Lectionary 21A (August 27, 2017)

“The Gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church!” I am glad Jesus has that much faith in us. I think. Before I say for certain, I’d like to know exactly what he’s talking about. What are the Gates of Hades, or Gates of Hell? In Jesus’ world, within city walls, the magistrate could exercise power and enforce laws. Outside the walls: not so easy. Consequently, the country came to symbolize chaos, danger, lawlessness, and the city came to symbolize order, safety, and the rule of law. City and country meet at the Gate. The Gate is where justice begins, so the gate becomes the court of law. Hades is the Greek word for the “underworld,” and Hebrews used that word to translate their words for places of the dead. Today, we usually use the Germanic “Hell.” The Gates of Hell is thus an image for death’s ultimate legal claim upon you. You’re gonna die. This is Hell’s High Court, and Satan is the judge and chief prosecutor. He’s also what we would today call a “troll,” who relentlessly harasses us to live like we’re under Hell’s death sentence. Satan wants us to keep living, but to give up on life. He wants us to limit our lives and the lives of those around us. He wants us to keep the animal alive but kill the human.

I saw this limiting at the meeting of the Valparaiso Human Relations Council on Tuesday. (No, Satan is not on the council.) The Council discussed matters and opened them to community input. I observed that I knew what each black person would say, what each Latina would say, what each youth would say. I didn’t know what each white adult would say. Even the ones I knew, I couldn’t predict. (Some of the white adults said awful things.) As I was driving home I was thinking how tiresome and frustrating it is having to convince people that I am one of the good white adults. You know, it’s all about me, and how unfair my mild inconveniences are. Then I realized, I have the freedom to respond however I want. I can say whatever I want and you don’t know for sure what I am gonna say until I do. Those other folks don’t have it. The culture has determined what the Latina will say—the culture has stuck her in the Latina spot, and given her a backstory and a daily life that limits her. The culture has heaped so much on the black person that their words and actions have to respond to it.

The systems of sin have forced them into roles. And the freedom I possess to say and do what I want? It is a luxury, it is a privilege, which I currently possess because of a culture that gives it to me, and not others. Our culture imposes the limiting decisions of the Gates of Hell. Hell’s verdict is we are going to die, so while we are alive we have to limit others before they limit us. Each of us faces these limits. By virtue of being a white man in his 30s I have things I am expected to do and expected not to do. And some of these things have nothing to do with being a human male in his 30s, and everything to do with the roles our culture places on us. We are bound.

So, Jesus gives Peter the keys. He says, “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That’s the power to break out of the roles we’ve been assigned. That’s the power to overrule the Gates of Hell decision. What exactly is the power of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the OT, a key was a symbol of a steward’s authority over a household. I’ve said before, “Kingdom of Heaven” is probably Matthew’s roundabout polite way of saying “God.” So, stewardship over God. Over the summer, the parables have portrayed God as wild and uncontrollable, dangerous. Jesus’ solution to the Gates of Hell is to give us the keys to something wild, uncontrollable, and dangerous. This is one of those times when I say, “Uh, Jesus, with all due respect, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Our post-truth world is already wild, uncontrollable, and dangerous. We live in a world where you can discredit anything by just saying: “fake news.” We seek information that confirms our opinions, and then assume any contradictory information—even mountains of it—must be hyper partisan (cuz lord knows our information was). Gaslighting has become par for the course: right now, in America, guys who march in swastika armbands and chant Nazi slogans are telling us they are not Nazis, and enough people are willing to entertain this idea that we have to treat it like it may make sense. The world is wild and dangerous. I think I prefer the Gates of Hell. You know where you stand. The post-truth era is just more of Gates of Hell-style justice. It’s just another way to limit people. Fit them into place—Jew, Evangelical, Muslim, Conservative, Liberal—force them to follow the cultural role. How is the Kingdom of Heaven different? How is it not just another role? What separates it from the world?

Paul deals with this in the Second Reading. Paul’s world is not ours, but Paul writes to a community of people whose roles are assigned to them by the culture. There are Jewish Christians who have to keep kosher and forever explain themselves to the other Jews at festivals. There are Gentile Christians who’ve given up their pagan social life and are seen as weird and probably dangerous. And of course there are men and women, slaves and free persons, patrons and clients. Paul says to them, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In Matthew’s terms: “Don’t let the Gates of Hell force you or anyone else into their pattern, but let Christ transform you.”

Christ transforms us. He does it by welcoming everyone as a human being, and by demanding to be treated as one himself. Think of his passion: he demands to know why the mob comes by night with weapons, like he is a wild animal and they don’t want anyone to notice how they treat him. He refuses to play along with his trial before the Gates of Hell, won’t play the role. Even his cry from the cross—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me—demands that all acknowledge he deserves better than what he has been given. Jesus demands I address him as “you,” not “it.” Jesus ceases to be some “thing” in my way, and becomes a human deserving of dignity. That’s how he gets me, how he transforms me. Jesus says, “Here I am; I am a person.” The world tells me, “It is just another thing in the way. Put it in its place before it puts you in yours. Make its life be death.” And I say, “That’s not an ‘it’; that’s a person.” I am transformed. Christ transforms me.

Christ builds the Church to be a community of people transformed to relate this way. When we are being Christ’s Church, we are fully human to each other. Each of us comes here with the death sentence from the Gates of Hell hanging over us, a socially constructed role to play. Christ treats us not as socially constructed roles but as human beings. He demands we treat him the same, which transforms us, and he points us, transformed, to see others the same way. That death sentence from the Gates of Hell is powerless, here. The Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church because Christ transforms us to see people as people and not as “it.” We don’t abide by Satan’s verdict, here.

That separates us from the role-assigning the world does. The moment we assign someone the role of black, Latino, woman, youth, we’ve probably strayed from Church as Jesus builds it. Christ transforms us into something new. That is something wild, uncontrollable, and dangerous…to the world! The world’s been abiding the Gates of Hell decision for so long, I don’t know what it’d look like if we did things Christ’s way. The world needs Christ’s way, though. God created all of this, and people deserve to be treated as human beings. That makes the Church a community worth having. As long as the world insists on enforcing Hell’s decisions, the Church will have a job: refusing to abide by Hell’s decisions, and instead treating humans as humans.

That’s worth having; that’s worth having the keys to. I said I didn’t think it was a good idea. Now, I have to admit: “Okay, yeah, Jesus. This is a good idea.” It’s worth joining Peter as stewards of the community of Christ. It’s worth putting our time and our money into it, because it is the place where the Gates of Hell will not prevail. It’s worth investing our lives in, because it’s a living sign to the world that God intends far more for it than Hell lets on. Christ has a lot of faith in the Church…because Christ is here transforming us; and because Christ is here transforming us, I have a lot of faith in the Church as well.