When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”…
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”…
Jesus replied… “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”Matthew 16:13, 16, 18
Every day – if I am paying attention – plenty of new stories come along that inspire me, surprise me, prompt me, teach me, challenge me, and variously shape my thinking. “Just open your eyes,” I often tell people in classes I have led, “and listen more closely. God is speaking into our lives all the time!”
Then there are older stories, experiences and observations I return to time and again. These are the anecdotes and illustrations that become kind of building blocks, fixed points of reference in the landscape of my personal theology: Things like the birth of a grandchild, beginning a new ministry, climbing Mt. Sinai, a new book making its way into print, the transition of someone I love from time into eternity.
One such story is the 2012 pilgrimage Rebekah and I made to the Holy Lands, and in particular the day I learned about “The Gates of Hell”, and why Jesus said his church would stand firm against them.
Caesarea Philippi is north of Galilee and in a region where – in the time of Jesus – pagan beliefs constantly pushed against the faith of Judaism. One common practice, designed to curry favor with the gods, was to throw a child from high cliffs to where water flowed into a cave. If there was enough blood, then the gods were happy; if not, then another child would be sacrificed.
The place where this happened, with its gaping black cave, was known – understandably – as “The Gates of Hell.”
Stories like this provoke my thinking
This is a story I have referenced before. But this morning it has surfaced in my mind with a new context. Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; Sandy Hook; Parkland; Columbine…
Two thousand years ago, children were sacrificed because people – fearful, ignorant, and superstitious – valued other things more than they valued their children. They were readily deceived by those who wanted to control them, and it was easier to allow their children to continue being victims than to stand up to the controlling interests in the region.
Jesus stood in that place, with the backdrop of the brutal bloody site, and told the disciple Peter that God was going to build a church – a movement – that would utterly defeat the values, the priorities, the superstitions, the brutality, the baked-in evil, the human sacrifices, and the deceptions that defined and perpetuated places like The Gates of Hell.
“No more,” I can hear Jesus saying. “You need to understand the value I place on children. These little ones are more important than the powerful interests you line up behind. You need to be sacrificing for them – not the other way around.”
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.Matthew 19:13-14
The Church Jesus intended to build always places itself between the powerless and their oppressors. Right now, in 21st Century USA, it seems that too many people are willing to place children at risk in order to advance a lust for political power.
Just another iteration of The Gates of Hell – DEREK