Well, I’ve been thinking provocative thoughts again.
This time, it was spurred on by a guy named Chris Hoke, who is a prison chaplain in the Pacific Northwest. I’m currently waiting for his book (Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders) to show up. It’s not really a how-to for prison ministry, but rather a series of testimonies by Chris involving his deeply relational work in the jail system. I’ve heard him reading chunks of it, and can barely wait for the book to get here. Crazy powerful.
In any case, what inspires Chris Hoke to do the kind of ministry he does and to recognize it as Church begins with Hades. In Matthew’s Gospel (16:18), Jesus says to Peter, “You are Petros, and upon this rock I will build my ekklesia” (Ekklesia is some kind of assembly, and we usually translate that word as “church.” Rightly or wrongly.) But Jesus also said, “and the gates of Hades/hell shall not prevail against her.”
Different translations approach the text a little differently. “Gates of hell,” “powers of death,” or simply “gates of Hades.” This isn’t an afterlife imagery for Jesus. Hades is now. Hades is the realm of the dead. We kind of need all of those different translations to give us an idea of the multiple connotations Hades carries. What’s clear: it’s about death. It’s bad. Jesus is against it.
So Jesus has commissioned Peter with imagining how the ekklesia opposes these gates/powers of Hades/hell/death. In 1st Peter, we have the image of Jesus showing up there on Holy Saturday (and in the Orthodox traditions, there are extended stories about this), busting down the gates and setting all of death’s prisoners free. It’s the conclusion of what Jesus’ resurrection does for us: We die a death like his, and we shall have a resurrection like his.
The big idea here is that Jesus has commissioned Peter with the task of moving the church, not toward heaven, but toward the gates of Hades, which shall not prevail against the assembly. That’s freaking amazing imagery, isn’t it?! It makes church so, so, so much more than coming to a building once a week (or even twice a week) to sing some old songs and “get our Jesus” in a wafer and a sip of bad wine, just so we can go home and forget about church again until next time. It’s a job! And it’s MORE than a job: it’s a COMMISSION!
“Go!” says Jesus. And the Lutherans say, “Here we stand.” Ugh.
Chris Hoke’s imagination is what we need. We are a Resurrection people. We’re not just people who have been resurrected (or just resuscitated), but rather we’re people who are called together (assembled) to storm the gates of death. Not in the hereafter, but NOW! TO-DAY!
Where we see the power of death, we need to go knocking down some gates. Or else we’re not the church that Jesus imagined and charged Peter with. We’re … something else. Maybe a really poor version of a country club.
In John 11, we read the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus brings back from the dead. When Jesus arrives in Bethany (lit. House of the Poor), Lazarus is already dead. He’s in the realm of Hades, locked behind the gates. Jesus speaks his name and tells him to come out.
Then he enlists ordinary people to remove the stone – a hand-crafted artifact designed NOT to be moved, so that the barrier between the dead and the living may be kept intact. But Jesus tells them to move it. This part is critical, because if Lazarus is resurrected behind the stone, he’s still stuck in the realm of the dead, isn’t he?
So the people move the stone. But Lazarus is still wearing his smelly grave clothes, so Jesus tells these same ordinary people, “Unbind him.” And finally Lazarus is able to return to the realm of the living.
Chris Hoke sees in this story a great metaphor for the work of the church. If we are called to crash the gates of Hades and to roll away stones and to unbind the dead so that they may live, it’s important for us to see where the realm of the dead exists for people living today. For hoke, it’s the prison system, especially people confined to solitary imprisonment with no human contact, no human community (except where they are able to subversively build it themselves. There are stories in the book.).
Once people are out of the jail system, it’s like being called back to life with the grave stone still in place. Unless there are willing people who will move the stone and help unbind the death cloths, the prisoner will just die all over again, fall back into the realm of death. For Hoke, those stone obstacles are things like: getting a driver’s license, paying off debt and debt collectors, paying bills, finding a job with a prison record, finding transportation to that job so that one can work and pay all the bills. All of these things, unless someone is able to help move the stone (ordinary people), the prisoner will just go back to prison.
And unless ordinary people will help the revived identify and understand the ways in which they are tied up in a mummy’s clothes, they can’t really be unbound. The gates of Hades will keep a hold on them.
These things are what the church was commissioned for. Moving the stone, unbinding the dead, knocking down the gates of hell. But we need to know where these things are located. For Hoke, it’s the prison system. For Comunidad de Esperanza, for example, it’s the immigration system, the health system, things of this nature.
What do we, as the ekklesia at First Lutheran, recognize as the stones and the grave cloths in people’s lives? If we can’t see where the gates of Hades are, we can’t very well get there to stand against them.
What say you?