I live in a gated community. Or so I like to say. Actually, I live in a gated apartment complex. Gates are things which apartments and communities alike like to boast about. When I first perused the brochure for my complex, one of the amenities proudly touted was, "Gated for your safety and convenience." Of course, sometimes, the gate to my apartment complex gets stuck wide open, leaving the complex completely vulnerable. Other times, I pull into my complex only to find someone idling in the front parking lot, waiting for a tenet to open the gate so that they can get in. I have been followed through the gate many a time. Indeed, sometimes, the person even darts out in front of truck and gets in before I do. Perhaps the gate isn't as secure as it seems.
In our text for today from Matthew 16, Jesus leads his disciples into the region of "Caesarea Philippi" (verse 13). Caesarea Philippi was named so by Philip the Tetrarch, ruler of that region and one of Herod the Great's sons, who modestly renamed this region from Paneas to a name in honor of himself and Caesar Augustus. This city had a long and sordid history or paganism and debauchery. It was originally the center of Baal worship, the deplorable Canaanite fertility god. The site later became the religious center for Pan, a Greek god whose worship included cultic prostitution between humans and goats. Caesarea Philippi was especially notable because it stood at the base of a cliff where spring water flowed from the mouth of a cave set in the bottom of the cliff. Common pagan belief held that fertility gods, such as Pan, would ride the river in and out of the cave, which the pagans believed to be the opening to the underworld. Thus, to the pagan mind, Caesarea Philippi was located at the very gates to the underworld, known by its proper name as Hades.
It is at this spot that Jesus says to his disciples and especially to Peter, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (verse 18). Jesus says, "Hades has a gate. And Hades thinks its gate offers it protection. Protection of its paganism. Protection of its sin and debauchery. Protection of its death and despondency and despair. But Hades is not as protected as it might think it is. Because right at the gates of Hades, I'm building my church. I'm building my agent of truth. I'm building my agent of righteousness and holiness. I'm building my agent of life and hope and joy. And thousands of Christians are idling in Hades' parking lot, just waiting for its gates to crack open, even if just a little, so they can storm its gates and bring my message of life into a world full of death!" This is Jesus' commission to his disciples, spoken right at the gates of Hades.
We live in a world full of gates, both literal and figurative. Gates of economics separate the rich from the poor. Gates of customs separate one culture from another. Gates of correctional facilities separate the law-breakers from the law-abiders. We live in a world full of gates. But Jesus' invitation to us is to break down those gates with his gospel! Look for those times when the gates which separate crack open, and then rush in to share the message of Christ with people who are stuck behind the gates of sin and death. And make no mistake about it, these gates do indeed crack open. Sometimes they crack open during a backyard barbeque when you can have a spiritual conversation with an unbeliever. Sometimes they crack open during a tragedy when you can bring comfort into the midst of pain. Sometimes they even crack open at the loss of a loved one when you can inject hope into a seemingly hopeless end. The gates of Hades are cracking. They cracked open at the cracking open of Jesus' tomb and they have been cracking open ever since at the sight of Jesus' church. So today, walk through those cracked gates. For those gates, no matter how strong they might seem, are no match for Jesus and his followers.