a sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16A/Lectionary 21]
Matthew 16:13-20 and Isaiah 51:1-6
“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Those words of Jesus’, which we hear him speak to Peter this morning, may be the most important words for the church to hear at this time. The gates of Hades that Jesus is talking about was the gaping hole at the middle of the rock wall that the gleaming new city Caesarea Philippi was built on. Many people in Jesus’ time thought that it was the entrance to the underworld, the place from which evil and the powers of death emerged. There is no place like that underneath us or in the middle of the earth, but for many cultures and peoples, the Gates of Hades, or gates of hell as they are sometimes known, has become a metaphor for forces of destruction and darkness. It is a way of speaking about fearsome, unpredictable things that harm us and tear human community apart. When Jesus says it to Peter and his disciples, he means that there is nothing that will ultimately break his followers apart, nothing in the universe that will ever conquer and demolish the community that has been formed by the love of Jesus Christ, not even death.
2020 certainly feels like something out of the Gates of Hades. The year began with some deaths in our congregation that took our breath away. Then the pandemic started. We thought would be a few weeks of shutdown. And now we are beginning our seventh month and there still is no end in sight. Looking back, there was something almost romantic about those first three or four weeks when we thought it would be short-lived. Baking bread. Writing letters long-hand. I don’t need to list for you the stress we are all under now—the effects on the economy and unemployment, mental health, the challenges of educating our children and college students. You can add to it the tumultuous social changes we are undergoing in this country, right in time for one of the most divisive election seasons this country has ever seen. And now two hurricanes are getting ready to hit the Gulf coast in one week. Don’t forget the murder hornets.
Human communities everywhere are dealing with unbelievable amounts of stress, and Jesus’ church is no different. The main things that tend to hold us together as our community are not available at this time. Group singing, kneeling at an altar together to receive Holy Communion, hugging and shaking hands, Sunday School crafts and youth group games—they are all on hold, and we’re feeling it.
Church growth consultant and expert Thom Rainer shared in a blog post this week he titles, “Five Ways Churches Will Have Changed One Year From Now,” that we can expect twenty percent of our members not to return, even after the pandemic is behind us. I don’t know how he arrives at that number, but it’s probably pretty realistic. Rainer also shares that more pastors will leave ministry altogether over the next twelve months than at any time in recent history. It’s just his prediction, of course, which means it may not come true, but he explains that most pastors and church leaders are receiving more negative comments and criticisms than usual at a time when face to face conversations, which is usually how conflict is best worked out, are not really possible.
Suffice it to say this is not my experience at Epiphany whatsoever. I think Pastor Joseph and Kevin and the rest of the staff would agree that we continue to feel so supported and loved and encouraged. But I think Rainer is likely correct about the church at large. I suspect many congregations will close or merge with others as a result of what we’re going through.
None of this mentions anything about those we may lose as a result of COVID-19 because they die. That is what truly brings us grief. To think of the people we have already lost and will yet lose during this pandemic is deeply saddening. We’ll never get to worship again with certain people this side of the resurrection, and the fact we can’t even gather to give thanks for their life in worship and song and prayer is like pouring salt in the wound. Funerals are some of the first Christian liturgies, and they’ve been taken away from us. As one bishop in our denomination said, it is like this coronavirus is designed specifically to damage the church. The Gates of Hades have been opened and hell is afoot.
But, Jesus says, we have a rock. Kind of like young King David standing off against enormous Goliath, we have a rock. It may seem insignificant, but it is a rock that will not falter, a foundation that cannot be shaken, a weapon of precision that brings down the terrors. Jesus looks at Peter, who has just confessed Jesus as God’s anointed Son for the first time, and says that the rock of faith will hold his followers together. Nothing that this world throws at us will be able to shake the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Nothing the church encounters will be able to overthrow the truth that God has come to live with God’s people and announce the forgiveness of sins and bring righteousness to the earth. There is no telling what life for us may look like once this exile of pandemic is over, but we know we will have a rock to rebuild on.
This morning Isaiah mentions a rock, too. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” the prophet says to a people who were worn down by life in Babylonian exile. “And to the quarry from which you were dug.” They knew they would eventually return to their homeland, but they couldn’t imagine it. In their despair and dejection and preoccupation with the desert around them they couldn’t envision it. They needed someone to remind them that there is rock—valuable, strong rock—there. And that they are made of the same rock as those daring and bold ancestors who were also called to live their faith into dangerous and uncertain times.
The same is true for us. There is solid rock deep down inside this faith about Jesus that will anchor us and keep us steady. The church may not be able to gather in person as we like, but we have the internet to sustain some sort of contact. We may not be able to have Sunday School, but parents and grandparents can carve out time at home to teach Bible stories and read Scripture so that the faith is passed down. We may not be celebrate Holy Baptism and Holy Communion in the same communal, comfortable ways we used to, but the Holy Spirit has still provided us with opportunities to keep the water and the wine flowing, so to speak. These are just a few examples of how we know we’ve been called claimed by the Son of a Living God, not a lifeless or inanimate one.
But the greatest reason that we will survive this, and the thing that will prove that the gates of Hades won’t be victorious isn’t the internet and isn’t the creativity of the people of God. It is because the keys are in our pocket. We have been given the keys to the kingdom, which Jesus first imparted to Peter that day by Caesarea Philippi. Binding and loosing—the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of relationships in God’s name—that is what the forces of hell can do nothing about. They tried. They tried on the cross to stamp out a life given over to selflessness and grace. The forces of hell tried to silence the way of compassion and mercy. But they were not able to succeed. Healing people’s woes and forgiving people’s sins, bringing that which is broken apart back together again, is the heart of Jesus’ ministry and the foundation of God’s kingdom. In his crucifixion he brought heaven and earth together again, sinners and God together forever. This will never be taken away from us, and it is the foundation of everything the church is about. That is the rock from which we are hewn.
When we have the keys, the door is always open to us. Forgiveness and new life in Jesus’ name can be pronounced anywhere and at any time. And whenever that happens, well, there is the church, thriving and doing what it’s created to do. That’s what Jesus, the church best growth expert and consultant, knows.
Earlier this morning we witnessed the baptism of Spencer Wallace Jones, a child in our congregation who was born back before the pandemic began and whose baptism was originally scheduled for sometime in April. Then we rescheduled it for July. Then, finally, August. We were all set to perform the baptism outside where we’ve been holding our other pandemic baptisms, but it was raining like crazy, so we moved inside and everyone put on masks.
As you saw, all through the baptism Spencer’s two older siblings, Samantha and Wesley, kept running up to the baptismal font, then away from it, up the aisle, through the pews, and then back to the font. Things like that typically don’t happen on a normal baptism on a Sunday morning here. Because we were recording, however, no one really wanted to say anything to the kids about it or redirect their attention because that could obviously get very awkward. So we just let them run to their hearts’ content. They were clearly having a good time. And it was perfect.
Once it was finished and we had stopped the filming, Spencer’s dad said, “You probably don’t want kids to get too used to running around in here.” And I said, “Oh it’s absolutely fine. The church hasn’t been this happy in six months!” And then he said, or maybe it was his wife, Megan, “Well, I suppose it is a sign that they are comfortable here in this place!”
Absolutely, I thought. Let them run all day, then. Let them reclaim this dark and dusty place for the kingdom with all their laughing and squealing and memories of Cherub choir and children’s sermons. Let them run through the pews for us, on our behalf, as we all run along the paths of forgiveness and righteousness we know as church, the rock that never falters. Let the walls resound with the silliness of children and the tenderness of parents along the shores of a baptismal day where a new creature is given the keys. Let them run and laugh. The Gates of Hades don’t stand a chance.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.