This sermon was preached on the 11th Sunday of Trinity at St Mary’s, Diss – August 23rd 2020.
The readings were: Romans 12:1-8, Psalm 138, Matthew 16:13-20.
May I speak to the glory of the living God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
My friends, I don’t know if anyone here has ever been to Israel and visited Caesarea Philippi and stood in the place where Jesus stood with the disciples in our Gospel reading this morning. I myself haven’t been but I know from speaking with my parents and others that when you’re there it adds a layer of meaning to this passage. Because when you stand at Caesarea Philippi you look up at the side of the hill and can see the remnants of statues and shrines to various other gods which pilgrims of different faiths would go to venerate and offer their prayers. It’s here that Jesus asks his disciples “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is”. They respond with a selection of possibilities: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Then he asks them a pivotal question: Who do you say that I am?
And this is a core question for us to reflect on for ourselves – what do we think of Jesus? Is he a nice guy who preached a message of kind friendliness? Is he a good role model whose example we think is worthy of emulating much as the Buddha is for Buddists or as Mohammed is considered by Muslims? Is he someone whom we respect and learn from or is he perhaps someone whose words we can use to bolster and support our own moral ideas?
Simon Peter blurts out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”
Jesus is delighted! “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father in heaven!”
And this is who Jesus is – He is the son of the living God of Israel, the embodiment of the Word of God living and breathing as a human being like us and amongst us. This is not hyperbole or an exaggerated title, it’s a divine revelation and confession that Jesus, not the local statues or shrines which they could see around them, is the Lord of all creation.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, though, he continues: “and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 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.”
We are confronted first with the question: Who is Jesus, and then, acknowledging the truth that he is the Son of God, we have to ask ourselves who are we, the Church?
For we here today are the latest in that unbroken succession of faithful Christians through the ages which are the body of Christ, the Church. When we trace our spiritual genealogy back, when we look at who first encouraged us in our faith, and who nurtured their faith which was received in turn from those before them, we find, through the twists and turns and quirks of history, that it all comes back to this moment when Simon Peter says: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
This confession, echoed on the lips of believers through the centuries, is the beating heart of the life of the Church. Yet this confession is not the end of the Church, it is only the basis for Jesus says that he will build his Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
It is here that I regret to tell you, my friends, that we have been deceived.
Somewhere along the line we’ve found our imagination of what this means to be subtly inverted and distorted.
What do we imagine when we think of this phrase “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church?” I suspect that for many of us we visualise the Church, and particularly our wonderful buildings, as spiritual fortresses which will withstand any attack of the powers of hell. That when we are in this space, we are safe. Perhaps we imagine that the shades of hell linger outside the door trying to come in as darkness trying to smother a candle and we trust that that candle, that light, will not be overcome.
And indeed, the darkness of the world cannot overcome Jesus; the light of the world.
But the image Jesus gives us of the Gates of Hell is not of the powers of Hell trying to break in and defeat us; no it’s quite the opposite. They are encamped in the world with daunting walls and giant signs saying ‘keep out’. For when we read the Gospels and see Jesus encountering the unclean spirits they cry out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth, have you come to destroy us?!”, (Mark 1:24) again, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come to torment us?” (Matt 8:28). And James (2:19) writes: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.”
The gates of hell are the fortifications of sin, death, the world and the devil against the power of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus says the gates of hell shall not prevail, he is not saying to us “you are safe in here behind these doors”, he is declaring that we when we go out of these doors into our town, into the world then we shall break down the gates and defences of hell as we bring the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the gospel of salvation, forgiveness and eternal life to those who are in pain, despair, and fear.
For the power of Christ is the triumph of life over death.
In the spiritual war between life and death there are three breaths of life which changed everything.
The first breath was that of the baby Jesus born of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit in a stable surrounded by farm animals. With that breath, the living God, the Lord of all creation, lived for the first time within his creation as the human being who would grow up to become our saviour and die for our sins upon the cross. From that moment the powers of hell were marshalled in a panic stricken attack, trying desperately to kill him and overcome him. You’ll remember Joseph and Mary had to flee Herod’s men who sought to kill him, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the Devil, and was betrayed into the hands of the religious leaders who sought to have him executed by the Romans.
It seemed as if they had succeeded. He was tried under the cover of darkness, mocked, beaten, and scourged before struggling to carry his own cross to the hill of Golgotha where they crucified him. At that moment the skies were darkened as the shades of hell witnessed him give up his life and hang defeated before he was taken down and placed in a tomb.
It was in that cold dark tomb that the second breath, which changed everything, occured At the will of God the Father, the Holy Spirit filled the lungs which had been suffocated with the first gasps of eternal life as Jesus rose victorious from the dead.
It was at this moment that the tide changed.
The powers of hell and sin had thrown their all at Jesus and it was not enough to restrain the love of God for his people. The love which brought Jesus into the world to die for us was the love which brought Jesus out of the Tomb to reign forever.
And the third breath which changed everything happened when Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples in the locked room after his resurrection. They saw him and were glad and he said: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said: receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The Church, then, lives and moves and has its being within the presence of the Holy Spirit and is sent out into the world as Jesus was sent to us by the Father.
We are therefore not to be deceived by the lies of the shades of hell.
We are not to accept that we are here simply to manage the decline of the church. We are not to accept that the issues facing the church will be solved ‘by someone else’, and we are not to accept that our faith is inert and no longer relevant to the society in which we live.
For if we confess with Peter that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, if we share in the inheritance of faith which has been preserved for us by the Church through the ages, then we are to head out into the world confident that in the power of Christ the gates of hell shall not prevail against us!
I am reminded of the words which are spoken on the occasion of our baptism which serve as a liturgical equivalent of that famous Shakespearean line: “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”.
We say to the baptised: Fight valiantly as a Disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.’
How are we to fight valiantly for our faith?
We can begin by exercising our faith in these three ways:
We are to pray.
Whether that’s by saying the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ – the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God have mercy on me a sinner – or by praying the rosary or by sitting in silence and reflecting on the Gospel I personally don’t care. It doesn’t matter what you pray so long as you pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit to be present with you in all areas of your life in whichever way you find nourishes you spiritually – for when the Christian prays, the gates of hell tremble.
We are also to support the ministry of the Church through our giving. It is mistaken to think that there’s pots of money elsewhere which will continue to fund the work of the Church and ensure that we have priests here in the Diss Team Ministry to enable us to receive forgiveness, to worship God, and to help us serve our communities. Every Christian ought to give generously according to their ability, because to not do so is to risk abdicating the witness of the gospel and the glorification of God’s name here in this place.
Finally we are to take Paul’s words in Romans 12 seriously, that is, we who are many are one body in Christ each with different gifts such as: prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouragement, giving, leading, and compassion – to name just a few. The gift of salvation, the presence of the Holy Spirit, is given to the whole Church and so we each have our part to play in the life and ministry of our Church. This means that we should ask for what we need, for others cannot provide for what is unknown. It also means that it is for each of us to share the Gospel with those we know, our friends and family, our neighbours and strangers.
For together we are the people of God who know and confess that Jesus is the Son of the Living God; and united by the presence of the Holy Spirit we are the Church in this age who has inherited our faith from those who came before and who shall bequeath it to those who come after.
My friends, let us not be deceived by the lies of sin, the world and the devil but come to receive the Eucharist so that we may be strengthened in our faith and prepared to leave this building today unashamed to confess our faith in Christ Crucified as we live out our Christian calling to ‘Fight valiantly as Disciples of Christ against, sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of our lives.’