Today is the Feast of St Peter, or of Saints Peter and Paul.
Outside the colony town of Caesarea Philippi there is an enormous cave, held throughout the Greco-Roman world to be one of the entrances to the underworld. The stories of what went on here—allegedly involving sexual acts performed with goats in honour of Pan—would make a feisty fisherman blush. But this is the location Jesus chose to take his disciples—don’t believe everything you hear, boys—to ask them who, exactly, they thought he was. Who would be so brazen?
And there, standing in front of the gate of Hades, Jesus declared:
‘… I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it …’
Fast-forward several years to the anniversary of Jesus’ death and resurrection:
‘About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
‘The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”’
Acts 12:1-11 (italics added)
According to the gospel, the world in which we live is passing away, and a new world is being brought to birth even as it does so. A passing out from death into life. The kingdom of heaven colonising this world, even as the Greek and Roman Empires had colonised it—except that this kingdom would have no end.
The gates of Hades represent the power and authority—the ultimate end—of the powers of this passing world. They might look impressive, but they are a shadow existence, lacking the substance of life in its fullness.
The gates of Hades stand for the prison gates behind which Herod, a puppet monarch installed and propped-up by the Romans, attempted to hold Peter captive.
But Jesus had promised that the gates would not prevail. The church prays fervently, and the gates swing open, apparently of their own accord.
Fast-forward again, to today. As I read these passages, a friend of mine comes before a magistrate who will hear his appeal to be granted leave to remain, permission to stay in this country, to work and make a new life here because it is not safe for him, as a known and active member of the church that Jesus has been building, to be sent back to Iran.
My friend finds himself at the gates of Hades, on the inside. His life as an asylum-seeker is a shadow existence, caught in limbo.
Today, the church is praying fervently to God for him.
This story is our story.