Get the Church In Hell & the Hell in Church
We can know as much as Holy Spirit chooses to reveal to us and within us. Until our eyes are opened to truth, we may not know. In the passage Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Peter, “ I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I began to reflect on the gate to the backyard of my paternal grandparents home in SC where my grandmother would feed many of the community pets. During one of those feeding times, she told me to close the gate so the pets that were eating wouldn’t leave and the late pets would not get in. I chuckled at how many of the animals simply loved her feeding time.
So, I know a little bit about gates. At the foundation, gates have two functions: To keep people or things inside. And to keep people or things outside. Gates are effective when they keep things in or out and they are existing within their purpose: access or lack of access. Jesus says that he will build his church, his community, his called out family and gates of hell will not prevail. What an interesting declaration from the kingdom leader and teacher, the Christ.
Church is community. Church is family. Church is the Body of Christ.
What does that text mean in context to where we are in our world?
To prevail means to be effective or to be victorious. How is a gate victorious? How is it effective? How does a gate prevail? So, when Jesus says that he will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, he must mean that the gates of hell cannot keep the church out.
According to Jesus, the church “belongs in hell and not to get the hell out of church.”
What is hell? Where is hell? What is the symbolic nature of this textual term?
Hell is where we find the drug addicted. Hell is where the single parent struggling to pay the bills lives. Hell is where the alcoholic sleeps, hell is where the pimped out and the pimps both live. Hell is where we find both victims of abuse and abusers. Hell is where we discover the suppressed addictions and oppressed emotions. We want the church to be a place where we meet and hang out with our friends, but Jesus pictured the church as an expeditionary force, bursting down the gates of hell itself and bringing liberation to those who are imprisoned there.
Jesus is calling his church to tear into hell itself to bust out the homeless, the hungry, the adulterer, the pornographer, the racist, the imbecile, the arrogant, the self-absorbed, the condemner and dare I say, the religionist. To drag them out of the depths of hell, after we tear down those gates. Homelessness, addiction – all that is one kind of hell. But there are other hells.
There is the hell of being told who you are physically and culturally somehow makes you less than acceptable to God. There’s the hell of being made to feel less than human because your skin is darker than everyone else’s, or because you were born in another country. There is also the hell of thinking you are a better human because your skin is lighter than someone else’s or because you were born in an archetypal first-world nation.
And then there is that hell of being in poverty and losing your job and being told it’s the fault of the immigrant, who, in reality, you have much more in common with than you do the rich who laid you off. And there is the hell of having a treatable illness and even curable, but you have no healthcare or no compassion health systems due to lack of access, awareness or resources.
Whatever hell people find themselves in, the gates that keep them there are to be torn down by the church.
We are most like the church Jesus had in mind when we proclaim to the captives that the hell they live in is not part of the plan – that there is another way to live, and we find it when we work together to bring about the justice of God and demonstrate the compassion of Jesus. The justice of God is a personal, relational justice. It involves sacrificial love. It means dying to ourselves, our ambitions, our preconceived notions of how things work. The way of Jesus invites us to be the means by which God’s justice comes into being. It invites us to go to hell, for the sake of those imprisoned there, revealing love.
Today, my most fervent prayer for the church is simply this: I pray I will see you in hell. They need us there.
To reveal Christ. To renew minds. To restore lives. To reform culture.