One of my favorite movies is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As well done as the movies are, the book is better still, though I do appreciate seeing some of that amazing scenery come to life. One of the more chilling images that came out of the movie were the massive barriers of the Black Gate of Mordor. This gate was enormous and intimidating by virtue of their size, and as unwelcoming as a rabid porcupine. Those gates were ominous, and yet, in order to attack, Mordor had to open them. Gates are not weapons.
As Jesus walked with his disciples and began to enlighten them on what was to come he encouraged them with these words, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). I’m not sure what it is, maybe the church misunderstands what Jesus said, or maybe culture has conditioned us to believe otherwise, but the church seems pretty overcome, or at least thoroughly sedated, in most parts of our country.
It could be that we misunderstand what gates are for. Gates are not weapons of mass destruction. No one is going to charge an enemy army with gates in hand. Gates serve two purposes: to keep intruders out, and to keep captives in. Christians seem pretty content in Club Med. We build campuses and ministries that provide every Christian amenity to keep the church comfortable and feeling righteous in the building. I’ve seen broken and wounded people come into a church and get treated like they have a raging case of leprosy or poison oak – not because people don’t care, but because their afraid. We cower in the face of sin and brokenness like we don’t know how to love people who don’t believe what we believe or live like we live. We are captive in our church buildings, our ministries, and our shallow view of righteousness. We read verses like James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” and we key on the keep ourselves from being polluted part at the expense of looking after the harassed and helpless part because we just don’t know what to do with people who drink, smoke, cut, swear, or sleep around as a way of self-medication. We are imprisoned by self-righteousness and the devil loves it.
Just for the record, love those people. Be available to listen, and care enough to pray. In your prayers for them, don’t be shallow, trite, or cliche. Pray the attributes of God into their situation; pray that they will encounter the fullest extent of his love, mercy, and grace. Pray that they will experience God as provider, protector and healer. Spend more time praying to God and less time trying to pray for outcomes and for things; and for the sake of Christ, don’t preach at them. Share your story and tell them how you have experienced God, but someone who doesn’t have the Spirit is not ready to explore the things of the Spirit. Love them and respond with God-given compassion and mercy. They know they’re broken and that something is wrong, that’s why you have the opportunity you have, they don’t necessarily need you to judge them. Don’t be afraid, you have the righteousness of Christ. You don’t need your own.
Perhaps self-righteousness is the reason we tend to curl up in the fetal position when face to face with sin. After all, we’ve worked hard to become good and we don’t want to get all dirty again. All the years attending church and memorizing scripture; paying our dues in children’s ministry or youth ministry, serving as a deacon or small group leader – what would people think if we were having a heart to heart with the woman at the well? We might be accused of adultery! Yet, that didn’t seem to phase Jesus in the least, did it? You see, his righteousness isn’t quite as fragile as ours, and it’s his righteousness we are called to live in. Self-righteousness is dependent on deeds and the perception of others, so if we wander into iffy ground we tarnish it and lose a little ground. Not so with the righteousness of Christ. His is like a haz-mat suit. Sin and muck and mire cannot stick to it. Wade on in, unafraid and unashamed. What keeps us from being polluted by the world? Christ does, not our works. Even in our own failure we are made clean and new in Christ, so what more in the cesspool of someone else’s sin? The righteousness of Christ is like a breastplate, not a paper plate. It guards your heart and keeps you safe and secure even in the heat of battle and in the face of the enemy.
Another thought that occurred to me is that word “overcome” in the NIV, “prevail against” in other translations. The word is katischyo, and the root means “to hold fast,” or “to be strong enough.” In other words, it’s not that these gates are hostile against the church, it’s that they will not be able to stand when the church comes against them. Think of a sand castle gate against the incoming tide. You, by the way, are the tide. Remember Jesus, when he began his earthly ministry in the synagogue in his hometown, opened the scroll of Isaiah and said that his whole purpose in coming was to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom to the captives, to bind up the broken hearted, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the mission we are saved into. We are not saved for salvation’s sake; to leave the rest of the world to look in at us and figure it out for themselves. As it is said in Jude, “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy mixed with fear…” and then goes on with this vital and important encouragement: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy…” (emphasis mine).
We live in a broken, wounded, sin-stained world. There are thousands of people all around us at any time living apart from God, without the Spirit and without hope. We need to grow accustom to reaching into those lives to offer the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Don’t worry about what to say, just love them and the Spirit will give you what to say in the time it needs to be said. remember, all this is God’s work, not yours. You are invited into it by Him. Don’t worry about what others will think if you show love to the unlovable. You live solely for the approval and applause of nail-scarred hands…and he will see himself in such love. That is what the church is meant to be. Storm the gates. You’re in good hands.