What the…? Go to hell!

by jacobjuncker

This message was offered at Park Congregational Church on Wednesday, March 19, 2015, as part of the Ecumenical Lenten Worship Series, “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.”  This sermon is a preview of a series of sermons at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church that will explore wen the profane and holy meet.  The series starts on Palm/Passion Sunday, March 29, 2015 and runs through the Sunday after Easter, April 12, 2015.

ReadingLuke 18:1-8

 

Luke 18:8 is my favorite Scripture verse, reading from The Common English Bible: “But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?” This evening, rather than exegete at length this text, I’d like to use verse 8 as a guide and the widow as just one example of how we might live so that when Christ returns he might find faith and faithfulness on earth.

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Let’s pray.

Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.

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Simon must have been feeling pretty proud of himself. He had been traveling with Jesus for a couple of years, but now he finally got it. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am” (see Matthew 16:13)? The disciples filled Jesus in, “Some think you’re John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets brought back from the dead” (see Matthew 16:14).

“And what about you?” asked Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”

Simon had been thinking a lot about that. The road Jesus was travelling was extremely difficult. It seemed conflict—whether it was with the forces of evil or with the religious authorities—seemed to follow them wherever they went. Simon had been thinking a lot about who Jesus was. Was it worth it? Jesus asked the question, Peter, having been thinking about the answer for days now was the first to reply, “You are the Messiah—the Savior—the Son of the living God.”

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Jesus replied. “You have answered well; and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (see Matthew 16:17-18). Peter was feeling pretty good about himself. It seems that James and John who were vying for the position at Jesus’ side in glory were misguided, he would be the one put in the place of honor. Peter filled with pride. His chest puffed up a bit. Jesus continued, “And the gates of Hell will not prevail against my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

I imagine Peter’s chest deflating a little bit and his mouth dropping open then closing tight and with his eyes squinted him saying, “Wait. What? Gates don’t move. What the…

“Exactly,” Jesus interrupted. He knew how Peter, a fisherman and a salty spoken sailor at heart, would respond. “Exactly! You and the church must go there. The Good News needs to be heard especially there. Go to hell!”

Go to Hell.

It’s not a place that many of us like to willingly go. In fact, for some Christians, fear of and an unwillingness to go there is what perpetuates their faith. Interestingly enough, entrance into the early Methodist societies was not based upon one’s ability to regurgitate a specific belief, say a certain prayer, or “believe in Jesus as your personal Savior.” One didn’t have to have any faith at all. All one had to do was have a “desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.”[1] To be fair, continuance in these societies required that one evidence one’s desire for salvation by living like Jesus: doing no harm, doing good, and staying in love with God; but, it was the fear of hell that was, if we’re honest, I think, the primary requirement for early Methodists. We can talk later and in person about whether or not increasing your church’s membership based upon fear is a good and effective idea. I’m not so sure that it is. Regardless of whether or not we are motivated by a fear of hell, hell is a place many, if not all of us would rather not go.

Most of our ideas of what hell is like are, I think, motivated more by fiction than Scripture. Works like Paradise Lost by John Milton and Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno, even though they were written centuries ago, have been incredible shapers of what we believe about a place Jesus (and, really, the entire corpus of Scripture) speak relatively very little about. So, in brief, what does Jesus say hell is like? It’s a place of eternal torment (see Matt. 25:46) for those who have fallen away from God, where worms don’t die and the fire is never quenched (see Mark 9:43-48), a place where the soul is crushed (see Matt. 10:28), a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:50). Hell is a place of death, not life (see John 3:36).

The Apostle’s Creed states that Jesus “was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell.” The theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that it was, in fact, Christ’s mission to go to hell, i.e. the literal eternal place, in order that those furthest from God might know of God’s love.[2] And, if that was Jesus’ mission, and I think it was, then it’s got to be ours too. We’ve got to go to hell.

In his sermon, entitled “Of Hell,” John Wesley—the founder of the Methodist movement—describes hell as a literal place but also

as the experience of loss. Hell is the loss of beauty, music, pleasant memory, kindness, loved ones, friendship, love, and a sense of having been created by God—knowing that rest will never be found except in God. Hell is [not just an after-death-place, it] is also a felt experience [something we experience now]; a place of hate, horror, greed, rage, lust, unsatisfied desires, envy, jealousy, malice and revenge, characterized by fear, guilt, and shame. While all of this will ‘incessantly gnaw the soul’ like a vulture through all eternity, most hells begin here on earth.[3]

Some people are trapped in hell on earth and it’s our job to meet them there—in whatever hell they may be in—to remind them and show them God’s love. We’re called to go to hell: to be a beacon of God’s love to those who feel unloved and without hope. We must go to hell and stand up to injustice that those trapped within the gates of hell might be freed to experience the “peace of God that exceeds all understanding” (see Philippians 4:7). We need to be a Church on the move, a church that beats down the gates of hell to share the love of God found in Jesus Christ with those who do not now and may have never known it.

Go to hell and don’t give up. Don’t let the size of the gates scare you for God’s promise that not even they, in all their might, can withstand the church on the move. Therefore, be like the widow from our reading for this evening who stands up to the unjust judge. She stops at nothing to seek out justice. Go to hell and be as persistent as the widow that the hells of this earth might be vanquished.

Dear friends, go to hell, don’t be afraid and don’t give up. Be persistent and watch the gates of Hell crumble. Go to hell—proclaim the good news of God’s love in the hells around us—so that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith in all corners of the earth. Go to hell that God’s kingdom might come as fully on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Let us pray…

Leader: Almighty God, we pray for all who live in places of threat and danger, and for all who live in and amidst the hells of violence and war. We trust in you, for you are able to make peace in the midst of warfare and turn rough places into level ground. Teach us to prepare a table where enemies may feast instead of fight.

All: Hear our prayer, O God, our refuge and our fortress, our shelter and shade.

Leader: We pray for those who do not have enough—who endure the hells of hunger and poverty. We trust in you, for you have promised to fill the hungry with good things and lift up the lowly. Help us to share the abundance we enjoy and to work for the freedom and dignity of all your children.

All: Hear our prayer, O God, our refuge and our fortress, our shelter and shade.

Leader: We pray for those whose human dignity is denied— those who must endure the hells of injustice and oppression. We trust in you, for you have promised to release the captive and bring justice to the oppressed. Help us to be a voice for the voiceless, and to speak out for justice in a troubled and hurting world.

All: Hear our prayer, O God, our refuge and our fortress, our shelter and shade.

Leader: We pray for those who suffer in mind, body, or spirit—and for those who must endure the hell of physical or mental disease. We trust in you, for you are able to heal and to make us whole in this life and the next. Make us tender caregivers, that your healing power may be at work in us and through us.

All: Hear our prayer, O God, our refuge and our fortress, our shelter and shade.

Leader: We pray for the church—for your covenant children throughout the world. Make us instruments of your peace and advocates of your justice. Give us a heart that reflects your heart, and grant us the courage to follow you into the dark corners of this world, that we might shine your light and share your love.

All: Hear our prayer, O God, our refuge and our fortress, our shelter and shade. Amen.[4]

 


[1] “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies,” quoted in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church: 2012 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), p76.

[2] There’s a great article about this from Word on Fire called “Remembering Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Important Book.” You can find a link to the article, the forward to the new edition of Balthasar’s work, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, at http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/remembering-hans-urs-von-balthasars-important-book/4620/.

[3] “Wesleyan Core Term: Hell” in The Wesley Study Bible (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2011), p1607.

[5] This litany was adapted from one found in Feasting on the Word: Worship Companion, edited by Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), p104. It was edited to compliment the sermon by Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals.

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