This Present Hell Will Not Stand

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

March 22, 2020

Want to view this week’s worship service (include this sermon) online? You can visit our Hanscom Park church Facebook Page. Here’s a direct link to the service:

screenshot showing pastor chris during livestream

https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/2464143520565037/Scripture: Matthew 16:13-19, 21-23

I am 45 years old today, and I feel very human. Some weeks, I feel very much in tune with the presence of Christ inside me, but this week I feel very, very human. I’m not sure if you’ve heard but there’s this thing called the coronavirus…and because there’s this thing called the coronavirus, it’s like I have no idea what I’m doing anymore. I mean, do some of you feel that way as well? Like everything has changed? 

Well, it has. No matter who we are, we are now that thing-we-used-to-be plus “during a global pandemic.” A couple weeks ago I was a plain old Pastor. Now I am a Pastor During a Global Pandemic. I was a Mom. Now I’m a Mom During a Global Pandemic. Impressive sounding, yes. Also VERY overwhelming.

What about you? What is your title “during a global pandemic”? I know some of your answers: Teacher During a Global Pandemic, Nurse During a Global Pandemic, Student During a Global Pandemic, Grandma During a Global Pandemic, Son During a Global Pandemic. Add yours to the list.  

What I’m trying to say is: being who you are called to be is harder now. You know, because of the global pandemic. This is unfortunate because our humanity sort-of made being who-we-are-called-to-be difficult as a baseline! We see that today in Peter’s story.

In the scripture, Jesus is asking the disciples a couple of questions. And the second question he asks (which builds on the first one) is “Who do you say that I am?” 

Adam Hamilton, in his book about Simon Peter, writes about how Peter and the disciples might have been feeling when he heard this question (p.64). Like, imagine you are in school, and your teacher asks a question. You know the answer. Well, at least you’re pretty sure you know. You want to answer, but you are afraid of getting it wrong, so you hesitate. Well, that’s what all the other disciples were doing. 

But not Simon Peter! He is always the bold one. So he blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus answers him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Can you imagine how Peter felt? I imagine he’s like, “YES! Jesus told me I was right! Not only that, he said I was so wise, so in tune with God, that God revealed that answer to me.” 

And then…then! Jesus goes on and says, “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.” In other words, Peter, Rock, you are going to be the foundation of my church. You, Peter! You get it. I am going to build my church on you.

This much have felt amazing. I am sure Peter was like, “YES! I AM THE ROCK. I’VE GOT THIS!”

Peter was just a human, right? He had strengths and flaws just like us. Yet that’s who Jesus builds his church on: humans just like you and me. In fact, Hamilton points out in his book that we all take turns being foundations of faith for one another (p. 70). 

I’ve talked before about how this is not a top-down situation. I don’t stand up here and provide the foundation for your faith any more than the bishop stands above me providing the foundation for my faith. Christ builds his church on the foundation of all of us. If we look around, we can be inspired and uplifted by the faith-filled words and actions in the life of every person around us. Did you have or see any moments like that this week? Were there people whose loving or serving actions or words inspired you to deeper faith? 

There certainly were moments when other people were foundations of my faith this week. Definitely. I believe that I too did some things to strengthen the church, to show people the love of God, to do my best for the people in my congregation and the people in our community.

At those moments, I felt like Peter. I was like, “YES! I am DOING this! I am the foundation of the church!”

But…in Peter’s story, things take a turn. See, Jesus starts talking about suffering. The text says, 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke [Jesus], saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Just a few verses ago, Peter was on top of the world! Jesus was calling him the Rock on which Christ would build his church. Now, though, Jesus is saying to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” Well, dang. That’s a quick turnaround. One minute: Rock of the church. The next minute: stumbling block like Satan. 

I don’t think Jesus is being excessively harsh here. He’s not just calling Peter names. He calls Peter Satan because, like Satan, Peter suggests to Jesus that he can fulfill his mission without suffering. Some of you might remember when we talked about Jesus’ temptation by Satan in our “First Things” series. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Satan tempts Jesus by promising him the whole world (all of its riches and glory) if only Jesus would follow him. By following Satan, Jesus could have all of that – and avoid suffering and death.

But Jesus knew that he was going to save and redeem humanity through his suffering, death, and resurrection. He knew that avoiding the suffering part was not possible if he was following the way of God. To suggest any different would mean giving up his mission to save and redeem the world. It would be choosing Satan, the not-God Spirit, over God. In that moment, Peter’s telling Jesus that he didn’t have to suffer sounded a lot like Satan. 

So Jesus makes that clear to Peter in no uncertain terms. Jesus’ work means he will have to be in radical solidarity with the suffering of humanity in order to redeem it. There will be suffering and death for Jesus – and for all those who choose to serve God’s people.

Oh, how I can relate to Peter. I want to turn my eyes away from the suffering. I don’t want to think about everything that will have to be endured and experienced in order to get on the other side of this pandemic. I wish I could skip it. I wish that how things worked was we just pray to God and magically none of this suffering has to happen. 

But as followers of Christ, as the foundation of his church, we share in Christ’s suffering as well as his resurrection. Peter wanted out of the suffering, too. But that was not God speaking to him. We are people of Christ, and we are meant to suffer in solidarity with the world. 

Did I mention I don’t want that? I am like Peter. I want everything to go back to normal. I want to stop working so hard and just hole up with my family, and maybe somebody can wake me up when this is all over. That’s what some of us are trying to do, right? Like, I’ve got my toilet paper fortress and I sold all my stock before the crash, and I am just going to hide over here until the coronavirus is gone.

Even if that was possible, you can’t do it and still call yourself Christian.

Get behind me, Satan.

Now, this is not at all to say this is easy. It is not. It’s hard. It’s hard to be courageous. It’s hard to think of others when you are afraid and tired. It’s hard to be the foundation of Christ’s church or each other’s faith during a global pandemic. 

But listen to the promise in the scripture:

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Adam Hamilton in his Simon Peter book talks about what this means (p. 72). He says the image Jesus uses isn’t the church holing itself up, cutting itself off from the world, and keeping hell out. This is not about the church turning its back on the world and worrying about preserving our institution. Instead, it is the church, like Christ, entering into hell and crushing the powers of evil and death. The world is hell right now. Like Jesus, we don’t give up on people who are in hell so that we can stay safe – we go right out and help until hell is empty.

Now, I think I’m a pretty good pastor, and you are all excellent church members. But defeating hell? Well, that is a big claim. You know what? We cannot do this on our own power, and that’s okay. 

Because this is not OUR church.

Jesus says, “On this rock I will build MY church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

We are flawed and broken humans doing our best in a flawed and broken world. These next few weeks, maybe months, are going to be hard. We are going to have moments of glory, where we really get it right and really love like we should. And we are going to have moments where we mess up. Like Peter, we are human.

But we are not alone in this.

Here’s what I’m going to tell you about the church, about our community of love and hope for one another, our community that clings to the hope of redemption and resurrection even in the face of death: it is God’s church. We are God’s church. All the powers of hell, including hate, despair, hopelessness, sickness…and even death will not prevail against it. Even the damned corona virus.

We are Christ’s church, and this new hell will not have the last word. 

Thanks be to God. 

Amen.

 

—–

 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION & REFLECTION

 

1) What was your identity, calling, or role before the global pandemic? Now add the words “during a global pandemic” to that role. How does that change it?

 

2) Were there and people this week whose loving or serving actions or words inspired you to deeper faith? Who were they? What did they do?

 

3) While almost none of us have experienced something like a global pandemic before, have you had experiences where your faith and hope in God got you through something really difficult? What does that tell you about God’s presence in difficult situations?

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