I grew up on, we had lots of gates.
There was the gate that kept the goats in their pen. There was the gate that kept the hogs in their pen. There was the gate at the bottom of the driveway that kept the stranger out when we were away. In shop class, I learned how to make a gate that will never, ever sag or drag the ground.
I know a little bit about gates.
So, in the passage we read today, when Jesus says “ I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”, I noticed that.
To prevail means to be effective or to be victorious. How is a gate victorious? How is it effective? How does a gate prevail?
Gates have two functions: To keep people or things inside. And to keep people or things outside.
Gates are effective when they keep things in or out.
So, when Jesus says that He will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, he has to mean that the gates of hell cannot keep the church out.
According to Jesus, the church belongs in hell.
Hell is where we find the drug addicted. Hell is where the single mother struggling to pay the bills lives. Hell is where the alcoholic sleeps, hell is where the pimped out and the pimps both live. Hell is where we find both victims of abuse and abusers.
We want the church to be a place where we meet and hang out with our friends, but Jesus pictured the church as an expeditionary force, bursting down the gates of hell itself and bringing liberation to those who are imprisoned there.
Jesus is calling his church to wade into hell itself to bust out the homeless, the hungry, the adulterer, the pornographer. To drag them out of the depths of hell, after we tear down those gates.
Hunger, homelessness, addiction – all that is one kind of hell. But there are other hells.
There is the hell of being told your sexuality or your gender somehow makes you less than acceptable to God. There’s the hell of being made to feel less than human because your skin is darker than everyone else’s, or because you were born in another country.
And there is the hell of being poor and losing your job and being told it’s the fault of the immigrant, who, in reality, you have much more in common with than you do the rich man who laid you off.
Whatever hell people find themselves in, the gates that keep them there are to be torn down by the church. We are most like the church Jesus had in mind when we proclaim to the captives that the hell they live in is not part of the plan – that there is another way to live, and we find it when we work together to bring about the Justice of God.
The justice of God is a personal justice. It involves sacrificial love. It means dying to ourselves, our ambitions, our preconceived notions of how things work. The way of Jesus invites us to be the means by which God’s justice comes into being. It invites us to go to Hell, for the sake of those imprisoned there.
Today, my brothers and sisters, my most fervent prayer for the church is simply this: I pray I will see you in hell. They need us there.
In the name of the Father, and The Son, and The Holy Spirit. Amen.