Prevailing Against the Gates of Hell

Sermon delivered on Trinity 10A, Sunday, August 24, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 1.8-2.10; Psalm 124.1-7; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we are holding our second healing service and I want us to look briefly at what our readings this morning, especially our gospel lesson, have to say about that. How do we get free from living as slaves to this present evil age with all of its accompanying fears, hurts, loss, and brokenness? The answer our readings invite us to consider is to live in the present with the reality of God’s future in mind. But how do we do that? The short answer is to trust with our whole being the sovereign God we worship and accept by faith the grace offered to us in Jesus.

As we saw last week, we worship a God who is sovereign over even the dark and evil powers and who is always faithful to his covenant promises to heal and redeem his hurting and broken world, ultimately through the one true and faithful Israelite, Jesus the Messiah and his people, both Jew and Gentile. This requires faith on our part because it is not always evident that God is in charge and the fact that God’s sovereignty is often made known to us ex post facto and/or in unusual or unexpected ways, the cross being the primary example of this.

In today’s gospel lesson we see a continuation of this idea of God’s future, brought about by God’s sovereign power, breaking into the present to rescue and free us from our slavery to this present age. Jesus asks the disciples (and us) to tell him who we think he really is. Peter, always the brash one who often rushes forward to put his foot in his mouth (which is why we have to love him because he is so much like us), answers that Jesus is the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God. Before we look at Jesus’ response, we must be clear that when Peter called Jesus the Son of God, he didn’t have in mind the Second Person of the Trinity. That kind of thinking did not occur until after the resurrection. Instead, what Peter was confessing is the disciples’ belief that Jesus was God’s chosen and anointed Messiah or king. The use of the term “Son” indicated the special relationship God promised to have with his Messiah (cf. 2 Samuel 7.12-14a) who would, among other things, free God’s people Israel from their oppression. The term was also used to describe collectively God’s chosen people Israel (e.g., Psalm 80.14-15).

Jesus responds by pronouncing a beatitude (or blessing) on Peter and then gives Simon the new name of Peter, which in the Greek means Rock, declaring that on this rock he would build his church and not even the gates of hell would prevail against it. What did Jesus mean by this? While a sea of ink has been spilled over this and Protestants and Catholics vigorously disagree about its meaning, I want to focus our thinking this morning on how it applies to our healing and our freedom from slavery to this present age.

However we interpret Jesus’ reference to Peter being a rock, one thing is certain. Jesus did not call Peter a rock because of Peter’s rock-like and solid behavior or character! Jesus makes this clear when he declares that Peter has come to this realization not by his own powers but because God the Holy Spirit revealed it to him. And of course Jesus knew how fickle Peter could be. Whether it was walking boldly on the water or sinking in it like a rock (Matthew 14.28-31), whether it was confessing that Jesus is the Messiah or denying him (Matthew 26.69-75), Peter is a powerful representative symbol of all of us who follow Jesus.

With Peter’s fickleness in mind, as well as our own, surely one of the things Matthew wants us to grasp in this story is that Jesus sees in Peter the material he has to work with for the building of his Church. And given Peter’s composition and ours, that material must be entirely shaped by the grace of our sovereign God. It is God’s grace and power that makes Peter and us a rock, not our own strength or character or effort. It is the same grace that Paul tells us transforms our mind so that we can think clearly about what it means to be part of Jesus’ body, the Church, and to live in the present age with the light of God’s future in mind. It is the same grace that rescued Moses from the murderous hand of Pharaoh, using the same element that God would use to rescue his people from their slavery in Egypt.

We are given the grace of Christ’s strength, made known to us by our confession uttered in faith that Jesus is God’s true Son and our Lord, because God has called us to bear the gospel to the whole world until the eschaton, the end of the present evil age. And we can expect to incur the wrath of the forces of evil when we do. But not even the gates of hell can conquer the community of believers called to be Christ’s Church, broken and bumbling as we can sometimes be, precisely because God is sovereign and Jesus is Lord. Let the church say, “Amen!”

But, you protest, if Jesus is Lord he’s doing a lousy job. His people are being slaughtered in the Middle East. Injustice and suffering run rampant throughout the world and in our lives. And no one escapes the invincible power of the grave. Back comes the answer, “O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe (cf. Luke 24.25-26)! Do you not remember how God in his mercy has acted for you in and through Christ?” He has rescued us from the forces of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, reconciling us through his blood shed for us on the cross. And in Jesus’ resurrection, God has conquered death forever and given us a foretaste of his promised new creation with all its hope and promise.

In light of God’s radical new future reality brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection, one of the things Jesus promises us in today’s gospel lesson is that when we suffer loss or harm, he will share his own indestructible life with us so that even though we are destined to die a mortal death and suffer irrecoverable loss in this world, we will not be destroyed or suffer loss permanently because we are yoked to the Messiah by faith. Is there a more empowering and hopeful promise than this as we labor in the present evil age? Let the church say, “Amen!”

So how does this pertain to our healing service today? Just this. We should not expect our faith in the redeeming and healing power of Christ to act like some magical elixir that guarantees our prayers for healing will be automatically answered. The opposite is also true. Because our prayers for healing are not always answered does not mean we lack faith or our faith is somehow corrupted or insufficient. The fact is that God desires our healing and has the power to heal, but that sometimes God chooses not to answer our prayers and we have to be very circumspect in our musings about why that is. One thing is for certain, however. God can and does use unanswered prayer to help break our proud and sinful self-reliance so that we learn to rely on his empowering and life-giving grace to overcome our suffering and this world.

As Tim Keller rightly observes, part of the problem we have today with suffering is that we have learned to put our ultimate hope and trust in the wrong things, in scientific and medical advancements, which reduces God’s role in healing. But as we shall see shortly, these are ultimately bound to fail because even the most remarkable healings our medical advancements have wrought are at best incomplete and/or temporary. Hear me carefully here. I am not suggesting we stop going to our doctors for healing or that scientific and medical research and knowledge are worthless. Nothing could be further from the truth and these practices are good and godly for reasons too numerous to mention here. What I am suggesting is that we need to look first and foremost to the One who has the power to heal us ultimately and to see science and medicine as part and parcel of God’s healing love and power, not our ultimate hope. Doing so will open not only our body to healing but also our mind, heart, and spirit as well.

Likewise, we need to think things through about the realities of living in this present evil age so we can learn to develop a godly and much-needed perspective about healing. So, for example, even if our prayers for healing are answered and we are healed completely or miraculously, what is our ultimate destiny? We all will die, either by disease, old age, accident, acts of violence, or other circumstances. This is because all creation lives under the curse of God for our ongoing sin (Genesis 3.1-19; Romans 8.19-23). So at best, any healing that occurs in us is temporary because barring the return of Jesus in our lifetime, our common destiny is the grave.

But the cross and resurrection are towering reminders that suffering, loss, and death are not the final destiny for those who put their whole hope and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. As we have seen, God himself has acted to ensure our reconciliation with him and when the new creation comes in full and our mortal bodies are raised from the dead and given new life, death is swallowed up in life, the curse is ended forever (it was never God’s original intention for us and his creation in the first place), all our loss will be restored, and our brokenness healed in ways we can only begin to imagine. This is our future hope and assurance. It is ours only when we confess Jesus to be Lord and God’s Messiah and Son, and it is the only remedy to the evil and hurt and suffering that beset us in this present age. Our time in this world is astonishingly short, even though it doesn’t always feel like it, and this age will one day come to an end. But the age to come, the age of resurrection and new creation, will go on forever and then we will know what it is like to be fully healed and human.

This is why we ultimately participate in these healing services. Of course we hope to be healed of our immediate afflictions. But this is only a foretaste of things to come and as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we are called to live out our faith, not just because we hope to reap the immediate rewards of being healed, but as living witnesses to a sin-sick world and its peoples who desperately need to hear the Good News of God’s love for all people as well as his healing power. We are promised that irrespective of how God chooses to answer our prayers for healing (or not), living in this manner will bring God the glory he is due for rescuing us from this present evil age, even if we do not fully understand how.

This is what faith on the ground looks like in the context of healing, a faith that enables us to live in the present in light of God’s future, messy as it can be. We are empowered to live this way only by the grace of God and the extent to which we can build a real and living relationship with Jesus our Lord. As this happens, our faithful living will proclaim to the world in ways we will never fully know or realize that Jesus is Lord and we have Good News. And in that Good News we will find our peace, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr. Maney

Fr. Kevin Maney received his PhD from the University of Toledo in Curriculum and Instruction, majoring in educational technology and minoring in educational leadership. He completed his studies for a Diploma in Anglican Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, and did his coursework almost entirely online. He was ordained as a transitional deacon in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) on February 9, 2008 and as a priest in CANA on May 1, 2008. He is now the rector of St. Augustine's Anglican Church in Westerville, OH, a suburb of Columbus. St. Augustine’s is part of the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes (ADGL) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).