So much of American Christianity is obsessed with “going to heaven.” And yet, consistently the New Testament emphasizes heaven coming to earth. From the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy Kin-dom come, Thy will be done”) to the last chapters of Revelation (when the holy city, the New Jerusalem, descends to the earth), the focus is on the healing and transformation of this world. Heaven is in good hands. It’s this world which needs help.
In Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 16), Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, “You are Peter (the Greek name Petros), and on this rock (the Greek word petra) I will build my church. And the gates of hades (death/hell) shall have no power against it.” These words assume that the church will be “assaulting” the very citadel of evil. Offensive, not defensive, will be the posture and strategy of followers of Jesus. Such an observation raises two questions:
- Why has the church today gone on the defensive behind the walls of its fortresses protecting its complacent members?
- What “weapons” can the church use in its assault on the very gates of hell?
Some of the reasons for our defensive stance are:
- We have very little understanding of how radical, powerful, and transforming the good news of Jesus Christ really is. We have become narcoticized by a cultural fake “gospel” which knows nothing about the cost or potential of love, justice, peace, joy, and faithfulness.
- For too many, the church is just one more commodity they can purchase, enjoy, and use provided very little is required or expected. We have chosen to vaccinate ourselves with just enough “Christianity” to make us immune to the real thing. If the demand becomes too great or if the message becomes too uncomfortable, there is another church down the road we can attend which will not ruffle our feathers or confront us with the radical commitment we made at our baptism to follow Jesus.
- We are strangers to the presence and power of the Risen Lord. When I was a child, I was required to memorize various passages of the Bible which conveniently affirmed the limited version of Christianity embraced by conservative Southern Baptists. One passage, referred to as the Great Commission, was Matthew 28:19-20. However, those Sunday school teachers who made sure we memorized this passage left out the most important word. That word is not “go/make disciples/baptize/or teach.” The most important word was “therefore” (a three-letter word in Greek, oun) “Therefore” always assumes that the reason for what follows has been expressed in what has preceded it. And what preceded verses 19-20 is the foundation for the church’s witness: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” It is on the basis of that authority that the church is to go forth and assault the very citadels of evil in this world.
Our timid, compromised, and shallow faith today no longer believes in the presence or strength of its Resurrected Lord. Rather than “taking up our own cross and following him”, we prefer to “sit on our blessed assurances” until we can be beamed up to heaven and leave behind this world God so deeply loves. We have yet to learn that there is no resurrection without crucifixion, no heaven without a transformed earth, no authentic faith without self-giving love, and no “victory” without uncommon courage inspired by the One to whom all authority has been given. The irony is that although we love to speculate about the supposed “rewards of Easter,” we have missed the revolutionary message of Jesus’ resurrection: He is now Lord and will not be content until his victory over evil and death becomes everyone’s victory. The church is called to bear witness to this good news, and such a witness requires a confrontation with the very sources of evil in our world as we live God’s alternative to greed, arrogance, violence, and fear.
So, what are the “weapons” the church should use in its assault on hell? The New Testament gives two lists:
- Ephesians 6 charges us to gird our loins with truth; put on the breastplate of righteousness; shod our feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; and take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
- Throughout the book of Revelation, the only “weapons” Jesus uses and the only “weapons” his followers are allowed to use are self-giving love, truth, and faithfulness. (The protestant pastor Andre Trocme, who led the people of Le Chambon to save thousands of Jews right under the noses of the Vichy government and the Nazi SS, called these “the weapons of the Spirit.”)
I’m not sure many churches today have any faith in the efficacy of the “weapons of the Spirit.” Too many of us have sold out to a shallow and predatory society based on competition, consumption, greed, self-centeredness, violence, cynicism, and complacency. The church will never be able to offer the “good news of Jesus Christ” until it returns to a radical commitment to his call, “Follow me”—even into the gates of hell.
(The remarkable story of Andre Trocme and his church during the Nazi era can be found in Philip Haillie wonderful book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The story of the village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there. Should you choose to read the book, don’t skip the preface. This story may help restore your faith in both the church and humanity.)