Have you ever heard these before? A weasel walked into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, I have never seen a weasel in this bar before. What can I get for you? “Pop,” goes the weasel. Or then about the fellow who stayed up all night to see where the sun went, than it dawned on him.
Jokes like this require a moment and then there is that “Aha!” and then hopefully the chuckle. Life is full of ‘Aha’ moments, some not very important but some are extremely important. This week’s gospel lesson talks about one of the extremely important ‘Aha’ moments one can have.
Last week we saw Jesus with the Canaanite woman. He was north of Israel. And now he is headed back to Israel traveling through the area of Caesarea Philippi but he isn’t home yet. As Jesus and his disciples are walking along, Jesus says, “Who do people say I am?” They answer and then he says, “OK, but who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says to him, “You are blessed because this understanding you received is from God. You are rock and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not be able to prevail against my church!” Clearly this is a big deal in the eyes of Jesus. So what just happened?
What does he mean that God the Father has revealed this to you? We have seen in Matthew that the disciples already have worshiped him as the Son of God on that night he walked on the water to their boat so why is this profession by Peter so special? Why is this profession the one upon which the Lord will build his church? What we learn here is that true understanding of the identity of Jesus is something that requires the help of God the Father. It requires the Holy Spirit to open one’s heart and mind. And that is what happened to Peter. From here on there an internal change within Peter. Now he really got it. He really understood that Jesus was the Messiah. He really was the Son of the Living God. He may have misunderstanding in other areas but this he has really got. It is because of this understanding that now is in Peter that Jesus proclaims that He will build his church. We are not talking about buildings here. Church in the Greek is the word ecclesia and it means group or assembly. So Jesus tells the disciples that He is going to gather a group of his chosen people. And not even the gates of Hades will be able to stand successfully against his group of people. This sounds great but what exactly does it mean? Where are the ‘gates of Hades’ and why are Hades and the followers of Jesus fighting each other?
In the first century, the important cities all had walls. Jerusalem was a relatively unimportant city in the Roman Empire. But even though it was not extremely important, it had walls that were 40 feet high and over 8 feet thick. That is a pretty substantial wall. Nobody is going to high jump or even pull-vault over that wall. Rome built walls 52 feet high and 8 feet thick. So quite frankly, the walls were usually not the attack points. It was the gates. The gates were always the place where the cities were the most vulnerable. Walls were made of stone. Gates were made of wood. Gates were what the armies attacked to get into the city. We need to understand this in order to understand what Jesus is saying here. He is not talking about Hades attacking the church. Gates don’t attack. Gates are used to get into the city. So it is the church which is attacking Hades and the gates of Hades will not be able to hold against the church. So Jesus is saying that when his people attack the gates of Hades, those gates are going down. The church will invade and conquer the kingdom of Hades.
So that’s exciting, and where is this Hades that we are supposed to conquer? Hades is the Greek name for the place of the dead. It is also known as the grave. It is where the spirits of the dead go when their bodies die. So Jesus is telling his disciples that his people, his church will wage war on the grave and will win! Dr. Criswell, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, tells the story that once on an airplane flight he found himself seated beside a well-known theologian, a seminary professor. They got to talking during the flight. The man told Dr. Criswell his young son had died recently. The man said the child had come home from school with a fever and the family thought it was just one of those childhood things, but it turned out to be a very virulent form of meningitis. The doctors said we cannot save your little boy. He will die.
And so this seminary professor, loving his son as he did, sat by the bed side as his son died. It was the middle of the day and the little boy whose strength was going from him and whose vision and brain was getting clouded said, “Daddy, it is getting dark isn’t it?” The professor said to his son, “Yes son it is getting dark, very dark.” The boy said, “Daddy, I guess it’s time for me to go to sleep isn’t it?”
His father said, “Yes, son, it’s time for you to go to sleep.”
The professor said the little fellow had a way of fixing his pillow just so, and putting his head on his hands when he slept and he fixed his pillow like that and laid his head on his hands and said, “Good night, Daddy. I will see you in the morning.” He then closed his eyes and died.
Dr. Criswell said the professor didn’t say anymore after that. He just looked out the window of that airplane for a long time. Finally he turned back and he looked at Dr. Criswell with tears coming down his cheeks and he said, “Dr. Criswell, I can hardly wait till the morning.”
You see, the morning is coming. That’s what Jesus is saying, “The gates of Hades, the gates of DEATH, are not going to win against the church!” The spirits of dead will not remain in Hades. Jesus said his church will conquer the grave. How can this be? After all, death is still with us isn’t it? Yes, but because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we don’t stay dead. We like our Lord Jesus will come back to life.
And the key element in this victory over the grave is that understanding of who Jesus is like what Peter had. It is not simply a human understanding that Jesus was some sort of remarkable, miracle producing fellow and a great ethical teacher. No there has to be an understanding that comes from God. God has to open our hearts to begin to get it. God has to open our hearts for us to really comprehend what happened through Jesus. Simply trying to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus is not what conquers the grave. You see the true of understanding of who Jesus is, this ‘Aha’ moment, includes grasping, however dimly, how much love God shows us in sending Jesus to us. This true understanding that Jesus is the Son of God means that God came here to earth. This understanding includes beginning to comprehend how much we needed help. God came to live among us and then to die as a sacrifice for our sin so that we could be reconciled to God so that we could have peace with God; so we can have a relationship with God. This revealing of who Jesus is that comes from God the Father is exactly what changes our understanding not only of who Jesus is but who God is. At that point we begin to understand how much God loves us. And we are changed. Then we become new people, his people. And this assembly of Jesus’s people conquers Hades, conquers death. Death has no hold on us. This is why when we refer to the resurrection of the dead we make the sign of the cross. It is because it is through Jesus dying on the cross we can have resurrection and victory over death. This is why we make the sign of the cross when we speak of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We understand who God is, what God’s character is, by what Jesus did on the cross. We are the only religion who celebrates their God dying a shameful and humiliating death. Did you know that? In the eyes of others who are not Christian it is crazy. So the question for us today is “Do we get it?” Do we really understand? Has God opened our eyes and hearts to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God? Have we been able to begin to comprehend His great love? Because if He has then we have this new life and we can have the confidence that the Gates of Hades, Death itself has no hold on us and for those of us have lost people we love, morning is indeed coming. Amen