To Hell And Back

Mark 9.38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?

Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith! 

So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?

Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.

We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject. 

And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.

The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.” 

We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big   columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?

Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”

And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”

But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”

But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”

This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school. 

Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.

A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.

Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.

To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident. 

Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.

Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna. 

Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again. 

That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps. 

We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.

It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now. 

And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna. 

It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.

One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.

Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners. 

That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.

Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!

Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.

Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.

The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity. 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. 

And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.

Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins. 

Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.

Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.

Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.

We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.

The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.

But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.

All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition. 

Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.

In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.

Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.

Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.

That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.

Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.

Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen. 

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