Reflection for Sunday – August 27, 2023
Readings: Isaiah 22: 19-23; Romans 11: 33-35; Matthew 16: 13-20
Preacher: Marlene Bessette
My husband has been a deacon for 12 years now and we have become an effective homiletics team. He spends a great deal of time crafting his homilies after researching and praying over what message would speak to the community to draw them closer to God. I support him as “editor in chief, ” ensuring the message is getting across. When I preach for this site, he does the same for me. For the first time, we’re both preaching on the same readings, so I make this introduction to give credit where credit is due as I adapt this message for you.
Jesus’s powerful statement after he declared Simon to be Peter, the rock upon which he would build His church, really moved me, “and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Given the state of our world today, the promise that the gates of the netherworld—in other words, the gates of hell—will never prevail against our Church provides great comfort.
We need this promise more than ever. Every new poll shows a decline in religious beliefs, church attendance, and religious vocations. Those polls echo our diocesan announcements about church consolidations and closures alongside increasing financial pressures in our churches. The sex abuse scandal and the resulting additional financial burdens have made us even weaker. As a Church, we’re shrinking and fragile. It certainly seems like the gates of hell are not only prevailing but getting stronger.
What is a good Catholic to do? Well, I always took Jesus’s promise as a sign of His eternal protection. In our war of good versus evil, the gates of hell will never prevail. Given that, we should hunker down and wait it out. It’s a little scary now, but we’ll be safe until Jesus takes care of things. That’s easy, just be good and wait. Unfortunately, a little research and prayer challenge this comfortable solution.
Focus on where the disciples were when Jesus prompted Simon’s great confession about Jesus being the Christ. That confession could have happened anywhere. In the sacredness of a temple or on a peaceful mountaintop, but it happened in a very strategic place, in the city of Caesarea Philippi. A city that was originally called Paneas, the religious center for the worship of the Greek and Roman God, Pan. Pan was the god who was half-man and half-goat, revered in this city known for its immoral sexual activities and pagan worship. It was believed that Pan lived in a nearby cave that was an entrance to the underworld…the Gates of Hell. This is where Jesus decided to bring his disciples. It’s the modern-day equivalent of Jesus prompting Peter to make his great confession on the seediest portion of the Las Vegas strip.
Why would Jesus do that? Maybe because it allowed Peter, in the pagan darkness of that strange and overwhelming place, to see Jesus for who He truly was, the Messiah who came to save us all from sin and death. And maybe because it also gave Jesus a strategic place to set His disciples on their mission of building His church. A mission that wasn’t to spend all day in the temple arguing over the finer theological points of the Book of Deuteronomy, but to go out and spread God’s love to a sinful, messy, and scary world.
So, when Jesus talks about the Gates of Hell not prevailing against His church, He’s assuming the Church will be on the offensive! Rather than hunkering down and waiting, we should be conquering the evil by spreading God’s message and God’s love. Those gates that are keeping God’s love out of hellish places, including the hellish places of our hearts, won’t prevail if we’re actively smashing them down. And Jesus has promised us that no matter how strong the Gates of Hell appear, they won’t be able to withstand the power of God’s love.
Now that’s a perspective that brings great comfort! But it requires us to do something! We need to keep attacking those gates by taking care of the poor and lost of our world, by addressing the injustice of inequity, by not only welcoming but actively pulling those who are or feel disenfranchised into our congregations. It’s when we actively and adamantly spread God’s love that Jesus’s promise will be realized and the gates of hell will fall.
May the forces of evil tremble when we approach!