Mocking Hades

Matthew 16:13-20

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I’d like to begin today with a game I call Name that God.

This figurine I am now holding is a replica of a well-known sculpture of a Greek god.  I purchased it on a recent trip to California when I was visiting the Getty Villa with my daughter and my mom.  It now sits at home on a bookshelf filled with Greek and Roman mythology.

Do you know which god this is?  If you do, don’t answer out loud—not yet anyway; just raise your hand and keep it raised while I offer some hints.  After my hints I’ll call on someone.

A first hint then: the real sculpture, upon which this figurine is based, is housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum on the island of Crete.  Okay, not much of a hint, really, granted.  So:

A second, easier hint: look at the staff he’s holding.  At first glance—out of the corner of my eye—I thought it was a trident.  And that would have been easy: trident = Poseidon, or Neptune as he was called by the Romans.  But it’s not a trident; for there are not three prongs sticking up here, but only two.  What would we call this?  A bident?  Anyway, two prongs.  Do these remind you of something?  Horns, maybe?

A third hint: look at the beast with him.  It’s a dog of some sort.  But it’s not a normal dog, for it has three heads.  This particular dog, named Cerberus, guards the gates of this god’s kingdom.

One more hint: this god’s Roman name is Pluto.

So, who is this god?  What is his Greek name?

Hades.  That’s right!

Now, strange as it may seem to us today, this mythological god actually shows up in today’s Gospel. Did you hear it?

Jesus is talking to Peter.  And he says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The gates of Hades.  The same gates, according to Greek mythology, that are guarded by this three-headed dog, Cerberus.

Really?

Jesus is making a profound theological statement about the establishment of his church.  It is no less than a new kingdom; a kingdom that we know today has surpassed all other kingdoms—even the Roman Empire—in magnitude, importance, and permanence.  It is certain and sure.  It is fixed.  It is reality.

And yet Jesus compares it to a myth?  Really?  What’s he playing at?

Hades. You know, KJV says hell: “The kingdom of hell shall not prevail against it.”  But Hades is the word in the Greek Bible.  And it doesn’t mean the same thing as hell.

When we hear the word hell, we think of a place separate and distinct from other places such as heaven and, maybe, purgatory.  And in this sense what Jesus says rings true: the kingdom of heaven is a separate and distinct place from the kingdom of Hades.

The Christian tradition has taught us to think of these places—hell, heaven, and purgatory—as distinct realms into which souls pass when they are separated from their earthly bodies.  We think of them as separate and distinct places.

But Jesus’s disciples didn’t think this way.

Instead, they thought in terms common to their day and culture.  And to them, the kingdom of Hades was the one place into which all souls passed at death.  All souls: good, bad, or indifferent!

(Hades’ kingdom was divided up into three regions.  But all three comprised the single kingdom.  Tartarus was the region to which the really wicked souls went, something like our idea of hell; Elysium to which the heroic, exceptional souls went, something like our heaven; and the Fields of Asphodel to which everyone else went, much like the medieval understanding of purgatory.  But these were not seen as three separate places, like we see hell, heaven, and purgatory.  Rather, they were all part of the one kingdom of Hades.  That’s why—in another Gospel story—Lazarus, Abraham, and the rich man can see each other in the afterlife; despite the fact that one was in a place of torment and the others in a place of bliss.)

At death, then, as Peter and the disciples understood it, there was no escaping: like it or not, you would pass through the gates of Hades on your way into the underworld.

Unless!  There was one exception: unless you were a god.

Yes, Zeus, Hera, Ares, and all the rest were exempt from the kingdom of Hades.

But now we’re back to mythology.  So what?

So what?  Here’s what’s so what: there were also some others—some people, some mortals—who were claiming in Jesus’s day that they would be exempt from the kingdom of Hades when they died.  Death had no hold on them, they said.  This was no mythology.  This was really going on in Jesus’s day.  This was reality.

So, who were these people, these mortals, who claimed to be exempt from Hades’ kingdom?  The emperors!  Julius Caesar!  Augustus Caesar!

And so, when Jesus says to Peter and the other disciples that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his kingdom, it is not an imagined mythology that he is playing at.  Rather, what Jesus is saying here is magnificent.

Death has no hold over him!  He is the very Son of the living God, the only real and true God!  But his exemption from death is so much better than even what Caesar claims.  Caesar!  Ha!  He claims to be exempt from death.  But can he offer exemption to others?

But Christ!  Not only does death have no hold on him.  Death has no hold on Peter!  Death has no hold on the disciples!  Death has no hold on the entire kingdom of Jesus Christ!  That includes us!

This is the magnificent reality of the kingdom of heaven.  This is the magnificent reality of the church, built upon the rock of Peter’s testimony, upon the rock of the testimony of the disciples, and upon the rock of our own testimony.  Death has no hold on us!  The Lord is risen!  Alleluia!

Now, let’s bring this home. Sad to say, but we see death all around us—or, if you prefer, we see the kingdom of Hades all around us.

It’s in nature: when the leaves fall off the trees every autumn; or when a lioness overcomes an antelope in order to survive.

It’s in things like cancer, or on that sign over the freeway reporting how many traffic fatalities there have been already this year.

And it’s in the bad choices people make: in acts of terrorism and war; or in child abuse or neglect.

But the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against the church!

Wherever we see death gaining a foothold—in creation, in disease, in war, in child abuse—we must confront it with the new life Christ offers.

But I said confront, not avoid.  We confront death with new life.  We don’t avoid the kingdom of Hades.

What do I mean?  Consider Halloween.  It will be here soon.  It’s very popular in our culture.  How will you respond to it this year?

In my many years as a teacher at Christian schools, I’ve seen that there are really two approaches to Halloween.  One is to avoid it.  It’s all about scariness: skeletons, ghosts, vampires, and zombies; just take a look at people’s front yards around here in October.  Scariness!

Some Christians I know are averse to this.  Why would I want to frighten my own child, they ask?  Christianity’s not about fear, but about overcoming fear.  Or, as I’ve heard too, Christianity glories in life; but Halloween glories in death.  Why would I want my kids to glory in death?

This approach to Halloween avoids the kingdom of Hades.

But to confront it looks something like this (and I believe this is the more accurate understanding of Halloween historically).  Halloween means “All Halloweds’ Eve,” or, to put it in terms more familiar to us, the eve of All Saints’ Day.  On All Saints’ Day we celebrate all baptized Christians.  All!  Meaning those now alive and those who have already passed into glory!  Death has no hold over us, or them!

So when we dress up on Halloween as ghosts or goblins or werewolves or hags or whatever, what we’re really doing is confronting death with a statement of mockery.  Ha ha, Hades!  You have no hold over us and we know it, because we have new life in Christ.  In fact, you don’t scare us and we’ll prove it by mocking you!

You see?  The one approach avoids death; the other confronts it with new life.  But this is really just a picture of what we should be doing every day.

We are the church.  And the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against us.

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3 Responses to “Mocking Hades”

  1. Really good one, Tim– informative and provocative. Thanks!

    • Chris, thanks for the encouraging words. Not all the feedback has been encouraging. I think it’s the “provocative” part. I didn’t think of this sermon as provocative when I put it together, just something worth discussion; but the result seems to be that some hearers loved it, others hated it, and I’m not sure there is much middle ground. Someone once said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Is the spoken word mightier than a rifle then? Sheesh!

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