Today was a great day at Church of the Resurrection. Our bishop, the Right Reverend Mark Lawrence was with us. He confirmed 6 of our parishioners, received another, and 3 others reaffirmed their baptismal vows. We had a packed house with great worship music and robust singing. But the bishop’s sermon was strong and timely.
Today was the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, a Sunday that traditionally celebrates the Transfiguration of Jesus. The bishop explained that when Jesus took Peter, James and John up on a mountain and was transfigured before them, the voice of God the Father proclaimed that Jesus was His Son, and the disciples were to listen to him.
Just six days prior to this, Jesus had taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a posh resort-like area filled with pagan places of worship – a place where you could feel the power of the gods of this world. In this place, Jesus had asked his band of followers what folks were saying about who the Son of Man was. “Elijah, one of the prophets, John the Baptist come back from the dead….” And then Jesus asked who the disciples believed him to be. And that’s when Peter gave that inspired answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Way to go Peter! Jesus then proceeded to unpack what that meant – namely, that he was going to die in Jerusalem on a cross, and the disciples were going to have to take up their cross and follow Jesus in this way of suffering and self-denial. Well that was too much for Peter: “Whoa now. Wait a minute. None of that suffering and cross stuff Jesus. Not you. Certainly not.”
Segue. So Jesus took three of his closest disciples up on a mountain and there his transfigured body, the presence of Moses and Elijah, and God’s voice were all quite overwhelming. But God the Father’s point was “Even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, listen to my Son!” And one of the things Jesus had said to his disciples was that he, Jesus, would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And yet the bishop reminded us that the gates of hell often seem to prevail against the church. Why is that? He gave three reasons to challenge and convict us:
The gates of hell prevail against the church because we are afraid of failure and so we don’t do anything to rescue those who are perishing in brokenness, addiction, failures and griefs behind the gates of hell. He mentioned the Flying Wallendas, the family that made famous death-defying tightrope walks and trapeze acts. The founder of the family’s acts, Karl Wallenda, fell to his death walking a tightrope between two buildings in Puerto Rico. His wife commented afterward that he seemed to be afraid of falling more than at any other time. "Perhaps he was so afraid, that he forgot to just walk the line."
The gates of hell prevail against the church because a well-lit world costs more than a dark world. Evil and darkness will grow and spread quite readily if left alone. For the church to shine forth with the light of Christ and to storm the gates of hell to rescue those trapped in darkness is costly and difficult. Perhaps so much that we do little to nothing. And the darkness grows.
The gates of hell prevail against the church because we tend to serve out of our abundance rather than our poverty. We give of our time and money from what’s left over after taking care of everything else. We generally have some money and time we can give to the work of reaching out to the world, so we give that. But only that. Jesus’ message to the disciples about the widow’s mites (the widow that put two pennies into the offering at the temple) was that she had given more than all the rich folks because she gave out of her poverty – all she had to live on. When the church is willing to give sacrificially to rescue those who are perishing without Christ, then look out! The gates of hell can’t withstand such an onslaught.